Monday, August 25, 2014

Gun Talk

Two well-known people at absolute opposite ends of the political spectrum share a common opinion: The late Chinese Communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong claimed “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh claims “ours is a world governed by the aggressive use of force.”



At the outset, let me disclose my experience with guns.

My father was not a hunter and there were no guns in our boyhood home, which was probably a good thing with seven active, curious boys.

My first experience with guns was in Air Force basic training, and over my 20 years in the military, (four years active duty Air Force, six years Navy Reserve and 10 years Army National Guard), I always qualified on the rifle range but never as an expert, though I did get a marksmanship medal on the pistol range once.

I own two guns, a single shot, 20 gauge shotgun and a .22 pump action rifle I found in the attic of a rented house. I probably haven’t touched either of them in over two years, and then because I was moving, not because I was shooting. I don’t shoot for pleasure and don’t hunt any more. I have never belonged to the NRA or any sportsman shooting club.

I don’t really get any pleasure wasting ammunition or time plunking at targets. So, no matter what is done legislatively about gun ownership, it won’t impact me much.

As a young reporter, the saddest thing I witnessed was a six-year-old boy lying dead on the kitchen floor of his home with a bullet hole in his neck. It was Christmas Eve and his mother and policeman father were out shopping for presents. The father had left his loaded service revolver high on a shelf, but the curious boy had managed to get to it unnoticed. That was the mess to which the parents came home.

I was a teacher at Westside in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the year four students and a teacher were killed and a dozen or so others injured in a school shooting. I have witnessed gun violence.

I listen to those who work for more and more restrictive gun ownership. As I listen, I sympathize but realize if they were to succeed, even to the point of getting a total restriction on guns, their sense of security would only be an illusion. There are many means for killers to carry out their murderous ways.

There was an interesting piece in a recent issue of the Seattle Times where the author argued persuasively for more gun control. He drew an analogy between restrictions placed on automobile ownership and operation in order to reduce deaths by automobiles and the tremendous success there. He argued people weren’t denied the ownership of automobiles, but rather who could drive and how was regulated, along with how cars and roads could be designed.

He argued that we could limit violent gun related deaths in the same way. We don’t have to take peoples guns away, just regulate them adequately to reduce gun related deaths. It all made good sense, except for one thing: Most automotive deaths are accidental. The gun related deaths that get so much attention and bring about a clamor for more restrictions on firearms are mostly intentional.

Restrictions on the use of firearms will no more stop intentional massacres with guns than restrictions on automobiles stopped massacres on those few occasions where cars were intentionally used for killing.  

I am reminded of G. Gordon Liddy, the notorious Watergate burglar, relating how he and John Dean, the narc behind the Watergate affair, wound up the only two people in an interrogation room. The only thing in the room was a table with a pencil on it and two chairs. This puzzled Liddy, as he knew the two of them should have never been left alone in a room. The thing he wondered about was whether this had been done on purpose by those in the Nixon administration who were trying to orchestrate the investigation. Was he supposed to kill Dean to keep him from further testimony? The thing that made him wonder was the pencil. He knew, and he knew those working behind the scenes making arrangements knew, that a pencil in the hands of a trained person like Liddy was a lethal weapon.

Think of mass killers who never used a gun: Richard Speck, Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, the Manson Family, Jim Jones and others. There are many examples of killers using something other than guns.

The anti-gun advocates are expending a lot of time, energy and money working for legislative action that, if taken, will leave them with only the illusion of security.

Real security only comes when the roots of a problem are addressed. To understand one of those root problems, I suggest you read Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Ret. Dave Grossman, a former Army psychologist.

Grossman says that in World War II, when an American soldier was looking down the barrel of a rifle with his sights on an enemy soldier, only 15 to 20 percent would pull the trigger. That is to say, 80 to 85 percent of combat soldiers were non-shooters. The soldiers were alright with crew served weapons where the responsibility could be shared or the entire blame could be placed elsewhere, or with bombs or artillery shells where the targets were just coordinates on a map and they never saw the destruction they caused.

He said during the Viet Nam war, the military had reversed those statistics, so that only 5 percent were non-shooters.

How did they do it?  First they replaced the standard rifle range with its bull’s eye, stationary targets with pop up targets that were silhouettes of real people. They added video programs that allowed soldiers to practice with life like scenarios. Grossman said, “… there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” They had to desensitize the soldier to killing. His follow up book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, draws the connection between what the military did and what is going on in our culture.

Our policy makers don’t want to hear that violent media shapes public attitudes about violence any more than they will recognize that pornography affects attitudes toward sex and women. Why? Because, there are powerful economic forces at play in these issues.

When the subject does come up, gamers take to the media claiming they play violent video games, but don’t go out and shoot anyone. Or, they watch porn, but don’t rape women. So, such accusations must not be true.

Just as there are millions of gamers engaged in violent video games who don’t go out and kill their neighbor, so there are millions of gun owners who don’t go shoot up a grade school.

Grossman’s facts and conclusions have been challenged, as one would expect, mostly about the non-shooting statistics. But, even if he is off by a few percentage points, it is still a significant shift. Common sense should tell us that violent video games desensitize a person to personal killing without a study to quantify to what extent or for whom. The truth is, something in our culture is doing it. Just this week (Aug. 17, 2014)two men were shot to death in a near by town because they “dissed” the shooter's friend. In this morning’s Seattle paper (Aug. 25, 2014), there were at least three reports of similar shootings, as happens almost daily.

I find it somewhat amusing that pundits who will dismiss offhand any connection between porn and the abuse of women or violent video games and mass shootings, are quick to take to their keyboards or microphones after a shooting like the Gabrielle Giffords case, and blame it on hate speech coming from right wing talk radio. Where are the studies to quantify that charge?

However, I think we have seen that some of the mass killers in recent years have spent a lot of time playing violent video games. And, it is hard to find a current movie that doesn’t depict violent killing in the most graphic way. Playing such games by the hour does not necessarily mean a gamer is going to be a mass killer, but it does make it easier to go over the edge for those with a propensity to do so.

The truth is, something in our culture is desensitizing large portions of the population to personal killing.

We can restrict the use of guns, but by so doing, we will just be pruning a branch of the tree while neglecting real root problems, the one mentioned and others. We will only create an illusion of security.