Sunday, April 7, 2013

Guns: Class Warfare and the American Divide

Dan Baum in conversation with Joe Nocera in today's New York Times makes some good points about efforts to diminish gun deaths.

Before Mad Dog gets to that, a disclaimer of sorts: although Mad Dog has never owned a gun, he has gun owners in the family. And Mad Dog does have one bit of relevant personal experience. When Mad Dog was a medical intern at a big city hospital the head nurse on one of the wards he covered at night locked up all the needles and syringes. Nurses would call Mad Dog to see a patient on that ward who needed a blood culture drawn, but there were no needles available. Mad Dog would have to hunt down the ward nurse in the dark and he finally gave up and just ran down a flight of stairs for the unlocked supplies on the ward below and ran back up fully loaded to do his blood culture. When Mad Dog complained to the head nurse she said she locked the needles to prevent drug addicts from getting them. "But the drug addict would have to walk up nine flights of stairs, past all those other wards with open needle cabinets to steal your needles!"  The head nurse was unmoved. "It's the law," she said. "And if other head nurses want to leave their needles vulnerable to theft, that's their business."

So Mad Dog has some experience with ineffective efforts at prevention. And he has felt the anger of the self righteous.

Now needles used by drug addicts are different than guns used by maniacs.  As my resident said at the time, "I hope drug addicts are stealing clean needles. At least they won't be re using old ones and spreading hepatitis." Guns are never used for purposes of administering healthful doses of anything.

On the other hand, Dan Baum makes some good points:  For one thing, if you look at statistics, assault rifles are used only in the most spectacular but rarest events.  We do not worry as much about hand guns, which kill far more Americans every day. The thing is, when assault rifles have killed people, it was white, middle to upper class people and hand guns are the ghetto weapon of choice, killing mostly people in the  zip codes that don't matter--who cares about deaths in the ghetto?  When Nocera says parents ought to ask whether there is a loaded gun in the house before sending their kids for a play date, Baum says, fine but if you are really playing the odds, ask if there is a swimming pool--far more kids drown in swimming pools every year, but that's not as emotionally charged for the rest of us, and swimming pools are owned by rich people; guns are the narcotic of the Joe Sixpack class.

Baum's main point is there are at least 300 million guns out there right now; trying to limit sales is closing the barn door after the horse has left.  As for limiting clip size, he is not as persuasive, but the answer usually is, the average maniac will accumulated lots of clips in his planning for the next shopping mall spree.

In Dodge City, Matt Dillon could disarm any varmint who rode into town and keep his gun at the jail until he left town. You cannot do that in America anymore. The varmints all have stashes of guns all over the place. So the argument from the gun owners is, these laws are ineffective. They are annoying in the same way the theatrics at the airport security gate are annoying--anyone can see through them to a way they could defeat the system. The net catches the wrong fish.

Baum's main argument is the intention of guns laws is to make us safer and limiting assault rifle sales does not do that. He is saying these are feel good gestures to allow politicians to posture and say, "See, we've responded!" In fact the response is half baked and transparently ineffective, affecting the people who are not the problem and leaving the bad actors unaffected. 

His secondary point is the people who love their guns feel insulted and vilified. And he has a point.  A subtext to this argument is rich, urban, upper class people who do not own guns look at rural, less affluent people who cling to their guns as pathetic, relatively powerless people who can only get a sense of self importance by brandishing a gun, by going to a shooting range and making noises and feeling the power of the machine in their hands.  When President Obama gave a speech in Portsmouth, some fool showed up carrying a big gun in the parking lot outside the high school and made all the papers. What he was saying is, "Look here. I have a gun. That means I could kill President Obama, which means I am as powerful and important as he is." 

But not all gun guys are that pathetic. People love guns for, likely, deep psychological reasons--a sense of power, a sense of potency, a sense of self reliance, a sense of I may make only a small fraction of what you make, but I'm a lean, mean killing machine. Some actually simply like the workmanship of guns, and they look at them as works of art. They collect them but do not fire them. Or they like skeet shooting. 

It does stick with Mad Dog that in the Army, when recruits are sent out to the shooting range they are given a certain number of bullets and they had damn well better return with that exact number of spent casings. Every casing is counted and every bullet accounted for. The Army does not want any recruit using a bullet on his drill instructor. In the real world, the government cannot keep that kind of clamp on its citizens.  When the government tries to clamp down on objects, whether they are books or guns or vials of drugs, it always entails invasion, search, seizure. 

Some years ago, Mad Dog was walking down a New York City street, carrying a long umbrella and a police patrol car screeched to a halt and a policeman jumped out of his car and demanded the umbrella. He twisted and pulled at it to no effect and finally handed it back to the dumbfounded Mad Dog. "Looking for a sword inside," the cop explained, a little sheepishly. "I feel safer now," Mad Dog said, being careful  to smile. Of course, Mad Dog was trying to make the policeman feel better. His heart was in the right place.  But if Mad Dog had been walking in Bedford Styvestant last week and a policeman had thrown him up against a wall and frisked him as part of Stop and Search, Mad Dog would have been outraged. If Mad Dog had been hauled off to the station house and strip searched, he would have been on the phone to his Congressman and if Mad Dog had been thrown into Gitmo, he would have spent every day planning his revenge against a government which could be so evil.

Somehow, the argument has to progress beyond the emotional and the personal to a level which the article by Mr. Nocera and Mr. Baum approached today.


  1. Mad Dog,
    I'm glad I didn't respond when I first read Nocera's interview of Baum because my initial take on Baum's views was pretty negative and I couldn't imagine why you thought his points were valid. Since I do respect your opinion I re-read the column and then began to see more clearly what he and you were getting at.You have to play with the cards your dealt and unfortunately I agree that the reality is the greatest threat to our safety is the multitude of guns already out there. ( I still disagree with his position that banning assault rifles and lowering magazine clip capacity won't make us safer, even if it's not significantly safer). The greatest progress on gun safety will probably be made working with the "gun guys" not against them, so it would be essential for both sides to try and find common ground ( guess the Jim Carrey video I suggested doesn't do much to bridge the divide would you say).

    To me his most important point was that he didn't believe that the NRA-thankfully- represented the views of many responsible gun owners and that a new rational, less extreme umbrella organization needs to be formed to corral the more moderate gun owners. However, can you think of a group who would fight the formation of such an organization more vehemently than the NRA who would fear-justifiably-that it would be cutting into their power base.

    You are right, it is most productive to look at these issues without as much emotion and personalization-but that's not easy. Like a lot of people, my fear and loathing of guns makes it difficult to look at things objectively. I've never felt that all gun owners were pathetic losers or carnage loving psychopaths, but when I really thought about it I realized I did feel all gun owners were guilty of bad judgement since, in my mind, if they had good judgement they wouldn't be gun owners. I'll admit that isn't always the case and one can be a responsible gun owner and not suffer from impaired judgement. I'm making progress. Now if gun owners can only realize that meaningful gun control is a safety issue ( not a power play) and is in everyone's best interest....

  2. Maud,

    It is curious that the hobby/passion/past time of one group should rise to the importance of a movement. I mean, you don't have people who are passionate about snow mobiles or kayaking making such an impact on national policy. Thing is, the passion those people feel about their objects does not place anyone else at risk, for the most part.
    If psychology is the key to the gun guy, then, if we are to make any progress, I would think we have to take that psychology into account.

    Mad Dog