January 18, 2013

Living In Fear

Yesterday, I received an e-mail on my cell phone from a group claiming that the murder of twenty school children at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax perpetrated by President Obama and his minions in an effort to destroy the 2nd Amendment and take away all the guns. Sen. Paul Rand (R-Kentucky) thinks President Obama "may have this king complex," feeding into right-wing rhetoric that compares Obama to King George III. All this makes me think of Joseph Welch's famous rejoinder to Senator Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

I will waste no words on the obvious falsehood of "truther" claims that Newtown was a hoax or the delusional fantasies feeding the idea that we are somehow living under a tyrannical monarchy rather than the greatest nation in the world, as we so often hear repeated from the same quarter. These people turn my stomach. They are liars and hypocrites, paranoids and parasites who rely on the very government they disparage to protect and support them while they mouth their nonsense. Besides, to paraphrase an old boss of mine, appealing to their sense of logic is like pouring water on a rock.

I am here today to speak toward a broader issue, why it is that some people feel it necessary to maintain a private arsenal of weapons while others don't. Some folks genuinely love guns as objects of craftsmanship and as pieces of history. I get that. Guns are cool to heft in your hand and to fire. I loved the little grenade launcher we had in Vietnam.  I found the experience of firing an M-16 largely unpleasant, but that's because the M-16 was not made with left-handed people in mind.

But here's my broader point. I don't own any pistols, shot guns, or rifles for personal protection. Why? Because I don't believe I am in any serious danger, a conviction backed up by statistics. The odds of being a victim of violent crime are fairly small. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that over the 10-year period between 2002 and 2011, the rate of violent crime declined 30% and the rate of serious violent crime declined 28%. Overall, the rate of violent crimes (rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault) is 22 victimizations per 1,000 persons over the age of 12. The odds of being a murder victim are just 1 in 18,690. Compare that to the odds of dying from some kind of cancer, which are about one in four.

This isn't about facts or figures, though. This is about something deeper, about how you see the world. I am not afraid of other people or of other cultures or other religions. I don't live life in constant fear of someone attacking me or taking something from me. I pretty much agree with the character in that old TV series Grizzly Adams: a stranger is a friend I haven't met yet. A lot of people think that's crazy, but it's gotten me this far.

Sure, that could change tomorrow. I'm not a fool. I'm not saying I don't sometimes worry about my personal safety or that of my loved ones. Of course I do. We all do. But I don't let those worries own me. I certainly don't feel a need to arm myself.

Others obviously do. In my view, these are people who live in fear. Why else would you arm yourself? To defend your life or property? That means you are afraid of someone taking them from you.  To defend your right to bear arms? That means you worry that someone will take your guns from you. To defend against tyranny? That means you are afraid of tyrants. The list goes on and on.

Some folks are afraid of anything and everything. They see danger lurking around every corner. What they rarely see is the danger they represent. The danger posed by the careless use of firearms. That danger posed by the easy access to firearms. The danger posed by a mindset that sees enemies everywhere.

Is there a middle ground in all this? Of course there is. Owning a handgun or hunting rifle for personal safety or recreational use is not the problem. Yes, there will be hunting accidents. Yes, there will be needless tragedies caused by loaded handguns left unsecured. As a society, we have accepted those as risks we can live with.

What we shouldn't have to live with is the mass shootings of men, women and children using semi-automatic rifles with large capacity ammunition clips. We need to be as firm about taking those away as we would taking a pack of matches away from a child. A child doesn't see the danger in matches. A handful of adults apparently don't see the danger in so-called assault weapons. Or they don't care. Either way, it's up to the responsible adults in the room to take action to remove the risk of something bad happening.

 ( David Horsey / Los Angeles Times )

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