The Carnage on American Ground

Church is uncomfortable at times.  On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I went to church in the middle of the day.  The season of Lent was beginning: a period calling Christians back to the church and a deepening of their faith, a call that is not so easy to respond to, given that we are errant and have only a cloudy notion of God.

The sermon, which the bishop, Jeffrey Lee, preached, was about how our personal enchantment with the world leads to spiritual misery, characterized above all by our estrangement from human society.  (Lee spoke at length about Eustace, the fictional bad-boy of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who, in his eagerness to claim a great treasure found in a dragon’s lair, clasps a gold bracelet on his hand, only to find that his greed has transformed him into a beastly dragon, too.)  Christians may resolve to “give up things” for Lent, as is customary, but without divine grace we cannot restore ourselves, nor can we hope that such measures will bring us to a right relation with other humans, a relationship that we innately desire.

Which is why (here the bishop leapt to a startling conclusion) the Christian mission is inevitably collective.  We would be miserable even if we could attain salvation alone, but, as it is, we simply can’t.  Moving away from the wrong and toward the right involves turning from individuality and toward the common good.  It involves assuming responsibility for the many wrongs we witness each day.  Lee argued, for instance, that we, his hearers, were in some way responsible for the death of a respected police commander here in Chicago, who met his fate at mid-day Monday while trying to apprehend a convicted felon in flight after committing yet another crime.  The commander, who just a few minutes earlier had been on his way to a meeting at city hall, was shot dead in the stairwell of a downtown government office building.

I left church about 1:30, pondering how I could be responsible for this crime.  At about the same hour, I later learned, a crazed nineteen-year-old entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida and, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and ample ammunition, began shooting dead the youngsters, teachers, and staff inside.  After murdering 17 people, most of them in their teens, this ghastly creature slipped away to hide himself in the banality of a Walmart and Subway before being picked up by the police.

Fingers have begun to point, divisions to arise, as though this damning episode were a grand occasion for taking sides.  But we are all on one side in sharing the responsibility for crimes so deeply rooted in who we are, whose sources are not just individual, but moral, legal, political, and communal.  As inhabitants of a self-governing society, we are all responsible for the society we have.  When it comes to gun violence, every person of conscience in the US can rattle off what needs to be done.  That we fail to do it ranks as a tragedy, a national sin.

RELATED:
Mary Schmich on what Marjory Stoneman Douglas would have done (Chicago Tribune).

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The grief and anguish after Dallas

Preparing to mend Fort McHenry flag, Courtesy Library of Congress
What more is there to offer amid the voluble discourse of this sad week, when violence took the place of order and justice?  The United States: will the terrorism of Charleston and Orlando diminish them?  Will we descend to the habit of a shrug when children are murdered in our schools, when movie-goers are gunned down in a theater, when a cafeteria worker is shot to death in the middle of a routine traffic stop, when a sniper decides to channel his anger into killing police officers?

Sadly, we may grow indifferent if the spiral of unjustified violence continues much longer. We may shun the news for fear of having to look at the latest, outrageous use of quick-murdering guns. We may all cease to bat an eye at the latest victims, the latest place when guns were used to sort out human conflicts that deserved to be aired in the courts. And when that happens, we will have lost the semblance of unity that has kept us going until now. We will be just another war-torn country, with battle-lines too subtle to stay on the right side of.

Congress, endlessly preoccupied with the 2nd Amendment, has forgotten the larger purposes that, according to the Constitution, justify our federal government, particularly its charge to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ and ‘promote the general Welfare.’  Will Congress act, in whatever ways it sees fit, to promote the internal peace and safety that Americans of all races crave, and that, by right, we are all entitled to expect?  Or will Congress forget its obligation to the nation, its members cravenly priding themselves on dedication to some lesser cause or party?

