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Newtown, Gun Safety And Good Citizenship

Matt Pressberg |
December 17, 2012 | 9:59 p.m. PST


Sensible gun laws need to focus on Chicago as much as Newtown. (-Tripp-/Flickr)
Sensible gun laws need to focus on Chicago as much as Newtown. (-Tripp-/Flickr)
The United States of America was founded on the revolutionary principle that we have Creator-given—and not government-given rights. Our Constitution—written in 1789, a time when most of the world was living in serfdom or worse—codified such rights as freedom of speech, freedom to have our homes and property not subject to random search and seizure and the right to bear arms, first to white men only, but now extending to all of us.

However, with these great freedoms come great responsibilities, and when we neglect the latter, we are devaluing the former. The president said that we must change. The change we need is to take the Second Amendment seriously, and realize that if we are to be proper stewards of this unique right to keep firearms, we have to be better as citizens. We can’t leave people behind, and let them solve their temporary problems with the most permanent of methods.

The first purpose of guns in America was to protect communities. Now we just dump guns into the hands of increasingly self-absorbed and isolated people, some of whom clearly need help, and hope for the best.

It’s natural to react against guns after they have been used to unfairly cut short the lives of innocent people, and particularly small children. Nothing can be worse than what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in degree, only in magnitude. However, if we want to make a real dent on gun violence in America—all of it—we can no longer act like outcast, socially removed and often mentally ill young men who seem to be slipping through the cracks are someone else’s problem, but even more importantly, we can no longer act like decaying schools and industries in many of our inner cities are someone else’s problem.

Having 20 children gunned down in an elementary school is unacceptable. We must get better. But having 40 people shot, 10 fatally, in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend is also unacceptable. We must get better there as well.

If this particularly horrific tragedy creates an opportunity to have an open-minded and fair discussion about improving gun safety in our society, we owe it to every victim of homicide in this country to work for laws that prevent Chicagos as much as Newtowns.

A good place to start is by not having coastal liberals like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Senator Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco assume roles as the uninformed faces of gun control. Let rural gun-owning Democrats who have credibility on this issue Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (who said some very sensible things Monday) and Jon Tester of Montana lead the way, and look out for the self-defense of Americans who don’t live in dense skyscraper cities where police officers can be there in seconds.

Also, any proposed piece of legislation involving government agents coming into private homes to confiscate guns is not only a complete non-starter to anyone with any sense of American history or logic, but fulfills precisely the fantasy end-times scenario of the paranoid, anti-government segment of the gun-owning community.

This fringe element has always been present, but lately the National Rifle Association has basically been hijacked by completely uncompromising absolutists, and politicians have cowered to its demands. The end result of this is the N.R.A. supporting policies many gun owners don’t think are wise (like returning guns to mentally ill people) and endorsing ideology many of us frankly find offensive. Its unthinking obstinacy has polluted the conversation.

The N.R.A.’s conspicuous and cowardly silence in the wake of this latest massacre, and many politicians strongly supported by the N.R.A. showing a willingness to break from its increasingly extremist doctrine, may yet open up the floor for the silent majority of gun owners who want to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of mentally ill people, documented gang members and convicted felons just as much as any Upper West Side mom does. We can’t waste this opportunity by having the Louie Gohmerts and Mike Bloombergs of the world talking nonsense past each other. It’s time for responsible gun laws crafted by responsible, law-abiding people with guns. From South Los Angeles to Newtown to Chicago, our children’s lives depend on it.

Americans are never giving up our guns, nor should we. Our constitutional right to bear arms is integral to our national culture, as much as Park Slope and Pacific Heights wishes it wasn’t so. The best way to honor this right is by trying to be the most polite, civilized, caring and non-violent armed society we can.

These are some policies that I’d like to see put on the table:

Close the gun show loophole, bolster background checks for first-time gun buyers under 30, and require California-style safekeeping

Most gun owners agree that some random dude shouldn’t be able to walk into a convention center and buy a handgun with cash. That’s just irresponsible. The easiest and most effective single piece of gun control legislation would be to close the gun show loophole and require a full background check for every gun sale, be it at a retail store, gun show or from a private party.

