Banning all guns is not the answer

When I entered the Society of Jesus, I was surprised to find out our community was filled with guns. This is not a metaphor. Between backs of the closet, under beds and I-don’t-even-want-to-know-where there were at least a couple dozen rifles to be found in my novitiate, and who knows what else.

No, I hadn’t accidentally taken a left instead of a right at the “Branch Davidians/Society of Jesus” turnoff. (Although talk about two trees diverging in a yellow wood.) The truth was—and I hesitate to say this, for fear of reinforcing coastal stereotypes that Midwesterners are all basically subjects of a Coen Brothers movie*—my Jesuit novitiate was located in Minnesota, and our staff and novices included a number of hunters.

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* Having said that, I have always found the Wisconsin practice of identifying water fountains as “bubblers” is not doing us any favors. 

Now, I am from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Guns are something people use to harm other people; that’s pretty much it. I think I had to handle a hand gun once in Cub Scouts—which frankly confirmed my instincts that Scouting that was never going to be for me (though 30-plus years later I am still pleased by the R2D2 Pinewood Derby car my dad and I made). That's the extent of my experience with firearms.

Still, if I have learned anything about myself it is that I have a natural talent for denying realities that are freaking me out. So I never raised a fuss, either as a novice or in the years later I spent working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where pretty much everyone had guns because hunting is a real thing that people do and enjoy.

Actually, let me correct that. In the novitiate, the presence of guns was something that disturbed me. We were in St. Paul, for God’s sake. With the exception of the staff, who were actual honest to God hunters, no one ever came back having “bagged” anything. By “hunting” they really meant “wandering around the woods drinking.”

On the Pine Ridge, on the other hand, I never really thought twice. Because—and again, let’s all try and fight the urge to imagine rez life as a world of tipis (sic) and loin-skinned brown people on horseback hunting buffalo; in my classes ordinary conversation would regularly include references to Tupac and Biggie—this was rural life, and guns were a part of that. A pretty unobtrusive part, in fact.

The recent tragedies in San Bernardino and Colorado yet again raise the question of what in God's name are we doing with guns in this country. And as I have stated here not long ago, I am more and more convinced that those who think the United States does not have a gun problem are in the same untenable position intellectually as climate change deniers. I’m sorry, but the evidence is just undeniable. And arguing with them is equally of no value.

At the same time, it is also clear the San Bernardino situation is more complicated than “they had guns.” (Also, stranger: if you are still watching CNN or MSNBC after their bizarre/horrible “Let’s Be TMZ” inspection of the crime scene, please, tell me why.) It begs among other things for a conversation about how we are going to understand terrorism today, and what we can do about it.

Still, the accessibility of guns is a part of the problem. And personally it’s one that I am all too happy to solve with “no more guns.”

But then I think of those I know who live in rural America, where this is for the most part not such an issue.* (Obviously they have their own gun-related tragedies, but I’d bet more people have died from gun-related violence in Chicago this year than in all of small town America. Certainly that’s true if we’re comparing mass shootings.) Saying they can’t have their hunting rifles is a lot like punishing a whole class because a couple kids are screwing around—it’s not fair, and it’s also seriously counterproductive. If you ever want to motivate the apathetic, blame them for someone else’s misjerkery.

* Having said that, to those hunters who insist they need automatic weapons and/or high capacity magazines, I love you but why stop there? Why not land mines and drone strikes? Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why. Having some limits is legitimate; in fact creative types say it is often the key to ingenuity. When the deer start packing, let’s circle back and reconsider.

So this is the middle ground we are searching for—something that stems the flow of insanity that we’re facing and yet also allows for what is a normal part of some very reasonable people’s lives.

There are some obvious ideas as to how to get there. I highly recommend the Sunday New York Times article on Australia’s 1996 National Firearms Agreement, which contrary to some left wing spin did not ban guns entirely, but did end automatic and semiautomatic weapons, pump shotguns and instituted a 28-day waiting period for purchasing firearms, and has had a significant impact.

There are other things we could do, too, like thumbprint locks that prevent anyone but the owner from using a gun, or giving every gun and bullet an invisible tag by which it can be traced back to the store it was bought in. Or banning concealed firearms, which more or less assume that the world is dangerous while also becoming a means for some to fulfill that prophesy. (Also, when was the last time you heard about an act of terrible potential gun violence being stopped by civilian with a gun? I’m sure it has happened, but not often.)

Organizations like the National Rifle Association succeed in large part by framing the conversation as monolithic us vs. monolithic them facing an all or nothing proposition, which given our Constitution and our national character has only one possible outcome. (Sometimes I wonder how much better off we would be as a country if we agreed not to make/tweet/post pronouncements about tragedies for at least 48 hours after an incident, to allow ourselves some time to breathe and take it all in. Even 24 hours, just to appreciate what has happened, out of respect for those whose lives have been lost.)

