Friday, March 28, 2008

Guns Don't Kill People, But Bad Ideas Might

Many years ago, I supported very strong—even confiscatory—gun control laws. If you grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s, you understood the power of firearms to equalize the battle between good and evil, often in favor of the latter. JFK. Bobby. Dr. King. Even George Wallace, a generally unappealing character back in 1972, but nevertheless an undeserving target of attempted murder. Gerald Ford, that most benign and inconsequential of presidents, found himself nearly victimized by two gun-toting women in two California cities in less than a month in 1975.

And then there was the crime. Thugs with guns never really threatened most Americans, but they dominated our fears, much as they do today. The botched robbery, the violence of street gangs, and the cold-blooded slaying just started to become staples of the local news during that era. Gun control laws were, as a result, generally quite popular, with large majorities favoring the banning of at least some types of weapons (typically handguns).

Over time, my views changed, though not because the danger ebbed. Sure, the crime rate fell during the 1980s and 1990s, but it would have been difficult to tell that from watching television, which continued to feed us a steady diet of homicide each evening. Besides, I never really felt all that vulnerable in a personal sense.

Instead, my change of heart resulted from a desire to reconcile my generally civil libertarian views with a reflexive distrust of gun owners and their political allies. The liberal argument in favor of gun control is not unlike the conservative plea for strengthening the government's hand in the battle against terrorism. Regardless of the Bush Administration's true motives, the case for domestic surveillance and warrantless wiretaps is based on the premise that protection of life sometimes justifies reductions in liberty. Proponents of restricting access to firearms take more or less the same position.

Eventually, I came to realize that I couldn't have it both ways. Strict, confiscatory gun control would almost certainly make us safer. But so would the imposition of a police state, permitting the authorities to monitor our every move and allowing the police to search people and property at the slightest whim. Freedom is a risky business, always has been, and if I have the right to turn away law enforcement when they come to my doorstep, then why shouldn't Jim Bob the gun nut enjoy that same privilege. We are after all, both innocent, law abiding citizens, even if Jim Bob has a soft spot in his heart for David Koresh and the Michigan Militia.

I'm intentionally being a little obnoxious here. Millions of firearm owners have no interest in building an arsenal, do not consider Janet Reno the Antichrist, and fully comprehend that Hillary Clinton didn't kill Vince Foster. Still, take my word for the fact that many vocal opponents of gun control make for terrible ideological allies. They can, on the one hand, defend their rights in the most libertarian tones, yet turn around and propound a naïve, anything goes philosophy in the war against terrorism. They claim that citizen ownership of weapons is a necessary bulwark against government tyranny just before lending their support to some of Washington's most tyrannical misdeeds. Many adorn their bumper with decals lauding "NRA Freedom" and then climb into the car wearing a "Club Gitmo" t-shirt.

And all too many, including some in positions of power, actually do their best to conform fully to the title of "gun nut". At some point, the rational argument in favor of weapons for the innocent becomes detached from all common sense, and guns, rather than being a tool, start to become an unqualified good in and of themselves, the solution to every problem. Not too long ago, I wrote of some startlingly unwise efforts to arm college professors as a way to deal with what remain very rare instances of violence on university campuses. The controversial right-wing social scientist John Lott once wrote a book called, "More Guns, Less Crime", a notion that must seem laughable to the gun-free, low-violence countries of Europe, as well as our own neighbors to the immediate north (a gun crime would lead a Canadian newscast not because it titillates, but because it shocks).

Another bad idea, courtesy of the NRA types, passed Congress with little fanfare in the wake of the hijackings and murders of September 11, 2001. The Air Line Pilots Association, generally a sensible group, asked legislators to give the occupants of America's cockpits the right to carry firearms aboard commercial aircraft. The House and Senate, always willing to entertain bad public policy in the service of their own re-election, quickly enacted this poorly considered legislation and the bill was signed by our Rhinestone Cowboy president.

It is, on the surface, a dumb idea. It assumes that terrorists have only one script and no ability to improvise. Once cockpit doors were made bulletproof and impregnable, the 9/11 scenario of commandeering an airplane and crashing it into a building was rendered inoperative. So exactly when would an armed pilot be of any value? Indeed the last thing you'd want in a repeat performance of that terrible day would be for the pilot to leave his or her sanctuary and provide the terrorist with any kind of opening.

Would pistol packing pilots have helped on 9/11? Of course not. Back then, our theory of airline hijackings was similar to our theory of bank robberies: give the bad guys what they want and end the standoff peacefully. Faced with terrorists holding box cutters to the throats of flight attendants, the pre-2001 pilot would have surrendered his or her weapon to save colleagues' lives. After that, we would all have assumed back then, the plane would be diverted to Cuba or Libya, extensive negotiations would take place (or an Entebbe-like raid would occur on the ground), and the situation would end with minimal or no loss of innocent human life.

So the bill to arm pilots was, at best, a classic case of locking the door of a now-empty barn and, at worst, a poorly thought our sop to macho pilots and NRA fanatics. Adding amateur marksmen (or women) to an equation that already includes nervous travelers and small pressurized compartments should have been recognized immediately as foolish. Even the law permitting armed air marshals to board aircraft is probably unwise in the big scheme of things, but at least in that case we're talking about highly trained professionals.

Well, the inevitable finally happened the other day. A US Airways pilot, supposedly stowing his handgun for landing, accidentally fired off a shot that tore through the plane's fuselage. The pilot's story seems a bit questionable, but that is for investigators to determine. All we know for now is that a commercial aircraft filled with innocent passengers came within an eyelash of disaster. What would have happened if the bullet had shattered the cockpit windshield? Or the co-pilot's skull?

This story was dutifully reported in the media, but has received far less attention than it deserves. It is clearly time to tell pilots that their desire to be armed is more dangerous than it is reassuring. Even the most basic rights are subject to time, place, and manner restrictions. Your right to free speech does not permit you to joke about bombs in the airport security line. And we can limit the First Amendment, we can also limit the Second.

No matter what my allies the gun nuts say.


redbarb said...

All hail "well regulated" and see if we can't make guns as difficult to get as mental health.

redbarb said...

Sorry, that bit was supposed to say "mental health care." My Freudian is showing.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

I don't know, I liked it better the first way you said it.

For all the talk of arming professors and (gulp) students, I have heard practically no campus police chief or senior administrator endorse the idea. Omly a gun nut could truly imagine that firearms would improve the situation where the student comes in to tell you that the "F" he received in your class has cost him his scholarship.