9:02 a.m. December 12, 2012

A scribble

So after the shooting in Portland yesterday we're seeing nth iteration of the country wrangling about guns in the face of a horrible tragedy.

I'm a gun owner, I've been one for a good chunk of my adult life, and grew up where most everyone else was too. I'm also a crime reporter, and have spent the last five-plus years seeing how the law does and doesn't work when it comes to violence.

I get a twitch because a lot of the populations that get stereotyped in the resulting fracas are ones I come from, and I've encountered both genuinely disturbed gun nuts along with a lot of people who had absolutely good reasons to own and use firearms. But that doesn't come out, instead we get a shouting match that's largely forgotten in a week.

Perhaps a short piece, mixing those experiences with a call to actually start addressing gun culture in this country (as with 300 million of the things it's not going away, but it has changed and can change again) instead of running back to the same entrenched (and not particularly useful) positions that get brought up every time something terrible like this happens.

Back channel chatter

  1. People who blame guns for the "going postal" rampage massacres never explain why workplace and school massacres never happened until the late 80s/90s, and now they happen all the time.

    I'm also curious about the politics of gun ownership. I wonder if gun owners were always so rabidly right-wing/libertarian? I suspect not, that they were in part molded by political marketing whizzes, like a lot of demographics. The earliest gun-nut politicking I've seen is from the 40s/50s from the anti-New Deal proto-libertarian public relations flaks.

    I say this as a longtime gun nut by the way, used to go hunting as a kid with my first stepfather, we kept about 20 guns in our house. Then he threatened to murder me and my grandmother. Long story...

  2. Hell, "long story" sounds like a major understatement, Mark...

    Yeah, many, many aspects of gun laws and violence that don't usually get discussed in these fracases.

    Interestingly, gun politics as a far-right cause celebre is recent. Until the late '70s, the NRA was a moderate organization that often endorsed gun laws (and conservatives like Reagan passed them). A lot of nastier labor strikes involved unions handing out weapons to their members. MLK's house was full of guns, and Eleanor Roosevelt carried a revolver with her when traveling through KKK turf. A lot of arguments about the individual right to bear arms in the 50s-60s actually came from the left (see the Black Panthers marching on the California capital armed).

    More recently, there's a pretty good argument that one reason the Dems stopped making guns an issue was that their areas of growth came from regions (the Northwest and the South) where gun ownership is less of a political marker.

    We owned guns, but it was the shotgun-rifle-handgun trinity. Not gun nut levels, but enough that I still cringe every time gun owners get stereotyped as the paranoid NRA type.

  3. So... a piece on guns? If so: what does it need to focus on?

  4. It needs to focus on how if elementary school kids were allowed to carry firearms, they'd be so much safer.

    http://www.courant.com/news/breaking/hc-police-responding-to-incident-in-newtown-20121214,0,3969911.story

    Fuck the NRA where they live.

  5. Oh hell.

    Yes, they're an insane, damaging organization.

  6. “It’s alarming, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, which we always thought was the safest place in America,” from the Salon ongoing coverage.

    We hear this over and over again; it's a similar trope to “he was a nice, quiet man who never bothered anyone” and “to look at him you'd never have guessed he was a Communist”.

    Of course people think this. I guess this is just another bullet point on my list of things that aren't helping news coverage. When there's no news, fill with vox pops. Hope you don't make anyone look too bad except the bad guy. This piece from Newswipe (via @scottygb) is worth watching.

    I'd like to get a lot more figures and statistics about this stuff together, because I can't really have an opinion about the cultural likelihood of a change in law when I don't remotely understand the fetish with being armed in the first place. It's not easy, though, as this useless page on Wikipedia demonstrates:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate

    El Salvador leads with 50.36 firearm-related deaths per 100k in 2009, with Canada further down the list with 4.78 per 100k…in 1992. US has under 3 homicide firearm deaths per 100k (2008–2010), around that of France or Austria. (US figures mean about 9300 deaths in one year across the population…without adjustment for growth since 2010 or spread across that three year period or checking the original data or or or or…).

