Guns spelled backwards is snug, and other thoughts on guns

I’ve been thinking about guns and gun control and the Second Amendment since the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, but today I found a guy who’s done a much better job of it than me.

I’m not a gun guy; never have been.  I was born in New York City to parents who’d been born and raised in the city, whose own parents and grandparents had lived their whole lives in New York, or Baltimore or Boston, or in Ireland and Wales in the mid-19th Century and on back…we just weren’t gun people.  What I know about actually shooting guns is what any kid from the Houston suburbs learns at a Central Texas summer camp or from going out to “the country” with his teenaged friends.   Not afraid of guns,  but not interested in them, either; I’ve thought more about guns and gun rights from the perspective of the U.S. Constitution than I ever have from a personal point of view.

My non-legal-scholar’s interpretation of the words of the Second Amendment is that it was plainly the intent of the authors to preserve the right of citizens to bear arms so that they could all participate in the common defense.  (And if you want to hunt for food or shoot for sport, fine.)  I’m aware that this interpretation is not universally accepted.  My non-mental-health-professional’s interpretation of some of the most extreme anti-gun-control arguments of the National Rifle Association and other ”gun rights” groups is that paranoia is a powerful affliction indeed.  This interpretation is not universally accepted, either.

I agree that guns don’t kill people; people using guns do kill people, though, with relative ease, and since the Second Amendment doesn’t identify a right to bear arms only for the clear-headed and law-abiding but not for the crazy or the lawless, we rightly pass laws in an effort to provide some security for all while not violating the basic rights of all.

I think most of the people who own guns are fine with that setup, and aren’t fretting away their days with worrying about having to use their guns to defend themselves from their own government.  I imagine they’re thinking some of the same things that Walter Kirn has written in The New Republic this week:

Growing up around guns and owning them as an adult affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to guns may have trouble understanding. The divide is phenomenological, not political (or not political until it gets to be), like the gulf between those who’ve had sex and those who haven’t or those who smoke and those who’ve never lit up. Pulling a trigger and being prepared to do so cuts patterns in the self. Depending on the nature of your social life, which time around guns can shape and color in ways that I’ll describe, you might forget that these patterns are even there, because you’re surrounded by people who share them—until someone or some event challenges you to answer for your thinking.


When the time to lay blame for the [Aurora, Colorado] massacre arrived, it wasn’t Americans’ easy access to firearms that I found myself deploring, but a depraved, unbalanced culture of splatter-fest games and other dark entertainments. I blamed the potential for gruesome fame nurtured by the Internet, as well as a mental health system that’s not a system.

But then, soon enough, another mass shooting occurred, at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. And then another, at Sandy Hook Elementary. The crimes were no longer discrete abominations but one continuous siege, it seemed, broken only by pauses for reloading. This was a war that warranted wartime thinking; cultural criticism could go to hell. The hour of reckoning had come, particularly for gun owners like me who’d never thought clearly about where we stood, only that it was somewhere between the militants and the innocents—a dangerous spot, since both sides felt attacked.


My friend, an Army captain, a tall West Pointer, was just back from Iraq. He’d had a tough time there. We were wrapping Christmas presents. He asked me if I’d ever heard of a law passed under President George W. Bush (he called it a new “order,” actually) that established a formal military command, USNORTHCOM, over the country itself. His tone was dark, insinuating, and I looked at him, concerned. PTSD. We’re all hip to its signs (at least in others), and a moment ago my friend had asked me (oddly, I thought) to turn off a ceiling fan whirling above our heads whose blades kept distracting him as he tied ribbons.

When I asked my friend what bothered him about the Northern Command, his answer, as I half-feared, boiled down to this: Americans beware America. I pressed him. Did he seriously, genuinely believe that soldiers, our soldiers, soldiers much like himself, could possibly be prevailed upon to intimidate or attack their fellow citizens?

Affirmative. If ordered to. They’re soldiers.


Statistics on the dangers guns pose to the health of their owners and those who live with them suggest that I’d be safer selling my guns than reserving them for Tombstone II. Trouble is, in an armed showdown, statistics tend to lose. In those who’ve learned to imagine assailants everywhere and may even have faced a real assailant, guns encourage a sense of personal exceptionalism. It’s the essence of their magnetism. Firearms exist to manage situations where rationality has failed, so thinking rationally about them can be hard.


