“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Flannery O’Connor
At first, the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, seemed like just another in the series of horrific school shootings we’ve come to dread and expect in the U.S. “Hopes and prayers” would be profusely proffered with nothing changing until the next school joins the bloody ranks of this uniquely American epidemic. But then articulate, camera-ready high school students gained access to our national media, and suddenly the possibility of some progress on this shameful legacy became possible.
As a high school/junior high teacher for thirty-three years (1979-2012), I was certainly aware of this issue, teaching for the bulk of my career in a high school similar in many ways to the two frame high schools of this era, Columbine (1999, 13 dead) and Parkland (2018, 17 dead) with Sandy Hook elementary school (2012, 26 dead) notably in between as well as way too many others. I worked with kids very similar to those who attend Stoneman Douglas High School—upper-middle class, mostly white, with the majority going on to college and top 25% socio-economic status for their adult lives. These are our future lawyers, doctors, and business leaders; they are the ones who take charge of our country, but typically not for twenty-plus years into the future, so it is fascinating that the country is paying so much attention to what they have to say right now.
Let me be very clear right up front: I strongly agree with their agenda—tougher gun laws, more comprehensive background checks, raising age limits, and assault-rifle bans (if anything, I don’t believe they go far enough)—but my support comes with a few qualifications as well. Where was all this outrage and activism when other places were being shot up? The fifty-nine dead in Las Vegas happened just months ago; did they take to social media after that too? Who organized the marches to change laws in memoriam of these concert-goers’ and their hundreds of family members and friends? This self-absorption—where we humans seem capable of action only after we have been personally touched by an issue—has always frustrated my sense of right/wrong. That our personal lives have to be impacted before we see an issue’s importance and are willing to support action is hardly a new phenomenon, though. Gay rights progressed rapidly only after so many people had come out that virtually every straight person knew and liked at least one gay person. Until we had Will and Grace, not to mention Ellen, we were quite capable of blithely saying and doing nothing about ludicrously unfair statutes which prohibited many rights to gays. But once we realized that Jack McFarland and Sulu might die because they couldn’t get insurance coverage on their life partners’ policy, we recognized the inherent unfairness and compassionless nature of the bigoted system which had always been in place.
That certainly seems to be the case with these students. As Trevor Noah pointed out during off-camera comments on The Daily Show, they are using the privilege they have been afforded all their lives to question the status quo, at least once they have directly experienced how that quo functions. So we who have long been appalled by the unfettered access our country has allowed to high-tech guns need to be patient with some of the eye-rolling inducing comments these kids make in their insistent demands that things change immediately now that they have an awareness of those things’ flaws. (The most cringe-worthy moment I’ve seen so far was when a student being interviewed on CNN along with Dan Rather complained that on the day after the shooting, he had been rejected by one of his “safety schools,” Cal State Long Beach, even though he plans to go to Harvard or Northwestern (at about the seven minute mark of the interview). I’m very familiar with that kind of student, having taught them for many years. These Parkland students are extremely intelligent, articulate, and exceptional but they are not as unusual as they have been portrayed by the media—any high school teacher from similar districts throughout the country would recognize the earnest, idealistic, privileged, media-ready attitudes exhibited by these teens.
I guess the main thing I want to point out here is that there have been many individuals over the years who have been trying to accomplish the goals these kids are lobbying for and who offer an expertise and knowledge which would significantly supplement the raw emotion and idealism of those who have taken up the issue only after—and primarily because—they have been personally affected by gun violence. Of course it’s imperative that those victimized by a problem participate in the formulation of a societal consensus on what the solutions should look like; it just seems unfortunate our attention and willingness to listen requires the emotional outpourings which follow tragedies. It’s the same psychology which leads to horrific car wreck remains being displayed on the grounds of many high schools right before senior prom to deter drunk driving or the vicarious yet safe fear and dread spike which forces most to slow down to see as much carnage as possible after highway accidents. I understand that impulse and recognize it will always be this way, but I wish we didn’t need such negative energy to be motivated to do what seems logical, humane, and obvious.
