Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Shot in the Dark

I was loaned to the editorial desk for a day, and when I asked what I could do for them, they said, "why not write an editorial on gun control?"

Why not? Because it's a more intractable dispute than the fight over abortion, I think, and more insoluble. The abortion debate is like a fight between a couple that has been married too long -- they're arguing about everything under the sun: gender, sex, religion, morality, eugenics, power, family, parental authority, the fact that they just despise each other -- but the debate topic can with effort be contained in a relatively narrow scientific dispute over the definition of life.

That's a vastly complex question, of course, but at least it can be stated in a sentence or two. Most on both sides would agree that killing innocents is wrong, for instance, if you could know what was and wasn't life. Resolve that, and you can knock the center out of the debate, and leave only the fringes (the "every sperm is sacred" fringe and the "all men are rapists/get your patriarchy off my pudenda" fringe).

The national split on guns involves competing visions of the very essentials of what American life is and ought to be: Armed and confident in self-defense, or purged of all violent weapons and safely guarded by professionals. The thing both sides might agree on is, "guns should be kept away from people who someday will use them to kill other people." All you need to do is see the future. Defining life is tiddlywinks by comparison.

And I was supposed to resolve it in 500 words or fewer?

The editorial board where I work is reflexively pro-gun-control. It supports every proposal along that line. Like me, they're people who never have pulled the trigger of a firearm, much less owned one. But in the various courses of my life I've come to know and respect people who shoot and who hunt. I'd actually like to learn to shoot sometime, if I ever have time, though I have no desire to hunt.

Unlike my peers on the editorial board, I live in a neighborhood where you quickly learn to distinguish by sound a firearm from a firecracker (there's a sort of contained, resonant, hollow-tubeish sound from a pistol shot; it's hard to describe). Yet I'm less zealous for gun control than they are, in their suburban tract housing. Actually, I don't think they're zealots. I think they've just chosen their sides on this one based on other points of agreement, and go along without thinking too hard.

So I started rooting around in the recent news coverage from Virginia. The Virginia Tech massacre is nine months old now, but the fight over Virginia gun laws has just begun in the legislature. It's the current national hot spot for that feud. And Virginia, like Pennsylvania, where I live, has a heritage of hunting and gun-ownership in its rural counties, and in its cities serious gun crime and resentment of the perceived intransigence of gun-owners. So it seemed worth studying before I wrote.

In the new legislative session, anti-gun advocates pushed for a requirement that all sellers conduct background checks on firearms buyers at gun shows. Gov. Tim Kaine brought forward families of the Virginia Tech massacre victims to plead for the change. Closing such a loophole makes sense. The victims and their tragedy-touched families are the impassioned voice of the gun control movement. But closing this loophole would have made no difference at Virginia Tech. Seung Hui Cho passed background checks for both guns he bought, despite his history of mental problems. Kaine already has closed the loophole that allowed that.

Which led gun advocates to smell a plot against the Second Amendment — something they need little prompting to do. "You can kind of see where this is going," one of them said Monday in Virginia. It also did not escape notice that nine of the Republicans who voted to kill the gun show loophole bill received campaign contributions from gun advocacy groups or dealers. And so the futility grinds on.

Gun-control fans will take the occasion of some horrific massacre to wave the bloody shirt for some proposed new restriction that would have done nothing to prevent it. Gun-defenders will conjure up the honorable family hunting tradition, then someone will bring up a weapon designed to slaughter men, not deer, and it quickly will be remembered the Second Amendment says nothing about "hunting."

The more I searched for an answer the further it seemed to recede. There is no -- pardon me -- magic bullet.

Mental health reforms? Virginia blocks more gun sales for mental health reasons than any other state. Besides, right here in my backyard there is a grim list of killers, like Charles C. Roberts IV, who gunned down the little girls in the Nickle Mines Amish schoolhouse, who never brushed against the mental health system.

Crack down on gun-toting criminals? Who will pay for the new prisons? And successful programs in Boston and elsewhere have worked by keeping young gun toughs out of jail — and under intense interventionary supervision.

Pennsylvania has proposed limiting handgun purchases to one per month. Cho easily outwaited such a law in Virginia. Another proposal in both states would allow cities to set their own restrictions on handgun sales. Given Pennsylvania’s municipal crazy quilt, where a township line never is more than a short drive away, that’s a joke.

The only thing that got more clear was that this is an internal clash of civilizations. By Monday afternoon, the two sides were waving signs and shouting each other down on the state Capitol lawn. The meltdown featured this memorable exchange:

Jeff Knox, director of operations of the Manassas-based Firearms Coalition, approached survivor Colin Goddard and said students could have stopped student Seung-Hui Cho's rampage if they had been allowed to carry guns on campus.

"I would have stopped him," Knox said. "Because when I went to school, I carried a gun. It was legal; I did it."

Goddard, a Virginia Tech senior who was shot four times in the April 16 massacre, was taken aback, then said: "I feel sorry for you — the fact that you feel you need to protect yourself in every situation.

"You're afraid of crazy situations happening. I've lived through this and I know that I can't continue in my life afraid of things," he said, adding that he put his "full trust" in the police to protect society.

How do you bridge that gap? I ended up writing something lame like, "What might be more useful than futile legislative trench warfare is a fresh and holistic national debate. Perhaps the presidential season will be an opportunity to start one." All things considered, I'd rather write about abortion.

Labels: ,