Monday, December 17, 2012

We have met the enemy...and it is us.

As we're all aware by now, last week's spirited discussion of gun violence turned out to be tragically prophetic.

Politicians from the president on down have vowed that the unspeakable events in Newtown will spur a renewed commitment to stamping out this country's horrific (and embarrassing) plague of gun violence. Much as I'd like to see these weapons removed from the public sphere, I don't know whether it's pragmatically, constitutionally or logistically viable to take the nation's estimated 300 million guns out of circulation. I only know that the more I research the problem, the more it seems clear that tragedies like Sandy Hook will continue to occur as long as guns are out there.

I would address the balance of this (hastily thrown-together) post to people like Republican Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, who argues that the solution lay in arming even more Americans. Over the weekend, Gohmert colorfully rhapsodized about a gun-totin' school principal who confronts a would-be assailant and "takes his head off" before he has a chance to fire a shot at students.

Please consider the following statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health and elsewhere (as linked), then ask yourself whether it really makes sense for America to be arming itself (or, more to the point, whether it makes sense for America not to disarm itself):

  • About 2.4 million American adults, or an estimated 1.1 percent of the adult population is schizophrenic, treated or untreated, in any given year.
  • Bipolar disorder afflicts 5.7 million adults, or 2.6 percent of the U.S. population over age 18.
  •  Approximately 20.9 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18+, have a mood disorder in any given year.
  • Nationally, about 10 percent of us are on antidepressants; antidepressant usage is up 400 percent since the baseline period ending in 1994, according to the CDC. Increasing evidence suggests that these concoctions can cause sudden, intense bouts of suicidal/homicidal thinking, particularly in young adults. Here's an informally compiled timeline of recent acts of violence linked in one way or another to antidepressants. 
Surely there is some overlap among the aforementioned groups. Nonetheless, to my mind this gives us a pool of millions of potential Adam Lanzas living undiscovered somewhere in the U.S. Mentally and emotionally, for whatever reason, we are not a healthy people.

Even leaving aside actual pathology, human nature is shockingly mercurial and inconstant in ways large and small. Each year of late, about 2.2 million of us go to the altar promising to "love and honor till death us do part." I am certain that the pledge is sincere at the moment it's given. And yet the long-term statistics make clear that about half of those "forever" partnerships will fail in time. People change. Love turns to indifference or hatred. In fact, in too many cases the "death" that "parts" the couple comes about as a direct result of a violent act by one of those partners who promised to love and honor: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, on average, each day in this country, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners. Guns are the usual culprit.

Which is why I was also struck by the words of one lawmaker who told an interviewer on a Sunday morning talk show of his own proud gun ownership, and why we shouldn't throw the babies out with the bathwater. "I'm not the one you have to fear," he said. To which I would reply: No, maybe now you're not. Not today. But in a year, five years? Who knows? He doesn't, nor do we. For similar reasons I almost lost my lunch when I heard a legislator in the wake of Virginia Tech opine about how different things might have turned out that day if other students had been armed. I'd agree, maybe that day things might have turned out different. (Maybe, although I don't think crossfires are something we want to encourage.) But what about every other day? What about every weekend, when those campuses are roamed by binge-drinking, testosterone-driven frat boys who are also packing heat?

Finally, there's what we learn from the shooter's mother, Nancy Lanza, who is said to have kept guns in the house out of fear of what might happen if the social order collapsed. As it turned out, her desire to defend herself against that hypothetical apocalypse made her the first casualty of her son's insane rampage. Nancy Lanza was killed with one of the guns she thought would protect her. This is hardly an aberration. As has so often been true in the international arena (e.g our support of Afghanistan during their war against the Soviets), we end up arming the very people who will one day point those guns at us. 


Steve Salerno said...

I am posting this comment "anonymously" on behalf of an occasional contributor. At the contributor's suggestion, I have edited the comment mildly for reasons of identity-protection as well as discernment. (There is no reason to encourage other crazies.)