    (A more promising-looking table on Wikipedia turns out to be almost certain worse, poorly analysed and presented and based on a survey that various people, including the Finnish government, have called into question.)

    So maybe that won't be my Christmas project…

  7. James - I found http://www.gunpolicy.org/ to be a useful source of data when I wrote my Dispatch after the Colorado shooting.

  8. Honestly, while I think DF's piece sounds very smart, I'm still not certain we have anything useful to say to our readers on this on a day when every blogger and their dog will be writing pieces -- smart, trite, academic, contrarian, annoying, brilliant and all variations between -- on America's gun "problem". I'd rather we write nothing than add to the noise.

    One thing that does interest me is Mark's point about how these shootings were rare until comparatively recently. We do well when we add historical perspective.

    Otherwise, I might propose we do a live audio show this afternoon on the subject, which has proven to be a good way for us to discuss still breaking stories.

  9. Mass shootings may be due to modern gun technology, but mass murder has come in various waves. I found a few different academic papers on this, and apparently, the 1920s-30s were rife with mass killings. (http://www.rit.edu/cla/cpsi/WorkingPapers/2009/2009-11.pdf)

    Here's a bit of grim history: (small) http://www.minotdailynews.com/page/content.detail/id/519535.html?nav=5576 (medium) http://articles.nydailynews.com/2008-11-15/news/17911306_1_murders-prominent-dentist-jailer (Huge, most relevant to today's hideousness) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bath_School_disaster

    If we're in a wave, though, we've been cresting for a hella long time. Columbine was 13 years ago.

  10. I see your point, Paul. I think historical perspective on shootings and how the way guns are viewed in society has changed is essential, and it's usually lost during this. What time would be best to do this?

    Good points, everyone, Paul, thank you for the context. I'd known there were a number of shootings before the 80s-90s (the Texas belltower tragedy springs most quickly to mind), but I didn't know about the 20-30s wave.

    If we're in a wave, it's as gun violence as a whole has steadily declined (along with most violent crime) since about the early '90s. Hell, it's one of the only good social trends we have.

  11. Ack, meant "thank you Patrick." Sorry about that.

  12. Speaking of the NRA: Even the mass murders of the tobacco industry have been very squeamish about publicly partnering with the NRA, because they feared negative PR would result.

    Here's a funny 1980 letter from a top R. J . Reynolds exec explaining why the company wouldn't advertise in NRA's magazine, reassuring that it's not because of any "institutional bias against the NRA."

    http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/tdh85d00/pdf

  13. A bit on the "Cincinnati Revolt" of 1977 that saw the NRA go from a moderate organization to a far-right lobby: http://www.vpc.org/nrainfo/chapter2.html

  14. I'd read (which is to say, publish) something great about the NRA, or something about interviewing kids after tragedy. It seems particularly ghoulish this time.

  15. I can write a peppy (scathing) piece on interviewing kids after tragedy. Like a how-to. You know, ignoring their needs, working through tears, all that terrible shit.

    Because I am fucking angry.

    Email me if you want it, as I may not see it right away here.

  16. I'd be up for tackling quick history of the NRA's strange transformation and it's increasing descent into paranoia-land.

  17. Argh. "its increasing descent" even. It's been a long day.

  18. This is kind of a fascinating wrinkle, USA might be as violent as ever, we're just way better at saving lives. (Doesn't account for population growth.)

    http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/12/14/1338681/medical-advances-are-reducing-american-deaths-from-violence-but-violence-itself-is-rising/

    The same holds true for the military, which now saves 90-fucking-% of wounded soldiers. Astounding.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15771688

    Causation/Correlation... Either way, we still love the shooty-shooty.

  19. The BBC piece shamefully does not mention John Hunter, one of the key people in creating modern surgery (inspired, if I remember correctly, but his experiences as a surgeon in the Navy).

    90% is incredibly impressive, though. I wonder what the equivalent figure for criminal shootings is.