Will there be fewer murders with tighter gun laws—the modest laws that might actually materialize rather than the grand ones that probably won’t but will surely rev up the rhetoric and the hoarding—or only fewer or smaller massacres? Can we expect less violence altogether or merely less outrageous acts of violence? And if the answer is fewer catastrophes, fewer Auroras and Sandy Hooks, would that be a worthwhile accomplishment in itself? I think so. Horror and panic themselves are forms of violence, and diminishing them, restricting their dimensions, is itself a civilizing act.


Of the five or six guns I’ve gathered over the decades (IF YOU KNOW HOW MANY GUNS YOU HAVE, YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH read a t-shirt I saw once) only one is designed to use on human beings: a .38 revolver of the type that burdened policemen’s sagging belts once, before the adoption of sleeker 9mms. The gun is a stodgy old classic, Smithsonian-worthy, that evokes the Made-in-USA age and also speaks of my distance, I like to think, from the cult of maximum firepower that draws harder-boiled folks to stores and gun shows to handle Bushmasters and similar weapons with death-dealing, quasi-military designs. Such ominous firearms hold no allure for me, in part because I doubt they’d do much good against a maniac carrying one or a hypothetical goon squad equipped with their vastly superior big brothers. Ban those guns. Neuter them. I’m fine with it. I can hunt with my shotguns and my deer gun (although I’ve grown tired of hunting), and I can protect myself from miscreants with my trusty .38.

To some in the gun-owning fraternity, this view makes me a traitor. So be it; I think they’re wrong. As they have repeatedly pointed out themselves, and as even Wayne LaPierre might agree, assault rifles are functionally similar to ordinary semi-automatic rifles, differing chiefly in their sinister cosmetics, not in their underlying ballistics. This being the case, what will be lost by giving them up? Nothing but their destabilizing allure for the grandiose, image-obsessed mass killers who favor them—and whose crimes represent a far greater risk to gun rights than does the perceived hostility of certain politicians. By assenting to such a ban, the gun-owning community can demonstrate precisely the sort of reasonable public-mindedness of which some believe it to be incapable. Otherwise, the showdown will go on and we will have only ourselves to blame if our self-destructive intransigence leaves us despised and cornered, with no way out.

I’ve quoted extensively, but please go read the rest—it’s a great, thoughtful essay that offered me, the non-gun guy,  a valuable perspective on some of what gun guys are thinking.  I already know what Tom the Dancing Bug is thinking…


(Thanks, TtheDB and

and what the gun control people are thinking:

So let’s state the plain facts one more time, so that they can’t be mistaken: Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.

The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting

Passing along links to what I think are worthwhile reads on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the aftermath…

For starters, here’s a dispassionate chronology from the Hartford Courant of just what happened in that school that morning. Just the facts ma’am, as best as they are known at the time.

Adam Lanza blasted his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a half-dozen thunderous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle to open a hole big enough to step through in one of the school’s glass doors.

Once inside, he had to make a choice.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s office was straight ahead. To the right, 25 or so children were rehearsing a play in the school cafeteria. To his left were the first-grade classrooms.

Lanza turned left.

The initial reaction of most people is disbelief that such a thing could happen…yet it’s been happening more and more frequently in recent years. In Slate Emily Bazelon wonders, if this doesn’t make us change our attitude about guns, what would?

In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom.

Of course there are plenty of people renewing calls for more gun control, for outlawing assault weapons, for some kind of change in the law to make us feel safer. But it’s not just “gun control” people; some pretty staunch gun rights advocates are urging another look at the subject with an open mind.

Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

David Frum makes a great point about the nuts and bolts part of any change in gun laws: he believes the push must come from outside government, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture, to avoid politically polarizing the debate and dooming any chance for agreement.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties — Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car.


Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons — such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose — and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Impossible, you say—there’s no way we could change the culture on guns. Well, we’ve done things like this before

To modern sensibilities, the injustice [of lynching] once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed congressmen and senators, argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and for leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.