None of which blunts in the slightest the importance of our seizing upon this moment as an opportunity to make some progress on attacking the killing machines which so many Americans have determined to be their god-granted right, regardless of the potential harm they can so easily cause when in the hands of the wrong people. For too long, we anti-gun folks have remained an impotent minority as our country has gotten more and more extreme about firearms. Every once in a while (like right now or after Sandy Hook), an emotional wave spurs a few more to action and there are many anti-gun organizations headed up by bereaved parents or recovering victims, but the perpetual fervor and rabid attacks from the other side always manage to interfere with and ultimately defeat any actions that might change the dangerous lack of controls we have over who can get a gun, how many guns it’s acceptable to own, and/or the types of guns/accessories readily available all over the country. Even liberal, reasonable people seem to have given up the fight, weakly pursuing only the most minor reforms in our lax gun laws. But with the media megaphone provided by Parkland, anti-gun advocates might be heard more loudly and forcefully when they speak. And I hope their goals are to limit the purchase of and to get rid of as many guns as possible, especially those in the hands of private citizens.
Yeah, I’ve heard and read all the reasons why this is a horrible violation of personal rights, not to mention the Constitution, but all those reasons are at worst completely invalid and at best hardly absolute when people look at the facts. Let’s run through a few of the pro-gun arguments and see how well they stand up to logical analysis.
The right to bear arms is protected by the Constitution. The second amendment was created during a time when the U.S. armed forces were a rag-tag collection of volunteers, and hostile Native Americans were prevalent on our continent. We now have the best-armed, best-trained military in the world, and its ability to protect its citizens is without peer…anywhere. The U.S. is bordered by friendly countries, and almost all of the threats to our sovereignty are overseas in places where our enemies spend more time fighting each other than trying to invade our shores. No foreign country poses a military threat to the continental United States, and if one did, our armed forces could destroy it in a matter of days. Ordinary citizens do not need guns to protect themselves from invading enemies, so the Constitutional need of 1789 no longer exists. And let’s not even broach the topic of the infallibility of our founding fathers since that 1789 document also allowed for slavery. Times change, and the Constitution needs some updating when it comes to guns even if you accept that the second amendment is intended as some sacred rite, rather than the need of another time when foes were closer and our federal armed forces were weak. And we’ll also skip getting into all the other amendments—to say nothing of the Constitution’s basic tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—which a heavily armed citizenry threatens as well. The Constitutional argument for loose gun restrictions doesn’t hold up well at all.
We need guns to protect ourselves should non-democratic forces take over our government. The NSA spying Edward Snowden revealed should give everyone pause about the increasing power of our federal government. But does anyone seriously think that with drones, tanks, access to all our personal records, 1.3 million soldiers, and a military budget that dwarfs the next seven largest countries in the world combined; buying six shotguns would keep you safe should the government suddenly turn fascist? It’s idiotic to believe that arming your ten-year-old with a .22 rifle would prevent our government from doing what it wants should it ever go rogue. And that’s accepting that the kinds of coups which occur in places like Thailand and Egypt are even possible here. Our system might lead to flawed leaders (Can you say Dick Cheney and Donald Trump?), but our tradition of peaceful dissent and the electoral process make militia paranoia absurd. We don’t need guns to protect ourselves from our government, and even if we did, our government has way too much firepower for any community organization (and certainly any individual) no matter how well armed, to overcome.
If we ban guns, the bad guys would just use other weapons. This one’s probably my favorite of the poor reasons gun advocates trot out. Yes, we have had dozens and dozens of mass murders committed with knives and ball-peen hammers. It’s just idiotic; killing people with a gun is light-years easier than anything else commonly available. Perhaps one day evil criminal geniuses will come up with death rays or killer robots, but the only places you will find ANY examples of death on a large-scale that don’t involve guns are in the pages of science-fiction novels. Oooo, look out—here comes that bad man with his clothes line! He’s on a strangling rampage, and we’re helpless in the face of such deadly force! C’mon; it’s just one of those debating points that has not a shred of evidence to support it, and we should just laugh when some gun-advocate tries to use that line of “reasoning.”
We need guns to protect ourselves from the bad guys. This is probably the most effective argument (unlike the previous reason) that gun advocates use. There have been cases where armed citizens have fought off or even killed evil ones who tried to rob or hurt them. But there have also been cases where the armed citizen killed or injured innocent bystanders. My preference is that guns only be in the hands of professionals—cops, soldiers, and criminals. Yeah, you read that right: The bulk of law-breakers do not want to hurt anyone, but just want money or drugs (or money to get drugs), and armed law-abiding citizens simply complicate what should be a simple robbery by brandishing a hand-gun, leading to somebody’s getting shot. Certainly, sometimes the recipient of the bullet in these shootouts is a bad guy, but just as often a good guy with a gun is racked up. You can go on-line to try to research how often guns have been successfully used to foil crimes (as I have), but both sides of the issue use various studies and statistics to prove completely opposite conclusions. I don’t doubt that if we abolish guns there will be tragic events where unarmed people are hurt by evil idiots with guns. But the evidence suggests that the numbers of innocents killed by guns will go down significantly once we get rid of the plague of guns currently awash in the U.S.
