Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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The End Game on Guns

Update: A modified version of this post was adapted by The Daily Caller to address the recent Cuomo and Obama proposals for gun control. You can find that article here.

“When seconds count, government is minutes away.  This means that in those critical moments when violence sparks, you are on your own.” – Nicholas J. Johnson

“We must stop the madness.” –Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Beware of Government bearing “common sense”

To the shock and horror of (some) people from places where I don’t care to live, gun and ammunition sales are breaking records. While the trend has escalated in wake of the recent tragedy in Newtown, it had been gaining steam ever since President Obama’s reelection inspired many wary Americans to fear for their Second Amendment rights. I can hardly run into a friend in Virginia these days without one mentioning plans to procure their first weapon or expand an existing arsenal. (For my part, I intend to wait for prices to calm down again.)

As the much-maligned NRA gains 100,000 new members in 18 days—expected to reach 5 million during this debate—Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors against Illegal Guns has seen its membership skyrocket as well. So the cultural divide yawns between worlds adrift.

Liberals are ruefully engaged in mocking perspectives they appear unable to understand from people they seem unwilling to take seriously. Nevertheless, Piers “Rambling Asininity Never Sounded So Posh” Morgan, there are many compelling reasons why ordinary people would want to own so-called “assault weapons”, which are not actual military-grade assault rifles. While we’re at it, semiautomatic firing capacity isn’t terribly new:

“Consider this from an 1862 report assessing Winchester’s lever-action Henry rifle:

‘187 shots were fired in three minutes and thirty seconds and one full fifteen shot magazine was fired in only 10.8 seconds. A total of 1,040 shots were fired and hits were made from as far away as 348 feet at an 18 inch square target with a 44 caliber 216 grain bullet [compare the 22 caliber 55 grain AR-15 round].’

This was common nineteenth century technology when the Fourteenth Amendment trumped state laws that denied citizens of United States the constitutional right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.”

Vice President Biden has indicated that he will present his proposals for gun control to President Obama on Tuesday, more than two weeks ahead of the deadline. Sen. Feinstein’s push for an “assault weapons” ban is expected to be among them, along with strengthened mental health and background checks for all firearm purchases. I understand that gun control advocates see proposed bans as about gun violence, and they aim to better the world. But the seeds of antagonism are sown, not in the hearts of recalcitrant conservatives, but in the essence of the argument for the bans. Nicholas J. Johnson elucidates nicely:

“Supply controls are no answer to this problem unless you eliminate virtually all guns.  Only when you fully acknowledge that it is impossible to get rid of guns in America (and that the failed attempt would make things worse by sending a hundred million guns fully into the black market) do you see the substantive emptiness and folly of Feinstein’s plan.

And this actually reveals a crucial sticking point.  Some of us genuinely appreciate that it is impossible to ban guns in America.  Others of us (and I believe Feinstein must be one of them)  still, deep down, imagine that we might someday fulfill the supply control dreams hatched in the 1970’s and actually get rid of guns.

Indeed, if you don’t deep down believe that this is possible, the Feinstein plan is just nonsense. Because it cannot be true that the Senator is saying we want to stop mass shootings against innocents using certain semiautomatic rifles, but shootings using other semiautomatics, pumps, lever actions, revolvers, double barrels or bolt actions are ok. If your tool is supply controls, you must ban those guns too. (Gun people know this. So they will fight this proposal like it is the last battle.)”

The reason my fellow gun rights proponents respond to bans as though the government desires to take our guns is precisely because the bans could only properly “work” if they do so. This—along with the facts that “assault weapons” is a political invention and more people die from barehanded (or –footed) assault than from all rifles—is the real reason the last ban failed and why this one would, too. Guns are all deadly and there are many “civilian” weapons (e.g. for hunting deer) more powerful than and as semiautomatic as “assault weapons”.

