A Modest Proposal

This posting will have nothing whatsoever to do with computers other than that it was written on one.

It’s been some weeks now since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut. Everybody with a forum has posted their thoughts on this awful tragedy, and so having some thoughts of my own, herewith my two cents.

First, there is stunned silence. Then the mind recoils as it considers the savagely nihilistic enormity of it. How is it even possible that a human being could perpetrate such an atrocity? Precious young children and their protectors, not just shot but riddled with bullets. The awful gravity of it rends the very fabric of the universe and leaves us feeling sullied and diminished.

Predictably, there have been calls for “something” to be done, which usually means new restrictions on firearms or high-capacity magazines, if not an outright ban. At the same time, a lot of venom is being spewed in the general direction of firearms owners. “Anyone who owns a gun belongs in jail,” read a typical comment on one national left-leaning website, a comment “liked” by upwards of a thousand other readers within minutes.

At the risk of perhaps oversimplifying the issue, let me suggest that it’s not just guns we need to be talking about. There are, after all, 100 million gun owners in this country, and 99,999,999 of them did not walk into Sandy Hook Elementary and open fire. Furthermore, the 300 million or so firearms out there are not just going to go away no matter how many laws are passed. That genie is out of the bottle. Sweeping changes to the law that some are proposing would have the primary effect of turning millions of otherwise lawful citizens into instant felons. That isn’t smart, it isn’t fair, it isn’t responsible, and it won’t solve the problem.

I seriously doubt that at this point even the toughest laws would do much to curb mass shootings. By definition, anyone who would carry out such an act is not going to be deterred by a law. So after you’ve massively regulated firearms and the violence continues, then what?

Not that there isn’t a case for imposing some additional common-sense regulations. But we need to think before we act, not let our emotions cloud our judgment, and be mindful of the long-established rights of a large, overwhelmingly lawful, minority.

And we need to get our facts straight. For example, we need to clear up the confusion over what kinds of guns are legal and commonly owned, and what types are not. There is a widely held belief that one can walk into a Walmart and walk out with an AK 47. This is false. The AK 47 is an automatic weapon; once the trigger is pulled the gun will fire and reload automatically until it either runs out of bullets or the trigger is released. Automatic weapons were banned by the National Firearms Act of 1934.

Although it is technically possible to own an automatic firearm in the United States legally, the process for doing so is long and involved, incorporating a deep background check, an extensive waiting period, much paperwork, and the payment of a hefty, non-refundable fee. Only about 250,000 automatic weapons are in private hands in the US, and from a criminal-justice standpoint, they are a non-issue: In almost every year since records have been kept there have been zero incidents of violence with lawfully owned automatic weapons in the United States.

On the other hand, semi-automatic weapons are legal and common. In fact, most firearms in the United States are of this type. A semi-automatic weapon fires one and only one bullet with each pull of the trigger; the trigger must be released and pulled once more to fire another. Semi-automatic firearms have been widely owned in the United States for over a hundred years.

It is worth pointing out that the term assault weapon is a misleading, intentionally inflammatory term invented by gun control advocates and adopted without close inspection by a credulous mass media that thrives on punchy sound bites. It is also worth pointing out that the distinctions between so-called assault weapons and common hunting and sporting rifles are purely cosmetic. Fittingly, the original assault weapons ban of 1994 was quickly labeled as the Ugly Gun Ban Act by wags. And despite their fearsome image and reputation, assault weapons are responsible for a minuscule slice of this country’s homicides. In fact, rifles of all types account for only about 3 percent of US homicides, which have declined to the lowest level in 50 years, by the way, though you wouldn’t know it from the sensationalistic, 24/7 media coverage of violent crime.

