Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer It's The Guns, Stupid

By Jim Hanas

JULY 13, 1998:  Why?

After five mass-shootings in 15 months that have left 17 dead in schoolyards from Springfield, Oregon, to Jonesboro, Arkansas, that’s what everyone wants to know. Why?

The question has been hashed out in newspaper editorials and letters to the editor, in op-ed columns and special reports in The New York Times and Time magazine. Whole conferences have been convened, one just last month here in Memphis, to mull it over.

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee blames the breakdown of the family. A teacher in Jonesboro blames Tupac Shakur. Everyone blames the media – the media included – and some blame a late-millennial loss of spirituality.

With so many choices, one feels almost foolish suggesting the most obvious answer, the one so obvious that it seems, at times, like we’ve lost sight of it altogether.

Um, could it be the guns?

Because it is the guns, no matter how many other factors are involved. Take any of those others away – dysfunctional homes, spiritual loss, depression, gangsta rap, action movies, or Nintendo – and you still might have a shooting.

Take the guns away, on the other hand, and you won’t. It’s a semantic point to be sure, but one that might be appreciated by whomever penned the well-worn pro-gun mantra, “When guns are outlawed, only criminals will have guns.” Nonetheless, it’s as certain as arithmetic that you can’t have shootings without guns.

In other words, the gun debate has gotten way too complicated, and even those with common sense can be found looking for the reasons behind gun violence in all the wrong places. The psychological factors contributing to violence, whatever role they play, are surely too varied to be pinned down, let alone to serve as bedrock for public policy. If history teaches anything, it’s that the evils that sprout in the human heart can never be fully comprehended, except perhaps poetically. The same goes for environmental factors, whether they’re media products or moral compasses. The social engineering required to control either would be overwhelming, even for gun-grabbing liberals, let alone pro-gun conservatives who are supposed to be against social engineering in the first place.

Guns, on the other hand, are objects, concrete things in the world. There’s nothing mysterious or complicated about them. We know what they look like, where to find them, and how to regulate them – or at least other countries do. We also know, or should, that we have way too many of them.

There are 235 million guns in the United States, by some estimates; nearly as many as there are people. By comparison with other industrialized nations, it is an insane number. Official estimates put the number of guns in Canada at 7 million, less than a quarter of the population. Accordingly, our neighbors to the north have been rewarded with a much lower rate of handgun homicide. According to Handgun Control, Inc., Canada had just 106 handgun homicides in 1996 compared to 9,390 in the United States, a 90-fold difference that dwarfs a nine-fold difference in population. And, aside from that “oot and aboot” thing, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more similar cultures.

If reason prevailed, there would be a unanimous outcry, demanding to know why gun-control measures are being slackened nationwide, even as evidence mounts that guns in American are out of control.

But there isn’t. Instead, there’s endless haggling and an upside-down political world where gun-control measures like waiting periods are being rolled back, as here in Tennessee (see p. 20, “A Lesson Spurned”), despite the fact that the checks and waiting periods put in place by the Brady bill blocked the sale of 69,000 handguns last year alone.

Now there’s a question for you. Why?

Whose interests are served by muddying the crystal waters of the gun debate? The answer, of course, is the gun lobby.

Its influence on public debate bends logic like a prism bends light, refracting the issue into a spectrum of endlessly nuanced arguments and counter-arguments. They’re dazzling, but not particularly illuminating.

This logical distortion is evident even in the most coveted slogans of gun advocacy, like the already mentioned, “When guns are outlawed, only criminals will have guns,” with its wordplay befitting a Zen koan. Or the even more popular, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

“… with guns,” however, is the unspoken truth of the matter.

Logic is not infallible, and it can’t exist in a vacuum. You can make any premise turn out true if you simply decide it has to be and alter all other terms of the debate accordingly. And the premise the gun lobby refuses to give up is a uniquely American one: Private citizens must have guns. No one thinks this outside of the United States. Britain completed a total ban on handguns just last year.

