Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What I've Learned Since Sandy Hook

I was invited recently to participate in a webinar with other mom bloggers about the work of the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.  It was fascinating and I want to share some of what I've learned.

It gave me a little hope at a time when contemplating the difficult issue of gun violence in our country has me, frankly, depressed.  Like many, the mass murder of small children at Sandy Hook Elementary caused me to look critically at our laws and culture and consider what should change.  I did not know what sort of laws and regulations were currently in place, or the vast variety of problems we have involving guns in our society.  I've learned a lot since Sandy Hook.

Unfortunately, one of the things I've learned is that when it comes to gun ownership in America finding common ground with people on different ends of the issue is more difficult than I would have believed.  

I have tried to engage gun enthusiasts I know in discussions so that I may better understand their side.  I don't relate to the kind of passion I see for gun rights that I reserve for my family, but I think for many gun owners it's the same thing, since they see possessing weapons as a way of protecting what they love.  I look at the statistics available about what having a gun in the home means in terms of the risk it poses to people I care about and come to a different conclusion.  This difference in world view is emotional for people on both sides, and problems in communication may come down to the fact that the presence of guns makes some feel safer, and others feel less safe.

On this point we may simply be at an impasse.

However, I still think there is room to come together on some policies that will make all of us safer.  I'd like to begin by passing along information from the online discussion, and then I have some additional thoughts of my own.

Here are some facts about gun violence in our country that you may or may not know: 
Most gun violence is committed with handguns.  Suicide deaths by gun outnumber homicides.  Approximately 33 people are killed by guns every day in America (and if you include suicides the number more than doubles).  Women are eleven times more likely to be murdered by guns here than in other industrialized countries.  More than half of mass murders are related to issues of domestic violence.  Almost a quarter of mass shootings involve high capacity magazines and assault style weapons.

What strikes me most about this incredibly sad list is we are not looking at a single problem, but several.  There is no simple solution, either to be found in indiscriminate bans or by arming more people.

But there is agreement on a place to start.  Background checks.  They work.  When background checks were implemented in 14 states and the District of Columbia those places experienced 38% fewer women shot to death by partners, 49% fewer firearm suicides, and 48% less gun trafficking.

Currently the private sale loophole (usually referred to as the "gun show loophole") allows 40% of guns sales to go unchecked.  80% of criminals incarcerated for gun crimes admit to obtaining their weapons through private sales.  In a recent investigation when a caller contacted dealers admitting he would likely not pass a background check, 62% were still willing to sell that person a gun.

This is important, because all commercially manufactured guns start as legal guns.  If we can block them from getting into dangerous hands to begin with, and continue to track them at each point of sale, we can decrease the odds that they wind up with people we all agree should not be trusted with them.

Thankfully, regardless of what a vocal minority might have you believe, 92% of Americans support universal background checks.  This is true for 82% of gun owners (74% of which are NRA members) as well as law enforcement.  If we are serious about not letting guns get into the hands of people who should not have them we need a universal system for background checks at every point of sale.  There is no excuse for a loophole.

This is worth the effort to contact your member of congress about: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml

And if you've seen information presented by the bipartisan group "Demand a Plan" you should know they are now "Demand Action."  More about their efforts can be found at their website:  www.demandaction.org as well as on Twitter@DemandAction and their facebook page.

I've expressed my opinion on guns in our country a couple of times on this blog.  After watching the national debate unfold over the past couple of months I have a bit more to add.

I have been looking for places to find compromise.  It's painful, but I think it's necessary for both sides.  After listening to pro-gun advocates I have found places where I can see making concessions to people who see more guns as a solution rather than part of the problem.

Many people have made the point that anyone who has taken a decent course in the use of a gun gets lots of lessons on safety.  That children who have been trained properly in the handling of weapons are less likely to accidentally harm themselves with one.  There is something to be said for this.  I'm generally in favor of more knowledge, not less.  If the NRA wanted to offer training to children in schools that taught them the proper respect for guns and what to do if they encounter one, I'm not opposed to that.  My husband in his work with the Army certainly understands guns.  He's a good marksman and has even gotten to fire certain historical weapons as part of his training to teach military history, but I don't have experience like that and our children have never been exposed to guns.  Currently they are instructed to leave the room if they see one at someone else's home, just because I need some kind of simple, blanket rule to keep them safe.  I don't want them getting muddled in the distinction between if a gun is locked in a case vs. if a friend of theirs is showing off and decides to wave one around.  I would not object to my children learning about proper gun safety.

Also, even though I'm personally not comfortable with it, I'm willing to concede on concealed carry.  With proper licensing and background checks, it's statistically not a big concern and has no relevant impact on crime.  I don't think it deters criminals, but I don't think it enables them either.  Especially among women I know who are small and potentially vulnerable I can see the appeal even though I don't share it.  Conceal carry away, just not in my home or store if you care for me at all, please.

I don't want to interfere with legitimate collectors.  I don't want to interfere with responsible hunters, or people who want to protect themselves.  I disagree with people who want to frame this debate as between those who want easy access to guns and those who want to see all of them gone.  I don't need them to be gone, I just need them to be treated with the respect and seriousness they deserve.