To understand the profound lack of seriousness of any “assault” ban, consider the laws in question (courtesy of Reason):

The New York Times reports that what Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday described as “the toughest assault weapons ban in the country” would copy California’s definition of forbidden firearms. In addition to a list of specific models, California’s law covers guns that meet certain criteria. Any one of these six features, for example, makes a rifle with a detachable magazine illegal in California (unless it was legally owned prior to June 1, 1989, in which case it has to be registered): 1) a flash suppressor, 2) a grenade launcher or flare launcher, 3) a thumbhole stock, 4) a folding or telescoping stock, 5) a forward pistol grip, or 6) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon. If you are wondering why a mass murderer needs any of these features to kill schoolchildren or moviegoers, you have already put more thought into this issue than the average legislator. [My emphasis]”

If the Vice President’s anodyne proposals pass, we would be remiss not to wonder what gun control enthusiasts will want after the next disaster. After all, they will have done nothing of substance to prevent that problem beyond the placebos of a poll-tested echo chamber of “common sense”. If overall violence—including gun violence—continues falling even as gun sales rise, perhaps we will finally get around to pondering a more holistic consideration of our culture and how to ameliorate its flaws. Then again, Diane Feinstein and her enablers might just find even more guns to ban and restrictions to pass in the name of “common sense”.

So to be clear: there is no such thing as an “assault weapon”. The weapons so labeled are not used in or intended for the military (sorry, Gen. McChrystal), nor are they particularly powerful, nor do they have much of anything to do with overall violence, armed or otherwise. That many ordinary people think otherwise is a testimony to our regrettably exaggerated trust in the competence and integrity of our media and political elite. Few in the chattering classes seem either willing to admit or capable of understanding easily demonstrable reality.

That should tell you plenty about how serious our leaders are about guns and violence.

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Right Quick: The Gun Culture War

There have been many words dropped over the innocent blood spilt at Shady Hook Elementary School last week. Predictably, the conversation has turned to reflexive concerns about mental health, violent media, and gun control. Everyone has their factoids and stories, some more honest, others more tendentious. I even had my own take about the difficult realities we face.

But even beyond our specific responses to this particular incident, we all have our own axes to grind. Many vocal proponents of greater gun control have minimal involvement with guns in the first place and would happily see them all gone. Too many don’t seem to realize, for example, that most handguns are and should be semiautomatic—which simply means you don’t need to reload after every shot—as are many hunting rifles. Many ardent supporters of the Second Amendment are ultimately left pushing such unsavory options as arming schools and public places to stop these incidents of what is essentially unilateral terrorism.

Over at The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle gives her take on the hard truths to confront and unbridgeable chasms to acknowledge:

“But now is not a good time to have a cost-benefit discussion, and there may never be a good time. The two sides are too far apart: gun control is mostly advocated by people who do not own guns, or want to own guns, and for them it is therefore a zero cost policy. Maybe a negative cost policy, because–apart from the violence–they have a fairly intense cultural antipathy for people who spend a lot of time playing with guns. Randall Collins notes that “US surveys indicate the favorite TV shows of liberal Democrats are comedians satirizing conservatives; conservatives’ favorites are college football.” However right they may be, those people are not in a good position to persuade gun owners that they shouldn’t want to own guns, or that having them taken away is a negligible cost in the bigger picture. Nor have gun owners had any better luck explaining to the other side why they might want to own guns even though some people abuse them.

So I’ll merely point out what Jeffrey Goldberg has already said, better and at greater length, in The Atlantic: the discussion is moot. You can’t ban guns. That ship has sailed… There is just, as Mark Kleiman notes, “no way to get there from here”. And the more you push for a ban, the more pushback you get on lesser gun control measures–the reason the NRA has so vociferously opposed gun registration is that they (correctly) suspect that VPC and its fellows would like to ban guns, and use those lists to confiscate the ones currently in circulation. For the same reason that pro-choicers resist “leaving the issue to the states” or “reasonable restrictions”, opponents of gun control feel they need to hold the line as far back as possible. They are not wrong to worry about a slippery slope; that is what the other side is hoping for.”

The cultural angle is key, as it goes to the root of so many ills. Too many Americans are far too distrustful—reasonably or otherwise—of  their countrymen for productive conversations on so many issues. Even as our nation homogenizes, this age-old problem persists. But back to the question of guns, there is no evidently compelling hope that feasibly tighter restrictions will prevent mass killing or any other kind of violence:

“Reducing the magazine sizes seems modestly more promising, but only modestly. It takes a few minutes of practicing to learn how to change a magazine in a few seconds.  Even if you banned magazines, forcing people to load the gun itself, people could just carry more guns; spree shooters seem to show up, as [the shooter] did, with more guns and ammunition than they actually need.  In this specific case, it might well not have helped at all. Would [the shooter] really have been gang-rushed by fast-thinking primary school students if he stopped to reload?”

