Guns and responsibility -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jan 11, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column Guns and responsibility in which Gene writes: "We may not be sure that the bloodbath in Tucson had anything to do with politics, but we know it had everything to do with our nation's insane refusal to impose reasonable controls on guns."

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion -- a sad week, to be sure. Today's column, of course, was about the Tucson horror. I remember driving down to Blacksburg after the Virginia Tech shootings and asking the same question that I'm asking now: How on earth did this disturbed person get such deadly weaponry? Let's begin.

Mr. Robinson, Jared Loughner was over 21, had no criminal record and had no mental health record. You talk about "reasonable" gun laws but the only new law that would have prevented him from legally buying a weapon would have been a total ban on handguns. Is that what you're advocating? Because I doubt even that would have kept him from getting his hands on a gun. It would only make it impossible for me, an Army retiree with three tours in Iraq and a security clearance, to own one.

The Supreme Court has made clear that a total ban on handguns would not pass muster, so that's not on the table. Two things should have happened: Congress should have renewed the ban on assault weapons, which would have made those 30-round clips illegal and unavailable; at least some lives would have been saved. More important, there should have been some way of flagging his disturbed mental state before he was allowed to buy that gun. The fact that he passed the federal background check tells me that the background check isn't much of a filter.

I am a supporter of the 2nd Amendment as a way to keep the government in check. I do believe the Founding Fathers had that in mind when writing the Constitution. However, for the first time, I am finding myself drawn to the phrase "well regulated militia" and wondering what it could have meant. If every word in the Constitution is important, surely the terms "well regulated" have import. What is that "regulation?" And then what would a "militia" be? And how would they work together? What would that look like? Yet I don't hear us as a nation talking about that relative to guns. Should we be?

Let's be honest. The "well-regulated militia" phrase meant something in 1789, but now it's a total anachronism. I also think it's pretty irrelevant, since the Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear firearms. That's not the way the Constitution was interpreted for nearly a century, but that's the way it is now.

Just a comment: I live overseas in a nation with extremely high crime rates. At my house, we employ a number of security measures, e.g. perimeter wall, electric fencing, locked garage, grilled doors/windows, infrared sensors, sleeping safe haven, audible and silent alarms, and security response service. Any one of these can be (and have been) circumvented or breached by would-be criminals given enough time and effort. However, used together, they greatly decrease the likelihood that my family will fall prey to a home invasion because 1) most intruders will choose a softer target, and 2) law enforcement will likely respond before all layers can be breached. I am frustrated at the "all-or-nothing" extremist viewpoints (mostly) coming from opponents of gun control legislation. Laws to manage access to weapons is only one ingredient in the cocktail. Others might be greater enforcement of compliance with mental health reporting, public awareness/education campaigns (funded by gun manufacturers and the NRA), differentiation between guns for recreation vs. those for killing, etc.

Thanks for your smart perspective. You're right -- it's not all or nothing. We could start by enforcing existing laws that are not being followed, in some cases for ideological reasons. State are supposed to report the names of people judged mentally ill to the federal background-check list, but they don't comply. Following this law wouldn't have stopped the Tucson massacre, but it might stop the next.

As someone who has long objected to Sarah Palin's "real Americans" demagoguery, I understand the desire to blame her for the Tuscon tragedy. Obviously I agree that there's no direct link between people like Palin and the shooting. A point that I think is getting lost, however, is the much more general one about responsibility in rhetoric. One doesn't have to blame Palin or Sherran Angle to condemn the gunsights map and the "Second Amendment solution" as generally irresponsible. Would you agree? I think it's much more likely that such rhetoric leads to political extremism instead of incidents of violence.

I do. There has been no indication that the gunman in Tucson was tuned into Sarah Palin's or Sharron Angle's rhetoric -- and even if he was, not even an implacable Palin critic like me could charge that somehow she caused this atrocity. That said, there are some realities that need to be acknowledged. There was a time, in the '60s and '70s, when you heard angry, "revolutionary," anti-government rhetoric coming largely from the left. Now you hear none of that from the left and a lot of it from the right, complete with military metaphors. The temperature of all this rhetoric heats up the political and social atmosphere in ways that I believe are dangerous. It's entirely appropriate to point that out.

I want all the gun zealots (as opposed to responsible firearms owners) to realize this point: For all their ranting about guns making us safer: and defending yourself, this massacre was NOT stopped by a citizen with a gun. Arizona was some of the most lenient guns laws in the country; citizens can open or conceal carry without a permit, and NO 2nd amendment hero pulled his 2nd amendment tool out from his holster to end this attack. This murderous rampage was ended when people grabbed a magazine out of the hands of an active shooter before he could reload another high capacity magazine. The myth of "if only if more people had guns we'd be safer" was destroyed, as it is with every mass shooting that has occurred in this country.

You couldn't be more right. What's more, our sister website Slate has a piece that tells the story of a bystander who did happen to be armed. He relates that carrying the gun made his more willing to rush toward the chaotic fray -- but that he arrived just after a man had taken the gun out of the hands of the shooter. This bystander thought for a moment that the hero was in fact the gunman. He didn't fire at him, fortunately, but that's the kind of thing that can happen when untrained people carry guns to the supermarket and make split-second decisions that mean the difference between life and death. Scary.

We already have limits on our second amendment rights. I am not allowed to purchase and carry an RPG, for example, nor am I permitted to mine my driveway, or make bombs in my basement. The only question is: Where is it reasonable and prudent to draw the line? I say: Go with original intent. Any American citizen should be permitted to own a black-powder muzzle-loader, no questions asked. Everyone else who wants a gun will have to be trained and licensed, with the license subject to biannual review.

