Friday, September 20, 2013

On guns

Back in 2009, when I worked for the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, I researched and wrote a series on gun law and illegal guns that, unfortunately, never made it into the paper. (Couldn’t free up the space for it, and then we merged with the New Era.) One of my sources was a guy named Kim Stolfer, an ardent gun-rights activist and chairman of the group Firearm Owners Against Crime. Here's part of what I wrote:

Stolfer lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, the city where three police officers were shot and killed in April by a heavily armed man in a bulletproof vest when they responded to a domestic call. 
In the wake of the incident, [Lancaster] Mayor [Rick] Gray and police Chief Keith Sadler joined Gov. Ed Rendell to call for reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. 
Gunman Richard Poplawski owned a shotgun, an AK-47 and several handguns. Stolfer, who knew one of the slain officers, said the shootings showed the failure of the court system, not a need for better gun control.  Under existing laws, Poplawski should have had his firearms confiscated — he had protection-from-abuse orders served against him and had been discharged from the Marine Corps for striking an officer. 
Stolfer, a Marine Corps veteran and firarms trainer, also said the Pittsburgh police were sent to the house with insufficient equipment and training.

And right there, I’m sorry to say, my sympathy for the gun-rights folks largely evaporated.

The thing is, Stolfer made some good points during our chat. A lot of gun-control advocates don’t understand guns, he said — I'll second that, for sure. He also said that lot of gun-control laws that get passed are just stupid: They’re cumbersome nuisances to legitimate gun owners, and don’t deter criminals. I think that’s true, too.

But look at the big picture. Yes, Poplawski should never have had those guns. But he did, in part because gun-rights advocates make it so hard to keep guns away from people like him. And when your backup argument is that well-trained, well-armed members of a big-city police department should have been even better trained and armed, you lose me. Who was Pittsburgh supposed to send to the scene, ninjas? James Bond?

Similarly, when your definition of freedom implies that elementary schools should have metal detectors and armed guards and should train kids to fight armed intruders by throwing staplers at them, you’ve lost me.

When selling guns to blind people is a thing, you’ve lost me.

Read Charles Pierce’s cri-de-coeur from Ireland. I’m sorry, but he’s right. On the topic of guns, Americans are nuts. In the supermarket by my house, the magazine rack boasts a full shelf of gun magazines. The cover of “Personal & Home Defense” features a triple-barreled shotgun and promises an article on “panic room essentials.” Pure gun porn. This is about pushing product, not safety. Yes, there are bad guys out there, and guns can aid in self-defense. But the bad guys wouldn't be so dangerous if guns weren't so easy to get. And widespread gun possession makes it more likely that people will blow each other away over dumb arguments, or accidentally kill their girlfriends’ 3-year-old playing "bang bang you're dead." 

The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” It doesn’t say, “Every man for himself.” The Heller decision, in which John Roberts’ Supreme Court majority affirmed an individual right to bear arms, expressly states that the right is far from unlimited. The opinion endorses bans on ownership by felons and the mentally ill and explicitly permits banning “dangerous and unusual weapons,” including military-style weapons:

It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service — M-16 rifles and the like — may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. … But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right [i.e., as being limited].

Well, try telling that to Kim Stolfer. After Sandy Hook, any country with a functioning polity would have said "enough."  But we keep on going. 

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