kaigou: this is the captain. we may experience turbulence and then explode. (3 experience turbulence)
[personal profile] kaigou
These thoughts have resurfaced after the most recent atrocity, but I'm mostly thinking out loud about something tangential. If you've got a bone to pick about gun control or gun rights, I'll be blunt: not interested. Leave the bone-picking for your own journal. Second to that, if you're not American and want to tell me all about how other countries (including your own) do it, then maybe you should leave that to your own journal, too. America has its own culture and that culture, it seems to me, is a big part of the complexity of the issue.

Anyway.

A month or so ago at an acquaintance's house, on the wall was a large shadow box that held what looked like two matchlock short rifles. They looked a bit early for Rev War, since I'm pretty sure the serpentine had been surpassed by the flintlock by then, but whatever. I didn't see any other hunting or historical memorabilia, so I figured it was handed down through the family. It's the usual reason for the occasional "gun over the fireplace" I sometimes see -- it was someone's grandfather-so-many-times and used during whatever war. (Ignoring the fact that the absolute worst, worst place to store a gun, or anything of wood/metal combination that you want kept in good shape, is over a freaking fireplace but whatev.)

But that reminded me of a Persian rifle, I think it was, that CP got a number of years ago. It's a piece of art. Really. It has intricate chased silver up and down the barrel and all over the place, every little detail is beautifully done, and the wood is a gorgeous gleaming deep red. It's absolutely a testament to craftsmanship, just on looks alone, and it deserves to be seen and enjoyed. Not as a "this could kill someone" but simply as a thing of beauty, the same way that if someone did that to, say, a circular saw (now there's a scary thought), I'd be wondering why it should stay in the garage. I'd want to find a way to display it in the house, too. Some craftsman put a lot of effort into beautifying what was really just an everyday tool at the time, and I respect that.

Thing is, there really isn't a way to responsibly display guns, unless you've got lockdown capabilities up there with the Smithsonian. (I went to a gun store and asked, if you're wondering.) A matchlock is another matter, since probably 99.9% of the folks out there could never figure out how to use it, let alone where to get the fuse-rope required, but the Persian rifle used regular caliber, as I recall. For that matter, a lot of the guns-over-the-fireplace are still operable. In theory, at least. You couldn't pay me enough to load and fire something that had been stored in conditions of "over a working fireplace". Stupid thing would probably explode in your hands.

But you put a potentially-operable gun on the wall, even in locking display case, and it's now a valuable object someone might steal. And use. And then you're liable to some degree, because you left it out where someone could get it. Or they might steal, load, and use on you. The old gun cases like my grandfather's generation had, where you stored three or four hunting rifles -- gone the way of the dodo, for most reasonable people. We have a massive gun safe (and when I mean massive, I mean "must be on basement because only concrete can hold up the weight of this bastard"). There the pretty craftsmanship must sit, because there's no way to display it safely.

(It would be possible to make the gun completely inoperable, except you're destroying its value as a historical object. In a way, it'd be like buying a Cobra and taking the engine out. You might never plan to actually drive the Cobra, but if you ever came to have a need to sell it, it'd be worth absolutely nothing. Do you protect your investment, or do you write off that investment in favor of a different way of valuing your investment? That's a personal decision, and since the Persian gun isn't mine, it's not my decision to make.)

All that said, I have no idea what percentage of Americans are gun-owners on a technicality due to handed-down, family-sentimental, guns from wars like the Civil War, Rev War, etc. Even some people I've known who would never dream of owning "a gun" still have a damn long rifle on the wall behind them. It's like those guns don't hold the position of "gun" so much as they do "Americana", and then that Americana gets wrapped up with history and leeches over into the whole gun-owning thing.

