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Amok Time

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Amok.  Noun \ə-ˈmək, -ˈmäk\ A murderous frenzy that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malaysian culture.[1]

Full Disclosure: I am a gun owner, recreational shooter and hunter. I support the Supreme Court’s individual interpretation of the right to bear arms. I nevertheless support better gun regulation.

Another month, another school shooting. On December 14th 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Connecticut has joined Columbine, Virginia Tech, Red Lake, Nickel Mines, and so many others in the grisly pantheon of American martyrdom. The butcher’s bill this time: 20 children between the age of 5 and 6, kindergarteners, along with 6 adults, including the principal and school psychologist among them. The gunman committed suicide, but I refuse to add him to the tally of victims.

 sandyhookshooting

The perpetrator: another disturbed young man, carrying plenty of psychological baggage and on medication. Details are still coming out, but Adam Lanza seemed to fit the profile of the modern psychopath: a socially reclusive, introverted white suburban male from a middle class background. From the accounts of neighbors and acquaintances, he was a loner. Before beginning his rampage, Lanza shot and killed his own mother, Nancy, then drove her car to Sandy Hook where he began his bloody work, classroom by classroom. Police confirm that Lanza forced his way into the school, which had recently installed a modern security system.  Then he killed himself. He was 20 years old.

On or next to Lanza were two pistols and a semi-automatic “assault rifle”. Lanza had taped two 30-round clips together, which allowed him to produce an enormous volume of rapid fire into the classrooms filled with children. Newton’s aghast coroner confirmed that the fatal wounds were caused by fire from the rifle and that the victim’s had all been struck multiple times.

“I’ve been at this for a third of a century. My sensibilities may not be the average man, but this probably is the worst I have seen or the worst that I know of any of my colleagues having seen,” said H. Wayne Carver II, the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Connecticut.

The school principal, Dawn Hochsprung, heard the commotion from her office near the school entrance and immediately entered the corridor to investigate, along with Vice Principal Natalie Hammond and school psychologist Mary Sherlach. Ms. Hochsprung was fatally shot as she lunged towards the gunman to disarm him. Mr. Sherlach and Ms. Hammond were also shot, though Ms. Hammond survived. Four other teachers died attempting to protect their children from the assassin: Victoria Soto, Anne Marie Murphy, Rachel D’Avino, Lauren Rousseau.

Heroines, all.

All of the other teachers were equally heroic, keeping their children quiet and calm throughout the bloody assault; hiding them, shielding them, distracting them until help could arrive.

There was only one coward at Sandy Hook that day.

The Gun Debate

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Three weapons were found next to the killer’s body, a .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle (an M-16 style “assault rifle”) and two semi-automatic pistols. Regardless of which weapon was actually used during the shooting[2], the high volume of fire is unquestionable:  the state Chief Medical Examiner informed that all of the victims had been shot between 3 and 11 times at close range[3]. All of the weapons were legally owned and registered to Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother.

presidentobamaAlmost before the last gunshot rang out, the Twitterverse and Facebook were filled with outraged comments. President Obama spoke to and for the nation as he extended his condolences to the families of the victims, expressed his horror at the carnage, and declared “the tragedies must end.”[4] The President later took up the gauntlet thrown down by Representative Nancy Pelosi in the House and called for the re-instatement of the Clinton-era “assault weapons ban; yet details are still vague, and “gun control” still does not figure as a topic on the White House website.[5]

waynelapierreConspicuous in its silence, the National Rifle Association made no comment on the shooting for days. The last posting on the NRA website is from 27 November (“More Guns, Less Crime in Virginia”). The NRA Facebook page was taken down on Friday after being inundated with negative commentary[6]. Finally, Wayne LaPierre, the President of the NRA, went before the media to condemn the killing, but deny that any changes to existing gun laws would in any way have prevented the tragedy. In fact, Mr. LaPierre called for the arming of the nation’s school teachers since: “the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is with a good man with a gun.”[7] The NRA head went on to blame the media and entertainment industries for excessive violence in film, TV and video games. Mr. LaPierre is incontrovertibly the gun control lobby’s best friend these days.

