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Sorry N.R.A., America Is Not Dodge City

Matt Pressberg |
December 25, 2012 | 7:02 p.m. PST


America does not need Dodge City law enforcement. (Marion Doss/Flickr)
America does not need Dodge City law enforcement. (Marion Doss/Flickr)
I decided to go hard with charts and logic in my article after the Aurora shooting in July because I finally had had enough of the profound ignorance polluting the public dialogue about guns and I wanted to force-feed it facts.

I described the conversation this way:

“The public gun rights debate in America has devolved into a sideshow. On one side, we have middle-aged men with unfulfilled Rambo fantasies, and on the other, people who really do think that anyone who owns a gun wants to kill. For them, either more guns make us safer, or no guns do. You are either prepared for a shootout at all times or there is never a reasonable use for a handgun. There is no in-between.”

The shock of Newtown prompted several stalwart defenders of gun rights like Sens. Joe Manchin, Mark Warner and Harry Reid, all of whom I respect on this issue, to announce they were ready to have an open-minded discussion about guns, which I wholeheartedly embraced. We need their voices in this debate. The only way to get sensible gun laws is to have people who are sensible about guns and how they work writing them. Not Mike Bloomberg or Jan Brewer.

I had some hope that the National Rifle Association, having announced a press conference with several days of lead time to craft a message, knowing the spotlight had been shining on the organization with unprecedented intensity, would take their (deserved) seat at the national dinner table discussion about gun rights with a nuanced and thoughtful message.

I was naïve. They want shootouts.

The takeaway from my July article was that considering all the firearms in circulation in this country, Americans are a very responsible gun-owning people. We have an overall safe society, and the unsafe parts of it are unsafe not because of looser gun laws, but because of weak local economies, poor schools and a general breakdown in civic institutions.

Because kids in Gary, Ind. and South Los Angeles are just as much our children as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we owe it to them to help create legitimate economic opportunities in those communities and provide schools that can be springboards toward success, and not toward unsavory relationships. We also owe it to all Americans to work for more perfect gun laws that keep firearms out of the hands of criminals, unsupervised children and the mentally ill but don’t infringe on the unique and sacred right of law-abiding citizens to own them.

These are separate and distinct problems with separate and distinct solutions. There can be some overlap; improving the quality of affordable child care (a bad neighborhood fix) is likely to reduce accidental shootings by children in that area (a gun safety fix), but reducing violent crime and improving our gun laws are neither intertwined nor mutually exclusive.

Making legal guns harder to acquire in a neighborhood will have absolutely no impact on reducing crime as long as the social factors that incubate it remain. It’s very hard to buy a legal gun in Johannesburg. It’s very easy to buy one in Salt Lake City. It’s much easier to get shot by a gun in Johannesburg than Salt Lake City.

America is largely safe, and the odds of being a victim of gun violence, particularly for someone who is not a young black male living in a gang-infested neighborhood or in an abusive romantic relationship, are quite slim. Not despite or due to the amount of guns we own, but for other reasons, the mainstream American experience is of a mostly law-abiding and functional country where people can generally trust their love ones to come home safely, with extremely rare, tragic exceptions.

The United States is an armed and civilized society, and although the two are unrelated, the fact that the latter is true continues to provide an argument in defense of the former. Common-sense gun safety laws like closing the gun show loophole and mandating safer storage (particularly in homes with children) would make things even safer, but by and large, Americans can be trusted with guns.

Wayne LaPierre, the porntastically-named executive vice president of the N.R.A., disagrees. He sees America as a very scary place with a sadistic killer around every corner, a place where walking around without an armed escort is just asking for it. To that end, he thinks the best thing we can do to curb gun violence in America (which is overwhelmingly NOT school shootings in upscale communities, a fact that bears repeating until shit gets done on behalf of all gun homicide victims), is to place armed guards in schools.

This should be frightening to all people who a) think (know) America doesn’t need UN-style peacekeeping in kindergarten classes and b) are familiar with commercial air travel and therefore know what happens when you exchange the feeling (not reality) of increased security (Columbine had an armed security guard) for government-badged agency bloat.

Sheriff Wyatt Earp made people check their guns when he bossed Dodge City because it was a dangerous lawless place where people were shooting it out. I don’t think America is anything like Dodge City. It scares me that Wayne does.