Changes in law are needed, but America also needs something more that’s harder.  Americans need to look into their hearts and examine whether they are living up to the potentialities of our civic culture, a culture that has allowed us to dwell with one another in a relatively open and unfettered way.  Americans need to recall the great civil tradition that has inspired generations to grow into a society where people who differ from one another nonetheless co-exist, enjoying ‘the blessings of Liberty’ and fitfully recognizing in one another our mutual humanity.  We have striven according to an Americanness that is deeper than either religion or skin.  This cultural effort will be imperfect always, but without it we will be condemned to grieve forever, anguishing over the most precious republican virtue lost.

Image: from this source.

A Cracking Veneer

heavily tweeked aerial shot of downtown and industrial Chicago
I’ve been away.  To Puerto Rico, ironically, which like Illinois is bankrupt, but which is free of the pretensions of grandeur that make living in Chicago, Illinois such a political and spiritual nightmare.

While I’ve been away,

A woman fleeing a gang of 10 youths in Streeterville ran out onto the Drive, where she was killed by a car.

Sixty-nine people were shot over the holiday weekend, 6 fatally.

The City of Chicago paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit that whistle-blowing cops had brought, heading off a trial that would have centered on the police department’s code of silence.  Mayor Emanuel, who was to have been called to testify, figured this was a good use of citizens’ money.  What use is justice here anymore, anyway?

In the state capital, the legislature once again ended its spring session without passing a budget.  The legislature has now failed of its duty for two years.  According to the website Truth in Accounting, Illinois’s debt burden is $187 billion.  Others place it at $148 billion.  Illinois lawmakers are too cowardly to face the pain entailed in getting the state’s finances back in balance again.  It’s difficult to divine why they are in office.

Chicago is a microcosm of all that troubles the nation now.  The racial divisions, out-of-control violence, and public corruption are corrosive.  Public order is fragile and in jeopardy.  Over all this is a posturing ‘leadership’ that cares mainly for reputation and the superiority of being part of a political elite.

Image © Susan Barsy

The president’s vision of progress on guns

The sociopathic killings in Oregon on October 1 spurred another round of chaotic and frenzied comment. The dialogue began with the president, whose comments on the shootings came out fast, faster than news of the shooting itself.  Whereas some might see the increase in mass gun murders in the US as a cultural, even media-driven, problem, the president understandably sees the Oregon massacre and others like it as having political roots.  In his brief somber statement that day, President Obama argued that this form of criminality has grown out of political choices that ordinary Americans have made.  Make different choices, and sociopathic rampages involving firearms will begin to wane.  Most strikingly, the president appealed to the public for relief from a stale, inconclusive dialogue about gun violence that has become terrifyingly routine.

President Obama’s remarks are worth reading in their entirety. They are notable for what they did and did not say. The president did not call on Americans to back any specific gun-control measure.  Instead, he made three general appeals.

 1.  GET OUT THE FACTS ON GUN-RELATED DEATHS.  The president appealed to the journalistic world to assemble and publish comprehensive data about gun-related deaths in the US.  It’s odd, but authoritative statistics about gun trafficking, gun sales, gun violence, and gun crimes are surprisingly hard to come by.  Several years ago Congress barred the Obama administration from studying this problem or amassing authoritative statistics on public’s behalf.  So, most of the available data is very old, incomplete, or statistically flawed.  Instead, the job of monitoring the extent and nature of gun violence has fallen to a ragtag assemblage of voluntary efforts throughout the country, such as Slate’s effort in the year after Newtown, or the real-time reporting on gun violence that the good people at the Gun Violence Archive carry on.  Accurate information about gun violence and its social costs could reshape the gun debate by silencing false claims and focusing public attention around effective policy aims.