And we mustn’t forget that the bulk of gun-related deaths (roughly two-thirds) come in the form of self-harm: Suicides are simply too easy with readily available guns and a federal government which is now trying to cut or eliminate funds for helping mentally ill people. The majority of those prone to violence due to mental illnesses direct that violence on themselves. Again, yes, some of these poor people would find other ways to act out their pain with other tools, but guns are significantly faster and more lethal than anything else.
You can’t go by other countries since they aren’t like us. Of course they aren’t like us! But they aren’t like each other, either, and the one common factor in England, Canada, and Australia (three countries more like us than many in that they all share a language and heritage [or a heritage imported to the country from England]) is that they have significantly fewer gun deaths every year than we do. Australia is especially interesting in that they only changed their gun laws after a horrific 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania. A conservative president John Howard (who was an ardent backer of George W. Bush and thus obviously no bleeding heart) pushed through a significant reduction in guns by banning all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, coupled with a government buyback. And Australia hasn’t had any mass gun killings since, not to mention that their gun-related suicide rate has plummeted without any increase in other types of suicides at all. The firearm-related death rates for these four countries look like this per 100,000 population: England: 0.25; Australia: 1.06; Canada: 2.38; and the United States: 9.42. (See this for a list of all countries where you will see that only less developed countries in South/Central America and Africa have rates higher than the U.S. Of the “modern, developed” (rich) countries, the U.S. is definitely the gun-death capitol of the world.)
So it’s great that these young people are joining those of us who have been against guns for a long time. That they now agree with long-time opposers is heartening, and that they are drawing significant attention to this issue is wonderful. Like the veterans, they should understand the important implications of their support, because they can have no illusions that this will be an easy task. But as we’ll see below, there are some positive signs we could see progress this time.
First, understand the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its five million members wield significant sway with many politicians right now, both in terms of financial backing and the ability to deliver votes. On the money front, there are a couple of ways to fight back: In the short term, find candidates and politically active groups to support and donate money to them. It does seem that the U.S. government is for sale, and politicians have to have large sums of money to wage campaigns and conduct public relations which will keep their constituencies happy. So we anti-gun people will have to buy our own representation exactly the same way the NRA has. Given the poll numbers which suggest the majority of Americans are ready for reform, it should be possible to compete with the millions gun groups (especially the NRA) donate to Senate and Congressional races. We could even take some solace in that our bought politicians are at least being paid to save lives.
Hand in hand with that, you can use purchasing power to insist that your dollars don’t go toward the support of the gun industry or its mouth-piece, the NRA. This is an extremely effective way to exert pressure on others who donate large sums to influence politicians. And guess what? Two airlines, six car rental companies, and at least one bank have all eliminated special discount programs open to those with NRA membership. Now Wal-Mart has raised gun purchase age from 18 to 21, and Dick’s Sporting Goods has discontinued sale of assault rifles (expanding a partial ban which came after Sandy Hook). And in perhaps the most interesting development, retailer REI has decided not to reorder from some of its suppliers because their parent company manufactures assault rifles. REI does not sell guns and it bought mostly clothing from these subsidiary manufacturers, but its executives have determined that contributing to the overall revenue of a corporation which sells these kinds of weapons is no longer acceptable business practice. It’s understandable not to trust the words of politicians, especially those of Donald Trump, but once gun manufacturers and the NRA start to feel financial pain, who knows where this could lead?
But the long-term, more important battle is to get Citizens United overturned. (Citizens United is a Supreme Court ruling which more or less allowed unlimited money through super-PACs and the like to corrupt the political process to the point where single-issue groups or wealthy individuals have disproportionate influence in our government.) If you saw NRA leader, Wayne LaPierre, at this year’s conservative summit, CPAC, you heard his unbridled disdain for our law enforcement officials, schools, and mass media, all areas which have little to do with a group supposedly interested in gun safety and hunting. But NRA campaign donations totaling millions to politicians like Senators Mark Rubio and John McCain, as well as Speaker Paul Ryan, have allowed LaPierre and his followers to dictate policy on any issues they feel impact gun sales; thus the NRA’s main solution for making our schools safer revolves around an insane plan to arm teachers, but only the ones who are as good at shooting as Jose Abreu is at hitting home runs. Trump has been all over the place on his proposals following the Parkland shootings, but the Republican leadership has been rock solid in its opposition to doing anything, except proposals like the latter, which the NRA likes because it would lead to more gun sales. Of course we need better gun laws in the U.S., but cutting lobbyists off at the wallet would help us to get better laws for just about everything.
