Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Talking Guns in McGee Mississippi

Last Friday I was nearing the end of a three-day business trip to southern Mississippi. A big corporate meeting was scheduled for 1:30 that afternoon. I was traveling with our corporate accounts manager. We had called on several prospects the day before, working our way from Meridian to Hattiesburg then over to the thriving metropolis of McGee. We spent the night there on Thursday and enjoyed a wonderful all-you-can-eat catfish buffet, only it featured much more than catfish. I feasted on quail, a rare meat to find on any menu. It is also my favorite meat on which to dine. I was fully satiated afterwards.

All you do on the road is drive, talk on the cell, and eat. Now and then you stop and talk to people, but those moments of punctuation are usually very brief if you are cold calling and don’t have an appointment. At any rate, we met up with two of the partners of the company that employs me for lunch before the corporate meeting.

That morning I had read about the tragic shooting at Newtown, Connecticut during my daily iPad reading routine. 20 school children dead. Six adult educators dead. A mother dead. Her son, the killer, dead. A dreadful reminder of our violent American culture. Checking out of my hotel room I met up with our corporate sales guy in his room for some final prep before the meeting. He is an extremely conservative guy and naturally had Fox News on the TV like almost every other staunch knee-jerk conservative usually does. The sound was turned down but there was live coverage of the shootings. I mentioned how terrible it was to learn of the event. The sales guy said nothing.

At lunch, we hooked up with the two partners who had stayed on an extra day in Meridian to work on contracts and conduct some web demos out of the hotel. They informed us that they had spent part of the day before at a shooting range outside Meridian. They went on and on about all the gun choices available at the range. They were partial to the semi-automatic 9mm ones. There was a detailed discussion regarding the DP-51 they had both tried out.

There was also a lot of discussion about the various 50-calibre weapons that they either shot or would have shot if they had wanted to blow more money at the range. The ability to fire hundreds of shells in a minute seemed to be a big deal with these guys, who chomped on their food while grinning and laughing in the child-like giddiness of all those firearms the previous day. The guy that owned the range was a former police officer and very knowledgeable about the dozens of gun choices. The conversation drifted on to hollow-point shells, semi-automatic rifles, the thrill of shooting, target patterns, and how all the really cool weapons were also featured in the Halo 4 video game, so the partners could talk about the guns with their sons and nephews who were big-time gamers and envious of them actually to be able to fire the various weapons they game with.

I sat and ate a baked potato stuffed with blackened chicken, chopped green onions, and various cheeses. Newtown, Connecticut was never mentioned. Neither did it come up in the chit-chat in the board room of the corporate meeting afterwards. There was no mention of it on our seven-hour drive home. To everyone I associated myself with last Friday, it was as if the massacre never happened at all and the topic of guns, so thoroughly discussed by the others, did not connect with the news in any way, shape, or form.

Now, these other guys I was traveling with all have families and children. They are all decent human beings for the most part. They probably would have talked about how unfortunate the event was if it had come up in conversation. But, they were not going to bring it up. It was not until the next morning (I got in after midnight) when I was back with Jennifer that the shootings became the topic of regular conversation for me.

So, here’s my take-away as witness to all these events, both personally and via the various news outlets. President Obama couldn’t be further from the truth we he says – as he must say in this particular situation – "Newtown, you are not alone."  The fact is much of the country does not feel any pain about these shootings whatsoever. Many can discuss guns and their interest in the minutia of gunmanship without any association to the real world. The gun reality is a culture unto itself. To these guys there is no connection between their interest and the shootings. They may not represent the majority of Americans, but they do represent an influential segment our culture.

My boss carries a registered 9mm everywhere he goes including on his business trips. It sat in the console of the absurdly huge rented Suburban we drove all the way to Mississippi. He would not think of leaving home without his gun. I have an employee who is the same way. Her thing is Glocks. She has a custom car license tag that reflects her love to that particular weapon of choice.

In this emotional time it is important to consider some facts. Fact number one is, obviously, there are many Americans who feel more connected to guns than they do to tragedies like Newtown. This fact alone makes meaningful liberal-influenced gun control very unlikely. It is, in fact, impossible to regulate the 300 million plus guns already available in our society, though we could try to tax the shit out of them and use the funds to better prepare our society against itself.

Despite the sensational news, gun violence has been declining in the US since the early 1990’s and guns are responsible for far more suicides than homicides. America is an unusually violent culture but it isn't as violent as it used to be. Gun ownership is declining in the US.

Still, Americans own half the guns on the planet with 5% of the population. Most Americans want some form of gun control, generally registration and background checks. There is less support for the banning of particular types of weapons.
There is less support for a ban on handguns than at any other time in the US since 1959.

