On Guns

Another high schooler takes a gun to school and uses it. Washington State voters consider an initiative to tighten gun ownership regulations. I still have no idea about how to talk about gun ownership.

One approach would be to study the historical context of the Second Amendment. For example, we could turn to Michael Waldman’s “biography” of the Second Amendment. Here’s an excerpt of a Mother Jones interview with Waldman.

MJ: What preconceived notions about the Second Amendment did the history that you uncovered confirm or debunk?

MW: There are surprises in this book for people who support gun control, and people who are for gun rights. When the Supreme Court ruled in Heller, Justice Scalia said he was following his doctrine of originalism. But when you actually go back and look at the debate that went into drafting of the amendment, you can squint and look really hard, but there’s simply no evidence of it being about individual gun ownership for self-protection or for hunting. Emphatically, the focus was on the militias. To the framers, that phrase “a well-regulated militia” was really critical. In the debates, in James Madison’s notes of the Constitutional Convention, on the floor of the House of Representatives as they wrote the Second Amendment, all the focus was about the militias. Now at the same time, those militias are not the National Guard. Every adult man, and eventually every adult white man, was required to be in the militias and was required to own a gun, and to bring it from home. So it was an individual right to fulfill the duty to serve in the militias.

MJ: You point out that the NRA has the Second Amendment inscribed in their lobby, but with the militia clause removed.

MW: Yes. That was first reported in an article inMother Jones in the ’90s. But I didn’t want to rely on just that, so one of my colleagues went out to the NRA headquarters to look at the lobby. And she had her picture taken in front of the sign so we could confirm that it was actually still there!

MJ: Based on the history you’ve uncovered, do you think the founders understood there to be an unwritten individual right to arms that they didn’t include in the Constitution?

MW: Yes. And that might be noteworthy for some. There were plenty of guns. There was the right to defend yourself, which was part of English common law handed down from England. But there were also gun restrictions at the same time. There were many. There were limits, for example, on where you could store gunpowder. You couldn’t have a loaded gun in your house in Boston. There were lots of limits on who could own guns for all different kinds of reasons. There was an expectation that you should be able to own a gun. But they didn’t think they were writing that expectation into the Constitution with the Second Amendment.

MJ: So then why focus on the Second Amendment and not the English Bill of Rights or other things the framers drew on that more clearly address individual gun ownership?

MW: We are not governed today, in 2014, by British common law. Law evolved, the country evolved. It was a very rural place. There were no cities. There were no police forces. It was a completely different way of living. So gun rights activists turned this into a constitutional crusade. Those who want more guns and fewer restrictions realized they could gain some higher ground if they claimed the Constitution.

When I learn about the historical context of the Second Amendment, the question I’m left with is this: Is the threat of a federal government take-over at the hands of anti-American insurrectionists so great that local police, state troopers, and the National Guard can’t be expected to repel it?

But no matter how reasonably the “historical context” argument is made, the pro-gunners will never accept Waldman-like interpretations of the amendment because doing so would impose limits on gun ownership and that is an anathema to them. Making that approach a complete dead-end.

What about appealing to safety in public spaces? Also a dead-end. Most pro-gunners believe school cafeterias, legislative buildings, movie theaters become safer as a greater percentage of people in those places carry licensed guns. The thinking being upstanding private citizens will gun down the evil ones perpetrating acts of violence on innocent bystanders before authorities are able to respond.

For example, if the food service workers in the Marysville High School cafeteria were carrying, one of them could have killed the shooter from across the cafeteria before he had the opportunity to kill and injure any of his classmates. I guess we’re supposed to assume that she hits the perp, but no other students because she regularly receives expert firearm training.

What about pointing out the loopholes in gun ownership laws, the propensity of some parents not to hide or lock their guns, the uneven training gun owners undergo, and the number of mentally ill people that manage to get ahold of guns. Dead-end. The pro-gunners think that if they give into any tightening of gun ownership requirements it will lead to more, and eventually, the confiscation of their guns.

What about comforting those most afraid of dying at the hands of violent criminals with what we know about how most people die?