2.  RESPONSIBLE GUN-OWNERS ARE A KEY GROUP IN THE STRUGGLE TO PROMOTE GUN SAFETY.  The millions of Americans who own guns are perhaps the only constituency capable of checking the influence of the National Rifle Association.  The heinous mass murder of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook School in December 2012 effected an attitudinal shift, galvanizing responsible gun-owners in favor of stricter gun laws.  Surveys show that 90 percent of gun owners now favor ‘common-sense’ gun-safety measures, a stance at odds with the unbounded pro-gun rhetoric of the NRA.  In his message, President Obama appealed directly to gun owners, asking them ‘to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.’  Gun-owners are uniquely positioned to speak out in support of prudent public-safety measures that do not impinge upon Second Amendment rights.

3.  VOTERS MUST MAKE PUBLIC SAFETY A PRIORITY: Though many Americans favor tougher gun laws, they do not view this as a key issue when voting.  As a consequence, the gun lobby and pro-gun advocates routinely get their way in Congress and state legislatures.  The president urged voters to care more, and to pay more attention to candidates’ voting records (an issue that has lately vexed Bernie Sanders).  Without legislators willing to vote for gun-control measures, the political struggle to inhibit the reckless use of firearms will go nowhere.

The president’s conviction that the will of the people can transform the gun debate is characteristic of an executive who has taken to heart his role as ‘the people’s sovereign.’  Time and again, the president has placed his faith in a democratic public to generate the “change we can believe in.”  Whether Americans have the determination and wherewithal to fight for a safer civil society remains to be seen.

The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act

World map of civilian gun deaths per capita (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

A post I wrote back in 2012, ‘Should We Treat Guns More Like Cars?’ is now the subject of a White House petition.  The idea is to require all gun owners to carry insurance on guns and to empower the insurance industry to set appropriate premiums based on risks posed.

Proponents of mandatory firearm insurance include New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and US congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney.

In combination with other measures, mandatory insurance would help shift the focus of the gun debate toward the crucial issues of responsible ownership and community safety.  It would make it more expensive for sociopaths to acquire and stockpile weapons.

Please help promote this idea by signing the White House petition.  JUST AS IMPORTANT, share this post with your friends on social media.  The petition needs 100,000 signatures by November 1 to become viable.

To sign the White House petition for The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act, click here.

To read my original post, click here.

Image: RGlouster, World Map of Civilian Guns Per Capita, 2007.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Click on the map to go to the source.

Recommended:
Rolling Stone, “How to Beat the NRA in 7 Not-So-Easy Steps.”

Consign the sociopath and terrorist to oblivion

I recoil at seeing photographs of the smirking white racist who gunned down nine African-Americans in a Charleston church last week.

His actions, like those of so many other mass-murderers and terrorists, were directed not just toward his victims but toward us, the public.  His actions were calculated to command our attention.  This low-life left a manifesto explaining the influential effect he hoped his actions would have.  His motive was to show up society.  When journalists give this despicable creature publicity, they fulfill his perverted and malevolent dream of glory.  They realize the image of what, without us, he could never be.  Perversely, they grant the craven narcissist celebrity.

Society and the media should shun and ostracize actors who terrorize and assail society.  Coverage of their actions should be bland: imageless, minimal, and uninteresting.  The pronouncements, images, and names of terrorists and sociopathic killers should be consigned to annihilation, as beneath our acceptance or recognition.  Let their names and deeds be publicly recalled only to the extent required in the justice system.  Cast them into an acid bath of oblivion, consign them to social death, silently and without a second thought.

The virtuous stance of the victims’ families is far more worthy of our consideration, far more sensational, and fuller of the power that inspires our awe.

Should We Treat Guns More Like Cars?

Where Felons Get Their Guns (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If our goal is to reduce gun violence, we must re-conceptualize the discourse around guns and focus more on the risks and responsibilities that go along with gun-owning.


As of 2 October 2015,
The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act
is the subject of a White House petition.
Sign the petition by clicking here.


We seldom talk about the responsibilities that positively accompany owning a gun.  “Gun control,” the issue we argue about instead, quickly organizes itself around several fixed and immutable nodes, in which the same few phrases—”individual rights,” “2nd Amendment,” and “semi-automatic weapons”—invariably feature.  If people from opposing camps talk about the issue at all, conversation quickly becomes so dichotomized it stalls.  We need new ideas to get beyond the strategic and ideological stalemate.  We need to stop focusing on inanimate objects (guns) and start talking about people.

