In Response to Opponents of Gun Control

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

Umpqua Community College.

WDBJ in Virginia.




And that’s just the last 3 months.

So for real now — can we talk about gun control?

Every time a mass shooting occurs, the same chain of events unfolds: One group of people brings up the need for gun control, citing the alarming (and increasing) frequency with which these events are taking place and the slew of data indicating that gun control is an effective way to reduce gun deaths. Gun rights advocates respond with their usual litany of reasons why gun control is futile or somehow un-American. No meaningful action is taken. And then another shooting happens, and the cycle begins again.

Two things about this pattern concern me: One, how desensitized it’s making us to mass shootings, and how much more devastating each one needs to be in order to even register on our radars; and two, how gun rights advocates are able to shut down conversation about gun control — and thus prevent any kind of change from happening — given that their arguments are full of questionable logic.

I’m not sure what I can do about the former. But regarding the latter, I’d like to take a moment to respond to the arguments I hear bandied about every time we see a tragedy like the one that happened last week:

“Today isn’t the time to talk about gun control. Today is about the victims.”

Yes — we need to take lots of time to mourn the victims and the unfathomable losses that their families and their communities have incurred. However, the worst way to honor these lives would be not to talk about gun control. Because if we don’t, then their deaths will have been in vain. The best thing we can do to honor them is to do everything we can to prevent the same senseless tragedies from happening again.

“Second Amendment Second Amendment Second Amendment.”

Let’s look at the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

And let’s look at the context in which the Second Amendment was written:

– The Second Amendment was based on the English Bill of Rights from 1689, when there was no police. Arms, then, were necessary for self-protection.

– When the American Bill of Rights was passed, Americans were concerned about maintaining militias should they need to defend themselves against a tyrannical government. Understandable, given the events of their recent past.

– At the time the Bill of Rights was written, guns shot bullets only slightly faster than you could throw them. We’re talking muskets and bayonets. Automatic assault weapons were completely beyond the scope of imagination.

So we can see how things are a little different now. Ergo, I have a very hard time when people insist that they have the right to bear arms for no reason other than that they’re American and the Constitution says they can.

Are you part of a militia? No? Huh.

You claim you need it for self-defense? Okay, but can you make a compelling argument as to why you would need an automatic weapon to do that?

I’m waiting.

And can you give me a good reason why someone who’s been convicted of a violent crime or who has a serious mental illness should be allowed to own a gun of any kind? “Because they’re American” looks pretty flimsy in light of the things we’ve seen in the last three months, let alone the last three years. Nothing in the Second Amendment suggests that the Founding Fathers wanted guns in the hands of people who weren’t fit to wield them.

Another thing that puzzles me about Second-Amendment-thumpers is the false equation of gun control with banning guns altogether. According to a Gallup poll from last year, only a quarter of Americans support an outright ban on handguns:


However, according to a Pew Research Center poll from 2013, the majority of Americans support background checks; preventing those with mental illness from buying guns; and banning semi-automatics, assault weapons, and high-capacity clips:


This is what people are after. Regulating guns is not the same as eliminating them. And frankly, if you’re a gun owner and you don’t have any criminal history or mental health issues, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about, so why are you so adamantly opposed?

The “because it’s a slippery slope” argument isn’t very strong, because if that’s your reason why we shouldn’t regulate guns at all and the opposing side has a staggeringly high (and ever-increasing) body count, including dozens of children, to support their position… your stance is pretty hard to defend, isn’t it.

The “because the black market for guns will explode” argument is pretty weak too, because most people aren’t advocating for a total ban on guns, which significantly reduces the demand for a black market.