Which was a really skillful move on NRAs part, I do have to give them that, to shift the conversation from "gun control" to "second amendment rights". It seems like the very phrases themselves: "first amendment", "second amendment", "fourth amendment" and so on, hold some kind of sacred power. No surprise that if you ask people whether they'd want the second amendment appealed, that they're against it even if they believe in gun control. Obviously on some level we've granted the Bill of Rights such prestige that even when it's opposite some modern perception, it's still inviolable. (And that would be intersectionality with all those Originalists and Constitutionalists, whatever they're called, that argue the Constitution shouldn't be touched and should only be viewed in light of what the Founding Fathers thought or however that argument works.) We have repealed amendments before, but it would be a cultural shift well above and beyond repealing Prohibition to actually repeal a part of the Bill of Rights. Not to mention it would take decades. We couldn't even get ERA passed and that was bloody simple legislation compared to the too-hot issue of gun ownership.

I've been thinking about the way we perceive guns, as Americans. I grew up with a grandfather who had long rifles for hunting and self-defense, and was known to shoot at strange things lumbering onto the property at night. He was far out in the country, and any police who'd come weren't going to be there inside a half-hour at best. I don't see him as unreasonable at all to feel that his home's defense was entirely on his own shoulders.

We had three guns in the attic as I grew up. Only one was safely operable; another was a sawed-off shotgun and not entirely legal (sawed-off a little too short during the Great Depression, ahem), and the third had a loose spot that would probably make firing it just a little too exciting. I can recall being curious as to why we had them, but not curious in the sense of pick-them-up-and-use-them. I had been thoroughly schooled in things-for-kids, and guns were not one of them. Now I live in a house with guns, and don't think much about them most of the time (most are in the safe, anyway).

It seems like my experience isn't that far off the average middle-class, fully-acculturated, been-here-long-enough American. I say "been-here-long-enough", with "enough" being "having someone in a previous generation who's fought in a war". That would be an ancestor who fought in Vietnam, Korea, WWII, WWI, or farther back. Most of the displayed-guns I've seen are tied to events like that, regardless of ethnicity or time-in-country-overall. The gun represents a tool used to defend, as a full citizen, who performed the duty of a citizen to protect his (or her) country.

I get that most of these are in the course of "being military" and therefore stand outside the entire issue of the second amendment. But that's something you really only register once you dig down; what I'm talking about is the deeper part we take for granted. I mean, America's history is just one big stretch of violence, when you think about it, and the gun was the tool we used from the very beginning. The earliest settlers might've used axes to hack their way through the wilderness, but they used guns even more to kill every living thing they came across. Most of our land-acquisitions weren't neat and paper-based like the Louisiana Purchase; they were based in blood and death and guns and war. From little-scale fast and bloody battles with Natives in New England to large-scale planned warfare against tribes on treaty land to neighbors like Mexico. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that if guns hadn't been part of our history, then we wouldn't even have a history.

You might say that after we reached a certain point of relative settled state, like in major urban areas, that this should've stepped down. But Prohibition and the mafia and all that also shaped us massively in terms of our understandings of the government, and guns were a part of that, too. They were also part of the union struggles and the Black Panther movement, for better or worse. I can't think of a single struggle where guns don't show up. I'm not saying it's good that guns played a role. I'm just saying they did, and that does have an affect.

I think... that bloody history has marked us by seeing the gun -- however romanticized and no longer modernly-applicable in the average person's everyday existence -- as something inextricably American. I totally get that for all intents and purposes, owning a gun on the off-chance that you might have to rise up and overthrow your country (a logic used in the Declaration of Independence) -- well, probably not very realistic. Then again, it wasn't that realistic back then, either. Our government may now have enough firepower to take entire cities off the map compared to a handful of rifles and handguns, but the British government had more armory than just a few potato guns during the Revolution. They were better equipped, had more firepower, better trained, and better manned than us. We were outranked, frequently outflanked, and had little more than sheer guts and some brilliant tacticians on our side. Which means I see the "it's a losing proposition to take on the government's firepower so your guns are pointless" argument as kind of hollow.

Because now, as then, on an intellectual ("what it means to be American") level, it's not a matter of the pragmatic side of things, but the principle of it. That part of the acculturation of being American is that we have not just the right, but the obligation, as a democracy, to keep our government in check. And just as we threw off the British, so we might throw off our own government. Would we? I doubt it. But it's the chance that we could, that's integral to our self-definition. It's something -- while often unquestioned and taken-for-granted, but thoroughly indoctrinated -- that we see as being fundamentally 'American'.

