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What Are We Really Talking About When We Talk About Gun Control?

It’s hard to even think about what happened in Sandy Hook, especially if like me, you have school aged children. I have three – a son in first grade, a daughter in third grade, and my oldest son in fourth grade. I don’t have room in my head to imagine my youngest son in that situation, and I can’t even begin to think about what those parents are enduring. I can understand the backlash against guns and gun owners after this tragedy – I understand the heart-felt desire to “do something”.   It’s human to want to protect and make things better.

The problem is that the argument for the regulation and removal of weapons from private ownership is more than sticking a bumper sticker on a Subaru; it’s walking the cobblestone and brick streets of Boston’s Independence Trail in a very real way and revisiting the very issues that were soberly considered and passionately argued at the formation of our republic.  Now, as it was then, only the weakest of arguments need the flying buttresses of anger and hysteria – “you can have my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead hands is no more helpful than “there is no reason for any citizen that loves children to have a gun.”

My first gun was a very nice Winchester semi-automatic .22. I lived in the desert, about 35 miles from El Paso and could walk out our back gate and into the desert to hunt rabbits, dove or quail. I knew the desert like the back of my hand and knew rabbits better than they knew themselves. I hunted with friends, with cousins and alone. My first pistol was a .22 magnum convertible Ruger Single Six with fixed sights, and my first shotgun was a Smith & Wesson pump-action we bought from the auto parts store. I loved and respected guns; I knew ballistics charts – bullet weights, profiles, velocities, energies the way that other kids knew sports stats. My military service put me in touch with actual assault rifles and other small arms, and I learned the truths that all infantrymen know viscerally; a clean weapon is beautiful, there are no shortcuts, and John Browning and Eugene Stoner are geniuses.  I already knew that to point a gun at something is to kill it.

I respected the power of the weapon, but loading my own ammunition brought the reality of gun ownership home. When I chambered my first reload, I realized the fully potential force and implication of what I was doing. It was like the first time I sat on a big V-twin motorcycle and let out the clutch. No seatbelt, no steel protective cage; just me, a machine, the decisions I make, and my actions. Is it an excess of potential energy for one person to have access to and control? Can we trust each other with that much potential to do harm? The potential of these machines exist, and like the essence of Pandora’s box, is out and can never be retrieved.

I don’t think we can even argue that outlawing semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines would stop people from owning them – if anything, the Happyland murders in NYC and Tim McVeigh should be clear indications that evil is unrelenting and resourceful. Columbine, Aurora and Sandy Hook all show elements of planning and were not spontaneous. Outlaw high capacity magazines? Magazines are stamped metal and springs; any high-school metal shop can make them. Outlaw guns? Guns are easier to smuggle than bricks of marijuana.

There are two fundamental questions here – the first is whether the citizenry have access to this level of force, or should it be relegated to control of the government and the second is a question of risk management.  If the answer to the first is “no”, then logically, there’s a problem when you consider that most governmental agents by definition will fall in the middle of the bell curve when it comes to intelligence and judgement.  Some are better, some are worse.  But by and large, the laws of nature and mathematics state unequivocally that as thinking humans, they will be average.  Training obviously makes a huge difference,  but only in the mechanics and technique.  Weapons training cannot  teach morals or judgement, or we could do this in the schools and there would be no capacity for human judgement..

From a practical standpoint, can we assume that the agents wielding this power are either on the exceptional side of the curve or that we can get them there? The Guardsmen at Kent State were government agents. The men wielding the dogs in Alabama and manning the fire hoses were government agents.  So were the agents at Ruby Ridge, in Waco and the ones that planned and executed the capture of Elian Gonzales.   Ah, but those are isolated events.  Yes, and so are the school shootings. In the parlance of risk management, all of these examples are high impact, low probability events.  Like Cat 5 hurricanes and F4 tornadoes. The problem with high impact, low probability events is that they are expensive to prepare against, and the cost is even harder to bear because they happen so infrequently. That’s why people argue for FEMA – the cost of high impact low probability events is ostensibly beyond the capability of private insurance companies and state governments.

When you talk about outlawing guns on the outside chance that we can stop a madman from acting, the principle is the same. How many families living in small isolated communities are now left unprotected? In my hometown, the State Police and County Sheriff provided police protection, and emergency calls had response times well beyond ten minutes. Even in cities where response time is less than 5 minutes, how much damage can be done before the police arrive?

I don’t believe that guns should be unregulated, and they’re not, not by any stretch of the imagination. I can’t buy a single-shot shotgun online without a Federal Firearms License. We can talk about all the legislation, about the mental health databases and the open access to gun-license owners, but ultimately, the problem with all that will be the simple fact that we’re living a fantasy on two levels, first that the government can protect us from evil, and secondly that the government is going to be somehow hyper competent and that men and women exactly like you and I are more capable and more responsible than us.

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