Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Still armed, still dangerous

Expressing shock at the killing of six UCSB students in Isla Vista last week, a journalist on MSNBC said, ‘What a combination of anger, firepower and delusion.’

If firepower is only part of the problem it’s clearly the most urgent part, and the part most responsive to public policy. What can you do about an angry deluded man-child with a gun? Take his gun away for a start. Then you might think about diagnosing his psychological condition or exploring how his misogyny and sense of entitlement  may have been fuelled by cultural forces.

But what seems like common sense to most people is heresy to some. 

I’ve posted about the gun lobby before (Armed and dangerous, January 2013). There’s a new device, worn on the wrist like a watch, that allows a weapon to be fired only by its owner, so that a loaded gun found in the house by a child or snatched by an intruder becomes harmless. The people at the National Rifle Association are working hard to keep it off the market. They also object to new technology that could print every bullet, at the moment of firing, with a code unique to the gun that fired it, which would help police to solve violent crimes. 

On the other hand, they have a history of defending plastic assault rifles that could be smuggled past metal detectors, and bullets designed to pierce body armour, and they have no problem with child-friendly weapons made for small hands.  

The NRA is an industry lobby masquerading as a grassroots organisation and too many politicians are scared of it. But big money is only part of its power. You don’t have to dig very deep into online conversations about the Isla Vista shooting to find people who think guns are not the problem but the solution, and who blame California’s gun laws, which are marginally more restrictive than most, for the failure of anyone to gun down the killer. In internet forums the opposing sides face each across a chasm, shouting, ‘Look what your policies have brought us to!’

According to opinion polls, most Americans are persuaded that some minimal measures, such as requiring background checks for all weapon sales, would be a good thing. The gun advocates are not impressed by the evidence for this, or for anything else, because they are not focused on a pragmatic reduction of harm. 

There are two kinds of fundamentalism behind this attitude, each with its sacred text. There’s an apocalyptic kind of Christianity that encourages hostility to social progress, while emphasising personal salvation and self-reliance. And there’s a form of libertarianism that treats the Constitution as Holy Writ, especially the Second Amendment, which the true believers misread to suit their prejudices, being resolutely opposed to anything that would weaken the ability of the private citizen to defend himself against his neighbour or the federal government. 

If unregulated gun ownership is an inalienable right, any inquiry into what happened at Isla Vista must begin and end in Elliot Rodger’s soul, about which nothing can ever be done.

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