Those on the left (including myself) who respond with a kneejerk “#NOMOREGUNS!” may feel better for having said so, but we are only reinforcing that incredibly unhelpful framework. For real change, we need to get beyond the emotions of the moment and easy generalizations. It is true, we are in the midst of a horror show, and change is needed. But it’s also true that Midwesterners are not doe-eyed buffoons; Native Americans do not send smoke signals; and many gun owners have a legitimate point to make too. They are not inherently violent conspiracy theorists.

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J Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago
Or banning concealed firearms, which more or less assume that the world is dangerous while also becoming a means for some to fulfill that prophesy. (Also, when was the last time you heard about an act of terrible potential gun violence being stopped by civilian with a gun? I’m sure it has happened, but not often.)
I would rethink this thought. I do not own a gun, never owned a gun, never wanted to own a gun but know many who do. I support their rights because I know the people and trust them. Given that, I have followed the gun control debate and understand the side that wants to keep guns legal pretty well. One of the beliefs that I have developed is that concealed carry would have avoided a lot of the gun violence we have seen. Most of the mass shootings take place in gun free zones and seldom take place where there is a possibility that the person next to the shooter could be carrying a gun. So I suggest you have an open and honest discussion on concealed carry. One thing is that if concealed carry becomes more prevalent, those who are likely to use guns for mass murder might adapt to this situation. We do not know as concealed carry was not a factor in nearly all this gun violence.
Lisa Weber
1 year 11 months ago
I have lived in rural areas most of my life. I have been a hunter and may hunt in the future. I still have my hunting rifle. In rural areas, guns are just part of the society. Assault rifles and automatic weapons with large magazines are guns made for war, and they have no place in a civilian setting. The mass killings are not done with guns usually used for hunting. Differentiating between guns designed for war and guns designed for hunting would go a long way toward developing a sane conversation about gun control.
Tim O'Leary
1 year 11 months ago
I appreciate the comment "I have a natural talent for denying realities that are freaking me out." - we all do a bit of that. The only antidote I know of is to read a lot of writings from people you know you disagree with. As to the best "gun control," some people think it amounts to practicing one's aim. But, seriously, I am in favor of several types of gun laws, including background checks, better tracking of all firearms, and severe restrictions on access for anyone on a no-fly list or with mental instability or terrorist connections. Assault rifles and amassing of rifles and ammunition should also be monitorable and preventable. Having said all that, I recognize that most criminals will be able to get around these laws, and that criminals will be dissuaded from entering a house that might have a gun even more than one with a dog. it is certainly wrong to think gun control is the right response to Radical Islamic Jihadi. France has highly restrictive gun control. Like many groups, the NRA focuses on extreme arguments, and that is a fault in getting anything practical done. But, it is not only them. Planned Parenthood has been opposing any and all obstacles to the millions of death-by-abortion with similar scare tactics. And the Climate Change advocates are equally extreme in their characterization of even the smallest doubt in their multifaceted ideology. How many Global Warmists think CO2 is a pollutant (it is food for plants) or want to shut down fracking (which is helping the situation), or support ethanol subsidies (hurting it), or oppose GMOs (reduce deforestation), or have completely unrealistic hopes for the near-term in renewable energy sources and still oppose new nuclear power plants (lowest CO2 emissions) or who fly around in jets decrying other people's carbon footprints. Despite all the hoopla about the Paris agreement, I doubt it will have much effect. Yet there should be a pragmatic middle-ground that doesn't impoverish the more vulnerable societies (which I think can only be technology-based) and more openness to contrarian views on the science, which certainly is not as uniform as the claimed 97%. A very balanced approach comes from Bjorn Lomborg (see his book the Skeptical Environmentalist or any of his recent articles). He accepts the CO2-warming premise and is a liberal by any stretch, but is vilified as a "Denier" for his pragmatic approach.
Shayne LaBudda
1 year 11 months ago
From my comments from a similar discussion at Commonweal: My wife recently cited a statistic she'd referenced in a related argument; police engaged in shooting in a crowd have a 20% hit rate. Someone will ask for citation; I'll try to find it. But it puts the lie to the comic-book fantasy of all these guys who speak in terms of 'take them down' or 'take them out'. If professionals, who engage in far more hours of gun handling and practice have such a low performance (and I'm not criticizing them), I have little faith that the 2nd Amendment cowboys are going to be the protectors they fancy themselves to be. There was an armed civilian present at Gabbie Gifford's tragedy; he was smart enough to know his chances of hitting his target in that chaos were minuscule and kept it holstered. These shooters have a delusional fantasy that they're somehow righting a wrong done to them, or to some persecuted group. I honestly don't see the rhetoric of 'take 'em down' as any less fantastical. Big men, but not adults, watching too much Kiefer Sutherland doing what needs to be done. Apologies to dual America/Commonweal readers (as myself) for repetition.
Shayne LaBudda
1 year 11 months ago
So, further to the topic of the post: I grew up with guns (in Wisconsin), currently own guns (in Wisconsin), and use them seasonally. I have no difficulty with banning certain assault weapons and magazines, nor any difficulty with enhanced background checks. I would strongly support sheriff's departments responsibility for concealed-carry permits going back to the language "may issue" rather than "shall issue". The NRA's extremist propaganda does not reflect the views of most gun owners and hunters.
Nathan Schneider
1 year 11 months ago

