Thursday, December 20, 2012

Death and Children

I normally stay out of the gun control debate; it isn't something I expect to influence, as the positions on both sides are religious rather than rational.  But we're all thinking about guns in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  Even my water aerobics class discussed it today, between exercises.

My first impulse after hearing the news was to think yes, it's time to bring back the assault weapon ban.  My father had guns, he was a hunter; I think his deer rifle was a 30.06.  He treated them with respect and stored them carefully.  He's gone now, but I feel sure he would agree with me that no one needs an assault rifle to kill a deer.  Or, for that matter, a burglar.

I still think the assault weapon ban is a good idea and should be passed, but it's symbolic rather than helpful.  As Prohibition should have taught us (but doesn't seem to have), passing a law against something doesn't keep it from happening.  No one seems to understand the simple fact that if a man decides he wants to kill some number of people, and he is prepared to risk and even lose his own life in the process, you can't really stop him, unless you are extraordinarily lucky.

I don't see any need to allow ordinary citizens to have semi-automatic weapons, large-capacity magazines, or armor-piercing ammunition.  But any law must be written with extreme care to prevent the gun industry from making slight redesigns which make the next generation of weapons "not really" subject to the law. We saw that in California, which has some very tight gun control laws.  As a resident of Oakland, California, I can assure you that this town is awash in guns of every caliber, despite the state laws.  I've been told by a police officer that it's easier to get a gun than a joint in the local schools.

In addition to our own issues, the absurd availability of heavy personal ordinance in the U.S. is a major enabler of the violent wars between drug cartels that have been destroying Mexico for the last 10 years.  Thousands of people dead, and it's twice our fault:  first, we ban the sale of a product that millions of people buy, and second, we flood Mexico with guns and ammunition.  We are the armorers of the Mexican cartels, to the point that the Mexican government has asked the U.S. government to restrict gun sales along the border.

But gun availability only partly "caused" the Newtown incident.  The guns Adam Lanza used were bought legally by his mother; also, he wasn't old enough to buy a gun, he stole them.  So existing gun laws didn't stop him, and the ones we're considering wouldn't have stopped him either.  A ban on large magazines might have slowed him down some.

Another factor is American attitudes toward mental illness.  Most of us think of "illness" as something you catch, have for awhile, and then get over, like a cold, or the mumps.  This may lead us to wonder what's wrong with that guy with depression, why doesn't he just "get over it?"  Mental illness is chronic, like diabetes or high blood pressure.  You don't get over it; you live with it and manage it, usually with drugs, the way you live with and manage diabetes or high blood pressure.  But the general American mental image of "illness" is something temporary.  So if you're depressed, or bipolar, or schizophrenic, or even if you "only" have PTSD (half the children in Oakland have PTSD, and I am not exaggerating) - people don't consider that you have a disease, which is something external that happens to you and then goes away, like a cold.  It's a personal failure - it's somehow your fault.  You wouldn't have that if  you weren't doing something wrong, and you should just straighten up and be normal and then everything will be all right.  We feel it's all in your head.  (I've had people tell me that about my allergies, but that's another story.)  What we don't realize is, being "all in your head" doesn't mean it isn't real.  But because we don't think it's real, we don't understand why people need to spend all that time and money being treated for it.

Consider the things you read in the paper or on the web about mental illness, and mentally ill people.  Am I right?  Many homeless people on our city streets are mentally ill - obviously mentally ill.  Do we regard them with pity for their ailment?  No, we scorn them for being loud and dirty and smelly - not like us.  And  all these attitudes are worse if the person with mental illness is a member of the U.S. military, with its history of machismo and invincible male prowess.

I don't know what insurance companies think about mental illness treatment.  I think they understand that treating mental illness tends to take a long time and a lot of money, so they write policies very carefully to restrict the amount they pay out, to protect their bottom line.  Some policies don't even cover mental illness.  I've always had very good coverage, with Kaiser Permanente, and when I had a bout with depression after my dad died I think I got 10 weeks of coverage. Fortunately, it was enough; I don't have chronic depression, I had unresolved issues.  But if you're poor, or don't have coverage for some reason, you can't afford to pay for mental illness treatments.  And our laws make it impossible to force someone to take medications, even though when a schizophrenic or bipolar person is "off the meds" they don't understand why they ought to take them.