Excellent idea. Anyone who wants to buy a musket, be my guest. The "originalist" justices, like Antonin Scalia, will surely agree.

People have the right to bear arms in this country, and we just have to put up with the occasional mass shooting so that this right is protected for the majority. Do I agree with it? No, but I've come to accept it as inevitable.

It's not just "the occasional mass shooting," it's all the other shootings that don't make the front pages -- the domestic arguments that escalate into murder because a gun was handy, the neighborhood beefs that once might have been settled with fists... 

Hello, A young man on NPR yesterday who was a senior at Virginia Tech when that horrible tragedy happened said it best. In a free society with the population that we have, there will be a fringe element that is destructive and dangerous. Letter bomb, gun, chemical, auto. they will find a method. In D.C. when gun control was implemented didn't the murder rate soar? Paraphrasing Mencken- complex problems have simple solutions and they are wrong.

Leaving the Second Amendment aside for a moment, your argument doesn't comport with real-world reality. People bent on destruction will use the weapons they can obtain. The guy in Tucson might well have dreamed of using a chemical weapon or maybe a howitzer, but he used what he could get his hands on -- a Glock 19 with 30-round clips. If he'd only been able to buy 10-round clips, lives would have been saved. If he hadn't been able to buy the Glock at all, maybe he would have used a knife -- but lives would have been saved. 

Hi Eugene, The gun right fanatics always make the argument that gun laws are useless because "the bad guys will find a way to get a gun no matter what." That is absurd. With that logic, we should get rid of speed limits because bad people speed no matter what. We need to use better technology to screen gun purchasers and much stronger penalties for those illegally possessing/selling guns. If the political climate is not conducive to much stronger gun controls after VA Tech and Tuscon, do you think this country will EVER improve our gun laws?

I don't know if we ever will. I really don't. 

Gene: I heard that Rep. Giffords district includes Tombstone AZ, site of the most famous gunfight in American history at the OK Corral. The immediate cause of that gunfight was the fact that one Ike Clanton had walked drunkenly through Tombstone threatening the life of Marshal Virgil Earp while waving a gun. As in many Western towns, contrary to what the movies have shown, carrying a gun was illegal. So Marshal Earp, hearing of Ike's bragging, sought him out and "buffaloed" him--smashing him in the skull with a revolver. When Ike was released from jail, he and some pals immediately armed themselves and were heard talking violence against Virgil Earp, his brothers and their friend John Henry "Doc" Holliday. It all ended in the famous gunfight--all precipitated by carrying guns illegally. If that's not irony, I don't know what is.

Thanks for the history lesson!

How do we get adult kids into mental health treatment so they will even appear in a database for mental illness when they go to buy a gun? My daughter is an adult with a mental illness. She functions in society and goes to community college. She succeeds with much help from her family and friends. The sad fact is that in Virginia, the community college has no money to provide counseling for the mentally ill. If a student becomes a threat to themselves or anyone at school, they can see the disabilities counselor but only for academic counseling and some encouragement. If they truly need mental health assistance, they must go outside the college. Since Virginia Tech, mentally ill students appear on 'watch lists'--even those like my daughter who would never hurt anyone at school. If there are any incidents, they can be expelled. This, to me, is a huge problem. If the adult child doesn't want to seek help, they don't have to. Someone like the Arizona gunman drops out of college and ends up with too much time on his hands and no medical supervision. Then, he can buy guns and kill/hurt innocent people.

That's a heartbreaking story, and I'm sure your anguish is shared by many parents nationwide. The fact is that there is basically no system or infrastructure to adequately handle young adults with mental illness. Deinstitutionalization was a good and necessary process, but we replaced the old horrific mental institutions with... nothing. No real support, especially for those who are of the age of consent and who are not considered a danger to themselves or others -- which basically requires an overt, proximate threat. We need to rethink this problem, and fast.

Depending on which of two well-regarded surveys you go by, we have either the highest or the fourth highest (behind Brazil, Estonia and Mexico) per capita gun murder rates in the world (out of 180-some countries). I constantly hear gun enthusiasts claim that "every place where gun control laws have been instituted, murder rates have gone up". To them I ask, then how in blazes did things get so bad here in the gun Mecca of the world, and how are they so calm (one tenth the murder rate) in most European countries? What gives?

Very good question. They have strict gun control in Europe, and yet somehow the murder rate hasn't soared (as some gun advocates bizarrely claim it should). Turns out that there are more homicides committed with guns in countries where there are more guns.

In response to comment Tucson. As I understand the events, two elderly men and one woman grounded the shooter after he was hit with a chair. The fourth man had a weapon and responded from a distant store upon hearing shots. What if the shooter had loaded the second magazine. Only one of the four had the greatest potential to save additional bystanders from being shot.

Right, but that's not what in fact happened. What happened was that the man with the gun arrived on the scene, and -- as he acknowledges -- had the impulse to shoot one of the heroes. The gun-toting citizen quelled that impulse, happily. But the killer was already subdued by the time he arrived. These to-the-rescue scenarios sound great, and it all works out fine in the movies, but things are a lot messier in real life.

Every time gun control is proposed, the gun lobby counters that criminals will just buy guns illegally. What can we do to stop the illegal flow of guns?

The Post has done an excellent series on the origin of guns used in crimes. These guns are being purchased legally at gun shops; then they change hands, perhaps a few times, before being used in crimes. So the chain of events that puts guns in criminals' hands begins with a legitimate sale -- protected, they tell me, by the Second Amendment.

I find your writing style very compelling. I was particularly moved by your column on repealing healthcare. I wish to use some of your articles in my FY Writing class. Is there a repository of your columns where I can find non-hot topic papers for my class? I teach at Clemson.

You can find all of Gene's columns here.

Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks so much for participating, and see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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