Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Did Costas shoot himself, and gun control, in the foot?

UPDATE, SATURDAY, Dec. 8, 4 a.m. (And why am I updating my blog at 4 a.m. on a Saturday?) Speaking of the incident at the heart of Bob Costas' anti-gun sermonette, I think it's interesting how the intonation of so much of the coverage of the Belcher/Perkins tragedy has differed from the norm in these cases. Although the Chiefs themselves, in their pregame moment of silence, were careful not to frame it as a (highly impolitic) tribute to Belcherbut rather were mourning a sad moment for the team and the cityit's pretty clear that the media have been far more sympathetic to Belcher than to your garden-variety murderer. All the commentators are looking for reasons that explain (and to some degree excuse) Belcher's rage; I've heard several mention what a shame it is that his career was "cut short," etc. Why do you think this is? Is it simply because he's a pro athlete, and we idolize our pro athletes? (We certainly stopped idolizing OJ soon enough.) Is it because when someone becomes a celebrity athlete, he sort of also becomes a family member, and we always cut family members some slack? Would you cut a family member some slack in such circumstances?

Anyway, many of the women's groups are understandably upset about this. Original post:

Far be it for me to criticize Bob Costas, who is surely one of the most astute and sophisticated observers in the history of sports broadcasting. What's more, in this past Sunday night's half-time editorial on the nation's gun woes (inspired, of course, by the Jovan Belcher/Kasandra Perkins murder-suicide), Costas showed himself to be a man of character and courage. As you may know by now, many are calling for Bob's head. That could've been predicted.

But Costas made the backlash more predictable, and may have even done damage to the causea cause in which I shareby offering a relatively weak argument against guns. Or to put my objection in terms more familiar to the gun lobby, instead of going for the kill, Costas merely kneecapped his philosophical adversaries. Borrowing heavily from a column by sportswriter Jason Whitlock, Costas made his case in poetic, emotional terms, when he should have been logical and pointed in his own uncommonly insightful voice. And he saved his weakest point of all for last. Again invoking Whitlock, Costas said:

"If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today."
Here's the fairly obvious problem: Of all the horrific acts in which guns are instrumental (if not the very sine qua non), murder-suicide is pretty low on the list. You don't need a gun to perpetrate a murder-suicide. A Louisville Slugger and a bottle of oxy will suffice. So by framing his essay in those terms, Costas played right into the hands of his opponents, fueling their outcry.

Here are some of the things that Bob Costas should have said. Obviously he didn't have time to say all of what follows, but certainly he might have included the bold-faced topic sentences:

A gun is one of the few generally available weapons capable of killing multiple targets at a distance. Consider how pathetically irrelevant a PFA/restraining order, with its routine prohibition of coming "within 50 feet" of someone, becomes in the presence of a gun. I know, I know; a person of sinister intent is going to ignore a PFA anyway. But if there are other people around when the confrontation occurs, they may intervene; and other weapons are far less lethal until you are literally toe-to-toe. As I tweeted not long ago, How many moviegoers can you kill with a hammer? They'll run away, or someone will stop you; even if you catch up to someone, you may succeed only in breaking his arm or collarbone.

A gun can accomplish easily what, in its absence, would require a good deal of effort. Before shooting himself in the head, Belcher walked right up to Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli and thanked them for giving him the opportunity to play football in the NFL. Clearly, then, if he'd wanted to, Belcher could've escalated the mayhem by shooting Crennel and Pioli as well. Take the gun out of the equation and Crenell (shown), a bear of a man, probably would've been able to keep Belcher at bay till reinforcements arrived.

Because a gun is far more lethal than most other everyday/improvised weapons, its impulse use has consequences that will endure long after the precipitating event is forgotten. Get angry and break a bottle over someone's head and you likely won't kill him. In the case of a gun, however, something that you do in a single instant of temper can end the life of another human being and haunt your life forevermore. Which is why:

The argument that guns don't kill people, people kill people, is absurdly simplistic and out of touch with real life. Nuclear weapons don't kill people either, by themselves, but no one proposes that we all be permitted to own a nuke, right? (Stop me if you've heard me say that before, but I think it's a good line.) If we could magically rid the world of the crazies and the miscreantsif we could rid the world of temper tantrumsthen maybe I buy your argument. But in the flawed world we actually inhabit?

