Freedom and a Good Night's Sleep

“Hand guns are made for killin' Ain't no good for nothin' else. And if you like your whiskey You might even shoot yourself.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd

My political views are complex and eclectic. That is the polite and positive way of saying they are a crazy quilt of inconsistent and illogical opinions. This is probably why I have so much trouble with straight-party loyalties. If I had to live in a world where the Democrats OR the Republicans got to make all the decisions, I think I would consider relocating to Monaco and becoming a homeless street person. I have not researched this, but I suspect that might be a fairly comfortable gig.

I was born and raised in Kansas and I now live in Texas. I have never lived for more than a few months outside the heartland. My list of permanent addresses are all within 100 miles of Interstate 35. If you buy into stereotypes, I am almost certainly a right-wing, Bible-thumpin', gun-totin', pro-life, anti-immigrant with a pick-em-up truck and a rebel flag flying from the antenna.

I'm not. Well, not entirely. In this case, stereotypes as they often do have missed the mark.

The problem for me is that no single label will fit my views. There are some issues on which I am conservative but some where I am seen as liberal. I have areas where I am distinctly green and others where I am noticeably apathetic. If there is one label that seems to fit better than others, it is probably 'libertarian' but I am pretty sure most true die-hard Libertarians would hate my overall patchwork of views.

We Americans seem to be fixers with extremely narrow vision. We see an issue that we consider a problem and we attack it enthusiastically with little regard for the collateral damage. We vigorously attack symptoms, but we are too busy and too distracted to go after causes. Our memories are short and we forget more history than we can afford. Several years ago, when the Columbine High School massacre took place, I wrote a column for a website and I don't have a copy of what I wrote, but I remember the gist.

The gist is that things have changed. But not the things you think.

In the wake of that tragedy, I heard all sorts of things about violent video games and about the shock-rock persona of Marilyn Manson and about the ready availability of guns and ammo and the horrific effects of bullying and the overall conclusion we were being led to believe was this: two young high school students were basically conditioned by the circumstances around them into being killers. It isn't them, we were told; it's the world the rest of us have created around them.

I beg to differ.

The world has changed enormously in the past fifty years, yet in many ways it hasn't changed much at all. There has always been violent media. There have always been performers that shocked and presented bizarre non-mainstream lifestyles. There have always been weapons and ammo available in this country. So why does gun violence seemingly increase?

What has changed?

Let's talk gun control for a brief moment. Thirty-some years ago I managed the Sporting Goods department of the El Dorado, Kansas Wal-Mart store. Behind the counter was a display case full of guns. Not handguns - longarms. Rifles and shotguns. They were secured to the gun rack by a cable threaded through the trigger guards. This cable was all of an eighth of an inch thick. It was secured by a small padlock, the key to which was in the cash register. Beside it was a wall of ammunition in about fifty different calibers.

You may wonder why I did not work in a constant state of terror - after all, one crazed guy with a pair of wire cutters and homicidal tendencies could have turned a half-dozen Wal-Mart shoppers into his own version of red-light specials in about thirty seconds. But I didn't because I have this horrible weakness. I expect reasonable behavior.

This defect stems from my childhood - a pair of parents who remained married for over sixty years, three siblings who all turned out to be successful, a good education, a house full of books, a father whose work ethic was above reproach, constant involvement with church activities …

Well, it's no wonder I'm so messed up!

I shared a bedroom with my older brother. We shared bunk beds built by my dad with Roger on the top bunk, of course. Next to the bed was a gun rack that held Roger's 20-guage shotgun and a box of shells. No trigger lock. Naturally, I grabbed that shotgun, loaded it up, and went to the playground to splatter the skulls of everyone who ever teased me, right?


So, why not? If the root of the problem is media influence, being bullied, and availability of weapons, my hometown should have been serial-killer-central!

What has changed?

Guns and ammo are harder to buy and generally more responsibly stored today than they were forty years ago. Marilyn Manson in the 90s wasn't really more bizarre or violent onstage than Alice Cooper in the 70s. And Generation X did not invent bullying. I lost half of two front teeth at age 8 when I was hit in the face by a rock thrown by kids from my school. I was taunted and teased and generally tormented from time to time throughout school.

Being different will do that. If you're smart or wear glasses or aren't an athlete, you probably spent some time being bullied. If you stood up for your faith or refused to follow the crowd, you probably spent some time being bullied. Even now, I am considerably older than most of my co-workers and that often results in a certain amount of teasing and taunting that would probably anger someone with a thinner skin.

