Saturday, October 03, 2015


I'm a gun-control proponent, but it's clear that much of our gun violence is at the hands of people who obtained their guns legally, and wouldn't have been prevented from getting their hands on firearms by any proposals currently on the table. We're told, for instance, that Christopher Harper-Mercer, the Oregon mass murderer, "owned 14 firearms, all of which were bought legally through a federally licensed firearms dealer.... Some were bought by Mr. Harper-Mercer, and some by members of his family."

But there's a common thread in three of the best-known recent gun crimes. Oregon:
Christopher Harper-Mercer was withdrawn and quiet as he grew up in southern California, spending most of his time indoors at his mother’s apartment and deflecting neighbors when they asked him how he was doing, or why he always wore the same outfit of combat boots and green Army pants. But there was one subject that got him to open up: guns.

Mr. Harper-Mercer collected handguns and rifles, and he regularly went to a shooting range with his mother, said neighbors in Torrance, Calif., where the two lived until moving to Oregon in 2013.
Texas, 2013:
Four letters, "PTSD," have hung over Eddie Ray Routh since the day he was accused of killing Chris Kyle, a famed Navy SEAL sniper....

The fragments of information presented about Routh, a 25-year-old Marine reservist, have been indelible thus far. Iraq war veteran. Listless and unemployed.

There's Routh: hospitalized multiple times since returning home, at one point reportedly threatening the lives of his family; also having been found shoeless and drunk by the police.

There's Routh: hospitalized another time because a friend in north Dallas was afraid he would hurt himself....

Kyle worked with a nonprofit group, FITCO Cares, to get returning veterans workout equipment. He had also written about using gun ranges as a kind of therapy for returning veterans, in which he'd give jokey tough-love between stories and beer. It's on such a trip with Routh that police think Routh turned a semiautomatic pistol on Kyle and one of Kyle's friends, Chad Littlefield, 35.
Connecticut, 2012:
Everyone tried to encourage Adam [Lanza] and looked for ways to engage with him. [Adam's mother] Nancy would take him on trips to the shooting range. Nancy and [Adam's father] Peter thought that their son was nonviolent; the best way to build a connection to someone with Asperger’s is often to participate in his fascinations.
I'm not part of the gun culture -- I don't own guns and haven't known many people who do. But I don't condemn the culture outright. It seems to me that most gun owners are right when they say that their use of guns is careful and responsible.

But the problem is that the gun culture doesn't even seem to acknowledge the possibility that some people really shouldn't go anywhere near a gun. Christopher Harper-Mercer, we've learned, was
an angry, isolated young man whose rage was fueled by animus toward religion and resentment at how his life was unfolding, law enforcement officials said Friday....

“He didn’t have a girlfriend, and he was upset about that,” said a senior law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “He comes across thinking of himself as a loser. He did not like his lot in life, and it seemed like nothing was going right for him.”
But his mother went shooting with him, and no one who knew him -- no family member or acquaintance -- seemed to think that an angry young man plus fourteen guns in the house was a potentially lethal combination. No one thought it might be a bad idea for Adam Lanza or Eddie Ray Routh to go shooting.

How do we think about alcohol in this culture?

I drink -- not much, but I like drinking. Most people I know like drinking. But I don't have trouble keeping multiple thoughts about drinking in my head simultaneously: Drinking can be very pleasant -- but I shouldn't drink to excess, and everyone should avoid drinking and driving, and drinking can be a problem if it's your way of dealing with emotional distress, and some people simply can't handle drinking at all. I think most of us can hold all those thoughts in our heads at once. We'll proudly raise a toast at our daughter's wedding, but we also know that alcoholics need to steer clear of the bottle.

Is the gun culture able to think like that? It seems to me that the gun culture thinks gun use is healthy recreation for everyone except criminals and terrorists. Guns are always good for what ails you! Certainly it's never worrisome if someone in emotional pain is surrounded by guns. I grew up hunting. Guns have always been a part of my life. That's true for everyone around here. And on and on....

Members of the gun culture, I'm not recommending that you forswear guns -- I'm saying that you should recognize that gun use isn't healthy for everyone. Maybe you need to take a closer look at some of your fellow gun users. Maybe some of them need an intervention -- which doesn't mean that your gun use is a problem. They just need to be separated from guns.

I know: You feel under constant threat from us freedom-hating liberals. You think this sounds like just a subtler form of gun-grabbing.

Well, it's your decision. But remember what I'm writing the next time there's a bloodbath caused by someone who was surrounded with guns and who'd obviously been emotionally distraught for a long time. Maybe someone in your culture could have connected the dots.


Unknown said...

This is outstanding work.

Steve M. said...


Unknown said...

Steve, I'm reading your article and wondering about a couple of points. Why does anyone need 14 guns? Would a good step be to limit an owner to say, two guns? Could we limit magazine size to 6 rounds? I know the gun owners would scream blue murder but it's a start.

Steve M. said...

I wrote this assuming that the chance of passing gun control legislation in the next decade is precisely 0%. I think this is a realistic assessment.

Never Ben Better said...

John Taylor, people can have multiple guns for different purposes, not necessarily nefarious. For example, I have two .22 target pistols, one that's my favorite, the second that my cousin prefers when we go shooting at the range together -- it fits her hand better, and we can both shoot without having to take turns. I also have a .22 target rifle, which is a different experience from pistol shooting.

So that's three -- and none of them, given their size and caliber, would be suitable if I wanted to carry concealed for protection (I don't). If I wanted to hunt (I don't) the .22 rifle would be fine for small game but I would need a larger caliber rifle for deer. I would need a shotgun for some game, or for skeet shooting if I indulged in that pastime.

