Emotion and Reason in the Gun Debate

You may have heard the story of Caroline Sparks, the 2-year-old Kentucky girl who was killed this week when her brother, all of 5 years old himself, took the rifle he got for his birthday and shot her in the chest. I suppose we should be thankful this kind of thing doesn't happen even more often; as a Kentucky state trooper told CNN, "In this part of the country, it's not uncommon for a 5-year-old to have a gun." I'm sure that when gun-rights advocates heard the story, they said, "Oh geez, here we go again." They'd have to deal yet again with people being upset when innocents get killed with guns. They'd have to explain that as tragic as Caroline's death is, it doesn't mean that we should change the law on background checks. After all, that 5-year-old boy got his gun from his parents, not at a gun show.

Whatever you think about gun advocates, could they be right on this point? Sure, it's a little rich coming from people who are constantly stoking fears of home invasions, fascist takeovers, and utter societal breakdown to justify our current lax gun laws. But do we get into trouble when our arguments about public policy are based on emotionally vivid but unrepresentative individual stories? Maybe.

Let's be clear about one thing: The horrifying story of Caroline Sparks' death tells us, if nothing else, that certain corners of gun culture in America are f-ing nuts. Anyone who has known a five-year-old understands that giving one of them a functioning firearm is utterly insane. Don't give me any line about instilling proper respect for guns in children; at an age when a child doesn't have the dexterity to tie his own shoes, and lacks the impulse control to conclude that putting Krazy Glue on his lips might not be such a great idea, he shouldn't be allowed within 20 feet of a gun, supervised or not. Stories like this one may not be common, but they aren't all that unusual either. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, 62 American children aged 14 and under were killed by accidental discharge of firearms; 25 of those were under age 5. Two hundred and nineteen kids 14 and younger were intentionally murdered with guns, including 54 younger than 5. So Caroline Sparks wasn't the first, and she won't be the last.

Nevertheless, her story and others like it may not speak directly to whether we should have something like more comprehensive background checks. Gun rights supporters are fond of saying that expanded background checks wouldn't have stopped the Sandy Hook shooting, and strictly speaking that's true, since Adam Lanza got his guns from his mother, and since she wasn't an ex-felon, nothing in the law prevented her from amassing an arsenal of military-grade weaponry. Furthermore, the 26 people who were murdered in Newtown accounted for only about a quarter of one percent of all the Americans killed by guns last year. Preventing more mass shootings, and limiting the death toll in those that do occur, is a reasonable goal. But it's only a small part of our real gun problem.

Of course events like Sandy Hook aren't representative; that's why we pay so much attention to them. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a decision in a case about potentially dangerous speech that "eloquence may set fire to reason," by which he meant that people can get riled up for perfectly sound reasons. In the same way, if one shocking event rouses us from our stupor to have an actual debate, and perhaps some policy changes, on what no one can deny is a genuine problem, then what's the harm? It isn't as though in the heat of the moment some kind of crazy piece of legislation was rushed through Congress without anyone bothering to figure out what was in it, making sweeping changes to our laws with far-reaching implications, like the USA-PATRIOT Act. Sandy Hook spurred a debate, stretching over months now. Everyone has had ample time to make all the reason-based arguments they can come up with and critique those of the other side.

Gun advocates may be embarrassed when stories like that of Caroline Sparks come to light, but deaths like hers are the product of the culture they have worked so hard to create, where we put guns in as many places as possible and people are dumb enough to think that it's perfectly fine to give a rifle to a 5-year-old. Little kids shooting toddlers may not, in and of itself, say anything about whether we should do something like expand background checks. But that's because our current policy choices are so absurdly constrained. Those stories do help us understand the profound sickness coursing through our national bloodstream, where we've come to accept that an endless slaughter, with a couple of dozen Americans gunned down each and every day, is just the price of "freedom." And yes, that's worth getting emotional about.


The death of any child is a tragedy, whatever instrument caused it. Carolyn Sparks is dead because people who should have known better allowed an unsupervised 5-year old access to a working firearm and ammunition. If she had fallen into an open 5-gallon pail half full of water and drowned, who would you have blamed? The manufacturers of the pail, or the National Plastics Council. or the parents?

Maybe some people are too stupid to have children; do you consider yourself qualified to decide? There's an ugly name for that; eugenics. The sad truth is that there will always be Carolyns in a nation as huge and varied as ours.