And the “because cars kill people, and we don’t ban cars” argument is also flawed, because 1. As I said before, most people aren’t arguing that we should ban guns altogether and 2. There are lots of regulations regarding who gets to drive a car and how they’re allowed to drive it. We have things like speed limits and seat belt laws, we require people to take a test in order to get a license, and we revoke the licenses of people who no longer have the faculties to drive one safely. Not to mention that, as Nick Kristof pointed out last week, cars themselves are also regulated to make sure they’re as safe as possible for the driver and everyone in the vicinity. Also, cars aren’t designed for the sole purpose of inflicting harm, as guns are. So there’s that.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

This is a curious thing to say, as it’s hard to deny that guns make it infinitely easier for people to kill other people. Case in point: There was another incident of mass violence in China on the same day as the Sandy Hook shooting, where a deranged person went to a school and stabbed 22 children. Terrifying. But how many of those kids died? Zero. How many kids in Newtown died? Twenty. So the argument that gun control is futile because people would just use knives or axes instead is pretty flawed. You can do infinitely more damage with a gun than you can with a knife or an ax. It is ludicrous to pretend that guns don’t make incidents like this infinitely worse.

I get that some people say this to mean that we need to deal with mentally unstable people who wield guns. Which leads me to the next argument…

“Gun control isn’t the issue. Mental health treatment is the issue.”

As someone with a doctoral degree in the field of mental health, I am completely behind increasing funding for mental health services, increasing access, increasing awareness, increasing education, increasing resources, increasing everything under the sun when it comes to mental health. And you cannot overlook the fact pretty much all of the perpetrators of these mass killings have had serious mental health issues. But I’m not sure why people think that mental health treatment will completely solve the problem, for a few reasons:

1. You cannot force someone into treatment unless they’ve committed a crime. Thus, since many of these shooters had no prior criminal history, there was no way to force them to seek help before they started shooting. And even if you could, anyone who’s ever worked with a court-mandated client will tell you that mandated treatment is rarely effective, because in order for change to happen, the client has to actually want to change.

2. Even if you did increase awareness and availability of mental health services and decreased stigmas and all the other barriers to treatment, the reality is that many people who need help won’t seek it. This is especially true of people with issues like antisocial personality disorder, which is disproportionately prevalent in perpetrators of violence. Individuals with ASPD demonstrate a blatant disregard for the rights of other people, no empathy, no remorse, and no interest in changing. So even if you were to increase the awareness and availability of mental health services, the likelihood of someone with ASPD seeking treatment is slim. And on the off-off-chance that someone with ASPD did seek treatment, there are zero known treatments for the disorder that are effective.

So if you’re saying all we need to solve the problem is to increase mental health awareness and services, you’re mistaken. The people who we’re most concerned about are the least likely to seek treatment or to have treatments that even work.

“If more people had been armed, this wouldn’t have happened the way it did.”

This argument is especially perplexing. The problem isn’t that guns are too available, but that there aren’t enough guns? So UCC professors, in addition to worrying about teaching and overcrowded classrooms and budget cuts, should also have to worry about students carrying weapons and learning how to wield them themselves? And keeping guns in the Sandy Hook classrooms would have been a good idea? That would’ve made them safer? Right, because nothing bad ever happens when guns are kept around small children.

This argument is especially galling to me because the data is clear: The more guns a society has, the more gun deaths they have. The relationship holds when you compare states and when you compare countries. All of the evidence we have indicates that having more guns makes us less safe, not more.

“The shooter was already breaking a law by bringing a gun onto school grounds.”(This was not the case at UCC but was at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, UCSB, and Seattle Pacific University.)

Let’s talk through the implications of this argument: That because a shooter breaks one law about bringing a gun onto school grounds, we should stop trying to enact other laws that keep this dude with a gun away from schools and this dude away from guns in the first place. That we should stop trying to put more barriers and checkpoints between this dude and a gun and a school. That any attempt to make it a little bit harder for this dude to get a gun is futile.

This is ridiculous.

All of this to say: It’s mind-blowing to me that what keeps us from being able to reduce the number of these completely preventable tragedies is a lot of terrible arguments. (And fistfuls of NRA money, I suppose.) And what’s even more mind-blowing to me is that many of the people who make these arguments are Christians who seem far more concerned about their freedom to carry a weapon (which is nowhere in the Bible, as far as I know) than the safety and well-being of their neighbors (which is certainly in there) and building a healthy and flourishing society (that’s in there too).

