Reflections On Newtown

Ken AshfordGun ControlLeave a Comment

As last Friday's horrible events sink in, and get incorporated into the longer string of horribles that this nation must endure, I share the following disjointed thoughts:

1.  Mike Huckabee is a douchebag.

Mike Huckabee on Fox News (of course), saying that we shouldn't be surprised that "schools become a place of carnage" when we have "systematically removed God from our schools": 

HUCKABEE: Well, you know, it's an interesting thing. We ask why there is violence in our schools but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we've made it a place where we don't want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability – that we're not just going to have be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before, you know, a holy God in judgment. 

Listen, Mike.  The Newtown tragedy can serve as a launching point for many important discussions, and hopefully, we can pull some "good" from this, if only by enacting policies to prevent future Newtowns.

But guess what isn't on the agenda, Mike?

School prayer.

Your comment that this didn't happen when prayer was allowed in schools is the height of douchebaggery.  What exactly are you saying?  We kicked God out of schools, so the omnipotent all-knowing all-seeing God wasn't there?  He was punishing us?

Seriously.  Fuck you.

First of all, I wouldn't be so sure that prayer wasn't happening, as teachers were crouched in the closets with students.

Secondly, if your invisible sky wizard didn't show up to protect these kids, it's because your invisible sky wizard doesn't exist.

Yeah, I went there.

The Christian God is a myth.  I mean that literally.  He is a mythology created by early man, based on — indeed, stolen from — earlier mythologies.  The Christian God has survived all other myths merely because Europeans have decimated, conquered and/or enslaved other cultures, each with their own deity, which is why you don't worship a Mayan God.  God wasn't there because God doesn't exist, Mike.  Deal with it.

I say that not to show disrespect for faith.  I have no problem with anyone who chooses to believe in God.  That faith brings comfort and healing.  And groups of people, combined in their faith, bring much good upon the world through their charitable deeds.  So I'm down with all that. 

But please, let's not make this about how we have failed to properly show reverance to Adult Santa Clause.  It's disprespectful to those who lost their lives, and you're a douch, Mike Huckabee, for turning this tragedy into a call for school prayer.

2.  Obama's Finest Hour?

This was a great speech.  He spend the first half of it explaining, cogently, how we all are parents of the children we raise.  It wasn't a far throw from Hillary Clinton's "It Takes A Villiage".  And indeed, he's right.

At the 10 minute mark, he starts to lay the philosophical groundwork for changes that need to come in our laws.  And then, of course, reading the kids' names.


The White House wisely didn't publish photos of the President's visit to Newtown, out of respect for the privacy of the famlies there.  However, one family (who lost a child on Friday) published this photo, which I find to be uplifting and optimistic.  These are the siblings of Emile Parker:

Obama_children-thumb-512x384-56245 (1)

Life goes on.

3.  Team Gun Control versus Team Mental Health

This is going to be a long one.

Late Friday morning, White House press secretary Jay Carney said (in so many words) that "now" was not the time to have a discussion about policy, but now was the time to think of the families.

Almost immediately, he received blowback.  It's not that people were offended by Carney, but they really were tired, understandably, of the "conversation" being kicked down the road.  Because what happens is…. it gets kicked down the road, and nothing happens.

So the conversation has begun, and it's taking an interesting shape.

In one corner, you have the Mike Huckabees, who want to make this about God and school prayer.  To them, I'll add another "fuck you:.

In another corner, you have the Aaron Worthings and Glenn Reynolds, who write tweet and posts about what they see as the obvious solution: more guns.  In fact, Reynolds jumped out in the front of the pro-gun propaganda effort with a piece for USA Today attacking Gun-Free Zones.

Given that gun-free zones seem to be a magnet for mass shooters, maybe we should be working to shrink or eliminate them, rather than expand them. As they say, if it saves just one life, it's worth it.

You even morons arguing that this wouldn't happen if the teachers had been armed.  Michael Moore has the perfect response:

Of course, Lanza's mother was a gun owner.  And she was the first victim.  Her guns went on to kill 26 more.

Standing behind the "more guns iz better" croed in this corner are the mouth-breathers who write oh-so-cleverly: "Guns don't kill people; people kill people.".  I'm so sick of hearing that.  It's not clever, and worse yet — it's wrong.  Obviously, it's not that simple, seeing as how people with guns kill people massively and quickly.  And that's what we're concerned about.

These people are clowns.  They are not merely gun enthusiasts, but gun nuts.  They include survivalists, not unlike Adam Lanza’s first victim, Nancy Lanza, who bought her Bushmaster .223 to survive the "apocalypse". (See "Doomsday Preppers")

And we need to just move past them, lest we get caught up in the came cycle we've seen in the past (and depicted in this cartoon below):


More guns does not mean a safer society.  Mother Jones makes the obvious point, in an article first written before Newtown:

…we set out to track mass shootings in the United States over the last 30 years. We identified and analyzed 62 of them, and one striking pattern in the data is this: In not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun. Moreover, we found that the rate of mass shootings has increased in recent years—at a time when America has been flooded with millions of additional firearms and a barrage of new laws has made it easier than ever to carry them in public. And in recent rampages in which armed civilians attempted to intervene, they not only failed to stop the shooter but also were gravely wounded or killed.