Though I am a lifelong gun owner, I am in favor of banning the sale of weapons whose only redeeming characteristics are their ability to spit lots of bullets in a short period of time, as well as the high-capacity magazines that are all the rage nowadays, particularly among the lunatic fringe, but also among "normal" gun owners. IMO, the use of such weapons and magazines is irresponsible, at best, since they foster a reliance upon many rounds, rather than the competent placement of a single round.

On to my main point: Eliminating a preferred tool of people who are determined to kill will only cause them to use something else. For example, had the Connecticut shooter been unable to get his hands on a gun, he could have purchased a gallon each of common household chemicals, marched into the school with both bottles in a mop bucket, and nobody would have looked twice at him. When he reached his "target" destination, all he would have had to do is pour the two bottles into the mop bucket (or even on the floor) and walk away. He could have exited the grounds unchallenged, because it would take a few minutes for the deadly gas to form and spread. Nobody would have raised an alarm until many people had fallen and died.

Slightly more complex, but just as effective, did you know that a crude bio-chemical weapon can be made cheaply at home? Imagine a psycho who concocts such a brew, fills a hydration bag with it, and walks down a busy salad bar, discretely spraying the assorted veggies. Nobody would be the wiser... for about 8-12 hours. Then the emergency rooms would fill up and again, a lot of people would die.

The bottom line is that if we removed all the guns (an impossibility, of course), the wrong people WOULD consider and employ such methods. And even if confiscation orders were given, do you honestly think that the people who are predisposed to murder are going to relinquish their weapons? Of course not. Only the law-abiding citizens would comply, leaving them defenseless against the criminals who scoff at such an order.

We HAVE to take a more comprehensive approach. Anything less would constitute ideological masturbation. Feels good for a little while... until you realize it has left you worse off than before.

Dimension Skipper said...

Not that anyone has to look very hard for all sorts of opinion or context pieces about the Sandy Hook incident and related issues, but here are some "context" pieces I've found to be of particular interest in the past few days...

Television coverage of Newtown poses questions but no answers
By Liane Bonin Starr (HitFix)

The Newtown killings
By Roger Ebert

A couple items involving "gun rights" supporters (including a psychologist) indicating a willingness to consider options:

Time To Talk About Assault Weapon Ban, Says 'Gun Rights' Sen. Manchin
by Mark Memmott (NPR)

Daunting Realities
By Marla Somova, Ph.D. (PsychCentral)

My own unanswerable questions are these:

1) Certain folks tell us that gun control isn't the answer (for all the usual reasons). My question then is... Does that mean we shouldn't even TRY? ( whatever extent TRYING may turn out to be most generally acceptable.)

2) Certain other folks argue that the 2nd Amendment is sacred because it's part of the Constitution, dadgummit! However, the Constitution is a document with the means to adapt it built right into it. And that leads me to a hypothetical... Let's suppose that this latest incident spurs enough of a consensus across political/cultural divides that the 2nd Amendment is repealed or altered and some form of gun control is enacted. Will the same folks declaring their love of the Constitution then willingly comply with the new state of affairs based on their belief that the Constitution is the inviolable law of the land? Just wondering.

Yes, I'm kind of thinking of prohibition as the model here and obviously that didn't work out. But then again, that's a case study of one. Does that mean similar restrictive amendments can never work either?

And yes, I'm aware that if this fantasy scenario of mine is ever enacted there WILL continue to be violent crimes and even mass killings (with or without guns involved), especially as it will take years and years for holdouts to simply get caught committing crimes or to die off before their family/friends ever turn in the guns to authorities and get them out of circulation. If we somehow as a nation DO go down that road to some sort of gun control, we have to STICK WITH IT for years and years to give it a proper chance and see how the statistics fare, not just reverse course at the first homicidal bump in the road.