A History of Violence

Mass shootings have been with us for decades. Between 1975 and 2005 mass shootings occurred at a remarkably consistent rate of about three every five years. But beginning around 2005, the rate of shootings increased sharply. From 2005 to 2009, eight mass shootings occurred. And in the last three years, as of this writing, there have been nine. What happened? The number of guns in circulation didn’t climb dramatically. The type of guns in circulation didn’t change all that much. It didn’t become any easier to get a gun than it used to be. In fact it became harder. What explains the surge? Have we reached some kind of social critical mass?

It’s become pretty clear over the past few years that there is something terribly wrong with our society. Our culture is greedier, more intolerant, more polarized, more self-absorbed, less cultured, less compassionate, less well-mannered, less considerate, than ever. Paranoia and inchoate rage are rampant, fed by ubiquitous Internet fringe groups. More than ever, people self-associate only with those of like mind, avoiding and distrusting those who think differently. As a person of a certain age, I am astonished at how our culture has declined in recent years.  The conclusion seems inescapable that at some level these mass shootings are a symptom of this profound social disorder.

Yet even with the uptick in frequency of recent years, mass shooting remain very rare events. This is a giant country, with 320 million people and hundreds of thousands of public places scattered over 3.5 million square miles. You are more likely to win the lottery than to be a victim of a mass shooting. Yet, undeterred by this reality, we have reacted by overreacting, adopting a siege mentality and turning schools and other public places into virtual prisons, with controlled access, metal detectors, and armed guards. How tragically misguided.

If we are to successfully tackle this problem of mass shootings, we need to recognize that they come in many different flavors, and are the product of different motivations and pathologies. In some cases the shooter is simply avenging a wrong, real or imagined. Sometimes the shooter thinks he is making some kind of grand statement, and may even imagine himself as a hero. Sometimes the shooter hungers to be famous. Sometimes he simply enjoys killing and wishes to go out with a literal bang. And sometimes he is motivated by pure rage, and wishes to do as much damage as possible before being taken down. The one constant is that most of the time the killer gives abundant warning before fatally lashing out.

When it comes to preventing these crimes, clearly there are some things we can be doing better. A good start would be to pay attention to the damaged and faltering individuals in our midst–the Jared Loughners and the James Holmeses and the Seung Wei Chos–who all but publish a timetable of their intentions. When we see individuals like these acting out, we need to put down our smart phones for just a minute and get involved. We also need a judicial system that listens–and acts decisively–when presented with incontrovertible evidence that someone is potentially dangerous. It has become far too difficult to institutionalize obviously sick persons. And yes, we need to make it a bit harder for the wrong people to acquire powerful weapons. At the same time, though, we also need to recognize that in a country this big and diverse, a certain number of these crimes are probably inevitable.

Rights and Responsibilities

I’ve owned guns since I was a teenager, including one or two of the so-called assault weapons.  I also believe that the Second Amendment was intended to encourage–not just allow–the individual ownership of arms as means of common defense, and as a hedge against tyranny. I believe this because, as it turns out, the Founders left a pretty good paper trail recording their thoughts and intentions. Certainly a lot of people disagree with this interpretation, or see the Second Amendment as a quaint artifact, an idea whose time has come and gone. Nevertheless you cannot just wave it way as an inconvenience. But even without considering the Second Amendment, there is a de facto right of individuals to own firearms in this country that ought to be respected.

Of course, some would beg to differ. There is a small but politically active minority in this country that opposes private gun ownership in any form. This primly humorless cabal of modern-day Abolitionists sees its opponents as fools, tools, knuckle-dragging rednecks, or worse. In their view it’s really very simple: Guns are evil; people should not have them; we’re in the right; that settles it. People of this mindset form the hard kernel of activist groups across the country, setting an uncompromising tone and undermining the efforts of any among them who would dare to be fair-minded and reasonable. Although hard at it for years, because of the extremeness of their views the true believers have enjoyed relatively little success. Then came Sandy Hook. Obeying Rahm Emmanuel’s dictum that one should never let a crisis go to waste, they have seized on the massacre as a call to action. Newly energized, they sally forth with the zeal of holy warriors. And like holy warriors everywhere they have only loathing for the enemy, utter disregard for his so-called rights, and a firm belief that the rightness of their cause justifies any tactic, no matter how distasteful.