Finally, I am sick and tired of gun apologists who fall back on the Second Amendment as though it were handed down on Mount Sinai. And I'm not even going to argue on semantic grounds, insisting that the Framers did not intend the interpretation promulgated by the NRA and other gun activists. Instead I'll just say this: 1789 was a long time ago. Don't bring up the Founding Fathers to me, expecting to be yielded the high moral ground. The Founders owned slaves. The Founders expected to reserve voting rights for the propertied class; the Founders denied women the right to vote at all. It's unpopular to say so, but the Founders got a lot of stuff wrong, and even some of the stuff they got right is pitifully anachronistic today.

In many ways, to me, the toughest argument against gun control is the bumper sticker that says, "If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns." Regrettably, there are already tens of millions of guns in circulation, and one suspects that far too many are circulating among people who should not have them. But the nation's gun culture is out of hand and simply wrong, and we gotta start somewhere. We have to make the effort. Don't we?


RevRon's Rants said...

You probably knew I'd bite on this one, didn't you, Steve?

You do offer some compelling arguments, but there are a couple of points on which I take issue.

1) While I grant that a firearm is probably the most effective generally-available device for killing multiple targets at a distance, most killings occur, not at a distance, but in close proximity. Individuals who are motivated to kill multiple victims at a distance are also likely to acquire whatever tools are required. And a firearm is not the tool of choice for an individual who hopes to survive their own rampage.

2) A gun is by no means the most lethal of improvised weapons, nor is it the most readily available or inexpensive. For the price of a couple of quart bottles of common cleaning products, a ticket to a popular movie, and a large bucket of popcorn, it is possible to kill literally hundreds of people before a threat is even realized, and at little risk of capture to the perpetrator. Move the scenario to a subway station, sports venue, or other large gathering, and the body count would rise significantly.

3) An individual who is intent upon killing will do so. Eliminate one tool, and the person will find another. Eliminate that tool, and... well, you get the point.

4) You demand that the Second Amendment not be brought up in the conversation. That is a convenient step in making your case. Are there any other elements in the Bill of Rights that you'd have us discard? While our system of governance was developed some time ago, it seems to have stood up reasonably well. Perhaps those founders you'd prefer that we not quote had a bit of insight into human nature, both individually and globally. Their focus was upon one thing: implementing a durable system that would prove most fair and beneficial for the majority of the citizens. Toward that end, they were brilliant.

Finally, the ultimate argument for a system of governance is whether it is sustainable and beneficial to its citizens. While the founders' ownership of slaves does challenge their moral authority, it has no real bearing upon their wisdom in establishing a system of governance. And just because they were wrong in their views on slave ownership does not by extension render their other views invalid. I would not expect you to make such a leap in logic.

One qualifier: I fully support the banning of high-capacity magazines, as well as firearms whose sole redeeming quality is the ability to spit out bullets at a rapid rate. They serve no sporting purpose whatsoever, beyond feeding the demand for "firepower," which is both unnecessary and irresponsible in any but a combat situation. Even then, its worth is questionable.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, while we will disagree on most points/sub-points here, your openness on the question of high-capacity magazines is an important step toward the "nuancing" of gun control--which is not currently possible given the NRA's familiar "slippery slope" stance.

We have faced much the same problem with the fiscal cliff, though I do expect cooler heads to prevail there.

Anonymous said...

Re your latest update; I think that this killer is being given a semi-pass because as a celebrity he was idolised and had become a symbol for the dream--the American Dream of success against all odds.

To the 'symbol-minded' (see Mr Carlin for that reference), to rightfully condemn this killer's actions equates to condemning the American dream itself--and the inability of the symbol-minded to tolerate some cognitive dissonance in order to arrive at a realistic conclusion does not allow that.

Tolerating cognitive dissonance can be quite painful, both physically and emotionally, and few are willing to endure the pain for the eventual gain in understanding.
There is no direct profit in it so no appeal to a completely short-term capitalist mindset.
It is essential, though, for a reasonably balanced view of life.

Here's Mr C on the dream, from the video "Life Is Worth Losing" (2005):

Cal said...

I just read this after the latest school shooting. All I have to say to the original post is "Amen, brother".

I hope that's black enough for Rob Parker.