Hey, I'm mmostly just thinking out loud here... Personally, I'm in favor of banning assault weapons, anything capable of some (not very high) threshold of rapid fire. (I don't know the proper technical terms. I admit I'm not a "gun person" to begin with.) I'd also be in favor of making certain mental illnesses/conditions be a bar to ever owning/using firearms. Now obviously that's quite easy to say, but extremely hard to implement in satisfactory ways, plus the infrastructure has to be in place for all the necessary info-tracking and the info has to actually be entered and consulted.

Despite the current outcry, I really doubt any meaningful change will ever come of it. At best (from my POV), I think all that we can reasonably hope for (for now) is the assault weapons ban to go back in force.

Lastly, I really wish the founding fathers had been a little more explicit about the term "militia." Just sayin'.

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip, incredibly crazed today but intrigued above all by your final line. Remind me to revisit that and solicit comment from other voices!

RevRon's Rants said...

DimSkip, I'm particularly amused by the strict 2nd Amendment supporters' analogy comparing "gun control" to Prohibition, since at its core, it is actually an argument FOR reasonable regulation. While the end of Prohibition did legalize the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages, it did NOT legalize the production, sale, or possession of liquids that were compounded to sicken or kill as many people as possible. REASONABLE regulation of firearms can serve to minimize the availability of firearms whose design is focused solely on sending as many bullets down the tube as possible, in the shortest period of time.

I own guns. Always have. But I was taught how to use them properly, and am not afflicted with a psychiatric disorder that renders me a danger to those around me. I also recognize the desensitizing effect of a diet of graphically violent entertainment (and news stories), and avoid immersing myself in such distractions. Furthermore, it is obvious that, beginning during the Reagan administration, mental health services have been almost entirely dismantled, relegating the handling of psychiatric problems to the under-qualified and over-burdened criminal justice system. Finally, I see how different intelligence and law enforcement agencies jealously hoard their information resources, effectively eliminating the existence of a comprehensive database for use in pre-purchase background checks.

If we really want to minimize the occurrences of the kind of crimes that have us so outraged, we will have to address every one of these areas with equal commitment. Yet if history and current attitudes are any indication, we'll probably just pick the low-hanging fruit and tell ourselves we've done our part. The problem, however, will continue to exist, and very likely grow even worse.

BTW - The previous "assault weapons ban" was nothing more than a political tap dance. One could still purchase the banned weapons, so long as they had been placed on the market "pre-ban." And the same weapons could still be sold, so long as a few mostly cosmetic modifications were made. The function of the weapons was unchanged in the "modified" legal weapons. Clearly an act of posturing, rather than a demonstration of genuine resolve.

Cal said...


The document included the phrase "well-regulated" before militia.


I lost hope for any kind of changes after the Columbine killings myself when nothing of substance was done. My first memory of a mass shooting was the McDonald's massacre in 1984. So it's been almost 30 years and except for the temporary ban on assualt weapons everything still feels the same.

So let me get this straight, we want school teachers, with all the pressures involved in keeping control of a class, to be strapped. What happens the first time a teacher is distracted and:

a) at 5 years old a kid comes upon the gun, fools around with it, and either shoots himself or a classmate.

b) or a disgruntled teenager gets it while the teacher is not looking and shoots classmates that he/she feels have bullied them.

I wonder what the excuse will be then.

This is not to mention situations as sitting for standardized exams or for exams where a proctor or teaching assistant, and not the regular teacher, is present.

I like the additional analogy I heard today where I have the right to learn to pilot an airplane. But I don't have the right to pilot a fighter jet without massive training and education, and even then I couldn't fly it from some random airport.

Even Michael Shermer is getting insulted by fellow libertarians for advocating banning of semi-assault weapons for civilian use.

Now I have some idea what it was to live in Beirut during their civil war.

Dimension Skipper said...

This article from Frontline addresses my issues with the word "militia"...

How Conservatives “Reinvented” the Second Amendment

Also, I wonder what "meaningful" means when it comes from the NRA...

NRA Statement on Newtown School Shootings

And in a completely non-gun-related aside here is something else that has bothered me quite a bit about this Sandy Hook incident in particular...