Not wanting to let pesky little facts get in the way of a good crusade, time after time these true believers will cite the same misleading or discredited data, even after being repeatedly corrected. They will artfully exploit the public’s confusion over what is legal to own and what is not. Appearing before legislative committees across the country, the true believers will nod grimly in agreement when, as cameras roll, a witness they have coached tearfully expresses her frustration that Joe Sixpack can walk into any sporting goods store and walk out with an Uzi, even though they know it is a lie.  With a straight face they will solemnly intone that there are 25,000 gun homicides in the United States every year, neglecting to mention that two-thirds of them are actually suicides, and that 70 percent of the remainder involved victims with serious criminal records. They will pointedly fail to mention that the homicide rate is lower now than in five decades, even as gun ownership reaches an all-time high.

Though they will never say it out loud, in their heart of hearts the true believers are thankful for Newtown because it reanimates their flagging cause. Without even a twinge of guilt, they will milk the massacre for everything it is worth, knowing that with this one they have a winner. At carefully staged events timed for maximum media coverage, they will parade the images of the dead before us as stirring music plays, going for the emotional jugular. They will goad grief-stricken survivors into agonizing, highly public testimonies before government panels, hoping for that perfect, galvanizing Kodak Moment. All the while, the true believers will use every trick in the book to sully the reputation of the opposition, impugn its motives, and portray it as dangerously extreme. They will do this because, you see, it’s really very simple: Guns are evil; people should not have them; we’re in the right; that settles it.

What these people fail to apprehend, though, is that most gun owners—certainly those of my generation—view firearms ownership as an almost sacred right as well as a grave responsibility. People who hold to this creed believe it in their bones. A gun is power, it is freedom, it is a means of defense in a dangerous world, it allows you to feed your family, it is insurance that tyranny will pay a heavy price indeed if ever it rears its ugly head. People who feel this way rightly resent the condescension and thinly veiled contempt directed at them from certain activist quarters. People who feel this way aren’t just going to roll over and meekly surrender the precious symbols of their freedom because some finger-waggling, self-righteous prick says they have to. Even my girlfriend, good liberal and Democrat that she is, says no way in hell would she EVER surrender her gun. Come and get it, is her attitude. Multiply that reaction by tens of millions. Visualize massive, well-organized civil disobedience by people empowered with a sense of right, and having the means and will to resist. This is the situation that will be unleashed if in our haste to do “something” we push too far.

Years ago when I was first getting into this business, I had an elderly customer who had fled Germany right before World War II. Over the course of several visits we had a number of long and interesting conversations about life and death, the universe, and history. Somehow the subject of firearms came up one time. I figured that with his background and experience he would disapprove of Americans’ fascination with guns. I figured wrong. “Never let them take your guns,” he all but shouted, eyes blazing. “They are the one thing that guarantees that there cannot be a dictatorship.” He recalled his family, being Jewish, receiving the order to surrender their firearms as the Nazis consolidated power. We all know how that story turned out.

Wishful Thinking

Millions of Americans just want this country to be a safer, saner, more peaceable place, and figure that if we could somehow get a handle on this gun problem, that might happen. They look longingly at safe, stable, low-crime countries like Denmark, Sweden, or Japan as examples of what this nation might hope to become. It’s a pleasant and inviting vision, one with which I happen to sympathize. But ultimately it is a pipe dream. Because in almost every way that matters, the United States is nothing like other nations. It makes no sense to compare the United States to largely homogeneous societies with long, stable histories and comparatively few internal divisions. America was peopled by motley crew of adventurers, fanatics, scoundrels, fugitives, loners, idealists, hucksters, and bastards. This tough and ruthless bunch brutally wrenched the place from the grasp of its former owners, a pretty rough lot themselves. America’s first public act was to violently revolt against the mother country.

