Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook and Specious Reasoning

Most of my readers are probably from the U.S., but for those outside of the country who may not have heard yet, this past Friday, December 14, a 20-year-old man shot and killed his mother in her home and, with a Bushmaster .233-calibre semi-automatic rifle and pistols that his mother had purchased legally, went on to an elementary school, where he shot and killed twenty children ages 6-7 years old and six adults, including the school's principal. Searches of "Adam Lanza" and "Sandy Hook" will immediately bring up post after post on the massacre, as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of comments on whether there should be tighter gun controls put in place or whether more guns would make incidents like these less likely to occur.

I've been thinking about this event quite a bit and debating whether or not to write a post about it. This is one of those topics that, no matter what you say, you're sure to get someone disagreeing with you, if not taking a more aggressive stance. It's a hot button issue. So, I'm going to try to lay out my thoughts in as reasonable a manner as possible to try to engender at least respectful discourse.

What really got me to finally decide to write something was seeing a particularly inane comment in my local paper this morning. On top of all the other idiotic comments I've seen, I just had to say something. Now, there have been dumb arguments on both sides of the gun control issue. But some of the oddest and least logical I've seen have been from the pro-gun side of things.

For instance, take the comment I read this morning. Arguing against tighter gun control laws or assault weapons bans (and the quibbling over vocabulary on that! oy!), this individual said:
When criminals don't have guns, they will use knives, bats, chains, poison, cars and bombs to kill people. The gun is just the instrument.
Because some people use their car to run over people, should we ban cars? Because some people get beaten to death, should we ban bats and tire irons? Because some people employ Molotov cocktails in their murders, should we ban glass bottles and gasoline? Because some blow up people, should we outlaw fertilizer?
Take that in for a moment and see if you can spot why each of these examples is a flawed analogy.

Did you find it? Every single one of those items (cars, bats, tire irons, glass bottles, gasoline, fertilizer) has a primary purpose that is not killing someone or something. Yes, anything can be used as a weapon, but most of them are designed specifically for non-weapon purposes. Guns are not like that. Guns are designed primarily, and I'd argue solely, to be used as a weapon. But that isn't the only problem with this person's reasoning.

The incident prompting the current debate and furor was that an individual brought a weapon capable of killing lots of people in a very short amount of time into a crowded building. Sure, someone could use a car to run people down, but it isn't very good at killing a lot of people in a short span of time, and you'd be hard pressed to get it inside a building to do the kind of killing Adam Lanza did. What about bats, tire irons or knives? Much more portable, but again, not good at mass killing. Those are all slower, have a very limited range, and generally have a low likelihood of a lethal blow. Finally, some fertilizers have been banned because of their propensity to go kaboom.

I've also heard the comment that "if only the principal (or someone else) had also had a gun...". Probably the most famous version of this was from Texas Representative Louie Gohmert (R), who said:
I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, when she takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids.
If the principal had had access to a firearm, and been trained in how to use it, I will admit that it is possible, not certain, but possible, that Lanza could have been stopped before he killed as many as he did (reportedly, the principal, Dawn Hochsprung responded after there was already gunfire, so some still would have died). It would not have prevented it, but it may have cut it short. Now, the problem that I have with this sentiment is that those supporting such ideas are only thinking about this incident and similar incidents, but don't seem to be fully thinking things through.

What do I mean? For one thing, introducing additional firearms into the situation on the part of civilians is a bad idea. The most obvious reason is the potential for stray bullets. Starting a firefight is risky enough when it's the police taking aim. And speaking of police, when they show up, how certain are you that they will be able to quickly pick out which person with a gun is the perp and which is just being an upstanding American? Think that there wouldn't be a mistake? Think again. When Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was shot, a bystander managed to relieve the shooter of his pistol. A third person, who had a concealed carry weapon permit, considered drawing his own weapon and firing on that bystander, thinking him the bad guy. Only after he had wrestled the pistol away did he realize his mistake. More guns in the mix may be great for a movie, where the good guys and bad guys are clearly distinguished (usually by white hats and black hats, or the handsome, dashing types vs. the hideously sneering sorts). Real life isn't so cut and dry.

And as to keeping a rifle locked up? Well, I, like most of you, was a student at one point. And one thing that at least some, if not most, students know is that there is generally a copy or several copies of faculty keys floating about the student population, generally passed down from class to class. At some point, a copy of the key to that gun will probably make it into a student's hands. Most probably wouldn't use it, true. But sometime, somewhere, someone will decide to take a look at it. Maybe they just want to show off how cool they are. Maybe they are being bullied and just want to scare their way out of a bad situation. And maybe they'll have a grudge that they want to even out. If we start putting firearms in schools, eventually a student will gain access to it, regardless of the security measures you put in place. (And the more security measures you put in place to block access, the less accessible the weapon becomes and the less likely it will be a viable option when something like Sandy Hook occurs).

