Political Culture: If Laws Can’t Curb Guns, How About Shame?
It’s been just over two weeks since Newtown – two weeks since the Gun Crime That Would Change Everything, if any crime ever would – and already prospects seem to be dimming for real, effective gun control at the federal level. Never mind the outcry that arose in the days after that catastrophe, nor the wise words of President Obama or the promises of Dianne Feinstein to introduce new legislation in the New Year. In particular, never mind the NRA’s initial assurance that it would make a “meaningful contribution” to the national discussion over the too-frequent use of assault weapons and other semi-automatic guns against innocent citizens.
All that was required to deflate hopes for actual progress was the horror of Wayne LaPierre lifting his serpent-like head from the sand, fulminating over 10-year-old videogames and 20-year-old movies. Soon enough the headlines shifted from the lunacy of LaPierre’s gun-in-every-school scheme to the general recognition that bringing common sense to America’s gun laws may be an impossible lift. (Heck, the mere discussion of new gun laws is always enough to send sales through the roof.) Even after Newtown and LaPierre’s seeming self-immolation, a series of polls this week show that Americans still don’t distrust the NRA’s motives in sufficient numbers to blunt the organization’s outsized influence in Washington. And while majorities support banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and strengthening background checks, they still don’t support measures like reinstating 1994’s weak-tea assault-weapons ban, ending concealed-carry laws, or banning handguns that can kill more than a dozen people before the shooter needs to reload.
Then there are the Republicans in Congress, many of whom are bought and paid for by the NRA as much as they are beholden to Grover Norquist. Republicans have proven themselves incapable of governing on an issue as non-lethal as the government’s finances, while trading in such irresponsibly violent imagery as Sarah Palin’s gun-sight “targeting” of opponents and Mitch McConnell’s assertion that the nation’s credit rating was “a hostage worth taking” during 2011’s debt-ceiling debacle. How can anyone expect these people to do the right thing when it comes to guns? (Of course, some Democrats also have their lips permanently attached to Wayne’s LaDerriere, which is infuriating enough.)
At some point in the very near future, House Republicans will refuse to take up the assault-weapons ban or whatever already-insufficient bill the Senate has failed to advance past a GOP filibuster, and the nation’s gun-control advocates will go back to fuming quietly and waiting for the next round of putrid gun violence to convulse the body politic. However, in the absence of legislative sanity, perhaps an alternative way forward can be identified in another gun-related event that caused a ruckus this past week: the online publication by the White Plains (NY) Journal News of an interactive map listing the names of addresses of every gun-permit holder in suburban Westchester County.
Such information already was available via online state-government records; the Journal News merely placed it in a highly accessible format, and made it more widely available. Not surprisingly, though, gun owners in Westchester and nationwide have gone bonkers over the map, complaining that it’s reminiscent of maps showing the whereabouts of pedophiles and other sexual predators. In fits of vindictiveness, a few Second Amendment supporters have retaliated by posting the names and addresses of Journal News employees, including ones who had nothing to do with the map and its accompanying article. To what end they have posted the journalists’ names is unclear — though one might ask the families of slain abortion providers what sorts of intimidation, and far worse consequences, might arise from providing such names and addresses to extremist zealots … particularly the sort who really, really like weapons.
I suppose it’s understandable that “law-abiding gun owners,” who perpetually assert their own angelic responsibility concerning their weapons, feel that a newspaper drawing such public attention to their potentially lethal decision-making is unwarranted. But in the wake of so many gun tragedies over the last umpteen years, I’ve lost any sympathy for such protestations by the owners of weapons designed with no purpose except to kill other humans, with as little delay between shots as possible. I’m convinced that it’s time to extrapolate Chekhov’s oft-repeated principle of theater to the world at large: A gun that’s presented in the first act must go off in the third.
I don’t care how “responsible” a gun owner claims to be; if I know a gun is in a stranger’s house, I’m going to avoid that house. If my child has a friend whose parents own a handgun or an assault weapon, and I know about it, then my child will not visit that house. If I still lived in Westchester County, as I did early in the last decade, I would be as thankful for (and simultaneously concerned about) the information provided by the Journal News as I am to know the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders thanks to public records.
Such attitudes as mine no doubt anger gun owners as much as that map does. But let’s ask ourselves, why is the map a problem in the first place? Shouldn’t a self-satisfied gun owner be proud of his choices, and perfectly happy to have his status as a gun enthusiast/Protector of His Family/(insert rationalization here) advertised to the world? I’m perfectly happy to proclaim myself anti-gun and anti-Second Amendment in as public a fashion as anyone will allow me to. Why wouldn’t the owner of an assault weapon on some side street in Scarsdale feel the same way?