This country is a poor candidate for ever becoming any kind of utopia. We don’t do harmonious. Ours is a clamoring, extroverted, hard-nosed society, awash in excess and beset with persistent and growing inequality. We have far more serious problems than we know what to do with.  Further regulating guns would not magically change any of this, would likely produce minimal results, and rightly belongs far down the priority ladder. Pushing hard on this issue would only squander much precious political will, engender bitter and lasting enmity, and divert attention and resources from the many truly grave matters that threaten our long-term survival.

Finally, serious gun control would require the kind of massively heavy-handed law enforcement that most Americans would find, shall we say, un-American. In fact, it would likely make the War on Drugs look like a church social. Speaking of the War on Drugs, let’s size that one up, why don’t we. After more than 40 years of steadily escalating measures, here is what we have: A couple trillion spent, millions of lives damaged, the legal system under siege, a militarized, ultra-aggressive law enforcement protocol now the norm, civil rights drastically weakened, respect for the institutions of government at an all-time low, Mexico ruined for at least a generation, foundations of a police state well-laid. On the plus side, though, drugs are cheaper and more plentiful than ever. War on Guns, anyone?

The Hinge of Fate

In the aftermath of every disaster there is an immediate outpouring of sympathy and support, and Newtown was no exception. But after the dead are buried and the press departs and public interest fades, the survivors remain, nursing wounds invisible to others yet every bit as real as if they had been inflicted by bullets. For the survivors of Newtown–fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, colleagues, friends, and family of those murdered–many difficult years of healing lie ahead. While many adult survivors may never completely put it behind them, blessedly, the children will heal. Left to their own devices, they will cope and come to terms. There will be scars, but as the years pass they will grow faint.

I say “left to their own devices” because for a while at least, well-meaning people, without intending to, are likely to make things a little worse for the surviving children. For a while at least, wherever the children of Newtown go, just out of earshot people will talk quietly and make concerned faces and nod solemnly. When the children glance their way the well-meaning people will be wearing a look that says “what a brave little boy you are.” Or they will look quickly away, but not quickly enough. And whether they intend to or not, in a thousand different ways the well-meaning people will treat the children of Newtown just a little differently. They will think that the children won’t notice but they will. And over and over again they will ask the children if they want to talk about it when all they really want is to forget. The children will think, please let it go already, but the well-meaning people won’t because they just can’t.

Really, you say; who made you the authority?

In truth, I am intimately familiar with childhood trauma and its aftermath because I have lived it. You see, when I was just shy of my sixth birthday, I witnessed my father’s death in an accident, an accident I caused to happen. It doesn’t get much more traumatic than that.

We were on holiday in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, near Silverton. It was a beautiful early-summer day and we were on a hike to the headwaters of the Animas River, swollen with snowmelt and running very fast. On that stretch of the river were a series of scenic waterfalls, raging torrents that day with the heavy runoff. We had stopped at one of them to catch our breath and admire the view. As I cautiously approached the edge to get a better look, my older brother playfully clapped his hands and yelled “BOO.” Startled, I slipped on a wet rock and fell, landing in the rushing current. Somehow, I managed to get ahold of a rock, and clung to it for dear life, my feet dangling over the edge. My mother tried to grab me, but in her panic she slipped and fell too, knocking me loose. My father grabbed for us both but could not hold on. All three of us were swept over the falls and flung into the rock-studded pool 60 or 70 feet below. Mom and I chanced to land in deep water and were able to splash our way to safety. My father landed on a submerged rock and was mortally injured. As we watched, stunned, horrified, and helpless, my father struggled for several long minutes, growing weaker and weaker until finally he slid under, not to resurface.

There is a mathematical concept called an inflection point, which describes the instant in which a data graph sharply changes direction, reflecting some underlying fundamental shift. The accident that took my father’s life was the mother of all inflection points for we who survived it, a hinge upon which the rest of our lives was to turn. Whatever future lay out there waiting for us before the accident was erased in an instant and replaced by an alternate version. Different home, different schools, different friends, different jobs, different girlfriends, spouses, careers, everything.

