Guns, Death, and Culture –4 February 2013

It was inevitable that the reaction to the Newtown massacre would ultimately come down to guns.  Never mind that we have tried an assault weapons ban and it didn’t notably reduce gun-related deaths.  Never mind that Chicago, with one of the stiffest gun-control regimes in the country, is facing an epidemic of 50 people – mostly youth, mostly black – being shot to death every month.

In the wake of a horrific event like Newtown, the compulsion to do something is overwhelming, and the something that most readily comes to mind is to pass more gun laws.  But passing more laws is not the same as addressing the issue, nowhere near the same as solving the problem.

When President Obama calls for common sense laws to address gun violence, I wonder if he considers this common-sense truism: guns laws will affect the law-abiding; but the law-abiding are not the ones committing these murders.  The lawless will continue to get guns – with 300 million guns out there, not even an outright freeze on the manufacture and sale of all guns will reduce that stockpile’s potential for mayhem.  All that will happen is that there will be fewer  circumstances in which a law-abiding citizen with a firearm is able to thwart a gun crime.

It is an odd fact of our culture that we love films in which a wronged private citizen (often played by Mel Gibson, it seems) gets armed, gets angry, and gets revenge; but we are not comfortable contemplating that in real life.  We are supposed to leave the peace-keeping duties to the cops.  Too often, though, the police are not close at hand, and the armed criminal causes havoc.  

Far more often than the media care to admit, however, an armed citizen proves to be the difference between a threat and carnage.  Two days after the Sandy Hook massacre, an off-duty policewoman put four bullets in a man  after he killed his ex-girlfriend but before could to spray a theater with bullets; at the Clackamas Mall shooting in Oregon last year, the shooter chose to cut his rampage short and take his own life when he was confronted by a citizen with a gun.  Indeed, the National Safety Council cites 2.5 million times a year in which guns are used to thwart crimes – 80 times more than the number of gun-related deaths in the country.

All this is not to say that some restrictions on the availability of certain types of firearms are not a good idea; for instance, I can see an agreement to limit the high-capacity magazines that some guns sport.  But we should not fool ourselves that such limits will have much more than a cosmetic effect.  If Adam Lanza, roaming the halls of a gun-free school, had to pause to change magazines – would that have made any difference?

I think also the idea of a “universal background check” makes sense; the one real positive step we could take is to prevent the evil, the criminal, or the disturbed from acquiring a gun.  If there are loopholes in the gun market through which one could avoid the normal screening process, it is to those loopholes that the undesirables will gravitate.  We should close them.  But again, we should be careful about passing such legislation and then dusting our hands and congratulating ourselves.  The criminal can easily steal a gun the owner of which has been duly backgrounded; madmen like Lanza can raid their parents’ gun closets.  Background checks might narrow the window a bit, but again, its major effect will be on those we don’t have to worry about.

President Obama also wants to address mental health issues, and here I am with him 100%.  As I said in an earlier post, mass killings are almost always the result of disturbed people acting out violent fantasies of some sort.

But if we really want to have an effect on the murder rate in our cities, we need to look beyond the tools used and address the culture that breeds it.  This weekend, Jesse Jackson, with his usual nose for publicity, led a march on Chicago to call attention to the shooting death of a 15-year-old girl who had marched with her school band in President Obama’s inauguration parade.  He called for the federal government to send help to quell the spreading violence.

More law enforcement would probably help, and Mayor Emanuel is already rethinking last year’s cost-saving strategy that “streamlined” the police street patrols.  But the root of the problem is cultural, and it’s the culture of the city’s black neighborhoods.  Eighty percent of the city’s gun victims are black, and a similar 80% are gang-related killings.  It is not racist, and it is not “blaming the victims” to ask hard questions about how that community is fostering this climate of rampage.

If Rev. Jackson seriously wanted to address the problems plaguing African-Americans in this country, he should stop looking for trumped-up examples of official racism and focus on what black people are doing to each other.  This is the civil rights issue of our time.

The single greatest problem is the breakdown of the family.  Fully 73% of black children in this country are born out of wedlock.  Many if not most of those children never know their fathers, and grow up without a stable male role model in their lives.  This is catastrophic for many neighborhoods.  

Without the guidance of adult males, young men can quickly succumb to pathological temptations: drugs, gangs, the whole panoply.  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies clearly illustrates the savagery that lies just beneath the adolescent veneer, and can emerge without a grownup’s leadership.  

The phenomenon is not even limited to humans: South Africa’s Krueger National Park disastrously thinned their elephant herds by moving the young males to other parks where they caused havoc.  The young bulls went rogue, killing other animals – included precious white rhinos – unprovoked.  When they brought older bulls into the park, the problem vanished.

Resolving this is more important to the peace and safety of our urban neighborhoods than feckless new laws controlling the gun ownership of respectable citizens.  The problem is enormous – it is effectively promoted by government subsidy; it is encouraged, even glorified, by the media culture, rap music, and the like.  But until we somehow defeat the notion that manliness includes abandonment, our black communities are doomed to poverty and, yes, gun violence.

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