Despite the President’s vagueness and the NRA’s scoffing at new gun laws, it is unquestionable that the gun control debate has been reopened. So horrific a tragedy demands a response, and so far one has been lacking. The President would be well-advised to strike with the memories are fresh in public’s mind: pushing through gun control measures will be remarkably difficult under any circumstances and more so as time dulls today’s feelings of empathy.

The main obstacle to gun control is not the Second Amendment or the NRA; it is the popularity of guns themselves. According to a recent Gallup poll[8] almost 1 out of every 2 American households has at least one gun in it.

 gunowners

While there is a clear division by party and gender in these national averages, with white, male Republicans having a higher ownership rate of firearms, the greatest increase in ownership is among Democratic households and women. Gun ownership rates among men and conservatives remain within the average of the period 2003 to 2010, but liberal households have registered a +6% increase in ownership over the average, and women an increase of +7% over the same period.

 gunownersbygender

Gallup also found record low support among American adults for a handgun ban (26%) with support for an “assault rifle” ban also declining; though still high (43%).[9] Support for stricter gun laws had also fallen dramatically, from 78% in 1991 to 43% in 2011. The only positive note for gun-control advocates is that the percentage of Americans supporting less strict gun laws has remained relatively constant at around 10%.

 gunownersbyparty

Even among Democratic voters there is likely to be resistance to any measure which is considered “too sweeping”. Lawmakers will undoubtedly reflect that elections are in two years, and while Sandy Hook will – regrettably – be little more than a Wikipedia entry by then, their constituents are going to be reminded daily of who is trying to take away their guns. As heinous as it sounds, it is likely to be true: our empathy will not extend to the end of this electoral cycle. Given the massive electoral losses suffered by legislators who voted in favor of the 1994 assault gun ban, it is not surprising either.

The legislative hurdles are also formidable. The Second Amendment makes a positive affirmation regarding the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. The Supreme Court has rejected the argument by gun control advocates that interpret the Second Amendment as defending only the right to bear arms in the militia, with today’s equivalent being the state National Guards.[10] In District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), the majority found that the Second Amendment’s guarantee was unconnected with service in a militia and allowed the use of those arms for all lawful purposes including self-defense. Any gun ban can be expected to face repeated legal challenges.

Gun control advocates argue that “more guns = more deaths” and point to the more restrictive gun laws and lower homicide rates of Europe as an example. International comparisons are extremely tricky however, and our own experience in the U.S. seems to contradict or at least not substantiate this claim. Since 1990, FBI statistics on crime[11] show a continual and steady decrease in the both the absolute number of homicide and non-negligent manslaughters as well as in the rate by population. The U.S. population grew by 24% in this period, yet the number of violent homicides declined by 37%. Gun control advocates will point out that this decline coincides with the 1994 assault weapons ban under the Clinton Administration. This is true, but the argument fails to take into account complicating issues:

  1. The assault weapon ban ended in 2004, yet the murder rate has continued to decline since then (there were two years after the ban expired in which the homicide rate increased, but there were also two years during the ban in which the rate also increased);
  2. The decline in the homicide rate also coincides with the period of time in which the majority of U.S. states have passed right-to-carry and concealed carry laws for handguns, beginning with Florida in 1986 through Iowa and Wyoming in 2011. By 1995, 25 states had enacted concealed carry or right-to-carry laws (in addition to the ## which already had these on the books) while a further 10 states enacted similar legislation between 2001 and 2011);fbihomicides
  3. When we break down the FBI statistics by state, we find that the decline in homicides is shared by 46 states and the District of Columbia while only 4 states[12] have experienced an increase in homicide rates since 1990.In fact, the four regions with the greatest decline in homicide rates since 1990 are: the District of Columbia, Wyoming, New York and Texas. New York and DC have amongst the strictest gun laws in the country during this period, while Texas and Wyoming have among the most liberal. California, another state with relatively strict gun laws, experienced the fifth greatest decline in homicides. Florida – in which a blood bath was predicted after they passed their pioneer “shall issue” right to carry law – saw the 12th greatest decline in homicides.

 homicidesbystate

At the very least, this must lead us to question the correlation of gun laws with homicide rates in the United States. The fact that there are peer-reviewed statistical studies that support both points of view should be sufficient indication that there is no obvious trend, neither to support “more guns = more deaths” or the opposite. Instead, we must accept that the homicide rate in the U.S. is determined by many variables including the sentencing of criminals, state economic performance, percentage of single parent homes, education levels, and other factors which may seem esoteric but could prove statistically significant[13].