I’d like to think that we’re better than that as a nation — that we wouldn’t let bad reasoning and powerful lobbies keep us from doing what we need to do to keep each other safe. I’d also like to think that one of these days, all of us would finally come to our senses and realize that we need to do something — but I’m not seeing either of those things. And that keeps me up at night, because the longer we go without doing anything, the less likely it is that anything will be done.


For more, I recommend Adam Gopnik’s “The Simple Truth about Gun Control” and Jeffrey Toobin’s “So You Think You Know the Second Amendment?” — two New Yorker pieces from 2012 that are, sadly, every bit as relevant now as they were then.

The Day After the Verdict, Round 2: Yup, Still a Joke

Maybe this time, I thought before yesterday’s grand jury decision was announced.

Because Daniel Pantoleo, the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on July 17, has a history of alleged race-related misconduct.

Maybe this time.

Because the NYPD forbids its members from using chokeholds — a rule that went into effect 21 years ago, long before Pantoleo was ever a cop.

Maybe this time.

Because the New York City medical coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

Maybe this time.

Because the entire incident was filmed.  Because you can see in the tape, as the New York Times stated, that Garner was “not acting belligerently, posed no risk of flight, brandished no weapon and was heavily outnumbered.”  Because you can hear him say “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he dies.  Eleven.  Times.

Maybe this time.

But then the news broke.

As I tried to make sense of the decision, stunned and sad and outraged (a luxury, I recognize), I also felt foolish for thinking that the outcome might be different this time.

Because after all, the grand jury proceedings took place in Staten Island, a borough that’s long been sympathetic to police officers, in large part because so many of them live there.

Because we don’t know what charges, if any, the prosecutor recommended to the grand jury — though we do know that prosecutors are generally reluctant to put police officers on trial, perhaps because they work so closely together and don’t want to risk hurting those relationships.

Because time and time again, grand juries decline to bring charges against police officers who shoot unarmed civilians.

And given everything that this case had going for it — the officer’s history, his use of a prohibited chokehold, the medical examiner’s ruling, the tape (the TAPE!) — I had to face some deeply unpleasant realities:

That even though police body cameras are a good first step (see how public opinion largely favored an indictment in this case, as opposed to the Darren Wilson case, which had no tape and conflicting eyewitness testimony), maybe they won’t fix the problem.

That maybe our society isn’t interested in holding police officers accountable for killing unarmed black civilians, and they’ll continue to do so with impunity.

That maybe our criminal justice system is even more of a joke than I thought it was last week.

Something has to change.

The Day After the Verdict: Is This a Joke?

Like many others, I have been asking this question for months.

First, back in August, when news outlets reported that Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor for St. Louis County, had a long history of siding with the police; that his father, a St. Louis cop, was killed on the job by a black man; that his brother, uncle, and cousin were cops as well; that his mother had worked as a clerk in police headquarters; that he himself had wanted to be a cop until one of his legs was amputated in high school.  His office would be responsible for presenting the case of Darren Wilson, a Ferguson cop who shot and killed Michael Brown, before a grand jury.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch said he would let the jury of 12 civilians figure out what charge to bring, if any, instead of making a case for a specific charge, as prosecutors usually do.  And instead of selecting a few key witnesses and experts to testify, he would give them “every last scrap of evidence” — essentially drowning them information that they did not have the skills to parse.  As former federal prosecutor Alex Little told Vox, “So when a District Attorney says, in effect, ‘we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,’ that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.”

Is this a joke?

And then last week, when Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the grand jury’s findings — more than a week before the results were actually announced.  This announcement was one of many portents of what the decision would be; after all, if they thought an indictment was coming, they would not be anticipating riots, and they would not preemptively bring in the National Guard.  (As Michael Che said on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update, “Deploying the National Guard before the verdict is like your lawyer telling you to show up in court in something orange.”)  Not to mention that bringing in such force has a way of escalating tense situations — especially when said force takes a stance that’s aggressive instead of containing, as it did when it was first called to Ferguson in August.  (Many military veterans criticized their behavior.)  Not surprisingly, a self-fulfilling prophecy ensued, because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  So everything, even peaceful gatherings, even journalists observing the situation, was perceived as an actionable threat.  So not only did the National Guard exacerbate the situation in Ferguson in August, but Nixon decided last week that it would be a good idea to preemptively bring them back.

