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Not So Humble Opinion: December 28, 2012

That Gun Discussion We Should Be Having

The standard thing to do in this case would be start with “my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, CT and their families,” only that would be dishonest because I don’t pray. That’s not an anti-religious statement; I respect the kind of intellectual puzzle that prayer can present, that simultaneous desire for both total humility and divine attention, but it’s never been something that I do personally.

All I can do is participate in the dialogue everyone says we should be having on gun control. However, I tire of each side making a cartoon villain out of the other, and it’s especially bad this time around; after such a particularly senseless attack, targeting the most innocent possible victims, proponents of stricter gun control practically can’t help viewing advocates of gun ownership as evil monsters with children’s blood on their hands, while gun advocates, feeling cornered, are doubling down even more on their dogma of individual freedom as the bedrock of the American spirit. The severity of the event that necessitated that we address this issue now makes it especially unlikely that anyone involved will have a cool enough head to make the right decisions, but there’s no choice.

Gun control is one issue where I feel everyone on both sides manages to be simultaneously wrong most of the time; every argument is logically flawed, every statistic offered gives you a warped view of the situation, and people are especially inclined use powerful emotional appeals as weapons. Of course, this probably what you expect from me at this point:  I’m a centrist. I’m always trying to advocate for the existentially challenged middle ground. However, gun control is a little different for some reason: it seems like both sides are a little more extreme, a little more calcified and uncompromising than usual. Only abortion is worse.

In the interest of full disclosure, I grew up with guns in the house. My father, a target shooter, collects and actively shoots his guns, always at paper targets. To him, guns are similar to another passion, ham radio; just like he used to have fun building radios from scratch as a kid, guns are fascinating little machines that intrigue his engineer’s brain. He’s a collector, a marksman, and couldn’t have less interest in hunting anything.

So from a very young age, I always saw guns in a non-violent context. I knew there was potential for violence (“every gun is loaded”), but I just didn’t see them that way. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the tremendous threat that guns pose in the wrong hands, especially now, but I can’t help it: if we’re playing a word association game and you say “guns,” I’ll probably say “Daddy!” long before “cold-blooded murder of the innocent.” It’s just how I’m wired.

This was especially fun growing up in an otherwise left-leaning household, I should add. Socially liberal gun owners may as well be unicorns for all the serious attention they get from any candidate or party.

All that said, that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of maintaining the status quo. I can’t imagine any sane person isn’t asking right now what can be done to keep guns out of the hands of people with serious mental problems. However, the proposed solutions I’ve been hearing so far are all too knee-jerk, like a complete gun ban. Recent history is filled with instances of a tyrannical government incarcerating and/or slaughtering an unarmed populace; that’s the reason my family never researches our European relatives, because we don’t really want to know how many died in the Holocaust. True, I doubt if we banned firearms the U.S. would become just like the Third Reich in a matter of seconds, but as much as we may wish they were, the concerns that led the founders to pen the second amendment aren’t irrelevant; as long as power corrupts and people are capable of doing horrible things out of fear, I don’t see how they could be.

Furthermore, even if a gun ban were feasible here, it wouldn’t yield the same results for us as it has in the UK and Australia, as I’ve heard many try to suggest; bans of any kind do historically poorly here, and we have too many guns in circulation that aren’t going to just disappear. There is no easy fix; we have to discuss some very difficult subjects, and pose questions where there are no right answers, only more or less tolerable ones. Questions like: How do we interpret the second amendment now that weapons function so differently than they did in the days when the Constitution was written? How do we determine who is too mentally ill to be in spitting distance of a gun, when millions upon millions of Americans take psychoactive drugs for mood disorders, depression and compulsive disorders, and even those who don’t take pills are likely to have some degree of narcissism or other disorder?

What gun control measures can be effectively handled by law enforcement, and what effect will the logistics of that enforcement have on police departments? How do we begin to hold the media accountable when no individual film, game, or show is responsible for an act of violence in any practical sense, but the saturation of gun-centric fantasy violence can’t be overlooked as a contributing factor?

This is where I should probably wrap up by saying,  “I don’t presume to have all the answers,” and I don’t, but I do have one: stop wasting time and talk it out like proper adults. If you’re on the left, stop calling the NRA monstrous child-killers; it won’t make you feel any better, and it won’t change anything. If you’re on the right, stop hiding behind the second amendment as though it’s some kind of absolute, since the question of interpreting it for modern technology was always going to be our responsibility. And if you’re in the middle, well I suppose I’m just glad that you exist.

Karen Gellender is editor of the Syosset-Jericho Tribune and Plainview-Old Bethpage Herald.