I’ve already seen Facebook memes suggesting that it’s hypocritical for voters to single out politicians who accept NRA donations as bad when the drug, insurance, and other industries also use cash to influence governmental policies to the detriment of us regular folks. So, if we more tightly restrict and limit ALL cash contributions, that won’t be a problem. Nobody’s pet cause should be adjudicated legislatively based on how much money its patrons can pony up. There’s simply too much money in our political system. Maybe those Parkland teenagers should be advocating another of my causes: Political elections which are severely restricted in both time and money spent. In England, for example, a typical general election lasts four weeks, and candidates are prohibited from buying broadcasting time. Contrast that with the billions of dollars wasted on TV ads in the U.S. or the Presidential campaigns which begin at least two years before the actual election—one year into our current administration and potential candidates are already gearing up for their shot in 2020. And no, that’s not just Democrats as John Kasich and Jeff Fluke are clearly making plans to challenge for the Republican nomination.
But, ultimately, voting is crucial to making any of the Parkland teens’ wishes come true. Already, the Florida legislature has backed away from any reforms, and you can be sure Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will be loathe to allow any debate, much less bring any legislation to the floor of either the House or the Senate. Trump has been erratic, but just as during recent immigration discussions on DACA, he doesn’t follow through on any of his controversial proposals unless his Republican cronies and special interest groups agree with him. The only way we will change the gun culture of our society is to make our voices heard on Election Day. So after all the protests and marches and town halls, those of us who want fewer guns in our society need to be sure to show that desire with our votes. For me, it’s pretty simple—if a candidate is willing to accept donations from the NRA or has a high rating from the NRA, he/she will not get my vote. And I don’t really see how any pro-gun people can criticize this approach—it’s the way they have come to control this issue despite overwhelming public sentiment in opposition.
If you’d like to make it even simpler, voting for Democrats or Independents is the easiest way to get gun laws changed. Looking at the 2017 NRA ratings of Senators or the campaign contributions the NRA has made over the years (the top Democrat received $50,000 total for his career, compared with over eight Republicans who have been given over $1,000,000), it becomes crystal clear for whom we should vote if we want representatives who are not beholden to the NRA. The key this year will be the suburbs of urban areas in places like Illinois, California, Texas, and New York which have traditionally supported Republican, “pro-business/anti-tax” candidates, who have fallen in line with the NRA over the years. Congressional districts in rural Alabama or Montana are unlikely to support any changes to current gun laws, but these suburban areas—exactly the communities which have suffered the most school shootings—can make the difference in who controls the legislative branch of our government. Coupled with a different President in 2020, reasonable changes in gun federal gun laws could be in place within three years. No, that won’t be the weeks or months which the Parkland teenagers have demanded, but it would be a huge improvement. It will take even more radical changes in our laws and gun culture to rid ourselves of this mass shooting epidemic completely than seem possible right now even with this optimistic schedule, but modest adjustments could go a long way to reducing their numbers.
It is depressing to contemplate that we are so divided we can’t come together on sensible procedures to prevent unstable people from easily obtaining guns, to agree that assault rifles don’t belong in homes, to ban over-sized magazines (which allow guns to fire significantly more bullets before reloading is necessary), to get rid of bump stocks (which alter guns to fire more rapidly), or to increase the age requirements for rifle purchase from 18 to 21 without significant Congressional and Senate turnover. Let’s hope that the Parkland teenagers—and the rest of us who support their cause’s goals—recognize that no matter how logical anti-gun reasoning is or how brutally tragic future massacres are, given current political realities, nothing will change on the federal level until we have voted many of today’s leaders out of office. And the potential for regression on a wide variety of issues will constantly be at risk as long as the Citizens United ruling is the law of the land. We can make a difference and lower the risk our children take every time they get on the bus to head to school, but it will take a lot more than well-spoken distraught teenagers or a couple of marches. We need to work together to make progress on this deadly scourge in our schools; the first step is to understand the importance of getting the money out of our political process and insisting that our elected representatives do what’s in our best interests, rather than what’s profitable for their biggest donors.