A Clockwork Orange

clockworkorangeGiven the confusion around the statistics in homicides, it is natural that the debate has crystalized around symbols: “assault rifles” and “high capacity magazines”, or arming teachers (!). Amid all this noise, only a few people are asking the right question. It is wholly appropriate that we question how the killer had such easy access to weapons of extreme lethality. But it is more important to ask what could turn a 20-year old youth – hardly a man – into a monster?

There is a disquieting acceptance of the fact that this is so, as if we have come to expect and accept that there are human wolves living among us. Is that why we turn so quickly to control of the weapons themselves? Even if arming all of our teachers eliminated school massacres, I’m not sure that this coincides with my vision of an ideal America, one where our children aren’t safe unless under 24-hour armed guard. I would rather return to an America where such abominable acts are as unthinkable as they were just a few decades ago.

Wayne LaPierre, as wrong as he is in many things, is right to point out there is a share of the burden which the media must bear. Our society is permeated through and through with violence: our movies, our TV, our video games and our sports[14]. There is no study which proves a direct link between violent video games or violent programming and homicides. But there are studies which show increased levels of aggressiveness and physical violence after playing violent video games[15].

Disclosure: I enjoy playing FPS game occasionally, especially the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.

 videogames

Intuitively, it is easy to believe in a correlation between highly graphic and violent games and programming, and higher levels of tolerance of the same types of violence. When coupled with decreased funding for education, decreased funding for identification and treatment of mentally-disturbed or socially excluded youths, and a copy-cat culture fueled by 24/7 world-wide news coverage, it is no great leap to see why some sick individuals decide to go out in a “blaze of infamy”.

Can we return to the days of innocence? Perhaps not. Media shapes culture, but culture also drives media. There is a reason entertainment has become more violent: we have consumed it in ever increasing amounts. Unless we ourselves as consumers begin rejecting ultra-violent fare, it is unlikely that any level of government regulation or censorship that is in anyway compatible with freedom of expression or tolerable to the American public will make much difference.

One thing the media could do is to extirpate all references to a murderous assassin like Adam Lanza from their reporting. If these copy-cats seek notoriety in their deaths, then by denying it to them, we might discourage them from perpetrating their villainy in the first place. If they knew that their names would become anathema, unmentionable, that every trace of their existence would be erased from public memory, perhaps they would simply commit suicide (which seems to be their principal motivation after all) and spare us all the horror and grief of another massacre. Such a voluntary measure, announced and adhered to by the principal media outlets of the nation, might act as a deterrent. It is worth a try.

A Brief Comment on Hypocrisy

It should be no surprise that we should be utterly insensitive to extreme levels of violence, that death should have been packaged, marketed and commoditized. The brutalization of our fellow human beings has always been tolerated in our society. It is not so long ago that people were being lynched south of Mason-Dixon for being “uppity niggers” or “damned Yankee meddlers”. We have tolerated dozens of Sandy Hooks in our inner cities for decades without batting an eye merely because the victims and perpetrators are black or Hispanic.

Far worse than the festering residues of racism, at least quantitatively if not morally, we have been murdering our own children to the tune of over a million per year since Roe vs. Wade[16]: in fact, more than 50 million since that landmark decision. There may be a correlation: abortion is perhaps tolerated because black women abort at five times the rate of white women, and Hispanic women at almost three times the rate[17]. For some strange reason, a child murdered with a doctor’s forceps is worth 50,000 times less than one murdered with a bullet; but is equally and as irrevocably dead. There are no photos, no wreathes, no memorials for these victims.

