Return of the Liberal Gun Owner

In a previous post (“A Liberal’s Defense of Gun Ownership”), I tried to explain why an avowed lefty would own a gun (or a bunch of them). That was prompted by a direct challenge from my mother in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. After the shooting in Newtown, I have been hesitant to weigh in, not because I don’t have strong feelings about the political issues that have arisen as a consequence, and not because it’s somehow impolite to talk about an incredibly important news story while it’s still news, but because I needed to spend some time reading the responses to this tragedy in order to formulate my thoughts. As a liberal, I am on a bunch of e-mail lists wherein pundits and politicians keep me up-to-date on the mainstream liberal party line and the radical left-wing version. Because I’m a gun owner and read up on gun-related subjects, I’ve also found my way onto the e-mail lists of the NRA and their ilk. As a public school teacher, I have been reading about how schools are supposed to respond. I’ve also been talking with real teachers who know a lot more about real schools than so-called “school reformers,” and I have a pretty good idea about the broad spectrum of responses teachers are voicing. Oh, and I’m also a human being, so thinking about those children and parents in Newtown is still emotionally overwhelming. I don’t have any insight into that grief, but I hope the confluence of a liberal, gun-owning, public school teacher might offer something useful to others.

First off, to my liberal sistren and brethren, please, please stop using the phrase “assault weapons.” I understand that you are referring to the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, and I know that is commonly referred to as the “Assault Weapons Ban,” but you must understand that this doesn’t just close the ears of responsible gun owners because they have some knee-jerk antipathy towards a specific piece of legislation. It closes their ears because you sound ignorant. There is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” Don’t believe me? Go into your local gun store (I recommend that you don’t wear your Obama T-shirt for this outing) and see if they have a section marked “assault weapons.” Ask to see if there are any boxes for any guns marked “assault weapon.” When you find that there aren’t, ask the proprietor which of the guns in the store are, technically speaking, “assault weapons.” She may laugh at you. She may calmly explain that the term has no specific meaning. Either way, the answer will teach you a lot. You will come to understand why the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban” was such a loophole riddled piece of legislation that it only successfully banned some dozen individual models of guns. You will also quickly deduce why gun owners are so resistant to talk of limited gun bans from people who clearly know so little about guns. After all, for all the talk about protecting the rights of hunters and other responsible gun owners, if the anti-gun advocates know so little about guns, isn’t it entirely plausible that any legislation they propose might be another toothless collection of loopholes? And isn’t it equally possible that legislation written by people who believe in mythical “assault weapons” might ban far more than they intended? As I tell my students, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to do your homework first.

For the sake of being “Fair and Balanced,” to my fellow citizens who find themselves on the other side of the political aisle, especially those who allow themselves to be swayed by the Fox News talking points, please, please try and be a tiny bit realistic when you blame violent movies and video games. First of all, this line of reasoning inevitably makes you sound a good forty years older than your real age. What’s next? Criticisms of the length of boys’ hair? The volume of rock and roll music? Pass me that crystal dish with the hard candy please, grandpa. Much like the mythical “assault weapons,” your definition of violent video games is so amorphous that even us casual gamers worry you’ll be banning just about everything. You do understand that Pac Man was about a yellow blob who was running for his life because he was being chased by murderous ghosts, only when he would devour a magical pill he gained the ability to incapacitate those ghosts temporarily by consuming them whole? Super Mario Brothers starred some plumbers who jumped on their enemies’ heads, stomping them to death, in an effort to rescue a kidnapping victim. The aforementioned Mario also starred in the game Donkey Kong, where he charged directly at an oversized primate who was trying to kill him by throwing barrels at him. What games would be left if violent video games were removed? Tetris and Pong would still be fine. And sports games like Madden Football… oh, wait.

And what about these violent movies that are corrupting our youth? The Godfather is probably the greatest movie ever made. In it, about twenty people are killed, more than half with guns, some with semi-automatic pistols, others with machine guns (those are assault rifles, which are real things, and not “assault weapons,” which don’t exist). Oh, and a really violent thing happens to a horse. Should we prevent people from seeing The Godfather because it is violent? What about Saving Private Ryan? Or Schindler’s List? Ah, you say, but those have historical, artistic, and socially redeeming value. Agreed. But did Steven Spielberg’s first short film, the one that led to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, have that same value? I don’t know, because I haven’t seen it. You probably haven’t either. But if we banned violent movies, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have seen the light of day based on nothing more than the fact that it was a Western titled The Last Gun. I’ll bet there’s some gun violence in it.