What is our culture’s response to the Newtown murders?  There is a surge of weapon purchases across this great nation.  Particularly of the type of weapons used on the school children.

"In 1992, for instance, the violent crime rate per 100,000 residents was 758. In 2012, it was 386. Between 2000 and 2009 (the latest year for which I could easily find data) use of firearms in violent crime had decreased from a rate of 2.4 per 1,000 to 1.4 per 1,000.

"So gun violence overall is down significantly from where it was about 20 or more years ago. At the same time, comfort with guns, which are present in about 45 percent of households, has been increasing. Gallup reports that in January of this year, only 25 percent of Americans wanted to see gun laws be made more strict. Two-thirds either wanted laws to stay the same or be less strict, while 8 percent had no opinion. It's likely that those percentages will shift somewhat over the coming weeks or even months, but the long-term trend lines - that include the years of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other gun-related massacres - will make it difficult for gun control proponents to gain large majorities." - Reason Magazine

Take two fundamental numbers from all of the above links. 310 million legally owned firearms. 61 mass murders in the US since 1981. Of course, each of the incidents was horrible, excusable, and criminal. But, apparently the contention by some is that all guns must now be controlled in some way so we can prevent an average of two mass homicides per year in the US. 

Sorry, not trying to sound insensitive, but that is pretty wimpish. First off, you cannot regulate all these guns in a constitutional manner. Secondly, the amount of freedom (yes, guns are a part of American Freedom and individual liberty that's why they are especially mentioned in the Bill of Rights) expressed by these hundreds of millions of guns is, in fact, something just as worthy of protecting as is the public from the mass homicides that happen somewhere in this country about every six months. The American culture of violence is not going to change (or will only change slowly through generations) with or without guns.

Murders of this sort are part of the American fabric. President Obama may sound high and mighty declaring that "we can't accept events like this as routine." I understand the strength of that simple phrasing is comforting to many. But, the fact is that, yeah, this sort of thing is fairly routine as the evidence I mentioned just pointed out. 

I realize this is not a very compassionate perspective, it might seem outrageously cynical. President Obama must respond politically to the Newtown murders in some way. It is impossible for him not to. But, you cannot change an entire culture very quickly or significantly with some fast, trendy legislation. Not when you have three common guys discussing guns so intensely over lunch in McGee, Mississippi without ever mentioning the gruesome murder of children at school, each of whom received multiple gunshot wounds, that very morning.

Still, there is something different about this particular incident.  The National Rifle Association, the temple of worship for every god-fearing gun-owner, has gone completely silent since the murders.  It took down its Facebook page and has not issued an official response to something the rest of the nation is talking about.  Maybe there’s a connection between this silence and the neglect of my fellow business travelers through Mississippi.
Whatever the course of the gun debate over the next few weeks the result will be a band aid. It might infuriate gun rights advocates. It might not go far enough for those who want an outright ban certain weapons. But whatever Washington comes up with it will not really change anything. Mass murders will continue as long as our violent culture continues. And America has been one of the most violent places on earth for a very very long time.  But, as I said, overall gun ownership is declining, so perhaps over time there is hope for our violent cultural ways.

So this band aid legislation will be a memorial to one tragedy too much, but it will not reflect leadership. In every sense of the word Obama is following the tragedy, it is leading him, treading the path already well-worn with so much bloodshed. The public demands something be done. The public is sharply divided over what that something exactly is. No one is leading this charge. It is all being dialed-in from prior agendas and mass polling data. That may be the mark of gauging the most expeditious way beyond this tragedy but it most certainly is not the sign of someone, anyone in a leadership capacity, standing up and saying "This way. Now and forever."

For the record, I do not now nor have I ever owned a gun of any kind. So, this isn't the apologetics of another Second Amendment wacko. It is someone who is looking beyond this moment of pain and grief and rage to the conditions ever-present in this so-called greatest nation on earth.

Late Note:  In further reading late tonight, I came across this interesting article in The Daily Beast.  It makes a valid point that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" is only the second half of the amendment's wording.  What everyone seems to forget, and to what I certainly was not attentive enough, is the first part of the wording: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."  The article contends that individual citizens only have the right to arms within the context of a well-regulated militia.  The word "regulated" is, in fact, part of the amendment itself.  I'm not sure this by itself overturns the individual freedom to bear arms but it certainly is an interesting and powerful perspective in the overall debate.

Later Note:  The National Rifle Association reports a surge in membership of about 8,000 new members per day in the wake of the Newtown massacre.  American gun lovers are fanatical.  Regulating them and their interests will be difficult.

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