Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Cost of the Second Amendment

Two weeks ago, Bob Costas ignited the ire of the questionably qualified by reciting an article by Jason Whitlock during Monday Night Football. The excerpt he chose was:

“Our current gun culture ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.”

Costas was then roundly lambasted by a range of commentators for having had the gumption to moralize the American people and for mixing divisive political issues with an apolitical event.  And perhaps it would have been an inappropriate place to speak one’s mind about gun control, had Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs not, only nights before, shot and killed his wife in front of his mother and daughter before taking his own life.

Despite its direct relation to Monday night’s game, a number of talking heads, from Laura Ingram to Bill O’Reilly, were adamant that this gruesome act did not warrant the one minute and thirty-three seconds that Costas devoted to the issue. After all, it was Jovan Belcher who killed his wife. His gun just happened to be the instrument with which he chose to do it.

The stubborn “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument is endemic of the gun control debate in the United States. Yes, people kill people. And frequently with guns. Like the tax debate, the question of gun control is painted in black and white: taxes vs. no taxes, guns vs. no guns. These simplistic approaches to important question omit the crucial importance of magnitude.  The children in Newtown, Connecticut were killed with a .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle. If you’re not familiar with the .223 Bushmaster, it is an advanced semi-automatic firearm designed for use in combat and capable of firing 6 bullets per second. Despite its intended use, it is widely available at your local Walmart. Questioning the legality and wide-spread availability of this type of semi-automatic firearm is distinctly different from impugning the second amendment.

Nevertheless, gun advocates, enthusiasts, and people who just don’t like democrats, will find a number of ways to evade the crux of the matter. They will play the constitution card and overextend logic to such a ludicrous degree that all sensible negotiations about gun control will break down entirely.

Last year, a story was swirling around detailing the events of a young boy who accidentally shot and killed his younger sister after getting into his father’s gun cabinet. This unfortunate occurrence briefly piqued national interest about gun control. However, advocates and lobbyists quickly deflated the matter with a tired line of questions: do we also take away matches, sharp objects, trampolines? Kids, they argue, get in to mischief and occasionally things go terribly wrong. And, hey, what about the bad guys? “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” right? Wouldn't you rather have had a gun in that Aurora theater?

These aren't completely unfair points. No, we can’t live in a bubble. But let’s not find satisfaction in simplistic rationale that routs common sense. The cold truth is that guns in the home are more likely to harm someone in the home than an intruder. They facilitate accidents and embellish our emotions.

The children who were slaughtered in Newtown deserve a reasonable discussion—one that sidelines the rhetoric and homes in on constructive questions. How many accidental gun deaths occur per year compared to accidental deaths caused by those matches, sharp objects and trampolines? Do limitations on the sale of semi-automatic firearms impinge upon the second amendment? Should we not have stricter background checks and more extensive requirements for gun purchases?

Very few advocates of gun control are lobbying for an outright ban on the sale of guns. On Monday night, Costas posited no prescriptions. He merely pointed out that maybe, just maybe, the US has a gun problem that we should start talking about. What advocates of gun control believe, is that the costs of nearly unfettered access to firearms far exceed the benefits.

There are good arguments, both practical and constitutional, on each side of the gun control debate. But failure on both sides to jettison stubborn preconceptions and cherry-picked facts is an affront to the children who have become the victims of our lack of action. No, violence won’t be uprooted, but let’s ask what role the prevalence of guns plays in earning us the highest homicide rate due to firearms of any developed country.


Reading about the history of guns in the United States, I came across a good article in “American Rifleman,” the official journal of the NRA, which states that “to the American Colonists the hunting gun was his primary food source or the critical supplement to an unreliable crop yield.” Walter Isaacson, in his book “Benjamin Franklin,” discusses life in the colonies during the latter part of the 18th century. He tells us that for homes outside of urban communities, a gun was necessary for survival. For there was, at the time, no organized police force of which to speak. A militia had be assembled to keep the peace and protect the colonies.  Many of the framers of the constitution grew up during a time when French and Indian raids on Colonial towns were commonplace. Perhaps that is what influenced them to write:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"

At the time of its writing, arms meant muskets and clumsy pistols, both of which required a detailed reloading process after every shot. Semi-automatic was not part of the vocabulary of the 18th century colonist. Even the most ardent gun enthusiast probably hadn't dreamed of the .223 caliber Bushmaster.

Given the situational discrepancy, maybe it’s about time to inquire whether our current gun culture overextends what our founding fathers had intended. Those who consider open and unquestionable access to guns part of our national DNA need to ask whether they are willing to accept the collateral damage.

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