Does it seem hypocritical to anyone else that a society that tolerates over a million aborted fetuses and thousands of black and Latino youth deaths a year, should recoil in horror when twenty white children and their white teachers are senselessly gunned down? I lament their deaths as much as every other American who wasn’t personally affected by the killings: but I also resent the strange double standard of those who would ban all guns to save children, yet ferociously defend the right of a mother to murder her child before he or she is even born.

A Dose of Common Sense

None of the arguments I have just gone over is an excuse for inaction. U.S. gun laws are still remarkably disparate across the nation and overly lax when compared to the regulation of other potentially lethal products (like automobiles or chemicals). Thousands of lives can and should be saved through enhanced gun safety and not just those of victims of terrorism.

 In 2009, there were a total of 31,014 firearm-related fatalities, equal to 0.5% of the U.S. total.[18]

 cdcfirearmdeaths

At least some of these deaths are preventable. However, I should condition the preceding statement by saying that I’m in favor of regulations that improve gun safety rather than restrict access to guns. For one thing, improving gun safety might actually make a difference and save lives, something which gun bans have not been proven to do. For another, recent gun ban initiatives have been at best misguided in their focus, if not outright deceptive:

  • The definition of an assault weapon is not only arbitrary; it includes cosmetic features which have no relevance to the operation of the firearm or to its use in crimes. They are included only because they make the firearm appear “more vicious” (i.e. folding stocks, barrel shrouds, pistol grip, flash suppressor, bayonet mount, or threaded barrel – how many kids have ever been bayonetted in the U.S.?);
  • The limitation of magazine capacity is somewhat irrelevant, and can easily be negated if the would-be killer simply carries additional magazines with him. The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, didn’t use an assault rifle at all, he used two semi-automatic pistols. He carried 19 spare magazines in his backpack. Nor is there any indication that Adam Lanza was in any way rushed during the commission of his crime; he would have had ample time for multiple magazine changes;

What are some simple measures that could improve gun safety and save lives?

  • Mandate that all firearms, munitions and components be stored in a certified gun locker (“quick access” handgun safes also acceptable for those who want protection in the bedroom). Registration or proof of ownership of said safe would be required to purchase any firearm;
  • Mandate trigger locks as an additional safeguard, even when stored in a safe;
  • Make periodic inspection of firearms, gun safes and trigger locks mandatory;
  • Make completion of a firearms safety course a requirement for licensing. Some states already do this, but not all. We oblige people to learn how to drive, but not how to care for and use a gun? Make periodic re-certification a requirement;
  • Ban the sale of drum magazines (50- and 100-round magazines). I know this contradicts my previous argument against banning “high capacity magazines”, but some degree of proportion should apply: the only time I’ve ever used a drum magazine was in the US Army on a light machine gun;
  • Require a 14-day “cooling off” period on all firearm purchases, not just handguns;
  • Require purchase of reasonable liability insurance to own a firearm, just as we do for motor vehicles. I don’t support using this as a back-handed ban on firearms by making them too expensive;
  • Require universal background checks for all purchasers of firearms, including at guns shows and for private sales.

As seemingly simple and uncontroversial as these steps are (who could argue with keeping guns locked up and away from children?) it will be difficult in today’s environment to have any of these measures passed. This is thanks at least as much to Americans profound distrust of government as to their love of firearms. I would support even bolder measures:

  • Require gun safes to incorporate two security features: a key and either an electronic entry code or a biometric scanner (finger-print or retina) so that they will only open for one, or at most two, people at a time (the adults of the house, naturally). This would increase the cost of gun safes and could lead to the charge of denying the poor the right to their guns;[19]
  • Require a psychological evaluation and blood test as part of the background check. This would at the least weed out people who are obviously on anti-psychotic/anti-depressant medication or narcotics. Require recertification on a periodic basis, every 5 years as a start;
  • Require “smart gun” technology in all semi-automatic weapons. Already technology exists which prevents a firearm from discharging if the wielder is not wearing a ring which emits a unique frequency and other technologies are available as well to guarantee that only the owner of a firearm can actually use it. Unfortunately, there is currently no incentive for gun manufacturers to deploy or further develop this technology – quite the opposite. Ideally, this technology would eventually be incorporated in every firearm.

