Babies Shootin’ Babies
The longer the seemingly intractable confrontation over what is euphemistically termed “gun rights” in America drags on in these bloodied days, the more it becomes clear that what is really in play is the classic American dichotomy of Libertarian vs. Prohibitionist. The rhetoric coming from both sides, from gun-control liberals and gun-enthusiast conservatives, is so detached from the actual realities of the gun debate that it is, to a gun-owning leftist like myself, downright alienating: are these people even talking about the same thing? But when you realize that these are two wet ends of the same all-or-nothing mentality, it seems much more comprehensible, if no more tractable.
The world is, of course, a terrible place, filled with terrible things that do terrible harm to terrible people, or something like that. Firearms, mixed blessing that they are, are certainly more terrible than most, having conferred on mankind the power, formerly confined to the community of the gods, to kill one another effortlessly from a distance. But then, we have let the genie out of its bottle with all sorts of things that cause death in massive numbers: tobacco, alcohol, automobiles, and…well, capitalism, not to put too fine a point on it. It has generally been well-meaning liberals, not conservatives, who have approached these issues from a prohibitionist standpoint, and I don’t need to tell anyone with an awareness of history how poorly it’s turned out. We’re not going to get rid of guns in America any more than we’re going to get rid of cars or fatty foods, so we shouldn’t even try.
That, however, is an easily solved problem. Even liberals who know they’re arguing a prohibitionist approach are usually willing to admit it won’t go anywhere. The bigger issue, predictably, is what’s bearing down on us from the other end of the tunnel: the right-wing approach that throws up an absolutist libertarian pose on the issue of guns. Using the largely imaginary specter of prohibition and seizure to scare their constituency, the gun lobby makes the expected, and expectedly stupid, argument that if we can’t (and shouldn’t) eliminate guns, we can’t (and shouldn’t) even try to control them. In one wide, panicky hand gesture, they perform the eternal power move of all bosses everywhere: if you can’t stop something, they argue, you shouldn’t even try to shape it. Land reform, industry regulation, checks on corporate power, flaws in the electoral process, health care, worker’s rights: if everything cannot instantly be made perfect and acceptable to everyone, then it is better that nothing whatsoever be done. If you can’t stop floods from happening, you’re better off drowning than you are building a dam.
That this is a cynical ruse is easy to see; that it s a cynical ruse on the part of entrenched and moneyed power structures is not much harder. The people who claim they need guns to protect against overweening government force are the same ones who advocate for a stronger military and more police powers, thus making their precious guns more useless. The people who claim they need guns to defend against crime are the same ones who vote against public funding and police unions, making crime more likely to proliferate. The people who claim they need guns to hunt are the same ones who vote to turn public lands over to private profiteers, ensuring that there’ll be nowhere for them to do their hunting. And most cynically of all, the National Rifle Association, one of the most profoundly evil lobbying groups in existence, poses as a defender of the little guy and a champion of the Constitution, when it is simply a supremely successful bribery machine designed to protect and enrich a single, wealthy industry.
All of this has become painfully clear in the recent gnawing of teeth over the ‘accidental’ shooting of Caroline Sparks, a 2-year-old Kentucky girl killed by her 5-year-old brother Kristian last week*. The usual suspects have patiently explained how this was unintentional; how there will likely be no charges, as the poor parents have suffered enough from the loss of their daughter and the likely psychological trauma to their son; and how, especially, this should not provoke us to rash action like reviving the gun control debate.
Where to begin with such a chain of nonsense? Caroline Sparks’ death was unintentional in the same way that a dog dying of heatstroke after being locked inside a sweltering car in the summertime or a toddler drowning after being left unattended next to a swimming pool is unintentional: maybe no one exactly wanted it to happen, but anyone with even a sliver of good sense could have seen it coming and taken simple steps to prevent it. The idea that the parents will receive no punishment makes sense only from the perspective that it will break up the family entirely, but what they did — and it will have to be explained to me in excruciating detail how it differs in even the least bit from negligent homicide — was so egregious that it’s hard to imagine a situation in which Kristian would not be better off. And this isn’t just a good time to talk about gun regulation; the Sparks case could not be more perfect an example of why we need gun regulation if the most liberal anti-gun activists had scripted it ahead of time.
