Monday, August 6, 2012

My Two Cents on Guns

During the recent theater shootings in Aurora I was blissfully unplugged from the news.  I was visiting my parents and we did not have the TV or radio on.  The newspapers delivered to the door kept us about a day behind the current events.  At one point I went online to check email and discovered the horrible story after the president had already addressed the nation and the usual unpleasant squabbling had begun in the wake of such gun related tragedy.  I closed my computer and turned my focus to the puppet show my kids were putting on, and sitting with my dad, and finding the kids' goggles before going to the pool.  The nightmare in Aurora would be there after my vacation and I didn't see the point of letting it in early.

Now the mass shooting of the moment in the news isn't across the country.  It's the next zip code over, and just miles down on the road that runs by our home.  A Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, just south of Milwaukee, was attacked by at least one gunman, and although at this moment there aren't too many details available, we know six innocent people are dead.  I don't have the luxury of turning away because now the nightmare is in my own community.  It's horrifying.

I've been trying to process some of the rhetoric that's been flying around in the aftermath of so much pointless suffering, and I feel like working through my thoughts on guns.  I have no legislative power and threaten anybody's rights on this issue, so these opinions are just that and nothing more.  If I push someone's buttons try not to take it personally.

I get the appeal of guns.  I do.  I enjoy archery on the rare occasions I get to do it, so I appreciate the skill it takes to hit a target.  It's incredibly satisfying.  I've only held any kind of gun once, and that was out in rural Ohio where a college friend let me use a small rifle of hers to try and hit bottles lined up on a fence.  I was surprised how hard it was, and my friend was a patient teacher and showed me how sitting down to steady my aim would help.  It was really fun.  Using guns for target practice I have no problem with.

I have more complicated feelings about hunting, because on the one hand the idea of taking pleasure in killing something bothers me, but on the other hand I eat meat, so I'm just shifting the responsibility of killing animals onto someone else when I do.  I don't want to hunt deer, but I wouldn't stand in the way of someone else's opportunity to do it.  I do have a problem with people who want to hunt exotic animals just for the fun of it.  There is no excuse for purposely setting out to shoot a rare animal like a lion or an elephant, and I have no respect for the wealthy game hunters who arrange to do that.  That's a disgusting use of money, guns, and power.

I will say (and again as a non-hunter, so people with experience in this area may dismiss this outright) I don't understand the need for automatic weapons for sport.  I can respect that it takes skill to successfully track and kill game with a gun.  The more advanced the weapon the less skill it takes.  Where are the bragging rights in that?  Why should I be impressed when someone transfers more of the work to the gun itself?  If I were I hunter I would like to think I would be willing to sacrifice the use of automatic weapons for my entertainment in order to make sure such weapons were less available to a public that may use them to commit crimes.  Amusement for hunters should not trump public safety.

Guns for personal protection is tricky.  So much depends on context, and I think there is a big difference between rural communities and urban ones.  When I got to shoot those bottles with my friend it was out in the country.  Having a gun out there felt somewhat natural.  I can see wanting a gun if you live in an isolated area where law enforcement or animal control can't reach you quickly, if you have enough space to safely hunt small animals to put on your table, or if you need to put down an animal that is suffering.  A gun is a tool that can keep you self-sufficient, and I understand people reacting defensively if they feel they might be denied the right to have it.

But urban areas are different.  There is certainly opportunity for guns to be misused and cause unnecessary harm in the country, but those risks are exponentially increased in densely populated areas.  Guns in cities are only there to be turned on other people.  They make killing easier.

I hate the 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' line.  Guns facilitate fatal acts, many of which may be unintended.  For all those who say people who want to kill are just as likely to resort to a knife or a baseball bat, I don't buy it.  In rare cases, sure, but this argument of determination comes from an assumption of logic where none may exist.  I've read that people who attempt suicide by jumping from bridges who survive rarely go on to attempt suicide again.  Logically one would assume if you were that determined to die you would keep at it and we couldn't stop you.  But if jumping from a bridge looks easy in the moment and is then thwarted by reasonable precautions, the odds are good the attempt won't be repeated.  How many people in the heat of an argument impulsively pull a trigger because it's easy, compared to stabbing someone which is hard?  When the moment passes it's likely gone and won't be further pursued.  Better not to have a gun in the mix to begin with.  Also, guns can be used at a distance, on the move, or from behind cover.  In that sense it is not at all the same as a knife or a bat.