I think we're frightened by mental illness, because we don't understand it; and because we're frightened, we're angry at the people who have it.  Until we're willing to accept that schizophrenia and depression and so on are diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure and arthritis, and to treat them like diseases instead of like personal failings, we will continue to have a pool of untreated mentally ill people which could at any time produce a disturbed person on a rampage.  Like Adam Lanza.

Finally, there's the issue of community.  I don't claim to know what was wrong with Adam Lanza; but in all the coverage I've read, and heard on the radio, I've heard nothing about him having any friends:  no one to have coffee with, shoot hoops with, go to a ball game with, or sit and talk with.  He was (I think I read) home-schooled, so he didn't meet friends at school.  He went shooting with his mother.  I can't tell that he had any other social interactions.  And nobody seems to have thought this was odd, or tried to do anything about it.

I grew up in a small town - Napa, California in the 1950s.  Small towns must have changed a lot since then, because I remember all my neighbors talking to each other about each other all the time.  Frankly, I couldn't wait to go away to college, where I wasn't immediately obvious to everyone as "Mary Ivy's girl."  In Newtown, CT, nobody seems to have known anything about Adam Lanza.  Have we lost our curiosity?  Have we lost the willingness to ask, "How are you?" and listen to the answer?  We used to care about each other; we used to listen to each other's woes.  Do we not have time to do that any more?  Is this another side effect of the loss of the middle class?

We'd all love to wave a magic wand and ensure that no one will ever again take an assault rifle - any gun - into an elementary school and blow away a bunch of first-graders, and a few unlucky teachers.  There is no magic wand.  The only way we could make this never happen again is to change ourselves: change the way we think about guns, and stop worshipping them; change our fear and loathing of mental illness, and start treating it; go back to knowing our neighbors and caring about them.  That's a lot of change.  I don't know if we can do it or not.  But in the end, the guns are just tools - the real problem is the people.  Us.


  1. Us, yep. Great essay.

  2. My take on this begins with a simple fact.

    We've always had mentally ill people, or people who had "issues."

    But we didn't always have a public "arsenal" in this country.

    I remember when hand-guns were really pretty uncommon. They were rather easy to get, and you only needed a "permit" to carry one on your person (as law authorities do). Private pistol ownership was uncommon in those days. We didn't live on the frontier, and even if we had, we wouldn't have had much use for a pistol.

    When I was a boy, I took the NRA safety course and passed it. But the only guns we used were rifles. The presumption was that you took guns to hunt, or perhaps for target practice. No one realistically assumed that anyone had any legitimate reason to own a handgun "for personal protection" or for any other reason.

    The only people who "needed" or wanted handguns were cops and criminals.

    What the proliferation of handguns (and larger caliber repeating weapons) brought us was the risk of "accidental" or opportunistic kinds of violence in the general populace. Criminals have always had guns, and probably always will. We've always known what they're likely to do with them.

    Does owning a weapon reduce the likelihood that a burglar might NOT target you? Or try to rape you? I doubt it.

    On balance, does the presence of a handgun or an automatic weapon in your house actually make society at large safer, or less safe? As a general surmise, I'd say the likelihood of my house being robbed or broken into by armed criminals is about 1/10,000--probably even less. Most of the kind of crimes that NRA types try to portray as putting people in jeopardy is perpetrated by teenagers or even children. If you take ordinary precautions, such as a security system, deadbolts and neighborhood watch, the odds are even smaller.

    In my view, the wholesale increase in private gun ownership--particularly of handguns--has actually created an environment in which ordinary people are much more at risk for the kind of violence that occurs when "ordinary" people lose control. Child and wife abuse, adultery, juvenile delinquency, work stress, and ordinary arguments inside families or between associates all may produce extreme emotional situations. But without the presence of deadly weapons, like pistols, they don't rise to the level of harm that guns can bring.

    The NRA's answer to these new waves of violence is . . . more guns.

    Without the presence, in his own house, of an automatic weapon, Adam Lanza would not have been able to obtain one. His mother is partly to blame, for having one in the first place. And our gun laws are ultimately to blame for having permitted the private ownership of the gun by the mother.

    The son of the daughter of our former next door neighbor shot and killed his playmate with a pistol his father kept in a case in the den. The kids, just young boys, were "just playing around" when it happened. This would not have happened in a household without guns.

  3. Curtis, we don't always agree, but in this case we are 100% in the same corner.