Thursday, December 27, 2012

Violence and the NRA

First of all, to see one of the many nasty political facets of the NRA, please check out the column by the NYTimes' longtime Supreme Court analyst Linda Greenhouse; you can find it here:

As you can see from this article, it is a big mistake to believe it when the NRA says it is for the enforcement of gun laws already on the books. In fact, the NRA has opposed virtually every gun control measure ever proposed; when a measure is passed, the NRA has done everything in its power to suppress enforcement of the law. The bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has been underfunded for decades because the NRA has put political and economic pressure on representatives in both houses of Congress -- mostly Republicans but many Democrats as well. It has also exerted sufficient pressure to keep ATF from having a permanent director, which limits the department's power to enforce existing laws. Although the general membership elects the leadership of the NRA, it is not a all clear that the general membership is aware or explicitly approves of the behind-the-scenes political activities of its leadership (more on this below).l

The NRA blames the video game industry for promoting gun violence, but in fact only games from makers not under their political control or not involved with political payoffs for the NRA meet with it's disapproval. It seems that games with a military theme, no matter how perverted or unrepresentative of the U.S. military, seem to be OK with the NRA: this is discussed in this article carried by Yahoo News. Although most mayors and police have split with the NRA on gun control issues, the NRA still maintains close ties with the military and, of course, with the Republican party.

Incidentally, violent video games, whether approved or not by the NRA, can be pretty awful and are largely unregulated. You can see a brief survey of the "Top Ten Violent Video Games" here. I suspect that for most grownups these are pretty primitive and simple-minded, but they contain frightening examples of bloody violence and complete dehumanization of putative "enemies". Nevertheless, it is clear from the many examples -- many uncomfortably recent -- of mass murders that the killers were completely unswayed by any pity or guilt during their crimes -- exactly the same as the killers in these games. The fact that most of the sadistic acts in these games are not committed with guns is actually irrelevant: it is the dehumanization of the victims that makes the torture and murder possible. And this includes the "military" themed games, which the NRA seems not to find objectionable. In these, dehumanization takes the form of presenting the victims of violence as Nazis, communists, terrorists, vague "criminals" or even zombies. The point is that they are "other" and "bad", hence one is justified in doing anything we might want to do to them.

Whether such games can actually create mass-murderers is probably impossible to tell, since how could one possibly test this hypothesis scientifically? Some hypothesize that it may be possible that the violence in video games might actually be a catharsis for some potential killers, taking the place of actual violence. Of course, a similar hypothesis might also be made about, say, simulated child pornography (animated or with adults imitating children): that viewing and finding release from such videos might actually supplant the need for assaults against actual children. These are interesting topics of discussion, but once again: how could we assess their truth?

Anyway, returning to the issue of guns and the NRA.

It is important that those who favor gun control in some form be realistic about the NRA and its members and its leadership. First of all, the NRA is not composed of just hunters and hobbyists. Many in the NRA don't hunt but own a gun for purposes of self-defense. Among these folks there is a wide variety of visions about self-defense, ranging from store-keepers worried about robberies to individuals worried about street crimes, to people who believe that an oppressive and dictatorial government may "come for them."

Now, of course there are paranoid loonies who fear the U.N. and "black helicopters." What about those who think that guns will protect them from street crime? There certainly are cases where store owners have thwarted robberies and homeowners have chased away intruders. However, from what I've read, most cases in which a gun has been fired by an individual at an individual have been cases of either improper or  criminal use of a weapon to intimidate (and not to defend), or cases of mistaken identity that lead to tragedy or near tragedy. David Frum, a longtime Republican consultant, takes this view in an article for CNN: Guns endanger more than they protect.

(I personally am not gun-phobic, but would never keep a firearm in my house unless it were disassembled and locked. Can you imagine having a loaded firearm in your night table and hearing a person rattle your front door in the middle of the night and enter your house? You call: "Who's there?" and there is no answer. Footsteps come up the stairs toward your bedroom; you take the gun and when the bedroom door opens, you fire. Oops, it's your slightly inebriated son paying a surprise visit from college. I, for one, would rather be killed by an intruder than accidentally kill a family member. Somehow I suspect most people share that preference.)

So how should we take the position of the NRA on gun control as expressed by its leadership? Actually, in a survey of 45,000 Americans, only about 22% reported owning a gun, and only a total of about 35% of households reported a gun in the family. Of actual gun owners, only about 1 in 4 actually belonged to the NRA; thus, gun-owning NRA members seem to be only about 5% of the population. These figures come from a statistical essay in the Washington Post. The article goes on to show that the views expressed by Wayne Lapierre (VP and spokesman of the NRA) do not uniformly represent the opinion of NRA members on all issues involving gun control, and certainly not the opinions of all gun owners.

Outside the minority of gun owners and NRA members, Americans at this time support reasonable gun control measures. The two obvious ones are a ban on assault rifles and a ban on large capacity ammunition magazines (those holding more than 10 bullets). Neither of these would be a burden on hunters, hobbyists, and even self-defense advocates: if 10 shots from a semi-automatic weapon won't deal with a random street assault or a home invader, you are pretty much doomed. If you are worried about black helicopters and resurgent communism then, I'm afraid, we owe you nothing except a plan that pays for a good healthcare professional.

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