[Note: The Columbine shooters reloaded at least four times.]

It is conceivable that we’ll somehow resurrect the lapsed “assault weapons ban”. As lawmakers and pundits tinker on the margins, freely acknowledge that many of us will feel better after however much time and resources have been expended on the particular placebo that emerges. How we’ll feel after the next tragedy—and the new culture battle it ignites—is another matter.

As McArdle reminds us, “False security is more dangerous than none.”


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Violence and Its Discontents

Update: This post was adapted by The Huffington Post. You can find that article here.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” –Philippians 4:8

“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.” –Psalm 130:1

In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, emotions are running high on all sorts of fronts. Families are grieving lost loved ones, parents are terrified for the safety and wellbeing of their children, gun control activists are agitating for more gun control, and many others are wondering about the state of mental health and public safety in this country. Above and beyond all this, many Americans are wondering how on Earth a bunch of elementary school kids—who didn’t even yet exist on 9/11—can be murdered in cold blood by a bafflingly determined madman.

What is wrong with the world?

Allow me to being with a public service announcement: contrary to popular belief, I do not have the answers to all problems. (Take a moment to recover from the shock; I’ll be here.) I do have observations based on experience, research, and input from others. I was raised to understand that people kill people, not guns. Most of my friends from Virginia, the military, and various suburbs and towns across America seem to agree. To this sentiment, many Ivy League, Blue-State, and liberal friends prefer Eddie Izzard’s wry retort: “the gun helps.” Valid points abound.

So yes, I already read the “Twelve Facts” of Ezra Klein. They’re rather interesting and informative. I also read Jeffrey Goldberg’s far more thoughtful and balanced feature in The Atlantic; I highly recommend it to the more open-minded among you. (I assume if you’re still reading anything I write, you are exceedingly open-minded, thoughtfully conservative, liberally masochistic, or else collecting more evidence that gay, black conservatives are ruining America.)

Some levity aside, this is my attempt at a serious discussion, not a sermon. So let’s talk.

America is a very violent country. We are by no means the most dangerous, but we shan’t be winning any public safety awards from Western Europe or Japan. We also have a lot of guns, which correlates with more gun homicide within the U.S. (see: the South vs. the Northeast) and across the world (see: the U.S. vs. anywhere). Nevertheless, Vermont exists, gun-related violent crimes fell sharply as sales rose meteorically in my adoptive Virginia, and overall homicide rates have risen with gun bans but fallen with right-to-carry policy in various jurisdictions. There is also the intriguing debate over the inverse correlation between concealed carry and crime.

As Klein and others have pointed out, the percentage of households with guns had been declining in the last several years. However, gun ownership has lately risen to the highest levels since 1993, thanks mostly to women, Democrats, and people outside the South (and possibly the recession). Guns are used (not necessarily fired) in self-defense at least 108,000 to 498,000 times per year. For women, in particular, handguns have proven vital in protecting their homes, thwarting rape, repelling violent assault, protecting their babies, and defending their children from hostile men. As of last year, nearly half of all American households have some sort of firearm.

While gun presence generally correlates well with gun violence, neither is a reliable indicator of overall violence. Britain, for example, is more violent (though not more murderous) than most of Europe and the U.S., notwithstanding her disarmed citizenry. Relatively gun-loving Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden have lower homicide rates than more restrictive France, Australia, the Netherlands, and, of course, the U.K. In the U.S., 20% of violent crimes had something to do with weapons, of which only one-third (7% overall) were firearms. Put another way, more than 90% of reported violence in America has nothing to do with guns.

Which brings us to mass murders.

These macabre eruptions of evil are more like terrorist attacks than “ordinary” violence. For one, they are aggressively premeditated around the law, with contingency plans. (The Columbine shooters brought bombs; the Aurora shooter booby-trapped his apartment.) Secondly, these tragedies, while increasing, are more societally disruptive than reflective of overall crime trends. Violent crime is at extraordinarily low levels, and more Americans die from lightning than mass shootings. Given that many of these massacres, from Columbine to Sandy Hook, were ultimately murder-suicides, it might be time to talk about mental health policy among our cultural issues. An assault weapon ban won’t stop tragedy. Preventing 1% of suicides would save more lives than were lost to mass-murdering lunatics in this entire deadly year.

