Of all the so-called "third rail" issues facing American politics, from tax reform to health care, perhaps none provokes such polarized responses as gun control. It resurfaces any time a shooting makes national headlines, followed almost immediately by concerns from Second Amendment advocates that such occasions are "too soon" for a frank, open discussion of gun rights and restrictions. It took a ghastly tragedy — the murder of 26 people, including 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school — to reopen the nationwide debate.
To call the Sandy Hook shootings "unthinkable" would be apt, if similar senseless incidents from the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 to an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer hadn't instilled a kind of grim familiarity. With them have come increased calls for media sensitivity in how to report such crimes without glorifying or encouraging them; for scrutiny of the role of violent entertainment in such incidents; for examinations of the effectiveness of mental-health laws and screenings — everything but close evaluation of the availability of the guns themselves.
No less conflicted than the rest of the country on the issue, the Scene opens the floor to five Nashvillians representing a range of positions on gun control. They raise questions on both sides that must be addressed in any serious consideration of weapons regulation. If restrictions are lifted, will it result in a safer populace or armed anarchy? If restrictions are tightened, will only criminals have access to the strongest firepower? Do "gun free zones" reduce citizens (and children) to defenseless targets, or does opening schools to permit carriers create new risk of incident or accident?
The Tennessee General Assembly will almost certainly consider legislation concerning such matters in its coming session. That makes discussion of gun control doubly urgent. We do not expect resolution or agree with some of the sentiments expressed here on both sides, and we expect readers will feel the same way: For every person who boycotts a restaurant that does not prohibit concealed carry, another may choose to show it support for that precise reason. But it's a public debate that mustn't be postponed — and in that spirit, we encourage you to post your own responses, for excerpting in next week's issue.
By Bruce Barry
If I told you that I had a (partial) solution to a compelling social problem — a solution backed by broad public support and empirical evidence, one that costs little and doesn't infringe on bedrock civil liberties — wouldn't you say, "Let's go for it?" More and better gun control is just such a solution.
We see public support for gun control in the short run as a byproduct of the Newtown horror. Granted, capturing an acute spike in public opinion in the wake of a hideous and highly visible event isn't the best way to take the nation's attitudinal pulse. But a CBS survey in mid-December found 57 percent of U.S. adults endorsing "more strict" gun laws, markedly up from 39 percent just eight months earlier.
Gun rights types like to point out — correctly — that the longer-term trend is a decline in support for stricter laws covering the sale of firearms. That decline — from more than two-thirds in the early '90s to less than half in recent years, according to Gallup — is explained by expanding numbers who say keep gun laws as they are. Support for looser regulation has been low and flat — consistently in the mid-to-upper-single digits for two decades.
But if public approval of the general idea of regulating firearms more aggressively is not as high as it once was, don't let the gun lobby fool you into thinking that gun control is therefore not so popular. When people are asked about specific measures, we discover that more gun control remains widely popular.
A recent CNN poll finds two-thirds of Americans would ban the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons, and almost as many would ban the sale and possession of high-capacity ammunition clips. Fully 95 percent endorse legally required background checks on anyone trying to buy a gun. What's more, a whopping 78 percent are fine with requiring gun owners to register weapons with local government. (Those last two post-Newtown numbers, on background checks and registration, are essentially unchanged from a survey earlier this year, before Newtown.)
People like gun control because they like the idea of fewer guns in public places, and they understand empirical connections between fewer guns and lower gun violence. The NRA and its patrons in weapons manufacturing may want to turn the country into an armed fortress, but polls find that two-thirds of us think venues like movie theaters and restaurants are less safe when concealed firearms are permitted. And three-quarters of us think schools are more dangerous if school officials are armed.
People grasp the undeniable reality that countries with many fewer guns have much lower rates of gun violence. They comprehend models, such as Australia during and following the mid-1990s, illustrating how a society steeped in gun culture can sensibly craft rules and buybacks to alter its gun-violence trajectory.
So gun control is popular. Guns themselves are popular as well. Almost half of us live in a household where a gun is present, and 70 percent of us have fired a gun, though only about a third of us personally own one. Large majorities of both gun owners and non-owners believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own firearms, and the Supreme Court agreed in its landmark Heller decision in 2008.