The result of preserving this premise at any price is the situation we have now, where infinitely regressive inquiries into the remote cultural causes of violence are the norm. There is an irony here, since gun advocacy tends to go hand in hand with being “tough on crime.” The same people who fly into an outrage when criminal lawyers offer up distant causes as reasons for their clients’ misdeeds – childhood neglect, drug addiction, whatever – can’t wait to bring up the same factors when their immovable premise is threatened. Suddenly, they become deep sociologists.

But violence, in life as in art, has been with us, literally, forever, from Oedipus Rex to Romeo and Juliet. As long as there have been humans, some of them have wished to harm others, and the rest have settled for the catharsis of watching imaginary harm acted out. The difference is that the body count accumulated over Hamlet’s five acts can now be racked up in less than five seconds with the help of guns.

Still, the gun lobby’s questionably sincere concern for the general health of the culture can be found in letters to the editor that pro-gun-control articles always spark (see p.18, “Write to Bear Arms”), and in the National Rifle Association’s constant promise that its Eddie Eagle safety program – with its Disney-esque figurehead, as child-friendly as he is pro-gun – is the answer to every gun-related ill, despite the fact that several of the recent schoolyard shooters had received firearms training.

And, paradoxically, these claims are enjoying more and more legitimacy, particularly among politicians, even as NRA membership falls and polls consistently reveal that public opinion staunchly favors gun control. The NRA helped draft recent Tennessee legislation, doing away with waiting periods and lifting a mandate to report secondhand guns sales to the authorities. The city of Philadelphia is even talking with the NRA about cooperating on a federally funded project to reduce gun violence.

This, despite the fact that the NRA receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the gun industry through the nonprofit NRA Foundation. According to a recent study by the Violence Policy Center, the foundation funnels industry donations to the NRA through grants. “The Foundation is a mechanism by which the firearms industry can promote shooting sports education, cultivating the next generation of shooters,” trumpets one of the Foundation’s promotional flyers.

The public and politicians can’t hate tobacco companies enough for marketing to children, but outrage eludes both when it comes to the gun industry, despite the fact that Eddie Eagle, unlike Joe Camel, is, by the NRA’s own admission, aimed at children.

Again. Why?

The answer, unfortunately, is depressing. Part of it has to do with the widely held belief that the Second Amendment leaves us no other choice. At the very least, it provides cover for politicians who do not have the will to take on the firearms industry.

More troubling, however, is that in the out-of-control situation we find ourselves in, with over 200 million guns already out there, the frightening logic of the gun lobby actually makes sense, as insane solutions often do in insane situations.

For example, the latest boon for the “An Armed Society Is a Polite Society” crowd has been research conducted by John Lott of the University of Chicago. Lott used data from every county in the U.S. from 1977 to 1994 and found – in his recent book More Guns, Less Crime – that in each year in which citizens were allowed to carry concealed handguns the murder rate declined by 3 percent. If concealed-carry laws had been adopted in 1992, he concludes, 1,500 murders would have been avoided. Lott’s methodology has been questioned by some, and there are limitations to the findings. The Economist, for example, notes that Lott expects only 5 percent of the population to ever take advantage of concealed-carry laws, and he admits the effects of such laws might change if that number were higher, as the gun industry surely intends, cultivating, as they are, “the next generation of shooters.”

Even granting his findings however, the fierce debate they have aroused points to something even more troubling: We’ve all but given up on serious gun control and are prepared to settle for damage control. Thirty-one states have concealed-carry laws, and more are on the way. Federally, the boldest reaction that can be mustered to school shootings is proposed legislation mandating safety locks. We’ve gone too far, and the only solution that seems viable is to go further – keep on going until distrust and fear are everywhere mutual.

Looking at the statistics from other industrialized countries that have gone down different, substantially more rational paths, is to know fatalism. It’s too late for us.

We’re resigned to a new, domestic version of the Cold War strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction; each citizen a nation, allowed to determine his or her own defense policy, no matter the consequences for society as a whole. In this version, however, there is no enemy, no one who can lose so we’ll know when it’s over. Accordingly, it never will be.