The solution to free speech problems may be more speech, but I do not believe the solution to gun problems is more guns. I think the focus, particularly in urban areas, should be on removing guns from environments where they don't belong.  I'm alarmed by news reports that after the Aurora shooting gun sales increased.  I expect to hear of similar spikes in gun sales in my hometown, which scares me.  I think it has more to do with people worrying that after such a high profile tragedy that guns will be harder to get than it does with people thinking it will make them safer, but it's probably a combination.  I have a relative who started collecting guns back when he was worried Gore might be elected and he believed he would strip us of our second amendment rights.  (I don't know where the perception comes that democratic presidents will push gun control because it doesn't happen.  Under Obama the only regulation that's changed in that regard than I'm aware of is expanding gun rights into national parks, and I found that disappointing.)

I listened to an interview on the radio recently with a grandmother on the south side of Chicago who had to lock herself and her grandchildren in her home every evening for fear of getting shot.  The weekend they talked to her there had been more murders by gun than happened during the mass shooting in Aurora.  But we don't hear about those murders.  We don't care for some reason.  Does anyone seriously think what that grandmother needs is her own gun?  Or that the culture of casual gun ownership in her neighborhood makes it safer?  I don't understand how those guns are allowed to remain on the street.  They are too easy to get, too hard to remove, and they create an environment of terror.

The people who argue the loudest about not having restrictions on guns always seem to me to be in the least danger to begin with.  There is a case to be made for the gangsters in Chicago that however they obtain their weapons, they need them.  They actually are being threatened with deadly violence and want to protect themselves.  What are average people in suburban environments so frightened of?  When I weigh the risks of having a gun in the house against the possible benefits there's no contest.  If I had a gun set up in a way I could grab it quickly enough to kill someone in an emergency it would simply be a hazard to my children or their friends.  I also don't understand why the average person thinks in an emergency they would be able to make a life or death decision correctly, easily, or be capable of the kind of accuracy they may enjoy on a firing range.  I think people are over-confident because of what they see on television and in the movies, and don't understand that's not real life.

I have a few friends who have permits for concealed carry.  I hope they know me well enough to never bring their guns into my store or my home.  I'm sorry they think they need firepower to feel safe, but I do not feel safer knowing there is a gun in close proximity.  All it would take is one weird turn of events (a kid having a bad fall, etc.) for a purse to get left unattended long enough for a child to come across a weapon within, and that scenario seems infinitely more likely than my actually needing protection in my home by my friend with a gun.

Here's the part I don't get:  Why is the responsibility of owning a gun not balanced more proportionately with its risks?  Why do so many in this country treat gun ownership in such a cavalier manner? What harm is done to the average gun owner by regulating how they use such a dangerous item?  This is where I get confused and stop being able to understand people who champion the second amendment to the exclusion of all reason.  I honestly don't get it.

Look at cars.  They are not designed to kill, but they do every day.  We recognize they are dangerous.  You have to jump through a lot of hoops and go through a lot of training and testing before you can be trusted with a license to drive one.  You need insurance for it.  You must periodically get your license renewed, have your vision checked, and if you are impaired you are not legally allowed to get behind the wheel.  Car manufacturers strive to make their products safer.  Laws about using seat belts and not using cell phones while driving attempt to encourage safer behavior.  These are all reasonable precautions.  Driving is still dangerous, and too many people still die, but no one doubts that cars involve risk.  Most of us have decided that the benefits outweigh those risks, but we at least acknowledge the dangers surrounding them.

But there is almost a willful denial around the notion that guns are dangerous.  I get that people who feel entitled to their guns feel rebellious about any challenge to their right to have them, but why don't they accept that guns can cause irreversible harm?  Ian tells me that in the Army guns are treated seriously.  Soldiers are held responsible for their firearms to a much higher degree than any of us are in civilian life.  Guns are not toys.

