Thursday, October 8, 2015

Considering the tradeoff: The cost of the Second Amendment

This semester, like every other, I teach my PR writing students that one element of newsworthiness is unusualness. If something is happening for the first or last time, rarely happens, or is just plain strange, it probably has some news value. It's been about a week since the Oregon shooting, and I remember vividly my reaction to hearing the news: "Eh." The sad truth is that acts like these have become prevalent enough that they are no longer unusual, and as such we've become desensitized to them.

I was prepared for the predictable news cycle to run its course: the shooting happens; the president, grief stricken, speaks to the nation; prominent figures and the media half-heartedly debate gun control measures; we delay action; and then Donald Trump says something stupid and/or racist and we forget the whole thing ever happened.

I must say, however, that I felt President Obama's remarks displayed more anger than grief, and I found that refreshing, particularly when he commented that "our thoughts and prayers are not enough" (as if they ever are). This attack on our societal complacency regarding gun violence will hopefully jar us into acting, but at the very least it's made for a more interesting conversation than we've become accustomed to.

Still, the predictable pro-gun arguments popped up all over social and traditional media. So let's take a look at what I consider the top five, starting with the most absurd and working our way up.

5.) You can ban guns, but that won't stop criminals from obtaining them.

True. But this is more an argument against laws in general than an argument against gun control measures. Laws exist to deter undesirable behavior and provide means for punishment and isolation for those who commit heinous acts. Criminals, by definition, are those who break laws, and so long as laws exist there will always be criminals. The success of a law is best measured by the reduction -- not the elimination -- of unwanted actions committed by the population as a whole.

4.) I have  a right to protect my family.

You absolutely do, and the best way to protect your family is actually not owning a gun. Generally speaking, in households with guns, deaths of family members and suicides are far more common than in households where no gun is present. In truth, your guns are more likely to be used -- either purposely or accidentally -- to kill a member of your family than some masked intruder.

3.) Guns don't kill people. People kill people.

It's been shown through various statistics that increased access to guns correlates with increases in accidental gun deaths, gun homicides, and suicides. The gist of this line of argumentation is that if we banned guns, we'd still find ways to kill one another, so what's the point? Well, the point is that we'd almost assuredly do so a slower pace. Studies on suicide best illustrate this point. First, as you might expect, those who attempt suicide using firearms are far more successful at killing themselves than those using other means. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that once a preferred means of suicide is eliminated, many people simply choose not to attempt suicide at all.

2.) The problem isn't guns, it's mental illness.

I'm somewhat skeptical of this argument, particularly since we only seem to categorize gunmen as mentally disturbed in hindsight. More than anything, I see the mental health argument as a convenient red herring. But for the sake of argument, let's assume our inability to diagnose and properly treat the mentally ill -- and thus keep firearms out of their reach -- is the true problem. Why aren't we doing anything to correct this? The U.S. has a rather appalling history concerning the treatment of the mentally ill, and we're clearly not doing enough to help these people or to stop perpetuating a horrible stigma. As mental illness relates to gun violence, the discourse here is that guns aren't the problem, the mentally ill are the problem, and...and that's it. No concrete solution is ever put forth. In the words of John Oliver, if we're going to continue this ruse "then the very least we owe [the mentally ill] is a fucking plan." The fact that no one ever develops a viable way to address the mental-illness-gun problem suggests that this argument is largely nonsensical.

1.) The Second Amendment guarantees my right to own a gun.

Let's go to the text:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall no be infringed.
Many argue that the framers' intent was to provide for a national defense because the U.S. had no standing military at the time of Constitutional ratification. Therefore, more recent and more liberal interpretations constitute an overreach by justifying the right of all citizens to privately own firearms. While I am sympathetic to this argument, I tend to prefer interpretations of the Constitution that elicit the greatest amount of personal freedom and then work backward to restriction, if necessary.

With guns, it's now necessary to work backward. And I'll even acknowledge that doing so infringes on our Constitutional right to own and bear arms. But perhaps it's time we asked ourselves what the right is ultimately worth to us.

All rights come with some tradeoff. Take the rights of free speech and freedom of religion enumerated in the First Amendment. The tradeoff for my right to openly criticize my government and to practice a religion of my choosing -- which happens to be none -- means that I must also allow individuals to spout racist nonsense or express moronic and uninformed opinions. And, of course, I also have to allow Scientology to exist. Terrible as the downside of the First Amendment is, the good far outweighs the bad.

And for what it's worth, there are certain instances where we have agreed to place reasonable restrictions on speech. Threatening speech is forbidden, as are libel and slander. Commercial speech is also highly regulated and false advertising is downright illegal.

Our gun rights are already reasonably restricted to some degree as well. Firearms are forbidden on airplanes, in most schools, and on most government property. Upholding our gun rights simply isn't worth the potential costs in these scenarios.

In truth, it's not worth it in most scenarios. As I see it, guns have two legitimate functions: self defense and hunting. And as I have explained earlier, statistics show that guns aren't all that effective when it comes to self defense. As far as hunting is concerned, a bolt action rifle and a breach loading shotgun are more than sufficient. If we banned every other firearm tomorrow, would we really be affected so negatively?

Still, even if we didn't want to go that far, there are a host of other reasonable actions we might take. More extensive background checks, tougher regulations on dealers, requirements for safe gun storage, mandatory gun safety courses, and the implementation of smart technology are just a few examples. Which would work best? Unfortunately we have no idea because, believe it or not, the U.S. Congress has banned federal agencies from conducting most gun violence research.

There's no denying that guns are deeply ingrained in the American culture. Hell, I own a gun. I love to go shooting at the range. It's fun. It makes you feel powerful. And, I think for many, gun ownership serves as a symbol of control and self-reliance. But I'm no longer persuaded that the benefits of upholding the Second Amendment outweigh the costs, and if we're not willing to at least consider what a different reality concerning guns in America might look like (i.e., funding studies on potential gun control initiatives), then societally, we're probably not too sure about this tradeoff either.