Three individuals survived the accident, and each was damaged in a unique way. Although my mom eventually made her peace with what happened, she was never again quite the same. Something deep inside her broke that day and never completely healed.  Once vivacious and popular, she retreated from life, crawled into the bottle and stayed there for a long, long time. My lively, outgoing brother became passive and withdrawn, in profound denial. Years would pass before his natural exuberance returned for good. Being the youngest, I fared perhaps best. Even so, for months after, I endlessly relived the accident and its aftermath. With nearly eidetic clarity it all came back to me again and again: the shock of the cold, cold water, the sudden terror, the confused seconds of freefall, the hard and painful impact, the desperate scramble to safety, the horror of my father’s death throes, the terrible silence after. Over and over I remembered the somber men in uniform quietly delivering very bad news, the miserably long and nearly wordless trip home, the solemn pomp of the funeral, the tearful goodbyes. I was powerless to halt the flood tide of memories, attended always by the indescribable, unrelenting grief born of staggering loss.

There was collateral damage as well. Shattered by the death of their only child, my paternal grandparents retreated into pathologically intense seclusion. Unable to bear the sight of anything that reminded them of their dead son, they abandoned his widow and two young children. Even though we lived just a few miles apart, I did not see my grandparents for another twenty-two years, when I engineered a meeting. It did not go well. My brother never saw them again. We learned of their eventual deaths from the obituaries. So completely had our grandparents removed us from their lives that neither my brother nor I–their only living kin–were even mentioned in their will.

It is one of life’s cruel ironies that the things we most want to forget, we cannot. Those first months after, I wanted nothing more than to be freed from the curse of remembering, if only for a few minutes. But constant reminders would not allow it. Even though I never told a soul about what happened, somehow people found out. And just like that, suddenly I wasn’t the red-headed boy from down the block anymore, I was that kid who killed his dad. People didn’t always let on that they knew. They didn’t have to; I could read it in their faces and in their averted glances. Mostly they were nice about it, in the usual painfully awkward way. Mostly.

But eventually, mercifully, the beast begins to let you go. After maybe a year, it became possible to go five minutes without thinking about what happened. And after a while longer five minutes of forgetting turned into an hour, and then an hour turned into a day, and a day into a week. But serious, life-altering trauma never completely releases you, ever. Even today, nearly fifty years on, every now and again that switch deep in my brain will get flipped somehow and suddenly, out of nowhere, I remember everything again. And once more I relive that long-ago ordeal, second by awful second, the images faded only a little with time. But now, it’s like watching an old newsreel; the inconsolable ache that once faithfully accompanied the remembering has faded almost to nothing, like a broken limb nearly healed. And the nightmares rarely come anymore.

So will it be with the survivors of Newtown. Though the hinge of fate has turned their lives inexorably in a different direction, they will move on. They are in a very hard place right now, but with the passage of time and the blessing of Providence their wounds will heal, and in due course the fullness of life will be restored.

An Excision

Adam Lanza. We all know that name now. I suspect that most of us over a certain age will remember that name for the rest of our lives. And maybe, just maybe, this is part of the problem. Our culture grants an instant kind of twisted celebrity to the perpetrators of these massacres. Certain marginal individuals simply find the lure of worldwide notoriety too attractive to resist. Mired in obscurity they cannot somehow seem to escape, obscurity that offends their deluded sense of personal grandeur, maladjusted losers know that there is one sure route to instant renown.

So with this in mind, allow me to present a modest proposal. Let us thwart Adam Lanza’s perverse fame by expunging every trace of his existence—all writings, photographs, web citations, articles, public records–every trace of him. Let us excise him so completely that it will be as though he never was. Let us never speak, write, or even think his name again. Let it be thus with every deluded loner who thinks that an act of madness is a sure ticket to the big time.