America has long been heavily armed relative to other societies, and our arsenal keeps growing. A precise count isn't possible because most guns in the United States aren't registered and the government has scant ability to track them, thanks to a legislative landscape shaped by powerful pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association. But through a combination of national surveys and manufacturing and sales data, we know that the increase in firearms has far outpaced population growth. In 1995 there were an estimated 200 million guns in private hands. Today, there are around 300 million—about a 50 percent jump. The US population, now over 314 million, grew by about 20 percent in that period. At this rate, there will be a gun for every man, woman, and child before the decade ends.

There is no evidence indicating that arming Americans further will help prevent mass shootings or reduce the carnage, says Dr. Stephen Hargarten, a leading expert on emergency medicine and gun violence at the Medical College of Wisconsin. To the contrary, there appears to be a relationship between the proliferation of firearms and a rise in mass shootings: By our count, there have been two per year on average since 1982. Yet 25 of the 62 cases we examined have occurred since 2006. This year alone there have already been seven mass shootings—and a record number of casualties, with more than 140 people injured and killed.

So now, in a more serious vein, we turn to a third corner, populated with people who want to talk about mental illness in relation to gun possession.

If you watch closely, you'll see this talk is coming primarily, although not exclusively, from conservative quarters.  The "mental illness" angle is getting heavy play on Fox News.

There's a reason why so many right wingers want to focus on the "mental health" angle – to distract attention away from the real problem: there are more than 290 MILLION guns in America, almost one for every single man, woman, and child. The right is so in love with gun culture that they'll even make dishonest arguments that contradict their own values, to pull attention away from this issue.  I'll get to that in a moment.

As for mental illness, there is no real evidence that mentally ill people are more likely to commit gun crimes. Columbia University psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum has found that less than 3-5% of American crimes are perpetrated by mentally ill people, and for crimes involving guns the percentages are even lower.

In fact, the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators: Focus on Mental Illness in Gun Debate Is Misleading.

Research by John Brekke and Cathy Prindle at the University of Southern California shows that individuals with schizophrenia are more likely to be assaulted by others than to commit violent crimes themselves, Metzl said.

By blaming people who have mental disorders for violent crime, the threats posed to society by a much larger population – the sane – are overlooked."The focus on so-called mentally ill crime obfuscates awareness of a far more important set of risk predictors of gun violence: substance abuse and past history of violence," said Metzl, a professor of psychiatry and sociology. "By blaming people who have mental disorders for violent crime, the threats posed to society by a much larger population – the sane – are overlooked."

One possible explanation for the tendency to blame mental illness for violent crimes is the fact that the debate around gun control has become so politicized that bringing up mental illness is one of the few ways to even talk about the issue, Metzl said.

Now — don't get me wrong.  Better mental health care is an important and worthy cause. The intersection between mental health, privacy rights, and gun ownership is complicated, and needs to be addressed. 

But for the right wing, the focus on mental health is merely a way to confuse and obfuscate the issues in order to hang on to their precious, precious guns.  (Others on the right simply don't want to talk about it at all, saying the only conversation to have is prayer).

Which brings us to the fourth corner: those who are talking about gun control.

I am encouraged to have read so many thought-provoking commentaries from gun owners in the wake of Newtown.  There are indeed many gun owners who hunt and enjoy guns, but who are not in lockstep with the NRA.  An example:

I hunt.  Much of the meat that my family eats during the year comes from local wild game and I derive great satisfaction from the experience of hunting and the ability to feed my family locally sourced, organic, environmentally friendly game that I procure, butcher, and prepare myself.  In addition, my son and I enjoy shooting clay pigeons at our local shooting range.  My friends and co-workers are mostly hunters as well and in my community, wild game is little more remarkable than food from the grocery or the local farmer's market.  I have had extensive formal training in gun safety and rifle marksmanship.  My guns are locked in a safe when not in use.  I should be the archetype of an NRA supporter.  But…

I am a dad.  I am the husband of an elementary school teacher who works too hard and commits too fully to her students (it's a trait that good teachers share).  And I am saddened to my core by the shootings in Connecticut.  I cannot even imagine the pain that those poor families are feeling and I will pray for peace for them tonight.

I have never joined the NRA.  I have been invited many times but I was initially turned off by their absolutist position on gun regulation and I was later repelled by their politics and by the way that they try to conflate the good that is accomplished for conservation by hunting with their interpretation of the 2nd amendment.  I hope today is the beginning of the end for their influence in our country.