If I owned a gun I would want to be held accountable for it.  I should be licensed, checked, and rechecked.  I think I should be asked to produce my gun periodically for inspection to make sure it's not corroded and could cause me harm by mistake, and to make sure it's still actually in my possession.  If the technology exists, I think it should be somehow calibrated so that it only works in my hand (maybe with a lock that only responds to a ring on my trigger hand?  Just a thought--I don't know what's realistic in this regard, I just know if people wanted it someone could come up with something.)  None of these things would infringe upon my right to own a gun.  Making gun owners responsible for their weapons only denies them the right to be careless.

I am saddened by the events in Oak Creek this weekend.  I am even sadder that because of people's stubborn and unrealistic reactions to it, the tragedy will likely change nothing.


  1. Thanks for this, Korinthia. So many of the things you've said here are things that my husband and I have talked about in recent weeks. We live in the suburbs of Chicago and when we tune into the news every morning we hear about handfuls of people who have been shot and killed the previous night-when that happens every night, many times people just trying to get home, or, God forbid, sometimes actually IN their homes, thinking they're's heartbreaking. Why aren't people making more noise about those innocent people dying every night? The violence is a problem, and it's happening everywhere-everyday, not just in tragic situations like the ones we've been hearing about lately.
    Thanks, for speaking your heart.

    1. Thanks, Connie. I really don't understand why the kind of violence taking place in places like Chicago is somehow written off as the price we pay for freedom to arm ourselves out of proportion to our circumstance. It's disheartening to say the least.

  2. Kory -

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with your perspective on this.

    One interesting story to add to your contemplation on urban guns: Friends of ours lived in a rough neighborhood in Milwaukee. One night, they had someone try to break into their house, obviously drunk or high, while their whole family was there. They were terrified, and called 911 over and over while the man continued to rant and rave and try to break down their doors (they think he had their house confused with someone else he knew). Finally, after about an hour, he passed out on their porch. They called 911 again, and the operator asked if they still wanted someone to come out, since the danger had passed. Finally, after about two hours, a policeman arrived to remove the man. The family was horrified at the response, but the policeman told them that because of their location, this was a normal response time. Our friend asked what they should do, and the policeman told them they should really own a gun (and install a heavy duty lock on their upstairs bedroom door so they could hide out there if needed). He went out and bought a gun that week. I felt incredibly conflicted about the whole thing, especially since my kids played there a lot. But I also didn't know what to say - They were scared in their home, and the policeman basically told them that they couldn't expect a quick response if they had another incident. Of course, I think tight regulation of gun ownership would not have bothered them in the least.

    ~ Sara

    1. Wow, what a disturbing story on so many levels. A few things jump to my mind.

      The first is, as scary as the man was that frightened your friend's family, his offense did not warrant the death penalty, and I wonder if adding a gun into that scenario would have caused things to escalate.

      The second is that it's outrageous that the police response time was that bad and not expected to improve. I would have raised holy hell. I would be at Tom Barrett's door, bugging my alderman daily, and taking cookies to the local police department and making sure I knew everyone there by name and they knew me.

      It's a terrible thing to be scared in your home. No one should have to live that way. No one should feel like they need a gun.

    2. Kory -

      I completely agree with your first point, and sorry if my post made it sound like I wouldn't. (I don't actually believe in the death penalty ever!) What throws me off in this scenario is that I feel 100% confident that this friend would never, ever have used that gun unless his family's life was actually at risk (hence, the huge lock on the bedroom door as first defense). But maybe this statement is true of all sorts of people who just pull the trigger in a panic? Who knows. And maybe part of the problem (as you mentioned above) is assuming we know how we will react in a certain situation.

      And yeah - the response time thing is nuts. I don't think they did anything else to pursue that, besides talk to one other policeman in the area, who agreed that they were located right between two districts and in a high crime area, so they shouldn't expect a response quickly unless shots were fired. This of course seems crazy to me, and I think we should all expect better. But maybe some people have experiences, perhaps especially in more dangerous neighborhoods, that make them think that they cannot expect help if they need it.