We don't let majorities vote away others' constitutional rights, whether those be rights to expression, religion, due process, and the rest. But while the court in Heller located in the Constitution a right to possess firearms for "lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home," it also made clear that reasonable restrictions on types of weapons, on who can possess weapons, on where they can be taken in public spaces, and on how they are commercially traded, remain constitutionally viable.
The bottom line, then, is pretty simple when you look at this issue through the lens of facts and data. Most Americans endorse a right to possess firearms, but most Americans also favor more aggressive gun-control measures that will leave fewer especially dangerous weapons in fewer hands. The Supreme Court has stated clearly that these two things — gun rights and gun-control regulations — can readily coexist. Evidence from overseas demonstrates that fewer guns and less gun violence go hand in hand.
To recap: Wide support, empirical evidence, low cost, preserving of liberties. Sounds like a plan.
Bruce Barry contributes regularly to the Scene's news blog Pith in the Wind.
By Bill Bernstein
The sad events in Sandy Hook, Conn., coupled with other high-profile mass shootings, have prompted calls from some elected representatives and others for a re-evaluation and discussion of firearms in America. This is understandable. Whenever there is loss of life, especially of children, there is a need to explain, hold the culprits responsible, and plan. People want solutions that would prevent future such incidents.
As a firearms dealer and father of three, including a 6-year-old in public school, I welcome this discussion. I note it is not a new discussion in this country, but one that has gone on for a century or more. And always it comes in response to events much like Sandy Hook. New York's Sullivan Law, the first to require permits to own and carry firearms, was passed in 1911 in response to a grisly murder-suicide. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was the first nationwide gun control effort, passed in the aftermath of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and other gangster incidents. The Gun Control Act of 1968, which established the licensed dealer system, came after the Kennedy and King assassinations. All of them passed after considerable debate. So debate on the topic is nothing new.
Neither are the proposed solutions new. We have a 100-year history of gun control measures on the federal, state and local level. This should be enough data to begin to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of any measure. An honest debate would address the question of the best way to end or curtail the kinds of mass shootings and other forms of gun-related violence we have seen over the last several years. Any measure that reasonably could not have a demonstrable effect must, on honest reflection, be rejected as ineffective. We want effective solutions, not political grandstanding or policies that merely "stick it" to one group or another.
Among the proposals floating around is a renewal of the federal "Assault Weapons Ban" of 1994, which expired in 2004. That bill restricted some magazines and cosmetic features on firearms. Even after the federal law went away, many states, including Connecticut, maintained similar bans statewide. By analyzing the 10 years the law was on the book, we can evaluate the law's effectiveness at deterring crime. It was not effective in the slightest. The Centers for Disease Control sought to evaluate the effectiveness of the AWB. The center is hardly pro-gun. Yet even they could conclude only that "insufficient evidence exists to determine the effectiveness of any firearms law on violent outcomes." Although they caution that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the truth is that all gun control measures fail to effect any change in outcomes. This is so for all the policies that have been tried and are being advocated today. This is because, as often repeated by the firearms community, only law-abiding citizens obey the law. And law-abiding citizens by definition do not commit crimes. That leaves criminals, who are not deterred.
In fact, of the high-profile incidents over the last five years, most of the killers were already prohibited persons whose mere possession of guns was illegal. Adam Lanza, the Connecticut killer, tried to buy a rifle before the shooting but refused to wait the 14 days required under Connecticut law for a background check. Instead, he stole his mother's guns for his rampage. The futility of such waiting periods in deterring crime should be obvious.
In dealing with these high-profile shooting sprees, we must identify what sort of person and situation we have in order to deal with it. As opposed to killings in pursuit of robberies or vengeance, or over turf wars, these are shootings for their own sake carried out by determined madmen who are not afraid to die. There is no way even to identify with certainty, much less deter, a determined madman prior to his acts. The only deterrent is another person with a gun at the scene, whether a police officer or private citizen. Signs and laws are no deterrent.
