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December 19, 2012

The unspeakable nightmare of Newtown created instant momentum to prohibit guns from our culture, prohibit violent videos from being seen by the young, prohibit those whose mental state endangers the rest of us from being around them. We are desperate to prohibit the reenactment of this groundhog day of senseless death from occurring again.

This automatic impulse has a built-in reality check: Has prohibition ever worked?

Believe it or not, I have never done any drugs stronger than the nasal decongestant Afrin.  I have never smoked a cigarette (even when I was “of age.”)  I’ve never played any video game (violent or otherwise.)  And although I drank to great excess in college, I did not drink until I was “of age” – at 18. I have never owned a gun, or wanted to, or understood why people do. Being alive at 57 and having committed no obvious atrocities,  I may be the living embodiment that prohibitions might keep us out of mortal danger.

It is absolutely clear that alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and guns are the instruments of death and unmitigated personal devastation for millions of people. In terms of alcohol that reality allowed a hundred and fifty years of pervasive e alcohol abuse in the United States to be tackled head-on with an amendment to our Constitution that prohibited its use. The “war on drugs” is at best an act of discouragement, with no “victory” at hand, and tobacco is as legal and regulated as booze.

Being the child of an alcoholic, I saw how alcohol wrecks families and ruins lives, permanently.  Seeing any number of my compatriots blunt their potential with drug use, I can tell you that I am not sure what the net benefit is.  Seeing pictures of 6 year-olds who were shot 11 or 12 times with hollow point bullets in a happy suburban town by an upper middle class privileged white male, it is hard for me to believe that guns have any meaningful positive purpose in any of our lives.

But is it possible for our culture to preempt tragedy?

Part of our inability to prohibit mayhem might be uniquely American. Everybody who came to America had a genetic predilection to buck control and grab their destiny. It’s a favorite argument that “the rest of Western Civilization” wholly supports healthcare, education and a social safety net so America should too. And there are obviously moral judgments involved in all attempts at prohibition.  Same-sex marriage and certain sexual acts were once viewed as being “destructive” to our culture and thus were legally prohibited until our generation. But outlawing guns, tobacco or alcohol (or, now, gay marriage for that matter) does not “fit” who we are.

My typical American response to the tragedies of Newtown was that I felt badly that the gunman had killed himself because I would have loved to have seen him pay a lifelong sentence of psychological (or more deplorably on my part, physical) retribution and that same response, whether it is to the heinous acts at Penn State or acceptance of the death penalty, seems distinct from “the rest of Western Civilization.”

The desire to control human activity at the margins to provide safety for the multitudes is problematic here for simple reasons.  Who decides who is quirky and who is psychotic? – and, then, if and when a sociopath is made benign? We have gotten to the point where there are about as many guns as there are adults in the United States.  A great Cabernet makes a steak taste better, even when we had Prohibition. There are those who see the immoral and unsustainable use of meat as a food as indefensible, but neither wine nor steak are on the path to prohibition. As we slide into a time when marijuana will be viewed with a similar amount of regulation as that Cabernet, we want to make guns as intolerable as chemical weapons.

But the undeniable virtue of our desire to make things safe has to be cross-referenced with our ability to know what we can (and cannot) do.  We clearly don’t get it right when everyone in the world believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that proved to be a fantasy.  We clearly couldn’t keep America from drinking, despite the full power and force of the federal government and a constitutional amendment, and we probably can’t keep lunatics (like Adam Lanza) separated from guns purchased by his perfectly sane and carefully conscientious mother.

The bottom line is that we all want to feel better about ourselves.  We want to do something in the face of things beyond our control.

We saw the alcoholic destroy his life and his family and the lives of those around him, so we tried to prohibit everyone from having access to the alcohol which was viewed as the agent of their destruction. If we were a logical society, tobacco would be outlawed, but a new study shows, that despite every impediment to limit it’s attraction and availability, the percentage of smokers has plateaued to 25% – and holding. Why not prohibit a useless toxic product after 50 years of knowing that it will kill you? Despite tens of thousands of preventable deaths a year, having the freedom to engage in risky behavior has so far trumped mandatory safety for most of us.

And yet when we see the faces of 20 exquisitely beautiful 6 and 7 year olds  the impulse is to take guns out of the hands of everybody.

In all these cases, the cow has left the barn.  The 100 million people that drank and were still drinking during Prohibition are mirrored by the 270 million guns that exist and will still exist after the most draconian of gun laws imaginable.

And yet we do want to do something.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Eileen Banisch permalink
    December 19, 2012 3:14 pm

    Well said, Duo. Thank you.

  2. Gmail permalink
    December 20, 2012 2:30 am

    Good one.

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Dog lover permalink
    December 20, 2012 4:12 pm

    Don’t care if the “cow” (wasn’t it horse?) has left the barn. If a tormented suicidal man were contemplating killing my first grader and he was marching toward my child’s school, I’d sure hope that first, he’d have gotten some decent mental health intervention (yes, even against his will,) and that he’d have had a much harder time getting his mitts on semi-automatic and automatic weapons. Maybe, despite all this, he’d still manage to do what his tortured mind cooked up. But maybe, because of the barriers/help we put in place, my kid would have better odds. That teacher who took her students into the tiny bathroom to hide them also locked the door and barricaded it with a bookshelf. Ultimately, those acts might have proved futile in stopping the gunman, but had I been in her shoes, I would have done exactly the same thing. There are many evils in the world, and the less we enable those with ill intentions, the better I like it.

  4. December 20, 2012 4:21 pm

    shared with: Local smart guy with the balls to ride the middle. Dare to see both sides.

  5. tim mccarthy permalink
    December 20, 2012 7:38 pm

    maybe this is oversimplistic, but my cell phone knows my every move and reports it to whoever. Why cant we install gps in the guns and an app will tell us when they are within certain distance of schools. I suppose bad guys would dismantle them but you could also make it so a flag is raised if one gets dismantled. Just an idea…

  6. Susan Dobuler permalink
    February 12, 2013 12:53 pm

    Nice, Duo. It’s control we want, of whatever we deem crazy or dangerous. And if the only thing we’ve thought of to express this desire is to outlaw guns, so be it. It’s better than doing nothing.


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