Wasting real cops to humor irrational P.T.A. moms and men named Wayne LaPierre is bad enough, but the N.R.A.’s plan to use bored retirees is even sillier. The last thing we need is some senior with Walter Mitty-George Zimmerman syndrome putting one in a kid’s chest and another through an overhead projector. 

High-crime Oakland has had to pare down its police department due to California’s budget woes, which has produced such consequences as collecting fewer illegal guns from criminals (which are the guns that actually do kill people). There’s no way we can afford to place an armed officer at every school unless we radically under-secure areas of real crime for the off chance that some white kids get shot up at a school. Maybe we’d have one less Aurora a year but 100 more Chicagos. We’d certainly be closer to Dodge City.

I understand why people who dislike guns would want to believe old Westerns are an accurate portrayal of American gun ownership. I don’t know why someone who allegedly respects guns and the freedoms surrounding them like Wayne LaPierre does.


I received a few kind and thought-provoking notes in response to my post-Aurora and post-Newtown pieces, but I wanted to highlight one essay, from a Dubai resident by way of Britain and Canada named Jamie Johnson, which I thought was quite good and had a few points I’d like to touch on briefly here.

Please read his entire piece here (it’s long but very much worth it). Block quotes are all from Jamie; my comments are in normal text.

“They were mostly white children at Sandy Hook, middle class and with potentially wonderful lives ahead of them. Speaking as a Brit, we tend to feel an affinity towards the US, beamed as is into our living rooms every day, and we imagine ourselves and Americans as sharing a bond. So, we feel outraged. But not at every child killed, just the news-worthy ones. The infant murder rate in the US in 2010, that is children under the age of one year, was 7.9 per 100,000 overall, but 17.6 per 100,000 for black infants. For 15-19 year olds in 2010, the rate at which white male teens were murdered was 2.4 per 100,000. For black male teens, it was 51.7 per 100,000. Twenty-two times higher! Where is our outrage now?”

That outrage is long overdue. Those statistics are astonishing and we should be ashamed.

“This is where male, African-American teens come in. Even today, fewer black than white teens enter university. The pool of teachers willing to work in the poorest areas, on low salaries and at greater risk of crime, is small and therefore quality of education suffers at all levels. As schools crumble, the education they impart gets worse, and the pool of teachers becomes ever smaller. A poorer education leads to poorer job prospects and poorer prospects for a stable family. Without an enormous external effort, the cycle won’t be broken, and the kids will remain easy pickings for anyone who needs warm bodies to shift their drugs. While the profits for those at the higher end of the drug-dealing world may be high, at street level the earnings are low and the competition intense. That drug-dealing is illegal removes any deterrent from using illegal means to keep or grow a dealer’s territory. All of this combines with lower taxation income (due to low declared incomes and low property values) for the municipalities involved, which means less policing and fewer means available to point kids in a better direction. Why aren’t we prepared to do for these millions of kids what we’ll do in the name of 20 dead white kids?”

Fixing broken institutions is the key to reducing gun violence. This is a great explanation of why.

“The comment which started me on the journey this article has led me down was made by one of those former Facebook friends. Before she unfriended me, she left on my wall this comment: ‘surely if it were to only save one life it is worth imposing stronger gun laws.’ In my reply, I asked what she would be willing to give up, if it would save just one life.”

Overreacting to singular incidents is why we still take our shoes off while going through airport security. The shoe bomber happened in 2001. It is nearly 2013.

“From a more philosophical perspective, liberty and public safety tend to be in competition and, in the spirit of Jeffersonian democracy, there are many who believe passionately that liberty is the highest goal.”

Unfortunately, nannyism remains a strong influence on the ruling party. This is why it will probably take President Rand Paul to abolish the T.S.A. and end the War on Drugs.

“Where Matt’s proposal may face real opposition is when he suggests that the name of prospective gun buyers under 30 should be made public, so that anyone with a serious objection can make it known. There may well be privacy concerns around this, and it also gives potential thieves advance knowledge of whom they can steal a gun from!”

This is all true. Protecting privacy (which is of paramount importance in a free society) is the single biggest impediment to keeping guns out of the hands of potentially violent unbalanced people.