Of course, that's just the students. What about the teachers? They are all human and subject to all the same emotions and stresses we all face. If one of them "snaps", for lack of a better word, what's to stop them from using this weapon that is now available to them? Bottom line is that you would need to show me some damn good evidence that having a firearm in the school would significantly reduce the risk and impact of a murder/massacre attempt to such a degree that it outweighs the risks of the firearm falling into the wrong hands, including the one who is supposed to be the custodian of that weapon.

Tied to this issue is the question of school safety, regardless of gun control. Some are reasonable, calling for different building designs, such as the use of "man traps", or entrance rooms that essentially hold a person until they are cleared to pass through a second set of doors and into the school proper. Others, less reasonable, call for all schools to have guards or other manpower to police things. Like airport security, this is reactive and, particularly where a determined individual is concerned (and let's face it, Lanza and similar shooters in our recent history have been determined), they will find a way to get in and do the damage they want to do.

The other, perhaps biggest, problem with this is financial. Who is going to pay for that? Guards, security systems and the people to manage them are not cheap (leaving aside the fallibility of humans). What programs are you going to cut to pay for them? How large of an increase in taxes are you willing to bear? Many schools already require teachers to pay for their own supplies. Where are these schools going to find the money? They'll start by cutting the arts ('cause heaven forbid sports should be axed first). Next will be after school programs. Grudgingly, they'll cut back on sports programs. They'll probably cut the number of teachers, too, while increasing class sizes. The poorer schools will not be able to afford the sorts of technology that richer schools can, which will increase the disparities between the wealthy and the disadvantaged. The degree to which this will occur will, of course, vary from school to school.

And the other thing about having armed guards wandering the halls (or even just stationed at the doors) and similar security measures... I remember how my high school changed. When I started there, the atmosphere was very open. It was a welcoming environment, and one where I felt comfortable, at ease. Yes, bullying did occur (I was even the target a couple times), but really violent things never happened. Each year, though, things got more and more restrictive to the point where it began to feel oppressive. An atmosphere was created where students were not trusted, fostering an us vs. them mentality. Though I was a good student, had friends and was generally happy, the school felt less safe, rather than more. Some of the comments I have heard or read go to the extremes of turning schools, essentially, into prisons. Armed guards. Lockdown. No one goes unescorted. That's not a good environment for kids.

One final point I wanted to touch on is that the media reports of the shooting at Sandy Hook jump to the conclusion that Adam Lanza suffered from some mental illness. Some have even gone so far as to say he had Asperger's syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. Let me make this clear. These reports, as of this writing, are all speculative. There is no evidence that Lanza was diagnosed with any psychological or neurological disorder. This sort of speculation attempting to blame the attack on mental illness does no service to anyone. Rather, it stygmatizes mental illness and engenders fear. Plenty of others have already written quite eloquently on this subject, so I'll just link to Liz Ditz, who has curated a wonderful list of posts addressing the topic of mental illnesses, violence and media portrayals of these events. I also recommend reading neurologist Dr. Steven Novella's thoughts on this.

There are, obviously, a lot of questions and decisions to be made around gun violence in this country. These incidents are horrific, and real action must be taken to address the issue. But please leave aside the specious arguments and lack of reasoning. And my advice to those who are pro-gun, don't be stupid when talking about this. Yes, the Constitution grants us the right to bear arms, but it also leaves room for intelligent conversation on just what that means and where we place limits. Knee-jerk reactions like those I quoted above do nothing but make you look a fool.

I don't have the answers to this. I don't know what the best course of action is to take. But something desperately needs to change in this country. Because so far, we've failed.


  1. The "if the headmistress had had a larger gun, she would have blown the perp's head of in all bloody gore" is essentially fantasising about violence. The commentator needs to have their head examined - they are entertaining violent and unhealthy thoughts.

    Someone suggested a mandatory liability insurance for anyone who wants to legally hold a gun. This would be to cover accidents (in the Newtown week, 9 children got shot accidentally, 4 of them died - that didn't make national or international news) and while this would not detract a psychopath, it would limit their access to guns, because fewer people would have them. You need training, an exam, a (drivers) license and annual insurance to keep a car (the other potential murder weapon discussed by your commentator), so why not be at least this rigorous with guns?

    I am in the UK, but the news here have wallowed in the Newtown tragedy in best disaster porn fashion - here is a close up of the shocked children, here of the grieving family member. It is actually quite disgusting and exploitatory and I have kept the TV off more than usual as a result. The German online newspaper I read has equally gone to excess. I doubt there is anywhere in the world people will not have heard about this shooting.

  2. I grew up in a gun family. One thing that my father drilled in to us was gun safety (never ever point a weapon at a person). Another thing that he kept saying was to never pick up a weapon unless you can deal with causing the death of a human being. Because if you hesitate you can cause more harm, and become the victim.

    As a result of the four of us kids, only two of us still handle weapons*. My step-sister and I really don't want anything to do with them. When my mother-in-law gave us her late husband's rifle I took it to the local police department for safe disposal (if you do that, walk in and explain what you are doing first).

    I was kicked off of jury duty for a trial where some idiot was shooting out of his apartment window for repeating some of my dad's words during voir dire. They were essentially that no one should have a gun that does not know how to use it safely.


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