I've seen the growing shrines to the victims, read about the prayer vigils, and seen signs of support, including messages like "God bless the families."

Here's the thing... Really? God bless the families?!?!?! In my mind if God was really blessing the families, maybe their kids would still be unharmed!!! Don'tcha think?!?! Sheesh! I'm sorry, but some of this praying for the families and all that sort of thing, if not very carefully worded, just comes off as ridiculously hollow and meaningless. If God is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God as most people presume, then why aren't those kids and teachers still on this Earth, huh? Can someone explain that to me, please, because Ijust don't get it.

Steve Salerno said...

You are The Man, DimSkip. You're actually doing my legwork for me, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. I'm tellin' ya, if this blog ever generated any real money, I'd almost be duty-bound to split it with guys like you and the Rev!

Steve Salerno said...

And OK, Cal, you get a cut, too, at least on this thread. ;)

(What's, say, 5% of zero?)

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. A couple more links relevant to the gun debate, one article detailing Jovan Belcher's relationship history and his final day, including words he said to others...

Belcher to Chiefs: I have hurt my girl; I can't go back

...and a recent Pittsburgh area incident where a man accidentally shot and killed his own 7-year-old son...

Mercer boy, 7, dies after father's gun goes off

Both incidents pre-date the Sandy Hook shootings, but not by much.

Dimension Skipper said...

Thanks for the kind words, Steve, but again I must state for the record that usually I just come across relevant stuff by coincidence. Indeed that's what happened again with that FRONTLINE piece explaining the evolution of the 2nd Amendment's interpretation. I didn't go in search of it, it found me. I susbscribe to FRONTLINE via social media and obviously the gun topic is hot right now, so... just chalk it up to marvels of modern technology and procedures.

As a very trivial note, though, I wondered about Toobin's statement about the 2nd A. being "ungrammatical." Then lo and behold not long after, Language Log, another site I regularly browse, chimes in on that very point from the same article and then Toobin himself comments there to say that he stands corrected on the grammatical point.

And really, GRAMMAR is what's important in all of this, right?

RevRon's Rants said...

Dim - I don't think we're that far apart on the gun thing, but I thought I'd offer my tuppence worth on your aside. If the perception of a God is that of a reactive entity, it does get pretty difficult to justify what happens with anything resembling love or compassion. If, however, that God is a Divine Energy/Entity that simply BECAME, as in the native American concept of Manitou, that reactivity is an illusion, adhered to in order to make ourselves feel special and protected, and supplanted by genuinely proactive consciousness. in such a belief system, subjugation to a celestial judge is a distraction from the goal of striving to comprehend and manifest the qualities that gave rise to creation. As to the events we encounter... well, as the saying goes, shit happens. It's not the shit that defines our progress on the scale of spiritual evolution, but how we deal with it. Not to beg for escape from the bad and offer adulation and submission in payment for the good, but to take whatever we are dealt and strive to find a sense of enduring peace.

I don't claim that this is some Universal Truth, rendering any other perspective false. It is merely my own belief, and while it guides and satisfies me, I acknowledge that beliefs - including my own - are limited by individuals' experiential base and personality. So I probably won't be killing anyone who defines their God differently.

Some years ago, I actually wrote a short book that offers a simple explanation of this perspective, titled "You Can't Get There From Here (Bit that's okay... You never really left!)" It sits comfortably on my computer. Perhaps someday, after I'm gone, somebody will find it and laugh at my folly.

Anonymous said...

Here's a very American solution that compliments the call to arm the teachers and students:

--almost makes me hope that the mayan prophecy believers are right and it will all be over for us in a few days.

Steve Salerno said...

Then again, I have to say, this is food for thought (courtesy of columnist Paul Carpenter from my local paper, the Morning Call):

"As I have argued previously, as recently as August, many of the cowards who go on murderous shooting sprees have one thing in common. They are sane enough to carefully pick sites where it is unlikely that anybody will be able to shoot back.