And if we’re going to even consider banning the viewing of violence because it could lead to real world violence, we should certainly start with 24 hours news networks that make their money by keeping their viewers continually angry and afraid.  Pundits spewing toxic amounts of vitriol and doom are far more dangerous than episodes of Tom and Jerry.

Now, to my teacher friends, here in Oregon, we have our resident rhetorical-bomb-throwing-boob in our state legislature who has suggested that teachers should arm themselves. I’m sure there are some teachers who would feel more comfortable if they were armed, but I have two reasons why I, as a responsible gun owner, would not. First, a big part of my job is making students feel comfortable in my classroom. Contrary to those who look back fondly on nuns hitting kids on the knuckles with rulers, I firmly believe that children learn better when they are not scared. People should have a healthy fear of guns. So when kids have that fear, and some have it exaggerated by the fact that they are kids, and other have it exaggerated by the fact that their home lives have given them even more reason to fear guns than should be warranted, their ability to learn will be diminished if they know I’m packing heat in class. Second, I would be afraid some kid would grab my gun and use it. Kids are impulsive, some dangerously so. The proximity of other teenagers makes kids more likely to do stupid things. I wouldn’t want one of those stupid things ending with some kid pulling my gun out of my holster while I’m trying to help another student correctly place a comma in a sentence.  So if Newtown inclines any teacher to consider carrying a gun into a classroom, especially one of my son’s classrooms, I hope that teacher will also remember Columbine or Kip Kinkle here in Oregon and imagine his or her own gun falling into the hands of someone like that.

As to the NRA’s idea of a police officer in every school, I think it’s a great idea, but not for the same reasons the NRA likes it. They like it because it gets the conversation away from gun bans. I like it because it’s government stimulus spending on unionized workers in every community in the country. I know that it might not prevent something like what happened in Newtown. As many critics have pointed out, Columbine had an armed guard. But as long as it means more cops in more schools showing kids that police officers are not scary, distant enemies but friendly, relatable public servants who keep them safe, that’s all to the good. My only caveats would be that the officers’ salaries and all their expenses must be fully funded by the feds so the money doesn’t come out of the local or state education budgets, the legislation has to be written so the police will be there for the long haul and not just until the next round of budget cuts, and the police officers must live in the communities where the school is located. If the deficit hawks in Congress will go for that, Obama should sign it immediately. Take the money out of the Homeland Security budget and call it an anti-terrorism measure. Because what we saw in Newtown is indisputably domestic terrorism.

Police in schools cannot be the end of the discussion, though (sorry, NRA). We need to massively beef up our mental health services in this country. My wife is a mental health counselor who works at a live-in facility for severely mentally ill children. The stuff she sees would break most people’s hearts. But you know what breaks hers? You know what broke the camel’s back the one and only time I saw her job bring her to tears? It was when a kid who needed care had to be sent away because his parents private insurance wouldn’t cover his care any longer. Yes, high quality mental healthcare is expensive. The facility where my wife works has a two-kids-to-one-adult ratio, and that’s spendy. But parents, good parents who love their children and are trying to do what is best for them, should not have to give up custody of their children and turn them over to the state just so the kids will qualify for state-sponsored insurance. These parents shouldn’t have to quit their good paying jobs where they contribute to their communities and pay the taxes that fund those services just so they can move to other states with better care and go on the public dole in order to get their kids the care they need. That’s stupid. That’s backwards. And that’s the system we have. Ramping up our mental healthcare infrastructure isn’t sexy and it won’t show an instant payoff in lowering mass shootings because the future killer you’re treating is still a little kid getting the help he needs today to avoid that fate years down the road. But when it comes to preventing mass shootings, even with its high price tag, robust mental health infrastructure is still going to be the biggest payoff. We just need politicians willing to do things that won’t show results until after their term has ended, and we need a public willing to admit that taxes are investments in our society’s future.