“Much of the chatter on news channels and the internet concerns the legal purchase of semi-automatic rifles such as the Bushmaster used by the Sandy Hook murderer. The Bushmaster is a copy of the AR15, which became the M16 and eventually the M4 in US military service, though obviously with no facility for fully-automatic fire in civilian hands. What do people actually need these rifles for? Well, many of them are used for target shooting, both formal and informal. Some, especially the more expensive varieties, are used for varmint shooting. Some are used for making holes in Coke cans. This will no doubt seem like overkill to many, though there’s no great philosophical difference between owning more gun than you need and owning a Ferrari in a land with speed limits. In any case, the actual power of an AR15’s bullet, usually expressed as kinetic energy in feet-pounds, is considerably lower than that of a bullet from the average hunting rifle. There are many types of semi-automatic hunting rifle, and for the first five shots they can be fired as fast as an AR15.”

I own a bolt-action .308 rifle, the kind of gun you’d see in the cabinet of plenty of serious deer hunters. It can’t be fired too fast, as you have to slide the bolt back and lock it in place before each shot, but each round flies out of the muzzle end with jarring (and to some of us, exciting) force. An advanced shooter can easily hit a target 1,000 yards away. The U.S. military uses a fancier version with fundamentally the same guts as its M24 sniper rifle. It is horrific to imagine (but quite easy to foresee) a situation in which a gunman perched on a balcony hundreds of yards from a school can snipe children playing in a field at recess. The first season finale of Homeland shows how that might look.

Should we ban large caliber hunting rifles? Of course not; unlike 30-round clips for AR-15s, getting rid of the .308 or .30-06 caliber for civilian use would have a serious impact on hunters. The same thing that makes an AR-15 a public safety threat makes grandpa’s bolt-action .30-06 a public safety threat: the wrong person pulling the trigger, not a forward pistol grip or thumbhole stock.

While we’re here, I’d also like to clear up some confusion about semi-automatic weapons. First of all, an AR-15-style rifle, like the one carried by the Newtown shooter is not an automatic weapon.

An automatic weapon either fires in a continuous stream as long as the trigger is depressed until there is no more ammo to fire, or it fires bursts of several rounds per trigger pull. These have been practically illegal for civilians to own, with very rare exception, since 1936. A semi-automatic weapon fires one round each time the trigger is pulled, and chambers the next when it is released. Hold your hand out like you are wielding an imaginary pistol, pull your index finger back, and release it. Do that as fast as you can. That’s the speed a semi-automatic weapon can fire. No faster.

There are semi-automatic pistols, shotguns and rifles. They all operate on this principle, and almost all have fairly self-evident hunting, sporting and/or self-defense uses. One shot per trigger pull. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or Piers Morgan.

It is easy to say that a semi-automatic rifle based off of a fully automatic military design, like the AR-15 fired by the Newtown shooter, has no hunting purpose. But this does, and it fires the same size ammo at fundamentally the same speed. This is the same model of rifle, but in a scarier outfit. Also same ammo. Not as mean and tacticool as the Bushmaster AR-15, but potentially just as deadly. The Bushmaster is a nicer gun than the Mini-14 for hunting and plinking cans, but that has nothing to do with its lethality in the hands of a murder.

“It is difficult to argue against a ban on high-capacity magazines, at least for rifles. Handguns are often bought for self-defence in the US, and there is some justification for not being forced into having to change magazines when the Congress, rather than your gun manufacturer, decides it’s necessary. You may be trying to stop a home invasion at the time. If someone is threatening you at a distance that needs a rifle, taking cover or leaving the area makes more sense.”

This raises an important point. In most countries, self-defense is not a valid reason in and of itself to purchase a weapon. In the U.S., we don’t need an official reason, but self-defense as a justification for gun ownership is socially valid. 30 rounds might be overkill, but is 10 enough, and even if it is, should Dianne Feinstein or Gaston Glock make that call? Maybe Joe Manchin?

Sen. Manchin spoke last week of needing to get his “friends” at the N.R.A. to the table to talk about guns. Too bad Wayne was stuck at the kids’ table living Wild West fantasies. It’s time for the responsible adults who represent real gun-owning America to leave him and his posse behind.

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

Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of the NRA here.

Reach Editor-at-Large Matt Pressberg here.



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