But just changing gun laws isn’t the answer; we should look at changing not only laws but our attitudes toward mental illness, and be better at seeing the warning signs that disturbed people give before they commit such an extreme act of attention-grabbing.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving.

Help for mentally ill. A change to the culture of guns. David Gergen makes the case that we must take action to honor these dead and do it now or next time the blood will be on our hands.

Some years ago, no one thought that we could change our tobacco culture. We did. No one thought that we could reduce drunk driving by teenagers. We did — thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Years from now, no one will note what we say after this latest massacre. But they will hold us morally accountable for what we do. To honor all of those who have been slain in recent years — starting with the first-graders in Connecticut — we should highly resolve to change our culture of guns.

Meanwhile, to some measure of surprise, the National Rifle Association is laying low. Out of respect? Don’t know; they’re not talking.

On Dec. 13, the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account announced a giveaway promotion, thanked its followers for getting its Facebook page up to 1.7 million “likes,” and related a story from Wyoming in which a gunman apparently retreated from a nail salon after realizing one of its customers was “packing heat.” It tweeted the Wyoming case using the hashtag #ArmedCitizen.

On Dec. 14, the day an armed citizen killed 26 unarmed women and children at a Connecticut elementary school, the NRA’s Twitter account went silent. It has not tweeted since. Meanwhile, its Facebook page has disappeared, along with those 1.7 million “likes.” Navigating to now redirects to the Facebook homepage.


UPDATE Dec. 18: The NRA ends its silence with this statement.

Racism and gun culture? Gotta be time for Bob in the Heights

The reasons why vary from topic to topic, but I don’t always have something worthwhile to say on every hot story du jour while it’s driving the cable news echo chamber nutty; the shooting of Trayvon Martin is one example.  But my friend Bob Eddy has something worthwhile to say about that, and related issues to which it gives rise, and I asked him to say it here; the comments button is right up there:

Watching, and listening, to the continuing story of the Trayvon Martin shooting—which after a good run in the media is already being pushed aside by our latest multiple shooting, in Oakland—I think beyond the hoodies and other nonsensical side stories basically lie two societal issues that continue to plague America today: racism and our gun culture. And I might add, a tip of the hat to today’s rabid media, which remain so ready to leap before looking. As soon as this story became hot (oddly, almost a month after the event) sides were taken. When did it all slide from investigative reporting of known facts toward conjecture and opinion? I’m guessing somewhere around the start of the 24/7 TV news cycle, which also gave birth to the polished and primped Ken and Barbie bobble heads passing for journalists today. Somewhere, Water Cronkite is crying in his grave.

No, I’m not accusing George Zimmerman of being a racist, but much like the Rodney King beating at the hands of the L.A. police and the O.J. Simpson trial, America’s visceral divide has suddenly become exposed and naked to the sun like the sensitive underbelly of a turtle tipped onto its back. Why is it that our country is so reluctant to talk about race—is it painful? Still too touchy a subject even 50 years past the civil rights movement of the 60s? That’s half a century, folks. Healing starts with self-awareness, not denial. The truth sets you free and allows you to move on. These thoughts were recently provoked by an excellent opinion piecein the Houston Chronicle.

Yes, the days of the Jim Crow laws are long gone, and we have a black president (even some black pro football coaches!), but this doesn’t negate the statistical facts (rate of unemployment and incarceration, to name two) that prove racism’s more subtle vestiges remain, revealing a less than level playing field in America today. Using the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin as an easy example, I challenge anyone to look at me with a straight face and convince me that had the “colors” been reversed, the outcome would have been the same. Yes, I’m talking about a Twilight Zone world where an armed black man trolling the streets of a gated community follows a “suspicious looking” young white man—11 years younger and 20 pounds lighter than he, I might add—ignores the pleas of the 911 dispatcher to stay in his vehicle, and instead challenges, and then shoots the other man dead in a scuffle, declares self-defense, and after a brief trip to the station is set free with no charges filed.  “Well Mr. Washington, everything seems to be in order, just a couple of things to sign here…poor son of a bitch…now you be more careful next time, hear?”