So, I gave this a lot of thought. The history of the past thirty years should have taught us that tightening gun laws doesn't stop people from getting guns and shooting other people. Bullying hasn't always triggered violent retribution. Violent media hasn't always spawned robotically imitative behavior.

We need to stop blaming the conditions and look for the cause. The problem isn't that angry, victimized people have been conditioned by the media to find an easily available gun and start shooting. We could have done that just as easily when I was in high school. No, what's different is that now, people see this as the solution to the problem.

Let that sink in.

Forty years ago, when I was being laughed at in school, I was perfectly aware that I could get my hands on a firearm and make those people pay for the way they were treating me. But it never would have occurred to me in a million years to try to solve the problem in that manner. I had alternatives. I had better possible outcomes. I had time.

I'm thinking a bit about 1975 lately because my high school classmates are planning a reunion that it appears I will not be able to attend. But it's hard not to reminisce and in doing so we begin to piece together a very different sense of time. Instant gratification was not always reasonable or even possible then.

Back then, El Dorado, Kansas closed down after sunset. Most businesses were closed by 5 PM. Need cash? Wait until the bank opens in the morning. Need a doctor for a non-emergency problem, make an appointment in the morning. Want to find something entertaining to read? Visit the library tomorrow. Need an emergency roll of toilet paper? Consider various paper alternatives or hold it until morning.

I am old enough to remember a time before convenience stores, ATMs, 24/7 grocery stores, cable TV, and the internet. I can remember TV and radio stations that signed off at night. For the first dozen or so years of my life, I lived in a small world where things closed down after sunset and you had to plan ahead. Having access to a Quik-Trip or a 7-11 changed the world - you could buy necessities long after all the other stores had closed. You could buy gasoline for your ride at 10 PM. Unheard of levels of convenience!

Back in high school days, Brian Miller and I used to sneak out in the middle of the night during summer. We'd be walking around El Dorado at 3 AM talking about every subject you could imagine. Our version of 24/7 convenience was the soda machine in front of Wilson's Grocery across from the library. That baby dispensed cans of ice cold Shasta Cherry Cola for fifteen cents no matter what time of day it was!

Today, everything is immediate. You don't even have to go to the 24/7 grocery store now. Amazon Prime can deliver a package to you in an hour - I can't navigate Austin traffic to the nearest mall and get home that fast! Companies have experimented with drone or automatic vehicle deliveries. I can get cash, liquor, and condoms in minutes no matter what the time of day - what an age we live in!

And we've come to expect this. Every problem, every challenge, every inconvenience we face in life can be solved immediately.

And now, let that sink in.

Taking a gun and wiping out my oppressors used to seem ridiculously far-fetched. But then, I used to believe that it was normal to give my problems some time - to let things settle down and sort themselves out before the stores opened tomorrow. Or whatever.

Am I making sense?

I think we've raised an entire generation or more who have grown up believing that any serious problem has an instant answer. That if you are unhappy with the situation you are facing, you can change it NOW - not tomorrow, not weeks or months in the future, but now. This instant. And when the problem is that a bunch of heartless morons are tormenting you, there aren't a lot of instant answers around, unless you happen to have a gun within reach.

I don't own a gun and I never have. I've never really wanted one. I know lots of people who do own guns and every one of them is responsible, cautious, and informed about the weapon they own. My brother inherited my Grandfather Maus's pistol which dates back nearly a century. He offered it to me and I eventually declined. I love history and I definitely desire mementos of my grandfather. But I am uncomfortable having a gun around. I'm not going to take it to the range and fire it and I don't desire having it for home protection, though I realize the need is a possibility. That is just me.

If we actually studied the statistics and developed probabilities of the qualities that make up a 'typical' gun owner, I think we'd find that gun owners usually are cautious, careful, law-abiding, and responsible. In fact, I would estimate that describes around 99% of gun owners. The challenge we face, of course, is how to manage that 1% who, by definition, aren't going to obey laws or respect social responsibilities.

We have restricted felons from buying guns for decades and felons have found ways to obtain guns for decades. We could further restrict those with drug or alcohol addictions, mental illness, anger management problems, and so on … and naturally pave the way for trampling civil liberties in the name of public safety.