While we’re being realistic, we can do some serious things about guns without making up fictional categories of firearms. There is no good reason that the same background check that I have to go through when I buy a gun at a store shouldn’t be mandatory when I buy one from a friend or from a “friend” who sits behind a card table at a gun show. I understand that the most extreme conspiracists worry that a more robust national background check system is just a means for the evil government to find out where to come take guns from. Furthermore, they worry that limiting the ability of the mentally ill to acquire guns would be a means for a nefarious government to keep guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens. To both critiques, I say, cut your losses, guys. Just as teachers’ unions need to do a better job of making it clear that we don’t protect bad teachers (We don’t. It’s a lie that’s been repeated so much people think it’s true. We protect the contract and the process to keep it fair, but bad teachers CAN be fired if administrators do their jobs.), gun owners need to make it clear that they do not support putting guns in the hands of those who would hurt others or themselves. As we beef up mental health services, counselors should have to report those who are potentially dangerous or suicidal, and those people should not be able to buy guns. From anybody (see the gun show/ private party loophole above). People who sell guns to criminals or the mentally ill should be criminally liable as accomplices if those people commit gun crimes or shoot themselves. Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people will do more to protect innocent people than trying to ban this gun or that gun.

To my fellow liberals and conservatives who’ve found common cause (or at least a common talking point) in protecting the rights of hunters and sportsmen, you are missing the purpose of the Second Amendment, and I think you’re doing so willfully. The Second Amendment is not about hunting. It’s about protecting yourself, your loved ones, and your property from your own government. Liberals don’t tend to like this amendment, but I think they should reconsider. I’ve made my share of jokes about the practicality of standing up to the U.S. military, with its complete arsenal of nuclear weapons, using common, handheld firearms (“assault weapons” or otherwise), but there’s something very real going on there. I’m not a hunter yet. The only thing I’ve ever killed with a gun was the gopher in my mother-in-law’s garden that she’d winged but was unwilling to shoot point-blank with a .22 to put it out of its misery. I plan on learning to hunt goose and duck during this next year, though. But even as I’m serving some succulent duck to my family (let’s be honest: I’ll probably overcook it the first few times, so I’ll be serving dry duck to my family), I’ll be fully aware that the founding fathers did not write the Second Amendment to make sure my family had duck to eat. They wrote it because governments can do horrible things to their own citizens. Just ask Japanese-Americans. And who, in our modern America, is most likely to be labeled as a potential traitor who should be rounded up and shipped off to a camp? Though I’m proud and grateful that I’ve never been involved with any group that has even hinted at armed insurrection (peaceful protest is not only more moral, but more effective), those of us who have marched in pro-union rallies and Occupy protests shouldn’t be too quick to believe we wouldn’t be on the short list if a very small, tyrannical minority ever managed to take power. As I’ve said many times, I hope to live my whole life without ever pointing a gun at another human being, but if that 1% of tyrants had a hard time rounding up jack-booted thugs to drag Americans out of their beds because they had very complete data telling them that a lot of those Americans were armed, if that knowledge made them think twice about kicking down the doors of “traitors” and “subversives” and liberal public school teachers, then the Second Amendment is doing its job, and in that unlikely (but not impossible or even historically unprecedented) dystopia, we’ll be glad it was there in the Bill of Rights. 

Lastly, let’s acknowledge that we could do everything in our power, beef up mental health care, close every gun purchasing loophole, ban this gun and that gun, hell, ban the sale of every gun and start kicking down doors to get the old ones melted down, and we still might not be able to prevent the next Newtown. We also wouldn’t be any closer to understanding this terrible, tragic, and ultimately incomprehensible act. If the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has compelled us to reevaluate some public policies, let’s harness that energy to make good ones, but let’s acknowledge that we will be more successful at preventing some of the thousands of other deaths in this country than at preventing the kinds of mass killings we simply cannot comprehend. If we maintain a focus on doing what we can do, and on doing it well, we might manage wrest a little bit of something meaningful from this mindless horror. I worry that, if we only focus on this one tragedy and the specific models of guns chosen by a madman, we’ll fall back into pointless bickering, do nothing, and insult the memories of those we’ve lost.