I've given a lot of thought to the discussion about armed guards in schools.  My instant gut reaction to the proposal was that it was appalling.  Then I read a lot of conservative voices saying if armed guards are good enough for our banks, then they should be good enough for our children.  I can see why that feels logical to many.  But it comes down to that impasse again, of what makes people feel safer.  I see more that can go wrong by introducing weapons into a school than can go right, but there are people who find the presence of a gun reassuring and want that for our kids.  I think it's fair to let communities decide what makes them comfortable in their own schools, even if that means they want to introduce armed guards.  (Personally, I would not want my child in such a school.)

There's a flaw in that argument as I see it, however.  Beyond the problems of effectiveness and expense that others have pointed out elsewhere, it occurred to me that the more of an armed presence I see around me, the less safe I feel, not more.  My bank does not, in fact, have an armed guard that I can see.  My bank has obvious security measures in place for relying on the police for help.  If my bank were swarming with armed guards I would probably take my business elsewhere.  When I think of safe neighborhoods, they are places where alarms are installed for contacting the authorities in case of an emergency, where the police are available but not necessarily visible.  It's scary neighborhoods where police have a noticeable presence.  I worry when I see cops making frequent rounds on my block.  (It's different when I see officers patrolling on bicycles in the summer because they seem more personable and connected to the neighborhood.)  Armed guards stationed everywhere is a sign of the breakdown of the safety our society is supposed to afford us, not an improvement.

This plays directly into one of the bumper sticker slogans that has always bothered me--the one that goes: "If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns."  I suppose that's true if anyone is arguing that we should disarm the police or the military, but I don't hear anyone asking for that.  I'm in favor of a strong, well-armed, well-trained police force that is working hard to keep me and my whole community safe.  I think licensed, trained individuals who want to keep a handgun in their home for protection should be allowed to accept that risk, but no one should be in a position where they feel they must.  Anyone who lives in a neighborhood that isn't served properly by their local police force should be able to demand better.  My husband told me when he was deployed in Iraq he saw firsthand what a society looks like when everyone is armed and in charge of his or her own defense, and it is a nightmare.

Part of what makes the problem with guns in our country particularly difficult to address is the enormous number of weapons already out there.  People may laugh at buyback programs like one recently conducted in Seattle, but I think anything that gets unwanted guns out of people's homes should be encouraged.  The fact that at that event people lined the streets offering to buy the guns for themselves, and that was legal, should frighten everyone.  And in terms of addressing weapons that are already in the wrong hands, guns may not have a shelf life, but ammunition does.  Stricter regulation on purchasing ammunition could eventually make a dent in what all those weapons out there can do.  We accept such strict purchasing limits on cold medicine, why not bullets?  (Or as Chris Rock put it: "Bullet Control.")

But in listening to the concerns of gun owners in interviews and in the general discourse these past months, I've noticed a couple of things about how they approach the discussion of guns in our society.  The first is they seem to look at it from a very narrow and intensely personal point of view.  I've heard one gun owner after another express how they themselves are responsible and trustworthy, and therefore they don't see why their rights should be infringed (even though measures like universal background checks change nothing for them in that regard).  Second, I see a level of defensiveness that usually results in a game of misdirection.  If a proposal may reduce one kind of danger involving guns, they point out how it doesn't impact a different element of the problem and dismiss it.  I find this endlessly frustrating.

In response to the first issue, people need to understand both what we gain and what we give up when we live in a civilized society.  This is always evolving and changing and should be challenged and reexamined periodically, but an overly personal point of view often lacks the imagination necessary for taking different circumstances into account.  When it comes to assault style weapons and high capacity clips there is evidence available that not allowing them does reduce enough violence to make such bans worthwhile.  I have yet to get a answer from anyone who opposes such a ban that sounds justifiable because no one can give me a reason why such weapons are necessary, they just seem to resent that they themselves may be potentially denied or not trusted.  It seems to come down to a general sense of entitlement, and that's not enough in my opinion to make the risk they pose acceptable.  My husband who has used such weapons in the Army tells me they are incredibly fun, and he understands people's attachment to them, but agrees they have no place in society.

It's not enough to say, "The problem is other people, not me, so leave me alone," when policy on guns reaches past you into other communities as well.  Just because I know I would pass a background check doesn't mean I don't think I should have to submit to one if I want a gun.  I sympathize with people who know in their hearts that their own intentions are good and they could be trusted with whatever weapon they desire, but society doesn't work that way.  I accept that I should not be allowed to introduce certain risks to my community, including particular animals, vehicles, chemicals, fire hazards, and yes, weapons, regardless of my own intentions.

In terms of the second issue, I wish people could stay on topic.  If you don't have a good reason for opposing a ban on assault style weapons, don't tell me about how handguns are a bigger problem.  It's a different problem.  If you don't have a solution to the horrifying number of children who are killed by handguns in their homes, don't tell me proposals about handguns wouldn't have stopped Sandy Hook.  Different problems, different solutions.  My eyes have been opened to a myriad of problems involving guns and all of them need to be addressed, not tossed around like a game of hot potato that keeps us from looking at any of them.