Consequently, I was quite pleased to see that Tennessee is taking the lead in allowing at least some armed citizens in schools. The idea of a school as a "gun-free zone" is simply cruel: Almost all the high-profile shootings recently happened in "gun-free zones." It is cynical even to use the phrase: They are gun-free only until an attack. The only way to deal with the determined madman is with immediate force to counter his attack.
People viscerally react to the idea of "guns in schools," preferring an idyllic peaceful learning environment. All of us would. But the choice is not a peaceful idyllic gun-free zone. It is safe students or massacres. An honest opinion would opt for safety.
Bill Bernstein is the proprietor of Eastside Gun Shop in East Nashville.
By Ray Friedman
After the horrific Connecticut shootings, we in Tennessee need to step back to consider where the NRA — and the Republican Party that it owns — is pushing us. In 2010, despite widespread opposition by most Tennesseans, they forced upon us a law that allows guns in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Now they are trying to force through a law that even solid Republican business leaders oppose — to require that employers allow guns in parking lots. Since the state now seems to be run by the NRA, not the people, what can you do?
If you do not think that guns and alcohol should be allowed to mix, simply refuse to spend your money at places that allow guns — which, according to our latest research, includes O'Charley's, Dalts, Blackstone Brewery, F. Scott's and Applebee's. And let them know why.
Under the 2010 law, each restaurant or bar has a choice. They can post a no-gun sign at the entrance, or not. If they do not post a no-gun sign, then by law people with gun-carry permits can bring their guns. If they post a no-gun sign at the entrance, then it is illegal for people to bring their guns. It is the restaurant's choice what policy to have, but also your choice whether to spend your money there.
We have seen instances where restaurants claim to prohibit guns but don't conform to the new law, which requires that one of the following two notices be displayed in all entrances to the establishment:
1. A sign that contains language "substantially similar" to the following: "As authorized by T.C.A. § 39-17-1359, possession of a weapon on posted property or in a posted building is prohibited and is a criminal offense."
2. A sign featuring the international circle and slash symbolizing the prohibition of the item [a gun] within the circle.
Other restaurants truly are unaware — they believe that they are still "no-gun." When our volunteers call restaurants, about half of restaurant managers and owners do not know that the law has changed, and are appalled that guns are now allowed. Many will post no-gun signs right away. When you go to your favorite restaurant, tell them about the new law, and ask them to post a no-gun sign if they are to keep your business. Tell them Gun Free Dining Tennessee will provide the signs to them for free.
Lack of information is not just a problem for restaurants, but also for the general public. Most people in Tennessee are unaware of the new law, and could not imagine that it is legal to allow guns and alcohol to mix. If we are to have any chance against the NRA, the most important thing is for you to know the law, be aware of who posts no-gun signs, and choose restaurants that don't allow guns.
The searchable database on our website will help you find places that do not allow guns (GunFreeDiningTennessee.org). There are lots of choices of restaurants that prohibit guns: B.B. King's, Big River Grill, Burger Up, Caffé Nonna, J. Alexander's, Margot, Morton's, Noshville, Old Spaghetti Factory, Ruby Tuesday, The Dog, Music City Flats and many more.
While the NRA is not willing to give an inch after children are massacred, you can make a difference by spending your money wisely. Restaurant owners should still care more about what their customers want than what the NRA wants. This gives you some influence. Ask restaurants and bars to prohibit guns, tell them about the new law, and make sure they post no-gun signs at their entrances before you go in. You can make a difference.
Ray Friedman is president of the advocacy group Gun Free Dining Tennessee.
By D.M. Adkerson
It is this simple: I have the right to defend myself, and I am ready to use the best current tools available in my pursuit of that right. Some citizens prefer to relegate their security exclusively to the local police or other agency and hope that the good guys arrive before the bad guys reach them. I will call 911, but in the meantime, I will defend myself. Some choose not to act on that fundamental right. But I choose to defend myself, my loved ones, and my property. And I will defend my country from those who would take it, which remains my fundamental right as an American.