All this talk about guns and Wisconsin reminds me of a time when a friend who lives in the Northwoods picked me up from the airport late at night and took me to a bar where, after a drink or two, we could go out back and, with the help of one of the bartenders, shoot skeet. It was extremely fun. Maybe a bar and a shooting range are not the safest combination, but, yeah, it was fun.

Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 11 months ago
In my opinion, the article and hunter's comments below sound encouraging.
J Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago
(Also, when was the last time you heard about an act of terrible potential gun violence being stopped by civilian with a gun? I’m sure it has happened, but not often.)
Here is one from April in Chicago http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-83337910/ From Philadelphia in March http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Man-Shot-in-the-Chest-Inside-West-Philly-Barbershop-297176271.html The American Rifle Association has list of a few hundred incidents where private gun ownership has contributed to the public safety. And for a really poignant account of how the restrictions on concealed carry kills, see the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQehgLv5PUE
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 11 months ago
Have you seen some of the people at Walmart? Imagine them with a Tommy Gun. Terrorists are shaking in their boots, right? Meanwhile, Americans can sleep better knowing they’re protected by Walmart’s finest.
L J
1 year 11 months ago
Fr Jim I am neither liberal nor conservative, leftist nor right wing, traditionalist nor progressive. I am just Roman Catholic and I try my darndest to live up to that honor and often fail. At home we often talk about being good Catholics in a polarized nation awash with labels. It is a shame. "Dividid y conquistad" as the Communists said in Cuba when they took over my nation. Which brings me to.... I have been a concealed weapon's permit carrier for years and own two guns. I have never used them against anyone save a can in the woods or rifle range. I had them in storage for the past few years with my mother-in-law up until last week. I got the guns from her. She has two of her own. Now we sleep peacefully at home. Our society is off the chain, Entropy is in full swing, I am comforted to know that in the unlikely event an act of violence comes my way either at home, driving or walking, I do not need to be afraid. I will be fine For which I am thankful. I thank you for stating that not all gun owners are crazies. I often tell anti-Catholics that not all Catholic priests are pedophiles. The violence we do with our words leads to an attitude of violence which in turn leads to behaviors that are violent. At least thats what the Vicar General for our Diocese said last Sunday for his Sermon. I think he was onto something. Oremus AMDG
Charles Erlinger
1 year 11 months ago
One of the ancient principles of the more civilized part of our western culture has been the idea that with every right exercised, a concomitant obligation is incurred. So what obligation does a civilian owner of a combat arm accept? The estimates of the number of combat arm owners that one reads exceeds the number of voluntary active duty combat infantrymen in the Army and Marine Corps combined, and certainly exceeds the number of combat armed police. If the objective for a civilian in owning a combat arm is to protect against terrorists, for example, why is not such an owner doing the job? Texans have a description for a vacuous blowhard as "all hat and no cattle." Could there be another expression "all combat arm and no combat?"
J Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago
Is the gun control argument a red herring?
Is it a communication strategy from the White House, to cover up their ineptness on foreign affairs? If one follows the trends, it seems that the more guns purchased, the lower are deaths from gun violence. Since 1994 or 20 years ago, gun ownership in the US is up about 50% but deaths from guns are down about 50%. http://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/guns4.jpg http://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/guns31.png Maybe the answer to the gun violence problem which has been going down dramatically is more concealed carry. Then we may make it rare. http://www.hoover.org/research/we-need-more-guns-ground
Jim McCrea
1 year 11 months ago
Not all Wisconsin water fountains were bubblers; only those that bubbled up from a hole in the center of a ball. Tsk, tsk.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 11 months ago
The US has more guns per capita than any country in the world. The US also has many hunters with virtually zero hunting fatalities. Guns, like cigarettes, can be hazardous to your health and perhaps should be heavily taxed along with steep licensing fees. Tax and licensing credits and/or rebates would apply to active hunters and shooting range participants to exempt these groups from expense exceeding customary licensing and fees. Tax and licensing revenue could be split between programs to improve public safety and wildlife habitat for example.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 11 months ago
Of the 875 million guns in the world, over 250 million guns are in the US. Perhaps 250 million guns and 25% of the world’s prison population indicate the US has become incapable of civility, favoring instead a shoot them up, lock them up approach.

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