Number of deaths for leading causes of death—2011 (Center for Disease Control)

  • Heart disease: 596,577
  • Cancer: 576,691
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 142,943
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,932
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 126,438 (1. poisoning; 2. car accidents; 3. gun violence)
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 84,974
  • Diabetes: 73,831
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,826
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 45,591
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 39,518

A dead-end too because pro-gunners will argue that if you’re more likely to die while driving than at the hands of violent criminals, it’s proof that the status quo of relatively uninhibited gun ownership is working. My reading of those statistics is that no amount of weaponry will protect the mostly sedentary masses from what and how much they eat.

One dead-end after another.

School Security That Works

Recently, a middle school teacher that I know returned from a faculty meeting about his Catholic school’s beefed up security. A police officer explained that when they respond to an incident they do so with “overwhelming force”. He assured the faculty that thanks to their proximity to downtown, they’d have “150 officers at the school within five minutes.” He also explained why visitors will have to pass through additional security checks and why they have to teach with their classroom doors closed.

Credit Columbine and Sandy Hook for the “schools as fortresses” movement. It parallels our post 9/11 airport experience. A rural Colorado school district is allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons. A USA Today reporter tells the story of Wisconsin teachers that were “being trained to urge kids to keep a can of soup in their desks to throw at a gunman who might enter their classroom.” I’m sure that won’t contribute to a further uptick in childhood anxiety disorders. Maybe we should start putting cans of soup in our carry-on baggage.

Few people are aware that despite the recent spate of tragic, high-profile shootings etched in the public’s mind, schools are safer than they’ve ever been. Some statistics:

• Since 1992, the rate of “victimization,” which includes violent crimes such as assault and rape as well as non-violent crimes such as robbery, purse snatching and pickpocketing, has plummeted, from 181.5 incidents per 1,000 students to 49.2 per 1,000 in 2011.

• Overall, the number of reported “non-fatal victimizations” has dropped by 71%, from 4.3 million in 1992 to 1.2 million in 2011.

• During the 2009-2010 school year, researchers found 1,396 homicides with victims ages 5 to 18. Of those, only 19 took place at school. During the 2010 calendar year, only three of the reported 1,456 youth suicides took place at school.

• Though rare, homicides, suicides and deaths involving intervention by police at school or on the way to or from school dropped 46%, from 57 in the 1992-1993 school year to 31 in the 2010-2011 school year. Over 19 years, researchers counted 863 deaths, or about 45 per year. (Federal data don’t yet include 2011-2012 or 2012-13, when 27 died in the Sandy Hook shooting, including gunman Adam Lanza.)

“Things are better,” a school safety experts concludes, “but they’re not fine.”

So what’s working? Researchers attribute the decline in school violence to a handful of measures:

•Heightened awareness of a school’s culture, including how safe students feel there and how well they get along with teachers and classmates.

•A renewed focus on bullying and mental health issues, with teachers trained to spot troubled kids and intervene before bullying incidents get out of hand.

•Simple security steps such as locking exterior school doors, requiring all visitors to check in at the front office and offering students easy, anonymous ways to report classmates’ threats.

After Sandy Hook, a national school safety leader said, “It’s a huge struggle trying to bring people’s focus back from emotion.” My friend’s faculty meeting is evidence of that. “The enduring lesson of Sandy Hook,” another school safety leader added, “may be the importance of having a well-conceived — and well-rehearsed — emergency response plan. Sandy Hook really reinforced that. By all accounts, the staff really responded well, and they really saved lives.”

Sandy Hook parents, like Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the 26 victims, are pushing to expand mental health and wellness services for troubled or isolated kids. Hockley says, “We’re much more focused on, ‘Let’s reach out to the kids who are inside the school and prevent the violence from ever happening in the first place.'”

Ten years ago, American film critic Roger Ebert offered another idea that would also help. Post Columbine, he was asked by a major news network if television and film violence were contributing factors to school violence. Ebert turned the tables on the unsuspecting reporter:

Events like this if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.

Here’s hoping Hockley and Ebert-like common sense prevails over concealed guns and soup cans.