"They do not go on rampages at police stations or gun clubs. They target places where the law-abiding are sure to be unarmed — a school, a theater, a commuter train in New York City..."

Dimension Skipper said...

Some more info, this time courtesy of Snopes Urban Legends. The claim about baseball bat homicides is deemed false (no big surprise to me), but the item goes on to cite some FBI homicide stats (by weapon type). I wonder what the numbers would be if one were to add in accidental deaths by the various "weapon" types.

I had someone just yesterday try to tell me that taking guns from law-abiding citizens (which was not strictly what I was advocating) is like taking automobiles away from everybody because of a few drunk drivers. I disagreed based on the "different fruits" principle.

Cars have a definite purposeful use which is NOT killing, but tranportation. People are licensed to operate them and some have the privilege revoked because, yeah, they're stupid and they drink and drive. Tragically some innocent people, including kids, get killed as a result.

Guns, however, even when used properly and with all due care, the intent is to injure and very possibly kill, even if only animals (except when training/target practicing, in which case you're only preparing to be able to injure/kill). Used IMproperly or handled carelessly, well, they still kill. (Just ask the Pittsburgh area man who shot and killed his 7-year-old own son by accident.)

There are always going to be things which kill as a side effect of misuse... hammers, screwdrivers, chainsaws, extension ladders, bricks, Big Macs, prank phone calls, bagpipes, ceramic zombie penguin figurines... but at least they're not designed to kill as their very purpose.

Anyway, the same person who cited the car analogy is someone who has been upset and crying while watching the Sandy Hook coverage, also allegedly "praying" for the victims and their families that God will comfort and take care of them. She doesn't see any irony or disconnectedness (as a Christian or just a caring human being) between her gun views and her sorrow for the victims.

Nancy Lanza was (as far as I've heard) a law-abiding legal gun owner (which admittedly isn't the same as being a diligently responsible gun owner), but yet look what happened. That's one law-abiding gun owner that I think we can all agree we wish she just simply didn't have the guns (and ammo apparently). Maybe Adam would have still gotten some on his own somehow, but I can't know that and I gotta think the odds would have been far less had his Mother not had them handy (or been such a fan).

Oh well, anyway, Rev, thanks for your views on the "loving God & prayer" question I raised. Best I can say right now is it makes some sense, I guess, but I will have to take it under advisement for any personal application to my own life. I suspect I will never find a personally satisfactory answer, though. A large part of my own God issue is being somewhat surrounded by what I think of as "reflex" Christians... who spout certain platitudes, beliefs and judgments seemingly without even questioning or realizing how they can come off sounding. That's just kind of a pet peeve of mine, I guess.

RevRon's Rants said...

DimSkip, when you meet those self-poclaimed "Christians," stuff some cotton in your ears and see if their actions speak Christian as clearly as their words. If not, they're just stroking themselves, typically at the expense of others who don't self-proclaim as loudly as they do. If the actions match the words (and the words sound genuinely friendly), pull out the cotton and invite them to toss back a beer with you.

Most of all, have fun, cotton or no.

Dimension Skipper said...

Newtown Tragedy: Would A Good God Allow Such Evil?
By John Burnett (NPR)

Anonymous said...

Here's a nice example of the double standard in action, covering bug splats, lawn care and cancers.

'Beware of anyone who describes a human being as something other than a human being.'

"Are we," Obama asked on Sunday, "prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" It's a valid question. He should apply it to the violence he is visiting on the children of Pakistan.

RevRon's Rants said...

In truth, we as citizens have to assume a great deal of the responsibility for the deaths of innocents in Pakistan. Were the President to resume strictly conventional ground warfare in the region, American casualties would mount rapidly, resulting in a strong backlash against his administration (If you doubt the truth of that statement, just try and recall ANY action he has taken or even recommended during his first term that didn't elicit immediate posturing of outrage by the right). That backlash would not be restricted to his chronic critics, but would expand deep into even his base of strong supporters, and could likely result in the issuing of articles of impeachment.