Therein lies a real problem – that gun ownership is so often tied to insecurity. Not merely insecurity concerning the owner’s safety in his home, bar or national park (apparently) … but also a desperate insecurity concerning the preservation of his cherished “right” to own his weapons, in the face of constant perceived threats. And maybe, just maybe, there lurks in the minds of many gun owners a third insecurity: a recognition that whichever rationalization they have chosen for clinging to their guns doesn’t actually justify the loss of nearly two dozen children in Newtown, or for that matter the hundreds of lives that are lost each week in violence that could be prevented if Americans couldn’t get their hands on guns so easily.
Perhaps the reason Second Amendment advocates fear the publication of Westchester gun owners’ names on the Journal News website is the possibility that those folks will be ostracized, or shamed, by their fellow citizens in a progressive state like New York. That’s a legitimate concern – and if it’s not, it should be. If the fetishization of the Second Amendment prevents the passage of intelligent gun-control laws that might improve public safety, then why not make that very fetishization a source of ostracizing and shame?
I view gun ownership the same way I view smoking. I despise cigarette smoke, both for its short-term detriments (the odor, the bad feeling I get in my lungs) and for the long-term damage I know is possible. If I’m in a social situation with a smoker and cannot convince the person to refrain from smoking in my presence, I’ll usually cut that interaction short without the slightest pang of guilt. And if I’m walking down the street or in a park and encounter a stranger dangling a cigarette, I’ll move as far away as possible to avoid the smoke – and sometimes I’ll even exaggerate a cough in passing protest.
Similarly, I have no qualms about avoiding guns and their owners – hell, I avoid entire states because of rampant gun toting — though I’m certainly less likely to openly express my disdain for a stranger with a gun, for obvious reasons. (Which is itself the moral failing of idiotic carry-permit laws, in my view – they make intimidation, not to mention lethal violence, a possibility in every public situation.) Perhaps, if gun ownership can be ostracized in the same way that smoking has been, we eventually can bring the number of guns on our streets (and in our homes) down in the same fashion that cigarette consumption has plummeted over the last 50 years, despite remaining perfectly legal.
Gun-control organizations should expand their mandates beyond advocacy and lobbying for incremental legislation, to emphasize advertising campaigns that argue for the complicity of every gun manufacturer, seller, and (yes) owner in making mass murders like Newtown, Aurora, and Virginia Tech possible. How about dramatizing the thousands of accidental shootings, lethal domestic-violence incidents, and other tragedies that annually result from Americans’ easy access to guns? It may be that flooding the marketplace with stories of victims and their survivors, and noting the “normalcy” of most gun-death perpetrators right up until the point they stopped being normal, is our best chance of getting past the relentless (and largely pointless) questioning of why a particular tragedy happened, and finally beginning to focus even America’s gun owners on how so many of them happen: firearms. Perhaps, over many years, it might be possible to make gun ownership as unacceptable to the public health as smoking now is for the vast majority of Americans.
This is hardly the tactic I’d prefer. Anyone who read my previous column on this subject knows I believe that, in a perfect world, we would repeal the Second Amendment entirely and then reset our gun laws without the context of some cockamamie “right” to own killing machines. The framers of our Constitution, observing the array of weapons currently available, certainly would not have written the Second Amendment or anything like it. It is patently ridiculous that we are forced to exist (and daily suffer dozens of untimely deaths, purposeful and accidental) under the oppression of a measure that was written poorly in the first place, is now applied far beyond the spirit of its original intent (whatever that was), and is a constant danger to our social fabric.
The Second Amendment is a stupid, useless cancer on our national character. It imposes, here in the 21st century, precisely the tyranny of fear and wanton destruction that it was designed to thwart back in the 18th. And yet, there it remains in the Constitution, and our current Supreme Court seems hellbent on interpreting it as expansively as possible. If we ultimately have no power to deny the spurious “right” of other citizens to own agents of death, we should at least take advantage of every opportunity to avoid placing ourselves and our loved ones in the potential line of fire.
Whatever else the Journal News’ controversial map has accomplished, it may have made Westchester County’s gun-permit holders a bit less comfortable in their own skins, not to mention their make-believe fortresses. And that, in turn, may make their neighbors a bit safer if some gun owners choose to give up their most dangerous weapons. In recent years on the internet, we have popularized the shaming of racists, trollish commenters, grammatically challenged Tea Party signs, that girl who made faces at Arlington Cemetery … even our dogs and cats. If even the majority who simply oppose high-capacity ammunition magazines can’t bend the Second Amendment’s tyranny to our will, maybe it’s time to use shaming as a force for good.