Sunday, January 9, 2011

Commentary on guns

An American Tragedy
The Gun Culture

Let me preface my diatribe today by saying that I was born and raised in the community in Western Pennsylvania that was the setting for the movie “The Deer Hunter.” During part of my youth my father was a police officer, so I am not unfamiliar with either the mentality of man’s need to hunt, as depicted in the movie, or the issue of having guns in one’s home. It is reported that nearly one-third of Americans own registered guns. In my youth I was among them. Because of a business and the daily receipts carried home after closing. I purchased a small .22 pistol for security. “Shooting parks” for gun owners exist throughout the country and most make a handsome profit as the result of the millions who patronize them. There is a time and a place for guns. I get it.

But somehow, as we so often do in our society, we have allowed gun ownership to become a right of every American regardless of race, creed, national origin, criminal history, or mental status. Proponents of guns cite the second amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, “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.”

The purpose of the constitutional amendment is rarely discussed when it is used as a club to support a political position. The Second Amendment was written because, having been oppressed by a professional army in the 1700s, the founding fathers of the United States had no use for establishing one of their own. Instead, they decided that an armed citizenry makes the best army of all. I daresay that no sane, rational American in the year 2011 believes that an armed citizenry would be called upon to fight an invading foreign enemy today. And oh yes, today we have our own Army…. and Navy…. and Air Force… and Marine Corps…. and Coast Guard…. and National Guard….. and Reserve units. So it is safe to say that the purpose for which the second amendment was established no longer exists.

Still, guns proliferate in our communities and are available to anybody willing to attend a gun show and purchase one, buy one legitimately at a gun store, or break into a house to steal one, can obtain one or more guns. The result is that so many innocent people have been victimized, their families shattered, and the lives of so many who become collateral damage and are changed forever. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of mass shooting incidents. Nearly a half century ago a young man named Charles Whitman locked himself in the tower at the University of Texas and began shooting people on the campus, killing 16 and injuring 32. More than a decade ago two students at Columbine High School in Colorado went on a killing spree, and nearly four years ago, Seung-hui Cho went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University, killing 32 and wounding scores more. And of course, last Saturday, a gunman in Arizona shot 20 innocent victims, including a congresswoman, a federal judge, and a nine-year old girl, killing six. After each incident, and others too numerous to list, there is a short-term hue and cry but no changes to our gun culture or gun laws. In fact, after each such incident the opposition to gun regulation spends even more money to lobby harder to allow, if not encourage the gun culture to continue to proliferate.

The availability of guns is only one symptom to the disease that has infected our country. Hate talk and heated political rhetoric that foul the airwaves daily often imply that violence is not only acceptable, but is the answer to issues in our society. When our current president took office the point was made. The head of the National Rifle Association, a pro-gun lobbying group that pays tens of millions of dollars to politicians who vote in their favor stated, “The guys with the guns make the rules.”

During the most recent presidential election and participants in Congressional forums and Presidential debates made a point of carrying guns openly in public at the events. A candidate for office in my own state was quoted as saying that citizens unhappy with election results should consider exercising their “Second Amendment remedies.” During the most recent elections, a former vice-presidential candidate placed gun targets, cross-hairs, on those who she felt should be ousted from office. Sadly one of those cross-hair targets became prophetic when Congresswoman Giffords was murdered in Arizona Saturday.

From Washington we have heard eloquence from our political leaders that offered prayers and condolences. We’ve heard them express shock and horror at the loss of innocent lives. We heard a moment of silence and the cancellation of all work in the House of Representatives to commemorate the loss of one of their own. We’ve heard nothing about hate speech, a gun culture, or the ease of obtaining them.

The guns used by Cho at Virginia Tech, and the alleged shooter in Arizona are said to be Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistols, a type of rapid-fire weapon available only to police in virtually every other country except the U.S. Here they can be legally purchased in thousands of gun shops, gun shows, and other venues. It is estimated that there are more guns in America than there are Americans!

The alleged shooter in Arizona does not typify political discord any more than the shooter at Virginia Tech typified college students on that campus, or the shooters at the University of Texas and Columbine High School and the many, many other shooting tragedies typified mainstream America. But the ease with which they were able to secure the guns that are literally “weapons of mass destruction,” and the impunity with which they used those weapons must be addressed. But how? My suggestion follows:

Every politician who has ever run against an incumbent has done so with the promise of change. I suggest we use that model and adopt the slogan, “Change the gun laws, change the hate culture.”

The gun laws: We must first examine legitimate reasons for having guns; handguns for target shooting and protection - long guns for target shooting and hunting. Any weapon is not designed to those activities must be banned except for law enforcement. Just is a 9mm Glock rapid fire with clips that can shoot dozens of bullets in a fraction of a second are not needed for target shooting or protection, neither are Uzis or assault rifles needed to bring down game.

The hate culture: I’m not so sure this one can be legislated. Just as morality or, for that matter, stupidity, cannot be legislated, neither can a “kinder, gentler America.” That task falls to the people of America. I’ve lived through eras during which Americans cared for their fellow man instead of spewing hate at those who would think, act, or talk differently, so I know it can be done. But I leave the “how” to those who are smarter and more energetic than I.

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