Compare that reaction to the public's reaction to the "collateral damage" inflicted by the drone attacks. The average citizen gets more fired up by a bad call against their favorite sports team than by a report of dead Pakistani children. Ultimately, we get from our elected officials what we as a society demand of them... the most glaring exception, of course, being effective governance. And we can't honestly lay that one entirely at the President's feet.

Steve Salerno said...

Linked below is a letter from my local paper that makes some good points, especially about paranoia. I refer not so much to paranoia about crime, but "Michigan-militia"-style paranoia about the need to be ready in case an oppressive government seeks to impose its will:

One legislator I heard over the weekend said that almost exactly: that we must keep guns in our homes in case we need to defend ourselves against an encroaching federal gov't. I find that mentality scary in the extreme, all the more so when it emerges from the mouth of an elected official.

Steve Salerno said...

And with regard to the points about Pakistan, and our earlier discussion of drone warfare:

Without a doubt there are many troubling contradictions, if not patent moral outrages, to be found in a comparison of U.S. domestic policy vs. U.S. foreign policy. One takes refuge--perhaps valid, perhaps not--in the notion that our foreign policy is crafted and implemented by intelligent, caring and above all SANE men and women who have given the subject all due deliberation. That is a different matter, one hopes, from the kinds of wanton acts perpetrated by lone crazies like Mr. Lanza. But maybe I am naive (or self-serving) in that distinction and that hope?

RevRon's Rants said...

While I wouldn't go so far as to state that our foreign policy has been crafted by caring (or necessarily sane) individuals, much less that they have exercised due deliberation. Our foreign policy has unfortunately been crafted with a focus more upon our economic interests than on our responsibility as a leader in the betterment of our world. That said, there is at least a degree of accountability in our policy development and implementation that is absent in the actions of individuals like Lanza, and a vetting process that (theoretically, at least) reduces the potential of a screaming loony actually being able to craft and execute said policies. An equivalent vetting process could (and in my opinion, should) be applied to those who seek to possess weapons.

The first step I would implement toward such a goal would be to revise the interdepartmental structure of our intelligence and law enforcement services, so that information is readily accessible about individuals who have demonstrated mental deficiencies and behavioral transgressions significant enough to disqualify them from owning firearms.

The second leg of this effort would be to reinstate a mental health system that preemptively treats ill individuals, rather than relying upon the criminal justice system to contain them, which only occurs AFTER they have committed a legally forbidden act. While some might argue that such a system would infringe upon the rights of the afflicted, my years working with psychiatric patients has taught me that allowing their illness to go untreated (and ultimately, to punish them for it) is in itself a denial of their right to the pursuit of happiness, for they are troubled beyond the comprehension of a "normal" person.

Finally, I think we need to apply some common sense as to the weapons we make readily available to the public. As I've stated before, weapons that are designed for combat use are generally poor choices for any other application, and tend to pose a greater level of danger than they avert, especially when used by individuals who are untrained in their use and/or see the weapons as a means of acting upon their delusions.

As I've stated previously, a failure to address all these elements will not only fail to stem the tide of violent acts, it will actually make such acts more prevalent. By failing to address the underlying sociological disease as well as the symptoms of that disease, we run the risk of once again feeling that we have dealt with the problem and thus growing complacent about it... until it rears its head once again. And it will.

Anonymous said...

Ron, Dave Eagleman here

says something along those lines.

Cal said...

Boy...your 1999 LA Times Op-Ed was so prescient.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Cal. I was actually pretty proud of that, if I do say so myself--I tried to get above the cliches and take the argument to a higher plane of insight--and I got a lot of good feedback.

It had been a somewhat longer piece that made a few additional points, but you know how it is in op-ed-world, space-wise. Though op-ed writing is horribly un-cost-effective and I'm really busy of late, I'm going to try to make those points again in the New York Times or somewhere, if they'll let me.