We’ve heard a lot of bafflegab in the papers about how shooting is a part of America’s rural ‘culture’, and that denying kids the right to go hunting with their pops would reduce the grand old traditions of real America to so much over-regulated hash. That’s all well and good, but there are other things once sacred to the so-called rural culture — bootlegging, dueling, slavery — that we’ve had no problem going after with the full weight of the law. More practically, car culture is part of the American way of life as well, but we don’t find anything particularly outrageous about making kids wait until they’re 14 or 15 to get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Among many other things, we have found it reasonable to keep out of the hands of children such items as liquor, airplane glue, spray paint, the lever of a voting booth, and the genitals of a willing sex partner, and none of those are capable of blasting a hot piece of metal through someone’s skull at the speed of sound. Frankly, it doesn’t seem all that culturally destructive to say that, until your age hits double digits, you should probably just stick to fishing.
Surely it is not hard for us to comprehend the fact that a five-year-old boy — a child of an age where it would be considered criminally negligent to leave him alone in a room containing a hot iron, a fork and an electrical socket, even a goddamn plastic bucket — cannot possibly possess the moral and intellectual capacity to be able to safely operate a firearm. Surely it is beyond question that when you leave a loaded rifle in reach of a child still not fully in control of his bowels, you have done something easily as dangerous as racing around on the freeway at 90 per with a child of the same age bouncing around with no safety restraints. Kristian is blameless insofar as he is a blank cultural slate; give any boy anywhere in the world a crooked stick, and he’ll aim it at his sister and go “PEW! PEW!” His parents, irrespective of their suffering, are beyond culpable, as they handed that boy a crooked stick loaded with a .22 cartridge and primed to kill.
And look, I understand why Keystone Sporting Arms, the company that manufactures the Crickett rifle with which Kristian killed his sister, wants to market firearms to children, complete with bright pink finishes for your little princess and cartoon insects urging you to have fun with “your first rifle”. The reason is that most corporations would sell Baby’s First Cyanide Capsule if there was two cents of profit in it, and if they were allowed to do so. It’s this last part that’s so hard to suss. Citizens of the United States have no trouble at all working themselves into a frothing spit-storm of moral panic over the least little thing. We sell televisions designed to block out violent content, and place warning labels on record albums. We pull ‘controversial’ books out of libraries. We won’t let children under the age of 17 see certain movies. We have gone after cigarette manufacturers (Camel) and alcohol vendors (4Loko) for allegedly marketing their products to children. We are a country that actually believes baggy pants are a threat to the social order. We collectively shit our meals when Janet Jackson’s nipple appeared on television for a microsecond. Shit, we even require the regulation of toy guns — they must bear a neon-colored plastic gewgaw on the barrel so they are not mistaken for the real McCoy. We raise our children in a thick, soft cocoon of panicky overprotection. So how is it that we find ourselves seized with paralysis when it comes to keeping America’s most common murder weapon off limits to people who haven’t yet made it to junior high?
The answer is that it’s a swindle, and it has been a swindle since the grandees of the NRA realized how much money there was to be made off of it. Gun owners are being taken for a ride because they believe the gun lobby actually gives a shit about firearms ownership, when their real agenda is the same as any other lobbying group: a purely libertarian opposition to any regulation that might cut into the profit margins of the industry they represent. And the rest of us are being taken for a ride because those same lobbyists have hijacked the discussion to the degree that no conversation about sensible regulation is possible**. As long as we let the worst, most degraded elements of the gun lobby dictate the terms of the conversation, we will keep being shocked when children kill children, when the only real shock is why it doesn’t happen more often.
*: I use the term “accidental” with grave reservations. In my first firearms class, the instructor, having painstakingly explained and demonstrated the numerous safety features built into all modern guns, told us that there was no such thing as an accidental shooting. Shootings, he said, occur for only one reason: someone picks up a loaded gun, aims it at another person, and pulls the trigger — and there’s nothing accidental about that.
**: What form that regulation might take is a subject for an honest debate that isn’t really taking place on either side. Prohibition is a bad idea, but liberals are largely arguing from a place of ignorance, while their foes across the aisle in the gun lobby are doing so from a place of deception and malice; the fight isn’t fair. As for me, I’d make the obvious analogy: consider how heavily we regulate automobiles, the only piece of technology we use that kills more people than firearms. To drive a car, you must learn how to do so and pass a test administered by the government, for which you receive a license that places you in a federal database. To own a car, you must register it with the government, receive a federally tracked vehicle identification number, maintain it according to government safety regulations, and pay liability insurance should you injure anyone with it. The number of cars in the U.S. is nearly equal to the number of guns, and the guns are in far fewer hands; would a similar baseline of regulation be so unthinkable?