In an article I wrote in July after the Aurora, Colo. massacre, as another gating mechanism to hopefully filter out some spree killers, who have historically had a noticeably uncomfortable mien, I also recommended this:

“A longer and more thorough criminal and mental health background check for first-time gun buyers under 30 or so, as well as a public notice of their application and a 30 day period for public complaints. There would be some type of committee to review anything that came in and hold follow-up talks with the applicant. The committee could also take complaints after the permit was issued but there would be much a higher standard needed to revoke an existing permit than to issue a first one.”

This is not a perfect idea and wouldn’t have prevented Newtown and Portland, which were committed with stolen guns—or the countless faceless victims on the West Side of Chicago or in South Los Angeles, but may have made a difference in Aurora, Tucson and Virginia Tech.

It’s also time to get serious about storing our guns and ammo safely. It’s really just basic personal responsibility, which is the underpinning behind the Second Amendment itself, but our last two spree shootings—and so many street crimes—have been committed with stolen guns. California’s safe or gun lock requirement is a good template for a national policy:

“California recognizes the importance of safe storage by requiring that all firearms sold in California be accompanied by a DOJ-approved firearms safety device or proof that the purchaser owns a gun safe that meets regulatory standards established by the Department.”

Knowing she had an adult son that required full-time care, the mother of the Sandy Hook shooter being so cavalier as to wave guns around outside and leave them accessible to such an unbalanced person is frankly inexcusable. I live alone in a security building and I always have my guns locked away when I’m not home attending to them, because I know I could never live with the knowledge that someone stole one of my guns and used it in a crime. This is just common sense gun safety.

Push for an assault weapons surtax instead of a ban
Since an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle appeared to have been the primary weapon used in the Newtown massacre, so-called assault weapons—which are really nothing more than hunting rifles with a scary tactical appearance and extended magazines—have become a focal point of the political conversation on guns.

Sen. Feinstein said on Meet the Press Sunday that she plans to introduce legislation banning semi-automatic assault weapons (which she called weapons of war, even though our soldiers use fully automatic weapons—and really drones at this point), a policy the president has also shown support for.

The thing is, the semi-automatic rifle may be the tool of evil du jour, but as I wrote in July, most gun crime is committed by cheap handguns. An assault weapons ban does nothing for Chicago mothers living in fear, but based on a reading of the early tea leaves, it appears likely to be the signature post-Newtown regulatory initiative.

I originally proposed this plan just for California, but in lieu of a ban, I’d argue for an assault weapons surtax, and to funnel these extra funds toward under-resourced inner-city schools and our cash-strapped mental health infrastructure. This would do more to prevent gun homicides than preventing people with a couple grand to spare from buying tacticool rifles.

Meet at a 15-round magazine capacity

I’ve argued that California’s 10-round restriction is too limiting, and I’m not convinced that with the speed of magazine changes that these limits mean much (although the Tucson shooter was tackled as he reloaded, so that’s something to consider), but 30-round banana clips and 50-round drums are not going to be missed by hunters or people planning to defend their homes against something smaller than a battalion. Meeting at 15 seems like a concession both sides can get behind.

Give young men opportunities to live the American Dream

This is really the key, and if it takes the terror inflicted by a sick 20-year-old man in an affluent Connecticut town to create the opportunity to enact policies to help other desperate young men in places like Chicago, so be it.

The effect of our gun saturation in America is that if someone wants to commit a violent act with a weapon, a gun is fairly easy to come by. We will never and should never aspire to disarm like Japan—that’s just not who we are as a society—but we can do better, with policies like some I’ve mentioned above, in plugging some of those leaks in our system.

But this is only half the equation. We also have to do more to give these young men opportunities to make a life that offers something more than standing on the corner with a pistol. This is not a gun safety issue, but a social and economic safety net issue.

As I wrote this summer, the measurement of gun ownership in a community reflects its gun culture, but the measurement of gun crime reflects its social strength. Flint, Mich. and Gary, Ind. were once booming company towns with a high quality of life. The plants closed, the jobs left, schools declined and gun violence skyrocketed.

As long as we let people backslide into the type of lives and in the types of communities where the easiest way to get diapers for a baby is to get a gun and steal them, we’ll have problems with gun violence. Many people were so torn up about Newtown because it struck the type of families who clearly invested in their children’s future and had that stripped from them in the worst way. The only way to keep other parents from feeling this same sadness is to invest in the future of our children as a country—all of them.

At this, more than anything else, America can and must get better.

Read more of Neon Tommy’s coverage of the Newtown shooting here.

Reach Editor-at-Large Matt Pressberg here.



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