Friday, January 14, 2011

Guns, Again

I hesitate to comment on this problem because gun control is such a hot topic at the moment and (strangely I think) such a highly emotional one. But having been a gun owner for most of my life, and also being an ex-hunter, and having lived both in highly urban and rural environments I believe I can understand both sides of the argument. Or at least I would if both sides were equally rational. Anyway, first of all, I wonder if the control of handguns is even theoretically possible in the United States. There are an estimated 65 million handguns in the U.S. (my guess is there are even more). Many of these guns are probably registered but I suspect a great many (quite likely most) are not. Most of the individuals who own these handguns obviously believe they not only have a right to possess them, but also believe they need or want them for one reason or another. Thus they are not likely to want to give them up and would probably not turn them in voluntarily even if they were financially reimbursed for them. While there are some laws regulating the ownership of such weapons, in reality they are not well regulated and in some instances not regulated at all. For example, here in Idaho, if you want to purchase a handgun from a dealer you must fill out a form claiming you are not insane, a felon, and so on. The dealer then calls Boise, gives your name, and if you are not for some reason on a list of those who are not supposed to own guns, you walk out with your new purchase. This takes about ten minutes, you have to show your driver’s license, and that’s it. Of course there are periodic gun shows, usually called “Gun and Horn Shows,” because hunters bring their trophy antlers to show as well as their guns for sale. There are no background checks whatsoever at these shows and anyone can buy a gun if they have the means. But rarely mentioned in this context is the fact that individuals can buy and sell guns indiscriminately with no checks of any kind. If you want to buy or sell a gun all you need to show is a bill of sale. Guns are advertised in the local papers and on bulletin boards and so on. I believe it is almost certainly the case that if this were made illegal it would have the same result we had with prohibition, and have now with drugs, there would be a black market, gun owners would become criminals, enforcement would be mostly impossible, and it would, I think, be a disaster.

Having been raised in Idaho around guns and hunters, I was surprised when I entered the University and began to live in cities, to learn that there were people (my new friends and acquaintances) who were absolutely horrified even at the thought of owning guns. Thus in general there are two distinct groups of people when it comes to guns, those, like me, raised in a rural environment, and those, like them, raised in cities. These two groups are at cross-purposes when it comes to even discussing the problem of gun control. What this also means is that there are also, generally speaking, two different realities, one in which guns are not really considered a problem, and one in which guns really are a problem (as in the inner cities). For all intents and purposes these two realities are not considered when it comes to gun control. The National Rifle Association, an extremely powerful lobby, is opposed to gun control wherever found, and therein exists the biggest single problem.

The NRA is basically opposed to any form of gun control. The issue of the moment, after the horrible Tucson affair, has to do with clips that will hold additional rounds. Most semi-automatic pistols will hold anywhere from probably seven to ten rounds, the special clips will hold many more, thus allowing a shooter to potentially kill more victims, as happened in Tucson. These extra clips were illegal for a time but the law against them expired in 2004 and was not renewed. There are other problems with control as well, so-called “cop-killer” bullets, fully automatic weapons, licensing of firearms, restrictions on ownership, carrying concealed weapons, how many guns one can buy in a certain amount of time, and others. Generally speaking the NRA is opposed to all of these restrictions. Basically, all you have to do is mention any form of control and they are automatically opposed to it. You might think this is completely irrational. It is. One example that was pointed out by Ed Schultz the other day is that shotguns that can hold five rounds are required by law to use a special plug that allows them to hold only three rounds. There are, of course, no such restrictions on how many rounds a handgun may hold.

Having been a hunter I know that you do not need fully automatic rifles to hunt deer and elk, or any other game animal. You certainly do not need .50 caliber guns to do so. You also do not need handguns at all. The only point in having a handgun with extended clips is basically to shoot as many people as possible (you do not need them for target practice or home protection). It probably makes sense for a homeowner, especially one living in a rural environment, to own a handgun, but even this is rather questionable. Obviously if you are a hunter you need a rifle and/or shotgun. But you do not need the additional firepower the NRA seems to think you need.

Of course part of the NRA argument, especially on the part of the more ardent members, is that we need all this weaponry to protect ourselves from an abusive government. But we haven’t had an abusive government (in the sense they imply, government has more sophisticated ways to abuse us without weapons). This is a form of paranoia that is hard to overcome. Furthermore, carried to its logical extreme, individual citizens would have to have cannons and tanks and whatever to protect themselves from an abusive government. There are laws against having these kinds of weapons that make it clear that some regulations do exist and are in the provenience of government control. But resistance to control is so great, and the NRA is such a powerful lobby, our current Congress and Executive are unwilling to even attempt any serious action. You might think we could have some control where control is obviously necessary, and you might think that common sense might prevail in most cases, but it doesn’t. It’s the American way.

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