Advanced nations have been known to conduct thoughtful debates about whether or how to regulate firearms.
Unfortunately, it seems beyond us.
Our national “debate” on gun control has become an embarrassing shouting match — regrettably typical of our politics these days.
I don’t pretend to know what we “should” do, but here are some of the ways the discussion has gone off the rails.
First, it’s clear that the mere suggestion that we need stricter gun laws dramatically worsened the very problem such laws aim to solve.
Since the Connecticut shootings and the ensuing calls for tighter controls on guns, sales of firearms and related accessories have skyrocketed. Dealers’ shelves across the country have been stripped bare of weapons, bullets and clips. Gun shows have drawn record crowds. In December, the FBI conducted a record number of background checks on people seeking to buy guns. The NRA, which rejects any and all new gun regulations, told Politico on Thursday that it has added 100,000 paid members since Dec. 18, and hopes to add 800,000 more and reach five million members “before this debate is over.”
Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to kick this hornet’s nest. The best way to reduce the number of guns in circulation may be to avoid talking about them. I mean that seriously.
On the other hand, the gun-buying frenzy makes no sense. If no new restrictions are enacted, then people have paid premium “sellers market” prices for weapons they were frightened into buying, didn’t need and may never use much. But if any of the newly bought weapons are banned, then people may have to give them up (probably for little or no compensation), or become lawbreakers (which even the NRA doesn’t recommend). Not a sharp shopping strategy.
More disturbing is that one factor driving these record-level gun sales is the absurd claim that people must arm themselves in preparation for a war against the government. Not amass weapons just to hunt or shred paper targets — but to shoot it out with police and soldiers coming to enslave them. Take Wednesday’s front page of the influential “Drudge Report,” where pictures of Hitler and Stalin were displayed above the headline “White House Threatens Executive Orders on Guns.” Subtle.
Drudge could have chosen a picture of conservative heroine Margaret Thatcher. According to the Wall Street Journal, her government responded to a 1987 mass killing “by enacting the most draconian firearms act ever adopted in Britain, including outlawing semiautomatic weapons altogether.”
Or a picture of Ronald Reagan, who in 1994 wrote Congress urging “your support for a ban on the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons.... (A) matter of vital importance to the public safety.” The ban, which expired in 2004, passed by two votes. Two Congressmen said they voted for it because of Reagan’s letter.
But no — Thatcher and Reagan wouldn’t be as scary as Hitler and Stalin.
The idea that Americans need a personal arsenal to combat a fascist takeover by the government is beyond paranoia. And while the budding insurrectionists think they’re lining up with the Minutemen of the 1770s, they’re really more aptly compared to the Weathermen or Black Panthers of the 1970s.
Two other repugnant ideas have emerged from the gun-control “discussion” — both advocated by NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre.
The first is to have armed guards in every school. This is wrong (and ineffective) in too many ways to list here, but take just one detail: An expert in school safety says one armed school guard would cost $80,000 a year, including training, salary, benefits and equipment. Carlisle School District has 10 public schools so the plan would cost it $800,000. Local taxpayers would just love that. You also have to wonder if getting hired as an armed guard might not be the perfect way for a mass murderer to get inside a school. We screen teachers very carefully — but child molesters make it into the classroom anyway.
LaPierre’s other idea is to develop a national database of the “mentally ill.” Sure, but who decides who gets listed? The government you’ve already decided is coming to get you? And what would count as mentally ill? You probably know someone who is depressed, anti-social, has anger-management issues, is hooked on violent video games or movies, talks to herself or her cats, covers his face with tatoos or metal spikes, refuses to bathe, hoards magazines, believes in fairies or says she was abducted by aliens. Are they mentally ill or just a little different? How many mass murderers would actually fit whatever profile you finally pick — and how many “law-abiding citizens” would fit that same profile?
Getting put on the list would keep you from getting a gun — but probably from getting a job, too. How many people would seek help with mental problems if they knew such a list existed?
Keep in mind that Hitler sterilized the “mentally ill” — and the top defect on his list was “feeblemindedness.” Drudge should tell LaPierre that.
A federal task force is set to make recommendations for curbing gun violence by Tuesday. Maybe it will propose something that everyone can agree on, and that will do more good than harm.
But given the ways things have been going, it’s a real shot in the dark.
Rich Lewis, a former reporter and editor, has been writing a weekly column for The Sentinel since 2001. He now teaches at Dickinson College. His email address is email@example.com.