Innocent people die every day from firearm violence, but others are saved by by the same devices. One night nearly thirty years ago I was awakened to pounding on my front door at 1 AM; it was a young mother from across the street with her two children, who had made a break for my house after being trapped in theirs by a masked intruder who ripped out the phone lines (no cell phones back then in this area) and rattled doors and windows trying to get in for three hours until they fled out the front door as he was out back.

I grabbed my big aluminum flashlight and my Ruger Redhawk hunting revolver and cautiously crossed the street; Law Enforcement was 20 minutes away, and a lot can happen in 20 minutes. When I got to the house the perp was gone. It turns out I knew him, and he knew me as a Coast Guard Boarding officer and firearms enthusiast. A K-9 team caught him a mile away, hiding in a ditch. I think the sight of that old stainless steel revolver unnerved him a little. Would he have hurt that family? Who knows? I did not intend to allow him the opportunity.

Humans are one of those unfortunate species that breed our own predators. If we keep packing buildings with large numbers of people who have been deprived of the means to protect themselves (Newtown, the Aurora theater) we will continue to have these horrors, and all this exploitation of small bloody bodies will do nothing to stop it.

We are fortunate in that we are faced with a handful of whackos who think murdering a bunch of kids is a grand idea; the Israelis face thousands of them. And how do they respond? Hardened schools and armed teachers. It's time to stop playing politics and start facing reality.

I'll give the family of the 2 yr old a response conservatives give people who get HIV, teens who get pregnant, gays who get attacked for being gay, rape victims, terror suspects who get illegally tortured, and anyone who is poor; "Sucks to be you, u made your bed, now sleep in it, take responsibility for your actions, what your going through is part of the Christian god's plan for you.... ".

Background checks make it harder & more expensive for law-abiding people to acquire firearms.

Yet, some are willing to inconvenience & make it more expensive for the vast majority of Americans to acquire firearms by imposing an ineffective law that criminals will have no problem dancing around. To criminals, new gun laws would just be more hard-to-understand words on paper. They won't even bother to read them. And if they do, they'll say, "Hmmmm? I can't pass any background check, I'll have to steal my guns or buy them from another criminal with a spotless record because he hasn't been caught yet.

If a gun store owner denies a criminal a gun during the day, the criminal will just return at night with his burglary tools & take what he wants. In fact, criminals probably won't even try to buy guns in the first place. Why buy something when you can get it for free?

When it comes to foreigners at Gitmo, the left is willing to go to any length to protect their Constitutional rights. But when it comes to American citizens the left is willing to go to any length to abridge their Second Amendment rights.

Reasonable? Really?

What sort of "freedom" does the possession of firearms provide? I don't mean in theory, I mean in practice.

Protection from wild animals? Okay, though this isn't problem for most modern Americans. If I lived in the Rockies, you bet I would want a good 10 gauge for cougars and grizzlies. Luger? Not so much.

Protection from robbers and violent crime? But we have no proof gun ownership is protective. The US has more people in prison than any other nation. Hard to understand, since violent crime has fallen over the past 30 years -- and so has the percentage of US households with firearms. But, school shootings seem to be going strong. More research is needed, right?

Finally, I hear comments from young Americans online that put forward the idea that they should have guns in order to kill tyrants. Like, oh, the president and other elected officials. If Boston didn't demonstrate to these young traitor... Ahem, firebrands what would result from such actions, I have to conclude that the most fervent gun rights supporters are living in a delusional video-game dream, where you can shoot 10,000 sentient aliens with a complex civilization and yet never have them evaluate the threat and then take effective action in retaliation.

Oh, wait...

Unfortunate, but 62 of 319 million people in the US works out to 1 chance in 5 million per annum. About as likely as getting hit by lightning. This is a remarkably low rate given the huge number of firearms in the country. Of the 219 kids intentionally murdered with guns, many were undoubtedly criminals. The rough numbers are that about 90% of murders are felons and about 85% of their victims are also felons. That is why gun-control which only affects the law-abiding generally has no effect on crime.

We so easily forget that all firearms are potentially deadly weapons by design and manufacture. Other things that can kill, like knives and cars and backyard pools, are designed and manufactured for practical use in our daily lives; it is their “off-label” or neglectful use that kills. On the other hand, guns can kill when used according to the manufacturers’ directions.

Given that all firearms are potentially deadly by design, they belong in a category with explosives and toxins and other dangerous substances; that is, they have their uses, but must be used with extraordinary respect and care by people who know how to handle them safely. No one, I suspect, would think of giving a 5 year old a stick of dynamite or even fireworks explosives.