Which means that discussing guns carries something deeper in the discussion, because we're not just talking about what we can do to make our world, and ourselves, safer. We're also talking (without even realizing it) about what it means to be American. We're suggesting setting aside a massive chunk of our history and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I've seen stats that show (modern-gun) gun ownership has dropped over the past forty years, yet the second amendment's support is as strong as ever -- even though fewer and fewer people are taking advantage of that right. Wouldn't it seem reasonable that if someone says we should have full gun control (akin to British or Canadian or Australian gun-ban levels), that the second amendment's repeal should also be on the table? The fact that it's not, I think, is because there's a disconnect, and it comes from never having sat down and given serious conscious thought to What It Means To Be America, or even What It Means To Be American. Yet, uncomfortably, questioning a fundamental American right like this forces us to do just that.

I mean, there seems to be three types of responses when it comes to this topic. The third we can skip; we hear that chorus every time the NRA opens its mouth and rants about second amendment rights and universal gun ownership and so on. I'll focus on the first, instead, since that's where I think the conflict originates, though it's the middle/second who gets caught in the middle.

The first are those who want European-style levels of outright gun ban, and quote British stats to back up the value of doing this. You ask me, they're fighting not just an uphill battle but an absolutely vertical battle. On the practical level, of the effort and coordination (and sheer government invasiveness) required to remove every gun from every house and every pair of hands, but also on the philosophical level. It's going far beyond just "disarm the population", because when you get into the practical steps required, it shows how much gun ownership intersects (like many other kinds of ownership) with other things we consider too precious. Like, the government not having the right to walk into your house and search for guns without reasonable cause (and "we want to take your possessions away from you" is not reasonable cause).

(ETA to answer CP: yes, they can search for drugs, but certain drugs are currently on the books as being illegal, in certain locations. Even in cities where it's a no-gun city, like DC used to be, they still couldn't just walk into your house to search for, and confiscate, your guns. Gun usage may be illegal in certain locales or ways, but gun ownership is not, for the average person. Difference.)

Beneath that, this kind of a vertical battle also has to come to grips with an aspect of that "what it means" that most of us rarely consider. It's sort of like our ability to freely travel across state borders without needing to show papers, or to do business across state borders without needing to get a special permit. We can fly home, or drive home, with no permission required other than having money to pay for the ticket or gasoline. If someone were to suggest that all state borders be closed and require papers to cross, I'm fairly certain there'd be an outcry, and this would include people who had never left their own state in their life (and yes, I've met plenty of them). It's not because they're saving up for that trip they've never taken. It's because part of being American is understanding you have certain rights -- that you could use. Even if you never do, but you could.

It's that "could", perhaps, that's a stumbling block for the ones who aren't anti-gun but aren't exactly pro-gun, either. Yes, guns are supposedly so easy to get (assuming you have a large chunk of cash, which I don't know about you, but I don't, so this whole "guns are so easy to get" pisses me off. Someone give me five hundred dollars to spend and sure, I'll be happy to go with the "guns are so easy", but this is kind of like saying "Mercedes are so easy to buy" -- yes, if you're freaking RICH. Guh. /rant) -- and most of the comments I've read in the past few days that seem to be second-party agree that, well, guns should be a little more limited, or harder to get in certain circumstances. And maybe require more education, training, possibly insurance on guns like we require on cars, and discounts if you've taken additional safety classes. Things like that.

(I find it intriguing that the suggestion "guns should be more expensive" does not seem to get support from second-party comments, because the obvious conclusion is that then only rich white people will be able to afford guns, and that's just making the class system even worse, when you consider that the vast majority of the gun atrocities in the last few decades have all been perpetrated by middle-to-upper class white guys.)

I can pinpoint that second type by the fact that they stop short of outright gun ban. Sometimes it's articulated, but sometimes it's just this vague expression that they don't want to go that far. I don't think this is because they're secretly pro-gun. I think they're hitting that internal acculturation that says, "guns are part of Americana", but don't have the tools or means or whatever to stop and say, "why is it that I can't visualize an America without this thing that I've never owned, never been interested in owning, and certainly hope to never have to use even if I did own, and yet I can't seem to point-blank say that therefore it's not something anyone should own?"

