Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lots of questions, few answers

Try as we might to avoid the issue, we could all see it coming. A long, summer holiday weekend would certainly mean that the news would be filled with stories about people getting shot in Chicago. Like clockwork, the reports came in hour by hour, and when all was said and done, over this past Fourth of July weekend, 82 people were shot in this city, and 16 of them died. While the murder-per-capita numbers are higher in other cities, for the past few years more people in Chicago have been murdered than in any other city making this by some accounts, the murder capital of the country. This fact has not been lost in cities coast to coast as this article from the Los Angeles Times and this article from last year in the New York Times point out.

Not surprising, the spin doctors on both sides of the gun issue are having a field day with this one. The mayor and the police commissioner, along with advocates of gun control claim that there are far too many guns in this city and that the laws currently in place are not adequate to protect the men, women, and children of Chicago. The gun crowd claims that Chicago already has the toughest gun laws in the country, which is true, so obviously there is no correlation between gun laws and gun violence.

Since I'm not a person who necessarily believes in better life through legislation, I'm not so naive as to think that making new laws alone will make the problem of gun violence go away. I even believe there is some logic to the old and tired axiom toted out by the gun crowd every time some nut with a gun goes on a rampage, or a dismal new homicide record is set. Just as a $50,000 Steinway grand piano on the stage of a great concert hall would make no music without someone there to play it, a gun sitting in a drawer harms no one if it is left alone.

You can kill someone with a knife, a broken bottle, or an automobile, but no one is suggesting we ban those things. That much is true but so is this: a concert pianist can make music with a kazoo, a Jew's harp or an armpit but chances are, a piano would be much more effective.

In the end, these arguments are pointless; the relationship between guns and people is obvious. To put it simply, a gun is a tool for the expressed purpose of maiming and killing living creatures, including human beings. As such, it is a very effective tool.

For better or worse, our constitution guarantees our right to own guns, that much is certain. As long as I can remember, we've debated the extent to which the Founding Fathers intended that liberty to reach. The people with the most liberal (in the strictest definition of that term) interpretation of the Second Amendment have recently won victories giving us the freedom to do as we please with guns, rights that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

As I pointed out in a previous postnever in my wildest dreams did I expect to see "no guns allowed" signs posted in front of establishments all across the city. Those signs have become a reality here because the courts in their infinite wisdom have insisted that Illinois lift its restriction on carrying concealed weapons. Seemingly never satisfied, the signs have become a point of contention with the gun folks who claim they won't enter a business, library, or museum that displays one because criminals obviously would ignore the signs, and being out-gunned, law abiding citizens such as themselves would be put at a disadvantage.

Thirty years ago, the sale and possession of handguns was a widely debated topic and municipalities including Chicago, put laws on the books that prevented the sale and possession of the weapons whose only purpose was to kill people. As the courts have recently overturned those laws as unconstitutional, the stakes are much higher and we are now debating whether people should be allowed to purchase assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill several people at one time. The gun folks are winning that battle too.

Which leads me to believe that today, the lunatics are running the asylum.

Gun advocates spout out many arguments for their cause; most of them have enough holes to fill the Albert Hall. My favorite goes something like this:

Gun laws only prevent honest, law abiding citizens from owning and carrying firearms. The only way we can solve the problem of bad guys with guns is to put guns into the hands of the good guys.

In other words, contrary to the expressed statements of the mayor and the police superintendent of Chicago, no we don't have too many guns in this city, in fact we have too few. The logic behind the second sentence of this argument is that the bad guys would be so intimidated by the thought that the good guys might be packing heat, that they'd leave the good guys alone. But as we've seen in Chicago over the past several eons, the lion's share of gun violence here involves bad guys shooting at other bad guys. This could actually be a good thing in a pure Darwinian sense as theoretically, the bad guys would eventually kill each other off, leaving only good guys in our fair city. Unfortunately, most of the bad guys in our city turn out to be really bad shots, and more often than not, they miss their intended targets, i.e.: other bad guys, and hit good guys instead. One of those good guys was a Chicago Public School teacher named Betty Howard who was shot a few weeks ago while she sat inside a real estate office where she worked a second job. I'm not sure how having a gun in her possession at the time she was killed would have saved Ms. Howard who was caught unawares by the gunfight taking place outside her office, but I have no doubt that the gun crowd will come up with some explanation.

I also don't buy the idea that gun laws prevent "honest, law abiding citizens" from owning guns. The purchase, possession and the use of fireworks is strictly illegal in the State of Illinois, yet those laws don't prevent tens of thousands of otherwise law abiding folks from staging their own private Fourth of July fireworks displays, some with enough fire power to make a full scale re-enactment of the invasion of Omaha Beach look timid. Back in the day when owning and carrying handguns was illegal in this town, I knew people, otherwise decent, law abiding folks, who did just that.

Now of course, thanks to the courts, it's perfectly legal for those folks and just about anyone else to own a handgun in Chicago and carry a concealed weapon in Illinois. The courts have also thrown out Chicago's ban on gun shops although as yet, none have opened. Not to worry Chicagoans, you don't have to go very far to legally purchase a gun, just go across the street into Riverdale or another suburb that borders the city to stock your private arsenal. If you have a troublesome past and don't pass the perfunctory background check, you can always have a friend or relative buy one for you. If that's too much trouble, getting a gun illegally in this city is ridiculously easy and if by chance the police catch you, it's unlikely you'll get much more than a slap on the wrist. Watch out though, you still can't legally carry those guns openly in this state, but the way legislators and judges have been spreading their legs for the gun lobby these days, it should not be very long before we see thousands of Wyatt Earp wannabes walking around town sporting holsters and ammo from their belts.