Some of the distractions get truly off base.  The one I'm most tired of is the comparison to cars.  Over and over when someone brings up gun control, someone else tries to shut down all discussion by saying sarcastically that maybe we should ban cars.  The comparison is ridiculous because cars are regulated, people have to renew licenses and get tested, certain cars are not allowed on public roads if they are deemed unfit for public safety, people must have insurance, and both cars and the roads they use are being engineered all the time for improvement to help save lives.  On many levels I wish we treated guns the way we treated cars.

One distraction in particular I took offense to after Sandy Hook was comparing it to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.  The point being, apparently, that people don't need guns to kill.  There are lots of tragedies that proper gun control wouldn't touch, but this one in particular makes for a bad comparison because precautionary measures were swiftly enacted after Oklahoma City.  Parking is no longer allowed within a certain distance around some buildings.  Materials in combinations and quantities used to recreate such an explosion are monitored.  I'm going to make the assumption that our government has done a good job investigating suspicious activity that mirrors the kind of preparations that went into the Oklahoma City bombing seeing as we haven't had an incident like it since to my knowledge.  So that particular tragedy is an example of the positive impact government action can have after a deadly event, not a reason to shout it down.

I need people who are passionate about their guns to find areas where they may be willing to compromise rather than oppose everything in a knee jerk fashion or simply deflect discussion.  We don't have to agree about places where we are at an impasse to find common ground.

For instance, I was shocked to learn that the CDC was banned from conducting any research related to gun violence, even though it's an enormous health issue in our country.  I have no patience for willful ignorance.  Regardless of how anyone feels about our president, he was right to want to lift that ban, and gun owners should not be afraid of facts.  For every story people post on facebook about a person who was saved thanks to their concealed carry permit I can show you two about children killed by accidentally discharging weapons in their home when their parents were distracted for a second, but that sort of anecdotal evidence doesn't help any of us write better policy.  Can we at least agree that decent research would help everyone?

And why would anyone oppose designing guns that are less likely to go off accidentally?  I can imagine a market for a childproof gun, as well as more reliable non-lethal forms of self-protection.  

Sandy Hook was tragic, but I think there is probably very little we can do to prevent mass shootings by a determined criminal.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  Statistically the number of us affected directly by acts of terrorism is insignificant, yet nobody ever suggests we just not bother about that.  The problem we've created for ourselves right here at home costs more lives and is even more pervasive than what terrorists could even hope to do.  To not acknowledge we have a problem with guns in this country is inexcusable at this point.  In the two months after Sandy Hook more Americans died in this country from gun violence than we lost in the entire Iraq war.  Sandy Hook is happening here every single day.  There is no official national tally of gun deaths in our country so they started one over at Slate.  These numbers don't even include people who are merely injured by guns, not killed.  It doesn't need to be this way.  We need to find real ways to bring these numbers down.

The real lesson of Sandy Hook is to look at all the ways in which we are affected by gun violence.  We need to care about the murder of children in the streets of Chicago as much as we care about the murder of children in Connecticut.  We need to get serious about domestic violence particularly against women in this country.  We need to address our nation's problem with suicide.  We need to put aside our disagreements enough to put the lives of our fellow citizens and the most vulnerable among us, first.

If not, we have learned nothing.


  1. This is incredibly thorough. Thank you. Did you hear the 2-part This American Life about Harper high school in Chicago a few weeks back?

    1. I caught part of it in the car and have been meaning to download the podcast so I can really give it the attention it deserves. (Thank you, as always, for reading.)

  2. You have put a lot of thought in this, and it does show. I appreciate that. I feel very much like you do about guns, and I find that it is difficult to talk about guns in a level-headed manner. Gun ownership is an emotional topic, I noticed, and especially so here in Wisconsin with our hunting culture. It is refreshing to have a perspective that sees all sides, and it is something that is hard to do with such emotional topic. Even so, I am very surprised to learn that CDC has not been allowed to do research on violence relating to guns because it is one of large issues that we have to address in this country. Just wow, really.

  3. The NRA's gun safety program is called Eddie Eagle. I think they send it free to nonmembers, although I had a member get it for me. It teaches children that if they see a gun, they should
    1) Stop 2) Don't touch 3) Leave the area 4) Tell an adult
    There's a comic book and a DVD that comes with it.
    I think teaching children that is one of the few things most people on all sides of the gun control debate can agree on.


    1. Sounds exactly like the advice I currently give my own kids. See, there is common ground!

  4. This is incredibly well thought out and written, Korinthia. I think the crux of it is the emotion involved. Once emotion takes over, folks dig in and hunker down and there seems to be no finding a middle ground. All of which you said already so I guess I'm just sitting over here nodding my head and saying, "uh huh", "Yes, exactly!" and "amen" to all you've written.

    I admire you for tackling such a divisive issue and presenting it in such a way it is clear we need to find some common ground.

  5. Excellent, thoughtful, well-informed analysis and opinion. I wish more people on all sides of the debate were willing to approach it with this type of empathy and reason. Sharing now....

  6. Yes, and yes, and yes. I, too, kept nodding in agreement.