      Our only experience with calling 911 here was when there was some sort of mob forming outside our house, around a guy who some men caught breaking into their car parked outside our house. They were beating up the guy pretty badly, and we were genuinely afraid that they might kill or seriously injure him. After calling 911 and hearing that they weren't going to be sending anyone immediately, we decided we had to go out there and make sure that nothing got out of control. We and some other neighbors were able to make sure it stayed calm enough until the police showed up about 45 minutes later, but I was honestly afraid that we were going to witness someone being killed if we didn't do something. Now, if anyone had a gun in that scenario, things would have been much much worse, I'm sure. On the other hand, it also damaged my faith in the police always being there to jump in quickly.

      After writing all this, I feel like you might think I'm arguing against you. I'm actually the wacky anti-guns person in most groups, but your writing makes me think you're a good person to talk to about complicated things. I guess I'm just saying I have a bit more sympathy now for those who really think that no one will be there to help you, so you'd better defend yourself. But I do think that jumping to more guns as a solution to all this is a huge mistake. I hadn't thought about baking cookies as a good action step, but it's not a bad idea... :)

    3. No, I love your comments. Makes for a more interesting discussion!

      I believe you when you say you don't think your friend would resort to using a gun unless it were necessary, I just think it's really hard to know what any of us would do. Even police officers who are highly trained have trouble making quick judgement calls in stressful situations, so I have little confidence in the average person reacting well. There is also the problem that "When you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail." Lethal force should be a last resort, not a first one, and I worry about people with guns turning to that too quickly.

      Good for you guys stepping in to talk down the mob. That's really frightening. I think we should talk to the alderman. He's always jumping at the chance to impress voters, and even got me a bike rack in front of my violin store within days of my putting in the request. All of my interactions with the police in our neighborhood have been really positive, so I'm surprised to hear their response times are so bad.

      (And on a bit of a tangent: Cookies are a useful tool. When we had lots of skateboarders in our intersection when Ian was deployed I got frustrated with all the pop cans they left in my yard. I took them out a plate of rice crispy treats one night and showed them where my recycling bin was, and things improved a lot. I tried to make them feel welcome instead of letting them assume I thought they were a nuisance and it made all the difference.)

  3. A friend of mine brought up a good point on Facebook his words, not mine... "I'm waiting for someone to argue that members of the Sikh temple should've been armed, so they could've shot the (alleged) white supremacist to minimize the carnage. The only problem is if a bunch of Sikhs all applied for gun permits they would've had Homeland Security so far up their asses they wouldn't have been able to move."

    1. I couldn't believe how many people thought things would have been better, not worse, if people in the theater in Aurora had been armed. Again, that's like something in a movie, not taking into account surprise, bad visibility, and the high probability of hitting the wrong people.

  4. Not much to add except to say that I agree with every single word you wrote.

  5. I think the distinction between urban and rural areas is very important and isn't made often enough. I live in a semi-urban area and we had a problem recently with some 19-year-olds hanging around our neighborhood with guns (legal concealed carry). According to the gun lobby's logic, I should be sitting with a gun of my own trained out the window towards the tot lot, I guess, so the teens wouldn't want to use their own guns. Unfortunately, this assumes rational thinking on the part of a male teen with nothing to lose and no sense of mortality. It also assumes that I want to spend my day guarding my children's play with a gun.

    In other words, it doesn't make sense.

    The New Yorker had an excellent article about the history of gun control a short while ago. Definitely worth reading...

    1. Thanks for the link!

      I just don't understand why a need for guns is viewed as a solution instead of a symptom of a larger problem. When I see statistics for gun deaths in other first world countries they are so low it's jaw dropping. I don't know why we stand for creating an environment where women are afraid to walk alone at night most places. We should demand better, but we don't.

