Sunday, December 16, 2012

Complicated

This is not an easy thing to talk about. Especially the politics of it. Heaven help us if we allow these families time to bury their dead before we begin trying to co-opt their grief for our own personal political point scoring. But that train has left the station. This is one of those events that is so rough and so emotional that the outrage isn't being held back.

There is also the fact that tragedies like this are inherently political, because decisions we make as a nation, as states, and municipalities guide the policies that factored into this event. As a matter of fact, in this country it seems that the ONLY time we talk about politics or policies that factor into tragic situations is immediately following one that has just happened. And half of those conversations involve being told to shut up and not talk about it "so soon." As if there is ever a good time to talk about situations that leave us with gunshot victims or elderly folks who drowned in a flood, or whatever it is we aren't supposed to talk about this week. Maybe it would be healthier if we kept some conversations going during whatever counts as "normal" time in this society anymore. Then again, maybe we'd never talk about anything that way.

There are a lot of ways to talk about things today.

We'll dispense with some of the sillier and more useless talking points first. If you think this happened because "God isn't allowed in schools," then you're part of the problem. I bet you think hurricanes cause floods because of gay people, too. Besides being completely wrong - as long as you don't disrupt others' academic activities or force people who don't share your particular religion to say your prayers, students can pray as much as they want - this line of thinking completely ignores the very real steps we humans can take, regardless of creed, to address situations such as these. Now, if you find comfort in the teachings of your religion, please find comfort where you can. But when it comes to policy, we simply do not have to wait for a supernatural being to do something about our collective problems, and outsourcing the very important work we must do as a society to any supreme being works about as well as ignoring the problem completely. 

Next up come those folks who are repeating the social media line about "my right to send my kids to school without getting shot is more important than your second amendment rights, so screw off." Look, I understand that folks saying this are probably parents of beautiful little children. I also know this is an emotional time for each of them that I can't understand, since I don't have kids of my own. Maybe I should just ignore this kind of statement as an emotional catharsis that it is, but I've seen it repeated too many times on Facebook to think it is something that will just go away. And since we're talking about a very important issue, this kind of ignorance and fear must require a response.

This is going to sound very, very cold, but you do not, in fact, have a "right" to perfect safety in this country. That is not a political belief, folks, that's just stone cold reality. Rights, as codified and understood by law, do not - and cannot - work that way. Laws can try to work that way, but even then we run into problems. Connecticut has stricter gun laws than most states. I'm sure they have a law that makes it illegal to bring firearms onto school grounds. I know for a fact they have laws stating that it is illegal to murder other people.  None of those laws mattered, and the rights of those children and adults to go about their day unmolested by gunfire were taken away in the most brutal of fashions. That is because the perpetrator in this instance, as with so many other instances, did not care about the laws or the rights of his victims. Just like we can't outsource our collective problems to the supernatural, we can't legislate away every bad thing from happening.

But we can take very real steps to mitigate risks against bad things happening, and this is where policy conversations need to start.

Of course, understanding that doesn't mean we automatically start communicating effectively. The vast majority of folks I know had two political reactions to yesterday's events. The first was to demand the end to gun ownership in the United States. Most of them don't really think this (though enough of them absolutely do), and the statement actually falls somewhere between cultural or political criticism and emotional catharsis to rage against a big and seemingly intractable problem. When challenged, it boils down to general support for more regulation of gun ownership and more safeguards against guns falling into the wrong hands. Keep that in mind, because we'll get back to it in just a second.

The second political reaction to yesterday's events was for individuals to say they were "going to the gun store" or otherwise indicating that this year's shootings should not be used politically to limit their rights to purchase the firearms of their choice for personal protection, hunting, or simple law abiding sport. Many expressed the personal, law abiding steps they had taken - including registration, training, and safety - in support of their right to bear arms, and additionally expressed their desire that laws and enforcement are needed to keep weapons out of the hands of felonious criminals and the legally adjudicated individuals deemed unfit for firearms ownership due to mental health issues.

In effect, both intractable "sides" that have emerged in this conversation have some very important common ground, which will be necessary for any policy changes to be made legislatively and culturally. Both support, in words or by action, some form regulation of gun ownership. Both support, overwhelmingly, more safeguards to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands. The problem is that, in "discussing" this issue with individuals from the other "side," the only things they hear are: "No guns, for anyone, ever," or "No restrictions on gun ownership, whatsoever." Those two statements, repeated back and forth between each "side," and exploited for political gain by lobbyists and pundits, have kept this nation from exploring where we can get with that common ground when it comes to firearms policy in the United States. Throw in a healthy dose of fear, emotion, and ignorance of the law, and you have the current unsustainable state of affairs.

The US Constitution, and subsequent decisions by the United States Supreme Court, affirm the right to ownership of arms at the same time they allow for regulation of firearm ownership, especially at the state level. Seeing this as an "either - or" issue only keeps the issue intractable politically. States determine their own regulations restricting concealed carry of pistols; states determine their own age limits regarding who can own what; states determine which felonies disqualify individuals for firearms ownership; states determine the level of training required to own a firearm; states determine the state tax on sale of firearms; states determine the registration requirements for certain types of firearms; etc. States have tremendous power to affect this issue, and I think the majority of American voters could find some common ground on reasonable regulations and enforcement mechanisms to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.

Because you know who elects the representatives who make state law? The People.

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