Allow me a little reductio ad absurdum, if you please. People kill others with automobiles. Licensing isn't enough. We need to fingerprint drivers, deny licenses to those with drug or mental problems or a history of violence. You know, that might not be a bad idea. While we're at it, let's include cutlery. Those types of people shouldn't be allowed access to steak knives. You can kill someone with one of those. And baseball bats. And power tools. Hey, I've seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre - we need to keep those things out of the hands of certain people.

But guns are different. Right?

I'm not making a statement - I'm asking.

I see the obvious - it is much easier and more convenient to kill people with a gun than a knife. But it should also be obvious that not everyone who owns a gun or has access to one is a killer. So what is it that makes someone decide to kill? Further, how much of that decision is influenced by the fact that you happen to have easy access to a gun? Are there mass murderers out there who would change their minds about killing if they were required to use a knife instead of a gun?

Again, I'm asking - not making a point. Are there?

And if there is someone who, if they had access to a gun, would go out and riddle a McDonald's with bullets, does taking away their access to a gun really fix the true issue here? Here is the problem I see: Band-Aids don't fix problems. If a person is inclined to murder, taking away guns will definitely make it harder to satisfy that inclination, but it doesn't change the person's inclination to murder. It doesn't solve the real problem.

So before you brand me as a freedom-loving opponent of gun control, let me add some obvious truth here - take away the guns from all the potential mass murderers and I will sleep a little easier at night. I won't lie about this. If those two troubled young murderers at Columbine had shown up armed with Bowie knives and machetes, I reckon the body count would have been lower. And maybe, just maybe, given the challenge of exacting revenge with a blade, they might not have shown up at all.

But they would still have the minds of mass murderers.

And I think that's still a problem.

There is an extremely well-made Japanese anime series called Psycho-Pass. In it, there are sensors capable of reading the minds and mental states of individuals and determining whether they are likely to commit a crime. Police work with these sensors to control the population by preventing those with a criminal mental state from acting on their impulses. This is not a happy, upbeat story, folks. It is a disturbing dystopian world in which the general public is essentially being constantly judged and punished without trial just for thinking about committing a crime.

But it is also a world in which citizens enjoy the lowest crime rate in history.

I am not one of those people who believe that an armed citizenry is necessary to prevent excesses of the government. Within my lifetime, I've seen a couple of instances where armed citizens have stood up to the government. In my experience, the citizens in question pose a threat to other citizens and at the end of the day, the stand they take doesn't slow down the government in the slightest. I think having access to a full-auto AR-15 won't mean much against a government armed with drones, cruise missiles, Apache gunships, and M-1 tanks.

But this isn't a case of me surrendering to the inevitability of a government bent on taking away my rights and turning into a totalitarian regime. This isn't about ideology - it's about methodology. I am idealistic enough to believe votes are still more powerful than bullets. Despite the abuses of the media, I still believe a free press and free speech mean more than the right to bear arms. I'm not necessarily calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. I'm just saying a have a lot more faith in the First. If you want to change the world, it begins at the ballot box.

It begins by changing minds - by changing people.

And if you want to change a person - I mean truly change that person - I just don't think passing a law or restricting their freedoms is going to do the trick. I think a father teaching gun safety to his son or daughter does far more good than background checks. I think counseling troubled children that they can change their situation might just keep them from giving up and going out in a blaze of glory on the six-o'clock news. And despite those beliefs, I know I would sleep better if there weren't as many guns out there to be grabbed by the desperate and determined haters of life.

I'm sorry - I bring you opinions and impressions, but not solutions. Can we take away freedoms and make the nation better? I honestly don't know. At a high level, it seems to be a basic contradiction of the meaning of living in free society. But when we live in fear of those around us, we aren't exactly in a free society. How much power and how much control are we willing to sacrifice to our politicians in order to acquire safety? I strongly suspect every single citizen would draw that line in a different place. I'm not sure I know where to draw it at all.

But one thing I do believe firmly is this: if we refuse to address the roots of violence, we will never solve it. If we simply take away one means of killing and leave others there, we haven't fixed anything. We won't eliminate murder by hiding all the weapons. We have to take away the desire to kill. We have to remove the belief that killing fixes the problems we face. We have to provide better solutions to those problems.

I also believe this - it's not easy to change other people. If you are a parent, you have that opportunity. You can change a young life. For the rest of us, those opportunities are harder to come by but they are out there and you can find them if you try. One act of kindness; one expression of sympathy; one small sacrifice of your time or resources can change a life. And odds are, by taking those steps you can begin the process by changing your own.

Yeah, I know: they say I'm a dreamer. But (I hope) I'm not the only one.

There's a song in there somewhere.