For decades, guns have killed an average of 30,000 people a year in this country, and in recent years, the number of gun deaths has risen. In contrast, traffic fatalities are dropping dramatically. Thirty-five years ago, there were almost 55,000 traffic deaths a year, over one and one-half times the number of gun deaths. But over the years, due to the manufacture of safer vehicles, restricted privileges for young drivers, and seat-belt and other laws, the number of traffic deaths has fallen. By 2015 it is likely that there will be fewer traffic deaths than gun deaths.

No one threatened to take away our cars. We simply stepped up to the responsibility of owning and driving a potentially dangerous vehicle. We register our cars, obtain a license after learning how to drive safely, buy insurance, and accept that some people, like those who are intoxicated, should not be allowed to drive. We support laws that make driving safer.

Cars are different from guns, of course, in that for a great many of us, owning a car or truck is a necessity in daily living, and we all understand the need to make driving safer. Guns are very rarely a necessity in daily living, and most people in the US don't own any. So it's harder politically to make the case for gun safety. But as the number of gun deaths and injuries continues to rise, and the hideousness of mass shootings continues to shock us, the politics of gun safety will change.

If we treat guns with the same healthy respect that we treat our cars, and acknowledge that with rights come grave responsibilities, we can reduce the number of gun deaths just as dramatically as we have traffic deaths.

Out of the roughly 75 million minors in the US, 62 of them were killed by accidental gun shots last year. Of course that says nothing as to how many of those accidents were caused by other children- undoubtedly not all of them. Maybe not even half of them. So all we know for sure from this stat is about .00000082% of children in the US were killed by accidental gun shots last year and the % that were caused by other children is even less than that. So applying reason and not emotion to these numbers I'm not at all convinced that giving a young child a firearm under proper conditions is "utterly insane." And what we'll never know is how many gun accidents are prevented each year because individuals learned gun safety at a young age.

Children die every year. thousands die by drowning - some in plastic buckets, some in toilets, some in pools. thousands die because their parents were careless or stupid. Focusing on guns is unwise. Do you want to register and test potential parents? Cost vs. benefit. 62 children die by guns, thousands of children die by drowning. Are swimming pools registered? plastic buckets? toilets?

I had hoped, upon seeing the headline for this article, that it would have been an example of reason, however tempered by emotion. Instead, we got the same old same old.

I agree that leaving any firearm in the hand of an unsupervised child is indefensible. I agree that something is dreadfully wrong with the present form of gun ownership. I DON'T agree that those of us who strongly advocate that the Cartridge Box is as important in the defense of a free people as the Ballot Box, the Soap Box and the Jury Box are all nuts.

My father (a hunter) first taught me to shoot at his side when I was 5 and 6--both with a rifle and a bow--and any handling of weapons was always under his direct supervision at the local range or nearby gravel pit (the local shooting area). That is a very different thing from what the story about the tragic shooting tells.

Of course, the ethos of gun ownership was somewhat different when I was a boy--perhaps representing a high-water mark, in fact.

That being said, let's not forget that at the heart of the American Mythos of violence are such things as genocide, market hunting and ecological devastation--all true events from our history as yet unaddressed by any sort of Truth and Reconciliation. In our time, also, we are all exposed to the media folk-tale of the cowboy cop and the anti-terrorist torturer.

There is this, too: We will our culture with many dangerous things. Big pickup trucks and SUVs in our suburbs, toxic and hormone disruptive chemicals in our air, our water and our food, heavy metal industrial waste everywhere... (and the list could go on and on and on). It seems that these dangers--each one killing as many or more North Americans as guns--don't carry with them the fear that somewhere, someday an angry mob of the impoverished and disenfranchised will organize themselves and enter the suburbs with intent for some "pay back". (So far, all we've seen is the occasional crazy shooter or bomber who always seems to get a gun or a bomb, no matter what we do.)

There is much I would change both about our society and our relationship with violence and the gun. Now, though, I am very reluctant to hand even more power over to entities which have proven untrustworthy with the power they already hold. A nation that tortures or kills children with death robots from the skies cannot be trusted to disarm its citizens.

And, finally, there is this: The author cites the quick passage of the USAPATRIOT Act as counter-example as to what hasn't happened with the gun debate. His use of the example is a bit disingenuous, for if we HAD all given into post-massacre hysteria (as we all did post 9-11), a wide variety of anti-gun measures would have been quickly passed into law. I think the author knows this. It was only that some people--all them "gun nuts" out here like me--who put on the breaks so that we COULD have a debate.

(I'd like to hear from the author, if possible. Email p e t e r t h o o p e r >at< g m a i 1 calm.)

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