Since guns don't do the actual killing, none of this should bother us, it's the people we need to worry about right?

I say that facetiously, but only slightly. The reality is that while guns are readily available all over the country, recurrent incidents of gun violence occur in very predictable places like Chicago. Taking that point further, the vast majority of gun violence in Chicago takes place in very specific parts of the city.

The communities that suffer the most from violence have a few other things in common: high rates of poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, single parent families, poor performing schools, few opportunities for advancement or escape. A great many people in the communities that experience high crime rates were themselves victims of violent crime, and/or had loved ones whose lives were destroyed by violence. In my mind, the most desperate and tragic consequence of the endless cycle of poverty and violence in these communities is the loss of hope for the future.

We can endlessly point fingers. Some people blame poverty and the lack of economic opportunity on racism. Others blame the government, welfare, and the poor people themselves. Perhaps the blame can be spread around equally, but the one issue I single out above the others is the dissolution of the family. Here is an excerpt from a piece I wrote a few years ago, slightly altered from the original:
I don't have the answer for why people commit senseless crimes but I suspect that unlike many criminals, I had two parents who were devoted to me, let me know every day that I was important, blessed me with an enthusiastic faith in education and in the future, and especially taught me right from wrong, My parents came down on me as hard on the little things as the big ones, teaching me that it was just as wrong to steal a newspaper, (as I once had a penchant for doing), as it was to steal a Mercedes Benz. In short, they taught me that my integrity was the most valuable thing I had. Given my parents' scrupulous sense of values and ethics, the idea of intentionally causing harm to another human being never crossed my mind. My wife and I have tried hard to pass along those same values to our children.
I come from a privileged background, not because I am white, or because we had a little money in our pockets. I was privileged because I had two parents, a mother and a father who deeply cared about me, who spent quality time with me, and who taught me that if I worked hard enough, the sky was the limit. Now of course many people thrive despite having less than ideal circumstances in their childhood. But that is a much tougher road to travel, especially living in a community where bad circumstances are the rule not the exception.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that communities where the incidents of poverty and crime are the highest, are filled with children who were not privileged like I was. I think it's very clear that children, especially boys, need positive male role models, preferably their fathers. Too often the role models for young boys in this city are found in the streets. Communities consisting of generations of fatherless families are in my opinion, the greatest social ill facing our society today.

So what can we do?

I don't know how you can legislate families staying together. How can we insure that men who impregnate women take responsibility for themselves, their actions, and for the children they helped create? How on earth can we insist that people who bring children into this world and are incapable of caring for them, take the responsibility to find someone who can?  Or even, God forbid, how do we teach our children that maybe it's not such a bad idea after all to refrain from having sex at least until they are old enough to accept and deal with the consequences? The poverty, violence, inertia, lack of hope, respect, and personal responsibility in our city today I believe are not the disease, they are the symptoms.

Of course it's better to cure the disease than the symptom, but you have to start somewhere, and sometimes the best you can do is alleviate the symptoms first, then go after the root causes.

That brings us back to the guns. As we've seen, it is very difficult to legislate human behavior, but it's not all that hard to legislate guns, if only we had reasonable people on both sides willing to compromise.

The Second Amendment isn't going anywhere and with it, neither is our right to own guns. We seem to forget that along with any right we are guaranteed comes the implicit admonition that we use that freedom responsibly. No liberty guaranteed by our Constitution, not even the freedom of speech, is absolute. It seems the only people in our country who will fight to the death (usually someone else's), to make one particular liberty unconditional, are the extremist gun fanciers who cry foul at the mere mention of any reasonable form of controlling the sale, distribution and use of deadly weapons.

The drastic liberalization of gun laws in the past thirty years has resulted in a tremendous increase in the production and sale of guns in the United States. It is far easier to obtain a gun today than it was back then. As a consequence, more people are getting shot in Chicago than a generation ago. The only reason there are fewer deaths now than say 1974 when 970 people were murdered in this city, is because of advancements in medical technology. A police officer friend I just spoke with put it bluntly: many people who would have died from their wounds in 1974 are back on the streets today in a few weeks, reeking more havoc.

There are certainly responsible gun owners out there who pose little or no threat to society. There are many more who for whatever reason, have no business whatsoever being anywhere near a gun.

Pure and simple, why is it such a big deal to make it a little harder for those people to get one?

I just don't get it.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Once again James, you have written well on a topic of great significance. There are myriad reasons why the gun lobby, mainly the NRA, has morphed from a quasi-governmental organization that advertised in Boys Life and Field & Stream while advocating marksmanship in order to provide for the national defense into a radical, right wing purveyor of hate disguised as patriotism. Their ultimate goal is the unlimited proliferation of firearms for "law abiding" citizens to possess as a hedge against governmental tyranny. We saw just exactly how that worked recently with the Bundy standoff in Nevada. Moreover, in the age of the internet, the over abundance of instantaneous whacko communications has led us, IMHO, to the current polarity that exists in our daily politics, all with a firm foundation in the 2nd amendment salted with xenophobia and racism disguised as any number of things. The current problems we see in the inner cities of America stem directly from the sale of legal firearms. Every gun in the hands of the gangs was, at one time, legally produced and sold. There are now estimates of 300 million+ privately owned firearms in the U.S. Think about that for a while. Then think about how many more the NRA would advocate being produced and sold. It is beyond comprehension. There are many social ills that have contributed to the demise of the traditional family. Some may even argue that the traditional family has really never been inculcated in the African American ethos with roots going back to slavery. Nonetheless, it is firearms that are being viewed as a counterbalance to the miserable lives led by so many. Lives that those very same "patriots" are convinced are lives of choice and a threat to their worldview. I wish I knew how to fix it.