Getting back to the most recent atrocities, I think part of the difficulty in the national discussion is that it's really two separate discussions. The first is more to-the-point about what we do, as a culture, when there's someone ill among us with suicidal or homicidal urges. That's where we get into questions of rescinding someone's second amendment rights (as we do for felons), and issues of mental health and the stigma of mental health diagnosis.

Related to this, I recently learned the VA can sometimes declare a veteran unable to manage their own finances, which the VA must do to divert veteran monies to a family member or other executor who will handle the veteran's finances on the veteran's behalf. Such declaration also temporarily suspends the veteran's right to own guns; interestingly, this extends to all residents under the same roof with the veteran. What's most important is that there is a way for a veteran to get a hearing and appeal the suspended rights. I think it was a WaPo article that quoted the stats, and only a very small percentage of veterans appealed, but of those, a decent amount did win back their gun-ownership rights even if they still retained no control over their finances.

The point is that this system seems fair and good to me, because it's not blanket. There's an appeals process; it's not a one-way trip. What if this were just something that sometimes happens? Like -- and totally off the top of my head, here -- you're not allowed to own a gun if your eyesight is worse than X level, just like you can't have a driver's license. Until you can test below X threshold, your gun rights are suspended. From the outside, would this mean I can't tell whether it's because you're depressed, or have bad eyesight or bad vertigo, or just failed your range test? Would that separate (or mask) the stigma of "can't have guns, must be mentally ill"?

Plus, there's that aspect of affecting the rest of the family under the same roof. When one person in the house cannot or should not be near guns, this covers the rest of the family. Put the guns in lockdown storage, off the premises. Bring them back when things are safe again, or just sell the guns (assuming they aren't sentimental or irreplaceable in some other way).

If I had a child diagnosed with any kind of a mental state that might even remotely ping, I would totally have the guns outside the house until things have stabilized. It's one price of living under the same roof with someone who may not be in the best place to remember right-and-wrong, or to care. Anything less seems to me to be as irresponsible as not checking to see if there's a bullet in the chamber before declaring the gun unloaded.

That's one part of the discussion, and I meander into the VA aspect to demonstrate that we do have models for addressing this, on a limited scale. It's not like we'd have to make something out of whole cloth, if perhaps the VA's method were scalable in some way.

But overall, that discussion revolves around: "availability of guns to capable people" versus "unavailability for people who aren't equipped in some fashion to be responsible" versus "keeping guns out of the hands of people with homicidal issues" with attendant "even if that means no one can have any guns at all". (The last of which reminds me of the snark, this is why we can't have nice things. Which is probably inappropriate humor here, but I can't help it.)

The conflict seems to arise when someone lobs into the conversation, "well, obviously we should just get rid of guns completely". This suggestion slams up against the unspoken question: "what role do guns play in our perception of being Americans?" It's like guns, without ever being named specifically, are in there along with Mom, apple pie, baseball, and the Fourth of July. It means getting into the Bill of Rights, our perception of What It Means etc, and the acculturated notion of Citizenship, and history, and even into things so quintessentially American like the various stand-your-ground laws. It's not just some practical topic, then, but a conversation about our cultural values.

I dearly wish someone would come up with an 'un-gun-control.me' app for Facebook, adopting the unbaby.me and unpolitic.me apps. Because I absolutely agree that we want guns out of the hands of unbalanced, middle class men with aggrieved fury who watch the news and see the way to die in a blaze of fame (if not glory) is to take as many others with you as possible. Except that when someone concludes that the so-called 'obvious' answer is to adopt Britain's tack of simply removing all guns, I slam up against a gut reaction that if we did that, we would no longer be America. We'd be a facsimile of Britain, or Canada, or France, or Japan, or wherever else used as comparison -- and America is not those cultures. For better or worse, we have an American culture and it's one no more easily shifted than anyone other culture. We could no more become Japan by simple legislation than Japan could ever become us. Also, I don't know why anyone would ever promote China as a culture we should emulate because hello, totalitarian and I don't care if they bring knives to gunfights, the totalitarian aspect kind of makes me go no way in hell, full stop.