There are undoubtedly more measures that could be applied that would serve the multiple purposes of avoiding unnecessary deaths, deterring future massacres by making firearms harder to acquire and operate by mentally unstable individuals, and still safeguard the rights of the other 99.99% of law-abiding gun owners in America.

I’d like to emphasize that I am advocating measures to reduce accidental death, suicides and legal acquisition of a firearm by a mentally unfit person. None of the measures I suggest would have actually stopped Adam Lanza from proceeding with his outrage. Nor is it realistic to expect these measures from stopping hardened criminals, who commit the majority of intentional homicides.

 Those of us who own and responsibly use guns must lead the way in demanding improved safety standards and requirements for firearm ownership and access. After all, one of the primary reasons many people own guns is to protect the lives of loved ones. Just as hunters and fishermen are a major force in preserving our public lands pristine for recreational use, so too must all gun owners accept the responsibility that ownership demands. If we don’t drive the change, it will drive us; and we will lose our right to keep and bear arms.

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Sources and Notes

[1] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
[2] Different articles initially contradicted each other; some say the .223 rifle was found in the trunk of the vehicle, others that it was found with Lanza’s body. The coroner’s report clarified that the wounds were mainly inflicted by rifle fire.
[3] Candiotti, Susan, Ford, Dana, “Connecticut school victims were shot multiple times,” CNN, 16 December 2012
[4] “Remarks by the President at the Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil,” at Newton High School, Newton, Connecticut, Office of the Press Secretary, 16 December 2012
[5] As of 12 January 2013. http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues
[6] Clarke, John, “NRA goes silent and takes down Facebook page in wake of Sandy Hook massacre,” The Daily Mail, 17 December 2012
[7] Millar, Lisa, “NRA enters gun debate without sign of compromise,” ABC News, 11 January 2013
[8] Saad, Lydia, “Self-Reported Gun Ownership in U.S. Is Highest Since 1993,” Gallup, 26 October 2011. The results record self-reported information, so the uptick in ownership may be due to an increased number of households owning guns or more open attitudes towards expressing gun ownership.
[9] Of course this poll was taken long before the Newton massacre; attitudes may have changed significantly since then. Jones, Jeffrey M., “Record-Low 26% in U.S. Favor Handgun Ban,” Gallup, 26 October 2011
[10] Barnes, Robert, “Justices Reject D.C. Ban on Handgun Ownership,” The Washington Post, 27 June 2008
[11] Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics – UCR Data Online
[12] North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware and Nevada
[13] The authors of the award-winning book “Freakonomics” generated significant outrage and controversy by finding a strong correlation between the legalization of abortion in the United States and the lagged decline in homicide rates. We might also find similarly significant correlations in % of young males involved in team or individual sports, for example, or hours spent watching TV/playing video games
[14] I grew up in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The most violent programming I had access to was perhaps G.I. Joe, redolent with the explosions of Cobra tanks and aircraft: but even then, the crew members were always able to (improbably!!) bail-out in the split second before their vehicle was destroyed. No one was ever killed. Looney Tunes were more the standard fare. “Star Trek” was perhaps somewhat violent, with the obligatory red shirt being phasered or otherwise eliminated in every episode, and of course the Western shoot-out at high noon has been a part of our culture since the inception of celluloid, but there were also plenty of shows like “Dukes of Hazzard”, “Love Boat”, “Fantasy Island” or even reruns of “I Love Lucy” were no one ever died. Even when people did die, it was relatively non-graphic and usually and isolated event.
[15] Schaffer, Amanda, “Don’t Shoot: Why video games really are linked to violence”, Slate, 27 April 2007
[16] According to the Guttmacher Institute, the number of U.S. abortions was 1,212,350 in 2008, while the Center for Disease Control places it at 784,507 using a different means of collecting data.
[17] In 2004, the rate of abortion by ethnicity was 50 per 1,000 black women, 28 per 1,000 Hispanic women and 11 per 1,000 white women. Sharples, Tiffany, “Abortion rate falls, but not equally for all women,” Time, 23 September 2008
[18] Center for Disease Control Mortality Statistics Database
[19] Given the fear Republicans express for class warfare, I would expect them to back this measure to the hilt.

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