Back on planet Earth, any black man cruising an affluent neighborhood in America today is much more likely (again, check the statistics for racial profiling) to experience only one thing: being pulled over and questioned, and if he’s lucky, that’s all. Ask Robbie Tolan, a [Houston area] 23 year old black male (and son of an ex-professional baseball player) who on New Years Eve 2008 was shot at three times (fortunately only wounded) by the local police after pulling into his parents’ driveway—in front of his hysterical and pleading mom! As a matter of fact, it was the cop’s manhandling of his mother that provoked Tolan, who was already lying on the ground as instructed, to protest. You see, unfortunately mom and dad lived in Bellaire, a predominately white and affluent city tucked inside of Houston, and, well, it was 2:00 in the morning, and there was the (inaccurate) report of a stolen vehicle…

To me, the bottom line is George Zimmerman in all probability wasn’t necessarily a bad guy; evidently, to many, he was even likable and would fall outside the definition, if there is such a quantifiable thing, of a racist. But on that day, against the advice of a 911 dispatcher and contrary to his training as a neighborhood watch person, he provoked a common misunderstanding, it quickly went south, and he chose to defuse the situation with a gun—sentencing Trayvon’s parents to an empty life of grief and unfulfilled dreams. For this he should be held accountable.

For those of you interested in a, granted, lengthy, but reasonable and balanced account of events leading up to this tragic shooting, I encourage reading this story in Sunday’s Times.

Which leads to our second national topic, and an important question I think America needs to ask itself today: are we, as a society, ready to accept armed neighborhood watchdogs? If yes, well, all I’ve got to say is get ready for a lot more of this. Does anyone really feel any safer? Certainly not Trayvon Martin. He’s dead. Welcome to the utopian world of the NRA, where roughly 30,000 Americans a year lose their lives to bullets, and every American—thanks to our permissive own and carry gun laws and under the protection of the “stand your ground” ruling (currently upheld in 27 states)—can legally find themselves judge, jury, and executioner in a split, life-changing second. Ask Joe Horn, of Pasadena, Texas, who in 2007 also chose to ignore the repeated advice of the 911 dispatcher he called, and while still on the line, shotgunned in the back two unarmed Hispanic burglars as they fled his neighbor’s house—and got acquitted of any charges. What a civic hero!

The fact that the latest gun rampage in Oakland is already relegated to “ho-hum,” on page five in my local paper, speaks volumes about our unique American culture. Oh, I know, I can hear the outcry now, as it did after the Virginia Tech massacre: “If only one of those students had a gun!!” Yes, any logical person can see that the answer to easy gun access is, well, more guns. Recently, 22-year-old Trey Sesler of Waller County, Texas had more guns—six, to be exact—and he used them to kill his parents and brother. Ho hum…

Who do we have to blame for this? No one but ourselves and the gutless politicians of both parties who bow down before arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington today. After all, even after the nearly-successful assassination attempt on one of their own, Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, America watched as Congress, and this Administration, stood united in their silence. I mean, come on, when is the last time the NRA got slapped down on anything? Almost comically, these patriotic defenders of our Second Amendment recently became so imaginative in their quest to stay on a roll that they dreamed up muscling state legislation through in Missouri, Alabama, and Tennessee to protect gun owners from the scourge of discrimination. Say what!? Oh, the oppression and shame!

I guess my biggest puzzlement is I just don’t get the frothing, rampant paranoia of suppression—have you seen this recent “interview” of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre? Short of mail-ordering a howitzer from the back of a comic book, exactly what can’t your average gun enthusiast today do—hunt with a Gatling gun? Has Obama even mentioned the words “gun control” once since becoming president? Yet gun sales continue to skyrocket, because we all know “He’s going to take away our guns!!” Like the screwball prophets predicting the end of time, it’s coming any day now! Ironically, Barack Obama is the best thing that ever happened to gun shop owners.

Well, enough said…this horse got out of the barn a long time ago, and I can’t imagine what it would take to get it back in. But remember, citizens: stay vigilant! Guns don’t kill people—hoodies do.

Bob in the Heights

[One update: this week the police officers in the Robbie Tolan case, previously acquitted on the criminal charges, were dropped as defendants from Tolan’s civil suit by the federal judge hearing the case. PR]