So if I don't plan on personally buying, training on, maintaining, and using a gun, why should I care? (Note: I don't rule it out; I just don't have the time and cash required for purchase, training, maintenance, and regular practice at the range.) Why should I have this gut sense that somehow the possibility should remain possible, and that removing this somehow changes (not necessarily reduces, but definitely changes) my perception of quote-unquote America?

I'm thinking -- not decided, but thinking -- that perhaps this goes deeper than just 'freedom to be able to defend myself' or even 'freedom promised in the Bill of Rights'. I think it's something about the aspect of responsibility that we prize (at least in lip service, or try to prize) about Being American. That with our citizenship responsibilities, we get rights that to some other cultures are dangerous rights. I mean, if you think about us from the perspective of more authoritarian cultures, we're already crazy with power to be able to vote in elections. Not just to be able to vote but to let anyone vote: male, female, white, color, abled, disabled, employed, homeless, hetero, and non-het, married, single, divorced, christian, and non-christian.

From the very beginning we put power in the hands of a lot more people than any other countries dared, on a grander scale than anyone else had ever tried possibly in the history of the world. I can't recall the specific stats right now, but at the time of our independence, Britain had the vote (which is obvs where we got the idea) -- but in actual practice, it was about one out of every thirty people who actually qualified. In the newly-created America, it was about one in ten. There were still plenty who couldn't -- slaves, women, people who didn't own land or weren't of certain social status, I can't recall the rest -- so it was hardly perfect, and it took a long time to whittle down all the left-out groups and make it universal. But even one-in-ten was considered so radical as to signal impending total anarchy, by other countries, because my god, you're practically letting anyone have a say. Next thing you know it'll be dogs and cats, living together in sin.

I don't think we remember that, most of the time. But as Americans we do remember, deep down in the acculturation bones, that we're remarkable because we put power in the hands of the people. This kind of experiment is one of the major roots of American exceptionalism -- that by letting anyone have a say, a chance, we're doing something exceptional, and thereby becoming exceptional. Power in the hands of the people scares the crap out of many other countries, past and present, where democracy gets treated like it's a nice idea but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired.

We do kind of pride ourselves on being the home of the free, but that 'free' isn't just in being able to cross state borders without showing papers. It's in the sense that we're free to claim rights that older countries/cultures would really prefer remain only in the hands of an educated, elite, few. Things like speaking up against our government (freedom of speech), or gathering in the town square (freedom of assembly), or printing things about our government that maybe don't make the government look so good (freedom of press), or even going off and participating in Sunday activities that make the rest of our neighbors on the Group W bench all slide away from us (freedom of religion). When you think about it, these, like the freedom to bear arms, are really kind of insane. Who would possibly let just anyone be able to do these things? It should be total anarchy. But it's not.

This is not to say that other countries don't have some, or all, or variations on, these freedoms. But I do think that being a country born in revolution, that went on to expand from sea to sea in blood and death and war and genocide, left a massive mark (and a continuing scar, in many ways) on our sense of What It Means. Our identity is tied up in that. Talking about something that impinges on that freedom is like tugging at a single strand and knotting up the entire rest of the blanket. It's really hard to detach just that one thread of "gun control" or "gun rights" because it's knotted around our national identity itself, which includes how we understand and value our freedoms. Including the freedom to never have need to take advantage of that freedom: to speak up or to remain silent, to pray or not, to own a gun or not. Including the freedom to never exercise that freedom.

Regardless, whatever you may think of the issue, it seems to me there's more to puzzle out, to understand why it is I -- like a lot of other second-type voices -- want some kind of gun management, but just can't seem to bring ourselves to full-out gun control. Or for that matter, find ourselves immediately and completely turned-off by strident anti-gun rhetoric (even as we're made to feel terribly guilty, as though our indecisive position is somehow personally responsible for every gun-related atrocity ever and any future ones yet to happen). I think it's because we're tripping over that conflict between fundamental deep-seated notions of What It Means To Be America, versus the very real need to confront and deal with issues of gun management and mental health.

At some point I'll come up with a witty tag to note when something is book-length. Wait, do I have one of those already? I can't recall.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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