  6. This is a comment I got in an email from a friend of my brother's. His name is Ryan and he couldn't get it post here himself, but told me I was welcome to try and put it here. I thought my readers might find it interesting:

    Hi Barrett and Kory,

    The piece is very thoughtfully written and hits the nail on the head...specifically that gun ownership is a complicated issue. I think the vast majority of people (pro or opposed gun ownership) view the issue as black or white. The reality is that it is much more complicated. As Kory indicates for example, rural versus urban living are very different situations. I grew up with guns and I'm very comfortable handling handguns, shotguns, and rifles. I like the idea of guns for home protection (especially as Kory suggests about living in a rural area).

    But...some very good points are raised here. First, when the need for gun protection arises, things often happen fast. A series of decisions have to be made quickly. This idea that you can pull out a sexy semi-auto pistol in a bad situation, show it to someone and scare them off is probably Hollywood fantasy. The reality is that in a situation involving guns for protection, you likely have a matter of seconds to decide if the use is warranted and to make the decision to pull the trigger. In addition, under duress, it is much more difficult to hit your target than most people imagine. I think I saw a statistic somewhere that most police shootouts happen at distances of about 10' with the vast majority of shots missing the target. And the police are among the best trained in gun use. In public situations, I can imagine its even worse. In theory, it would be great if everyone carried a gun and could quickly dispatch a crazed shooter in a public place. In reality lots of people under extreme duress and confusion would be firing randomly and probably end up hitting more innocent people.

    I absolutely agree with the automobile analogy. We pretty much have more stringent licensing standards for automobiles than guns and I don't hear anyone screaming that we need to relax licensing standards for driving. The other thing that concerns me about the gun industry is that they promote guns as being a great way to protect yourself, but they never discuss in real terms what these weapons do. They market guns in terms of the concealability, their protection value, or even in terms of their firepower, etc. But they never describe that you may end up with a person at your feet bleeding out a slow death. Granted, I would rather that be the "bad guy" than me, but having a gun does not even guarantee that outcome. The industry also never advertises how lots of people are accidentally shot in their own home (a local kid here just shot and killed a sibling the other day by accident).

  7. (Part 2 of that same response:)

    Regarding additional safety technologies (such as the ring/trigger lock), I have actually heard of this sort of thing, but never actually seen it. I suspect that is a technology that is not reliable, otherwise, I do think something like that would be promoted heavily. One of the best technologies out there are these little mini gun safes. Many of them are the sized to hold a single handgun. In order to access the gun, it has either a keypad lock or a biometric scan. This allows quick access to the gun, but provides good protection against kids accidentally getting the gun.

    In the end, I would like to see additional regulation and especially training. As it is now, you can go out in most states and buy a handgun with no training. I find that extremely scary. Granted, I've never had any formal gun training courses, but I have to say that my father provided very good training for me growing up. He taught me to treat every gun as if it were loaded, even if I was 100% sure it was unloaded. That meant being responsible for where the barrel is pointed any time you have the gun in your hand. That meant storing guns uncocked or with the breech open so they cannot accidentally be fired when at rest. And it also meant lots of practice with the gun so that you are 100% familiar with its operation, capacities, and capabilities. For example, he taught me that a rifle bullet will travel well over 1 mile and that when you squeeze the trigger, there is no calling the bullet back. Given all of this I still would like to take some additional courses. Again, I worry a lot about the person who goes and buys a gun, fires a few rounds at shooting range and considers themselves to be competent with the weapon.

    OK, I could probably write a lot more, but in sum, I think Kory did a fantastic job and communicating the complexity of gun use. I wish more people would consider that the issue is not so clear cut and that we should simply require more training for anyone contemplating gun ownership.


  8. This was a very thoughtful post. In response to your friend's letter in the comments here, I read this article and watched the video after Aurora, CO but before the Sikh temple shooting:

    1. Wow, that is really unsettling. (Reminds me a little of how some people are impressed that most of the violin cases I sell come with a lock and key on them, but I always point out that I've never used mine because the whole darn thing comes with a handle. If you're planning to steal my viola better to take it case and all, locked or not.)

  9. I guess it turns out that urban and suburban areas are not so different after all....