Suicides, the majority of gun deaths, increased even as rates of gun homicide declined in the last decade. Waiting periods for gun purchases might prevent some deaths without denying the right to responsible gun-ownership. But such restrictions are, at best, only a marginal solution to a broader problem. Nearly half of suicides—which outnumber all homicides—are committed without guns. (Of the greater casualties from “unintentional injury”, fewer than 1% involve firearms.) It might be worth discerning why, for example, suicides appear concentrated in the West, Florida, Upper South (especially Appalachia), and parts of the Midwest but least prevalent in the Deep South (particularly, the Black Belt), Mid-Atlantic, southern New England, parts of California, South Texas, and other parts of the Midwest. Such an approach could be informative, politically viable, and effective. To be honest, I just don’t know.

The dark and maddening truth of the matter is that there are no simple resolutions to evil. Ignoring the politics, gun control is not a panacea and does not come without cost. More to the point, if long-time trends have been instructive in understanding the evolution of marriage (interracial and gay) and abortion law in America, they are also useful in understanding gun laws. In all likelihood, we’re not getting many more of them, sensible or otherwise, regardless of who is in office.

If I have touched a nerve, feel free to insult me, curse the Red States, and vomit bile on “American barbarism” while clinging to infographics of European statistics like postcards from the island of misfit policies that are not to be. But at the end of the day, the Second Amendment will outlive every futile paean for gun control. I want young, promising people to stop dying for no reason, and I don’t see how that cause will be won in the lost battles of yesteryear. Perhaps we can start by ending the insidious practice of immortalizing monsters.

Now is the time to find lasting solutions to underlying problems in our national culture of violence that go far beyond guns. I don’t know what such solutions will look like, but I hope we’re all open to thoughtful suggestions and humble reflection.


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Tragedy and Conscience

You might think a tragedy, like the unconscionable horror that just happened in Colorado, would be an occasion for people to come together. You would probably expect commiseration, reflection, and grieving. And yes, you would demand serious and thoughtful conversations about how we might prevent further horrors and failures in our current system. Some enlightened minds at The New Yorker, however, would never waste a good tragedy on silly things like respect or decency. I’ll spare you the need to read the whole thing:

The truth is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly “made him” do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen againOnly in America.

I can think of few things more mature and enlightened than accusing responsible American gun-owners of a vast conspiracy to perpetuate mass murder. Well done, sir.

But seriously, let’s pretend that article was in perfectly good taste, and Mr. Gopnik is as thoughtful as he is reasonable and articulate. His argument boils down to the familiar diatribe against the Second Amendment: get rid of guns, and we’ll all be safer.

This may sound nice (to some people) in theory, but in reality, it’s more akin to throwing water on a gas fire. We cannot eliminate the illegal gun market. Insofar as it exists, criminals will always have guns. For some reason, many of the same people who would contest the previous sentences would wax didactic—without irony—about the invidious failure of the war on drugs. Most would remind us about how criminality results directly from this neo-Prohibition. Yet as surely as there will always be a market for drugs—legal and not—there will always be people who want guns. And they will get them.

So let’s be blunt: these tragedies tend to occur in places where guns are either not allowed or not expected—think every school shooting, from Columbine to Virginia Tech, and the Ft. Hood tragedy. (Private firearms are not allowed on U.S. military bases.) Likewise, crime at the University of Colorado—which resisted the state’s concealed-carry law—has risen 35% since 2004. At the same time, Colorado State University—which complied with the law—experienced  a 60% drop in crime. In Kennesaw, Georgia, where private gun-ownership has been mandatory for three decades, the crime rate has remained disproportionately low.

We don’t know how things might have gone differently if other people had been armed during these nightmares. But we do know that guns aren’t going anywhere, and we need to stop blaming our societal problems—which are many and growing—on guns or any other convenient targets. Instead, we should have serious discussions about serious issues and respect the integrity of reasonable people to be able to defend themselves and their families responsibly.

But in case it isn’t clear: our constitutional rights are not open for debate.

Update: This thoughtful article from the other side makes a great point that is often overlooked in politics: sometimes you know a position is right but expect and demand that your candidate(s) not advocate it because they would needlessly lose elections. Whether you like it or not, the gun control debate is pretty much dead in America.