Which is why the search for answers continues, long after it should and in some pretty improbable places. If it were only something else. If it were the family or God or the media or anything else, we think, maybe we’d have a shot at fixing it and keeping Springfields and Jonesboros from happening again. But it’s not anything else, and we know it, so we keep looking. It beats acknowledging that we know the answer but can’t do anything about it because we’ve already gone too far.

Still, it might help to say it out loud:

It’s the guns, stupid.

U.S. Attorney Coleman Fights Gun Trafficking to Kids

Before Pearl, Mississippi; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Springfield, Oregon, concern about children obtaining guns had already been building. The tragedies of the recent school shootings just put human faces on the statistics, which had long alarmed law-enforcement officials and gun-control advocates.

In 1996, to find out how children were getting guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms launched the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative in 16 cities. The program required each community to trace guns confiscated from juveniles and identify illegal gun-trafficking patterns.

Even though Memphis wasn’t on the list at first, a local anti-violence task force was already addressing the problem of youth and guns. To build on that effort, U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman sought Memphis’ inclusion in the gun-interdiction program as well.

Tracing guns in Tennessee isn’t as easy as, say, tracing automobiles. You need a license to drive a car, but not to buy a gun. Even though the sheriff’s department is still required to do background checks on gun buyers, it doesn’t retain any information about the buyer or the weapon. To trace a gun, law-enforcement officers must start with the manufacturer. Then they consult merchants’ records, if they exist, to find out information about the buyers. After that, the process gets more time-consuming. Officers have to interview the owners – if they can locate them – to find out to whom they traded or sold their guns.

So far, the gun-interdiction program has resulted in 23 felony and possession indictments of individuals accused of supplying guns to juveniles.

Coleman’s interim report, released two years ago, gives a fearsome picture of gun-related youth crime in Memphis. In 1995, 829 juveniles were charged with committing crimes using a handgun in Memphis and Shelby County. The number of juveniles who carried a weapon to school increased 39 percent between 1991 and 1995.

The number of juveniles committing crimes with guns is starting to go down slightly, dropping from 829 in 1995 to 806 last year. Tough law enforcement helps, Coleman says, but tougher gun-control laws probably won’t.

“As long as guns are accessible and as long as adults don’t recognize the dangers and don’t pay attention to what kids do and learn, I don’t know what kind of legislation will force parental responsibility,” she says.

– Jacqueline Marino

Write to Bear Arms

Since 1995, NRA membership has dropped 20 percent, and a recent Gallup Poll found that 61 percent of those responding favored either “major restriction on owning guns” or outright bans on gun ownership for “everyone except police and authorized persons.” Another 28 percent favored “minor restrictions,” including gun registration (which Canada requires but the U.S. does not) while only 8 percent favored no restrictions at all.

But it sure doesn’t seem like it sometimes.

One reason is that the NRA strongly encourages its members and supporters to be extremely vocal, both toward politicians and the media. Of the “Five Steps to Successfully Protect Your Firearms Freedoms” outlined on the NRA’s Web site, two of them deal directly with the media, instructing gun-rights advocates to “monitor local media” and “participate in radio and TV call-in programs.”

“One of the most effective ways to put the facts about firearms ownership before the people is to watch for any anti-gun articles, editorials, or reports – and respond!” advises the NRA.

They even provide “guidelines for communicating” and a handy sample letter to the editor, which will look familiar – notwithstanding the NRA’s recommendation against “name-calling and insults” – to anyone who’s read The Commercial Appeal after the gun issue has been broached with something less than pro-gun zeal.

In one recent belch of letters – following a CA editorial deploring the “stealth and haste” with which the Tennessee legislature rolled back gun-control measures – the familiar saws were brandished. Two letters suggested cars are a bigger threat to life than guns. Two tagged gun-control proponents as “elitists” (an oddly common epithet, since elitists are traditionally in the minority, while those who favor gun control are not). There were well-worn pleas on behalf of “law-abiding folks” and against society’s loss of its “moral compass.”

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