So now we're up to a hypothetical six (and one would use different caliber shotguns for different purposes), and that's disregarding the fact that people also do target shooting with different calibers than .22.

People also collect different models and vintages of guns if they're into collecting per se. My own favorite pistol is a 1938 (first year of production) semi-collectible Colt Match Target (First Series); I bought it as a using gun, not a wallhanger, but some folks have wall cases full of collector-quality examples of that model and later editions -- and there are many other pistols, revolvers, and rifles that have achieved collectible status.

All that said, I too look askance at someone with a double-digit collection of gunnery unless they have specific, genuine reasons for owning each gun, given how many such arsenals are accumulated by gun nuts, paranoid tinfoil-hatters, and rage monsters. But not all.

Oh, and yes, if you're wondering: My guns are trigger-locked, unloaded, and stored safely away except when I trundle off to the range, the only place they get fed bullets.

John Taylor said...

Ben, you make good points. There are obviously many reasons to own a large number of firearms. Maybe an owner should have to apply for a special licence to own more than two. This is all hypothetical, as we know no gun control legislation is going to happen.

Ken_L said...

Steve you're sounding very much like Ben Carson with his proposal for 'preventive interventions'. Aren't the practical and moral questions insurmountable? Who decides that someone isn't fit to have access to a gun - the police? A judge? What evidence will be admissible - lay feelings that someone's not quite right in the head? Professional psychiatric examinations? In the absence of any record of actual violence, it's hard to see many people being banned. And then of course it's so easy to get guns illegally, any determined nutjob would simply go that route.

To be frank, I think these kinds of peripheral arguments play right into the NRA's hands. They create the illusion that something useful can be done, while leaving the real problem unaddressed. The solution to gun violence is (a) repeal of the second amendment, and (b) progressive removal of guns from private ownership except in cases of proven need. If America is not willing to take those measures, people should just accept that lots of people are going to get shot every year just like lots will get killed on the roads, and stop talking about it so much.

Yastreblyansky said...

Ken, that "preventive intervention" scenario is not how we deal with alcohol, and I don't think that's what Steve is proposing.

In practice we do accept that we can't bring a total halt to any kind of immoral or socially ruinous activity, from aggravated assault to insider trading and including murder; we don't dump the homicide statute because people still get killed. The NRA really does argue that restrictions on gun ownership won't stop ALL mass murder and therefore there should be no restrictions at all; we have to reply that it's worth while to stop some of them.

Legal prohibitions on alcohol are targeted to situations, not individuals, as when a person is under 21, or is found to be driving with a certain blood alcohol level. And it's very inconvenient to those who feel they can drive after three drinks, but we generally put up with it. Proposed gun laws are usually like that, targeting particular weapons (particularly useful in mass shooting) or magazines, or particular situations, like a buyer who has been committed for mental health treatment or is under a protection order. They're really helpful and would be more helpful at a federal level (you can evade New York's or Maryland's good gun laws by buying your guns in Virginia).

It would be incredibly difficult to achieve, but nowhere nearly as hard as repealing the 2nd Amendment (or instituting a firearms insurance system, with increased premiums for more dangerous weapons or for large collections and lower ones for hunting guns or in recognition of safety training, which I think would be the best approach). Even if it wouldn't save all the lives, though, saving a lot of them would be worth it.

Unknown said...

We're unlikely in the near future to achieve a gun control regime stricter than California's, and that wasn't enough to prevent Elliot Rodgers' rampage, but it has been successful in reducing gun violence, on average. Having to wait a couple of weeks to buy a gun makes it hard to commit suicide on impulse.

As a single male who lived with his mother until she died, who also owns a small arsenal (mostly inherited) I look at Harper-Mercer and Lanza and wonder what was going on.

On a more positive note, my mother seemed to be incapable of imagining suicide without a gun. (She was suffering from dementia.) Occasionally she'd say "Should I just shoot myself?" This was actually reassuring, since she didn't know her way around a shotgun. Her many medications were perhaps a greater risk.

Ten Bears said...

Agree wholeheartedly, in particular the guns to alcohol analogy.

Point of clarification, if I may: Mercer moved to Oregon in 2013. Moved here just two years ago. That this atrocity occurred in Oregon is peripheral to the problem, it could as easily occurred on a college campus in Southern California.

Never Ben Better said...

Jim Sweeney makes a good point about arsenal-owning -- guns, if properly cared for, last a long, long time and get handed down -- look at my own favorite, which is older than I am (though I bought it at a gun shop rather than inheriting it). Thus, a person in a family with a tradition of gun ownership could wind up with quite a number of them purely through inheritance, let alone gift-giving. Older guns, especially, can be elegant examples of fine craftsmanship, as well as historical artifacts. That they are tools for lethal violence is a separate issue from their inherent physical qualities -- hence the collectors who pursue them.

I think Jim and Ten Bears would agree with me that they are indeed tools, to those who require them and do not fetishize them; just tools, not inherently evil in and of themselves, but not to be disrespected, misused, or treated carelessly, any more than one would so treat, say, a chain saw, which can also kill or severely maim if mishandled.

I'm with Yastreblyansky in preferring an insurance scheme for gun control, if only as the perfect rejoinder to ammosexuals who yell, "Well, what about cars? Cars kill thousands, so shouldn't we then ban them too?" I'd in fact love to see a regulatory scheme akin to car insurance and driver's licensing applied to gun ownership.

Unknown said...

We know that trying to limit the number of guns people can own is just not going to work barring a drastic change in our politics. We have to be more creative. For instance, we could require gun owners to purchase insurance, with lower premiums if you keep your guns locked up at home. Unfortunately it looks like a lot more people will have to die before things change.