Friday, December 21, 2012

The gun debate under the hood

The National Rifle Association used to be a national club for hunters and target shooters, with a dash of home defense thrown in.

But in the 1980s the percentage of gun owners in the population started declining and is still declining.

This is probably due to young people generally preferring to play first person shooter video games instead of going out at 3am on a weekend morning and sitting in a duck blind for hours, or hiking through cold muddy woods looking for deer that you may or may not see.

Then the gun industry discovered something: military weapons sell. The look of a battlefield weapon, all black and beautifully ugly and menacing--think Daniel Craig, the latest 007--turned out to be irresistible to existing gun owners--generally older men. So the gun industry too battlefield weapons and tinkered with them to make them street legal, and started a sales boom going on to this day, albeit muchly consisting of sales to folks who already own guns.

And it discovered something else: the NRA would make a splendid vehicle to use to sell these guns. It's hard for any enthusiast association to resist monied attention from an associated industry, and it didn't. Besides which the hard core of NRA members--the 29% who oppose closing the gun show loophole that means 40% of American gun sales are done without background checks.

The gun makers discovered that these gun owners will go to rallies, pepper congressmen with phone calls and emails, and generally work as diligent unpaid shills for the gun makers. Sweet.

One problem: military weapons aren't great for hunting or for home defense. Hunting rifles are good for hunting, shotguns are ideal for home defense. Assault weapons are good for killing people en masse. They're generally not aimed closely but instead used to lay down fire into a crowd of people--ostensibly a platoon of charging Taliban fighters. But kindergartners are even more killable, so if your main purpose is revenge against society through a high body count of its most precious members...well, an AR-15 will do the job beautifully.

So consequently the very essence of an assault weapon is a high rate of fire (plus a new generation of rounds that have vastly more killing power than older rounds of similar diameter). The law bans machine guns, but that's easy to get around. The gun makers redesigned their assault weapons to not be able to be fired automatically, but it doesn't matter because in semiautomatic mode an AR-15 with a 100 round extended cartridge can empty that cartridge into a crowd in a minute or less.

You can't keep up that rate of fire--the gun will start to jam and get "cook off" rounds--but if your goal is to quickly kill a lot of people before the cops arrive and then kill yourself, the AR-15's rated sustainable fire rate of 15 rounds a minute is irrelevant.

So while assault rifles and pistols--all semiautomatics designed to accept giant clips or even drum cartridges--are thrilling to own by ordinary gun enthusiasts--and by golly you look incredibly manly cradling a gun that looks like what Navy SEALs use--their real purpose is massacres, and the guns don't discriminate between Taliban fighters and a first grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary school.

This creates a public image issue for the NRA and the gun makers who control it completely at this point.

So when a massacre happens, the NRA says they're sad. Then a few days later they say we mustn't discuss gun policy now because it's a time for mourning. But the gun policy discussion never happens. Instead they lobby Congress to loosen gun laws instead of tightening them.

If challenged, NRA spokesmen say it's not the gun's fault. It's the psycho's. It's violent video games. (But now do you see why they're always trying to get violent videogames restricted?)
It's liberal atheists taking God out of the schools. And sure, all the other rich countries have vastly lower murder rates but they're just as violent. People use knives if they can't get guns.

Well duh. That's why they have a much lower murder rate a third the number of school massacres.

Finally they spend millions to defeat any politician who tries to restrict gun ownership in any way whatsoever.

In the last election they focused on seven Congressmen and the President. They lost four of the seven congressional race and lost even bigger on the President.

Seems like their mythic reputation of being able to crush any politician who opposes them is just that: a myth.

So that's the drill. We managed to ban assault weapons in 1994 but it didn't work because they grandfathered in all the existing assault weapons and added so many loopholes it wasn't hard to work around them, selling assault weapons with one or two features omitted but never the crucial one: the capacity to accept extended cartridges (cartridges designed for the new rounds with higher killing power).

No other rich country permits assault weapons, and that's the main reason why the average massacre happens here.

So even banning assault rifles isn't enough. We won't get anywhere unless we ban all guns--rifles and pistols--designed to accept extended cartridges, and don't grandfather in the existing ones. They'd have to be confiscated (and a fair market price paid for them, unfortunately), along with their extended cartridges.

The NRA's hardcore 29% would go berserk, naturally. These are the kind of people who believe that the Constitution gives them the right to own any kind of firearm without having to so much as register it. They're disdainful of the Supreme Court saying that guns can be regulated. They harbor dark fantasies of another Civil War, and though they'd never say it in public, the civil war they envision is whites against the rest. They read about home invasion by gangs of thugs, and even though they may live thousands of miles away from such events, they spend a lot of time thinking about personal and national disaster scenarios.

Some belong to private militias, or are survivalists. Some don't. All hate Obama with a fiery passion--it has to be seen to be believed. And they seriously dislike Liberals, and speak to and of them with contempt. To be fair, Liberals speak of them as "gun nuts" and are equally contemptuous, but they aren't armed...

And of course the NRA (=the gun makers' lobby) stokes these apocalyptic fires assiduously--not in what they say to the world at large but in what they say to the faithful.

So much so that if you dare to question their assumptions some will tell you you're stupid and should deal with something you know about. Not very persuasive, but they're used to getting their way through intimidation, so it's a familiar modus operandum.

They'll also blame the psychos and our inability to lock 'em up until after they've killed someone. They're right about this. The average "homeless" person is mentally ill. A third of prison inmates are mentally ill. Both should be in insane asylums, which back in the 1970s both liberals and conservatives wanted to close, and close them they did.

Now it's nearly impossible to institutionalize a crazy person, no matter how crazy they act, unless they commit a major crime.

Coming up with a better policy on psychos won't stop them all. Confiscating assault weapons won't stop all gun homicides. But we have to do both, not one or the other.

As for violent videogames--I don't play them myself, but even though they cut into gunmaker profits I don't find that sufficient cause to ban them. Their contribution to violent behavior is unclear. Killers play them before killing, but non-killers play them too.

Assault weapon owners say they shouldn't be punished for the crimes of a few, just as violent videogame players would say. But while the games may lead to violence, you can't shoot a real person with a videogame. You can with an assault weapon.

And they wouldn't be being punished. The problem is that they seem to have nearly rejected the social compact--you know, where we surrender a measure of personal freedom for the benefits of living in a society. They talk about the social compact like a five year old boy being told to behave himself.

The irony is that liberals seem to have just as much trouble with the social compact, focusing on the rights of crazy people without considering the right of the rest of us not to be killed by crazy people.

Talking giving something up "for the greater good" is anathema to hardcore NRA types, but seriously--they'd still have their hunting rifles, their shotguns, their revolvers. They just wouldn't have military weaponry. They already know they can't have M-239s or shoulder-mounted Stingers. They just don't realize that the AR-15 shouldn't be in private hands.

And the only way to ensure that crooks and crazies don't have them is to ensure that nobody has them. Sorry, but nothing else will work.

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