Is this a joke?

And then yesterday morning, when news circulated about yet another African American child killed by police — this time a 12-year-old in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, who had been wielding an airsoft gun at a park.  When police arrived, he was swinging on a swingset.  Minutes later, they shot him dead.  The timing was ominous.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally took the podium last night and started his announcement with a longwinded, defensive preface, lashing out at the 24-hour news cycle and social media, as though concerned people wanting to know what happened were somehow culpable for Brown’s death.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally announced that the grand jury did not make an indictment — a statistical rarity, as grand juries almost always indict.  But prosecutors can get grand juries to do pretty much anything they want (as former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler said, a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich”), so the fact that they did not — coupled with McCulloch’s tactics in presenting the case, as described earlier — suggest that he got exactly the result he wanted.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch proceeded to drone on, in excruciating detail, why no indictment was made.  The prosecutor became a defense attorney, discrediting eyewitness testimony, declaring that no one should ever have to be in Wilson’s position.  Wilson’s position.  Not the position of the unarmed teenager staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun.

Is this a joke?

And then when the statement from Michael Brown’s parents, Michael Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, was released in the middle of the interminable announcement — already prepared, as they too probably anticipated the worst — which was infinitely more gracious and hopeful than I could have ever been in their shoes.  As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times said, their statement offered the most constructive words of the evening, that police officers should be equipped with body cameras.  Of the two parties center stage, the ones who made more sense were the parents of the deceased victim, who were probably beside themselves with grief.

Is this a joke?

And then when President Obama made a statement, looking nothing like the impassioned orator we know him to be, especially in times of distress; he looked tired and frustrated, making bland statements about how incidents like this are an ongoing problem in communities of color.  He acknowledged that, at least.  But the president has been a lawyer, a law professor, and a community organizer in predominantly black neighborhoods; surely he has more to say about this situation than that it’s an ongoing issue and “we have made enormous progress in race relations over the past decades” and “there is never an excuse for violence.”  I wanted him to rise to the occasion and be the leader that we need right now, to help us make sense of this, to tell us what we should do now.  At the same time, I felt sorry for him, that he probably has so much to say that he cannot — because if he brings up race, his opponents will accuse him of playing the race card, and because his administration has been beleaguered by troubles in the last few months and cannot really sustain any more vulnerabilities.  I felt sorry that directly acknowledging the realities of racism in our justice system would open him up to attack, but Hillary Clinton can do it and no one accuses her of playing the race card.  Because, you know, white privilege.

Is this a joke?

And then the hypocrisy of this:

And the hypocrisy of declaring it okay for Darren Wilson to use violence when he felt threatened but not for the community to do the same.

Is this a joke?

Yes, it is.  Our criminal justice system, for all of the well-meaning people in it, is a joke.

When black teenagers are 21 times more likely than white teenagers to be killed by cops — the system is a joke.

When Marissa Alexander is in prison for shooting no one while Darren Wilson gets half a million dollars but no charge — the system is a joke.

When 14 people have been killed by police in St. Louis County in the last decade and not a single one of the cops was charged — the system is a joke.

When black and white Americans have comparable rates of drug use but black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drugs and get 13.1% longer sentences, and drugs that are more often used by black people have far weightier punishments than those more often used by white people, and SWAT teams are more likely to target black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods — the system is a joke.

It’s been a gutting 24 hours, with these painful reminders that the world is a terribly unfair place, that W. E. B. DuBois was right when he said that “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”  And I am one of the fortunate ones, that I can look at these facts and feel sadness and outrage instead of absolute terror.

Something has to change.