So yes…lets have the national conversation about a more rational gun policy.  This country won't ban the private ownership of guns and I don't think it would be wise even if we did.  Similarly, it may be impossible to prevent a disturbed individual from procuring a gun if they are sufficiently motivated, but for the sake of these victims there have to be ways to make tragedies like the one in Connecticut today less likely.  Lets talk about making tactical weapons and high capacity magazines illegal for private ownership.  Lets talk about raising the regulatory oversight on those who may purchase and own small weapons like handguns that can easily be concealed.   Lets talk about proficiency requirements and regulations on the storage and registration of private firearms.  There are European countries with much stricter gun laws that also maintain rich hunting traditions.  Lets raise the penalties for crimes committed while using a gun and lets enforce the gun laws on the books.  I'm sure there are better ideas out there and I don't claim to be a 2nd amendment scholar but surely we can do better.  Lets get serious.

I have never felt that my sporting arms were threatened by those who were calling for tighter regulations on gun sales and ownership – particularly when directed at cheap handguns and guns whose value as sporting arms was marginal or specious.  The fear of a slippery slope leading from common sense gun regulation to the loss of hunting firearms is a fear that the NRA uses to sell its political agenda.  It is false.  A gun is a tool like a hammer but unlike other tools, guns are designed and optimized to deliver projectiles for the purpose of killing efficiently.  In the context of hunting, this efficiency is needed to ensure that an animal dies as quickly and humanely as possible.  However, this is also the reason why the "guns don't kill people, people do…" line of reasoning rings hollow.  One can kill another person with a hammer or with a car but that is not what hammers and cars are designed to do.  Guns are a special case and we should start by acknowledging that.  

This is a guy who gets it.  He understands that guns are not the defenders of liberty.  More often, they are the thieves of it. 

That’s what philosopher Firman Debrander argued in this morning’s New York Times, and he is in my ever-humble opinion spot on.  It’s worth the time to read the whole thing, but here’s the core of his case:

…guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment — they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

Exactly so.

I, too, believe in the Second Amendment.  But I believe in ALL of it, including the "well-regulated" part.

It is simply to easy for anyone — disturbed or not — to get their hands on killing machines.  And this factor — more than anything else – is why this country has more homicides and mass killings than any other country.  

Some facts from the Harvard School of Public Health about the correlation between gun availability and homicides: Homicide – Firearms Research – Harvard Injury Control Research Center – Harvard School of Public Health.

1. Where there are more guns there is more homicide (literature review).

Our review of the academic literature found that a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries.  Case-control studies, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies indicate that in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.

Hepburn, Lisa; Hemenway, David. Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal. 2004; 9:417-40. 

2. Across high-income nations, more guns = more homicide.

We analyzed the relationship between homicide and gun availability using data from 26 developed countries from the early 1990s.  We found that across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides. These results often hold even when the United States is excluded.

Hemenway, David; Miller, Matthew. Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries. Journal of Trauma. 2000; 49:985-88.

3. Across states, more guns = more homicide

Using a validated proxy for firearm ownership, we analyzed the relationship between firearm availability and homicide across 50 states over a ten year period (1988-1997).

After controlling for poverty and urbanization, for every age group, people in states with many guns have elevated rates of homicide, particularly firearm homicide.

Miller, Matthew; Azrael, Deborah; Hemenway, David. Household firearm ownership levels and homicide rates across U.S. regions and states, 1988-1997. American Journal of Public Health. 2002: 92:1988-1993.

4. Across states, more guns = more homicide (2)

Using survey data on rates of household gun ownership, we examined the association between gun availability and homicide across states, 2001-2003. We found that states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide.  This relationship held for both genders and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation (e.g., poverty). There was no association between gun prevalence and non-firearm homicide. 

Miller, Matthew; Azrael, Deborah; Hemenway, David. State-level homicide victimization rates in the U.S. in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001-2003. Social Science and Medicine. 2007; 64:656-64.

So there you have it.  Availability of guns kills people.

And you have to wonder why we're such a gun-happy country.

Well, I hate to go to the obvious scapegoat, but to my mind, it's a combination of machismo and fear, along with strong interests (the NRA) willing to exploit that.  Take a look at this ad — an ad for the very gun that was used to kill the Newtown kids, as well as the theatre-goers in Aurora, Colorado, and the shooter two weeks ago in the Oregon mall:


Your "man card"??

Guns are bought for the macho thrill, and if this ad doesn't confirm that, nothing does.

So while the conversation has many facets, the one that must be addressed is the most obvious, and the one politicians shy away from: the access to guns, particularly assault weapons.  When the assault weapons ban went away in 2004, it was mildly insane for us as a nation not to continue it.  That has to be first on the agenda.  Then, limits on magazine capacity.

I don't want to hear "but then only criminals will have guns".  Guess what?  I'm not worried about criminals.  I'm worried about the guy with the clean record — like the Newtown shooter, like the Virginia Tech shooter, like the Aurora shooter.  I want the flow of killing weapons to slow down to a trickle, if not end in its entirety.  Enough is enough.