We can’t even come to the point of agreeing that gun violence is a problem.  People who have seen gun violence up close understandably want to rein in irresponsible use, but they too often fall into the trap of assuming that if gun ownership were limited, the problem of gun violence would go away.  On the other side of the issue are law-abiding and responsible gun-owners (who make up a majority), who bridle at proposals that essentially criminalize and stigmatize their activities.

The huge population of Americans who own and use guns responsibly is not the problem.  Gun violence results when guns are used irresponsibly: when a person is careless, criminal, crazy, or enraged.  A gun is a tool.  How guns are used in our society is a function of our culture as much as our laws.

While the Second Amendment makes it difficult to regulate gun ownership, we can hope to change how guns are used and treated in our culture.  As Clarence Page has pointed out on the McLaughlin Group, some countries with high rates of gun ownership have low rates of gun violence.  Becoming such a society should be our goal.

World map of countries, by number of guns per 100 residents (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Is there something to be gained from “normalizing” gun ownership, while at the same time expecting at least as much from a gun owner as from a person who owns a car?  The parallel is useful, because car ownership offers a positive instance of incorporating a potentially lethal instrument into our culture in a way that minimizes risk and maximizes safety.

Like guns, cars, though useful, can be dangers to their owners and to other people.  Which is why we, as a society, require that cars be registered, and that their drivers be educated and licensed.  Moreover, to ensure that those who wish to own and drive cars do so without cost to others, we require that owners buy auto insurance.  Auto insurance companies ply a flourishing trade, because they have discovered just how to assess all the various risks and costs associated with a particular individual owning a particular car.

No one questions our “right” to own an automobile.  There are millions and millions of vehicles and drivers on American streets.  Meanwhile, however, a structure has evolved around car-owning intended to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, we do it safely.

Get the insurance industry involved

Treating guns like cars, and insuring them, could have many benefits.  Some of the benefits would accrue to gun-owners; others to society collectively.  In particular, insurers could place an actuarial value on the specific hazards involved in the ownership of a specific gun.  Individuals wishing to buy semi-automatic weapons would be free to do so, but the insurance costs would provide an incentive to think twice and go easy.

Individual gun owners would have an incentive to see that guns insured in their name were not used in the commission of crime.  They would have a stronger incentive to report the loss or theft of a gun promptly.  Nearly half of all firearms used in the commission of felonies are lost, stolen, or borrowed.  Drawing a sharper line between criminal gun use and legal gun ownership would in itself encourage more personal responsibility.

A more market-oriented approach to reducing gun violence would open up a whole new field for the insurance industry, and might gain more support among lawmakers than does the state-heavy approach that most liberals tout now.  This approach might also foster an alliance between legal gun owners and other law-abiding citizens, an alliance that is essential if we hope to minimize gun violence in our time.


REMEMBER: As of 2 October 2015,
The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act
is the subject of a White House petition.
Sign the petition by clicking here.


Top Image: Where felons get their guns, from this source.
(If you know of a more recent version of this figure, please contact me.)

Bottom image: World map of countries by number of guns per capita, from this source.

RELATED:
Nicholas Kristoff, A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths, NYT, October 3, 2015.
House Bill Would Require Gun Owners to Have Liability Insurance, The Hill, May 29, 2015.
Nicholas Kristoff, Our Blind Spot About Guns, NYT, July 2014.
Gun Deaths Exceed in Motor Vehicle Deaths in Ten States, Huffington Post, May 2012.
Suburban Shops Main Source of Guns in Chicago Crimes, Chicago Tribune, August 2012.
Alvarez: Law Could Discourage “Straw Buyers” of Guns, Chicago Sun-Times, September 2012.

This article was featured on the #Gun Crisis: Philadelphia website.