Some believe that we are now far too civilized and established a people to worry over such old-fashioned concerns as tyranny. But as we as a society have allowed lessons in civics and history to become ever briefer, with news loud and shallow and context ever lessened, so have we become a people without a memory. The possibility of tyranny is always present. The generation that lived it dwindles, but there are still those living who recall that Hitler was an elected popular leader who through emotional rhetoric helped the civilized Germans regain their self-esteem after the devastations of World War I — except for that whole blame and extermination issue involving the Jews, the homosexuals and the mentally disabled.
Crazy people — or those people whose mamas or daddies or other authority figures did not manage to instill adequate moral comprehension in the children for whom they were responsible (i.e., "stupid people"), or just straight-up bad guys — are always with us. We need to follow our existing laws to keep legal weapons out of the hands of crazy people and criminals, including ex-felons involved in violent crimes. We can try more education geared toward stopping idiots from leaving their loaded weapons for the toddler to find.
But we can't altogether fix stupid, and no amount of lawmaking is gonna change that fact. Since most American citizens do not fall into one of those three categories, it makes no sense for the State to take away my fundamental right to defend myself because of what crazy people, stupid people or criminals might do.
I have the right to defend myself using the current weaponry of the times. I can pull out the gun best suited to my need. I can make my own decisions about the appropriate ammo and amount necessary. With the extended magazine, I am better able to respond if more than one person enters my property to threaten me or mine. Taking away my right to use well-crafted tools carefully and well will not stop criminals and crazy people from killing children.
My right to own and bear arms is so fundamental to the concepts and principles of this country that it remains enshrined as the second of the original 10 amendments to the Constitution. The Second Amendment is necessary to protect the rights of the First. And it is no less valid a concept than the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press enshrined in that First Amendment.
What inept NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre might have said last week, instead of attacking our First Amendment rights in defense of the Second, is to ask why so many children under the age of 18 are watching all those murders. Who is responsible to ensure that they not play video games rated Mature or watch R-rated depictions of violence? The overwhelming majority of such audiences — even the crazy, stupid or criminal — do not act on those violent images. Aristotle might well have pointed out the value of such outlets for our less civilized urges. I know I am calmer today for having watched Django Unchained on Tuesday.
After watching Quentin Tarantino's comic bloodbath, I also frankly have a newfound respect for the revolver. But when the bad guys come my way, I'd still rather have the capacity to shoot 17 instead of 6 before reloading. I have the right to defend myself, and there is nothing criminal in my having an appreciation and affinity for the best tools available to help me accomplish that defense.
D.M. Adkerson is a Nashville writer and instructor.
By Adam Ross
Let me share with you my numerous experiences with violent crime, gun crime particularly. Sometimes I feel like I'm cursed. I certainly did a couple of years ago when our New York friends were in Nashville to see a Predators game and asked us to join them for a late dinner in East Nashville. About a half-hour into our meal, two masked gunmen entered the restaurant — one with a sawed-off pump-action shotgun, the other carrying a pistol — told everyone to get on the ground, and robbed the place.
Hands folded behind my head, I muttered to myself that it must be my destiny to get capped, since it was my third time being held up at gunpoint. Later, I'd think about how the dude with the shotgun calmly strolled toward our table, looked me right in the eye, and took, of all things, my Blackberry. If I'd been armed, I thought later, in my vainglorious after-the-fact videogame dreams, I could've shot him at close range.
But further analysis started unreeling contingencies. What about the other guy? Would he have fled? Or would we have exchanged gunfire in the restaurant? Who else would we have managed to shoot in the process, if anyone? Had I been killed, or killed someone, or the gunman, would it have been worth the scant cash I carried, or my Blackberry?
Then there was my 2001 incident at Sevier Park. I heard someone say, "Yo!" and turned to see two youths approaching from the top of the hill. "Here we go," I thought, drawing on too many experiences to count, "I'm about to get mugged." But I had my dogs with me, a weapon (OK, a lacrosse stick), and by God, wasn't I also a state-champion wrestler? Let us have at it.
Here's what I didn't do: Run. And that moment of hesitation might've been my undoing.
Both kids, no more than 17, were heavily armed. The one who called out had a Tec-9, the hived suppressor on it so long he had to carry it in two hands. The other had a .38, which he was brandishing gangland style, grip parallel to the ground and barrel pointed at my face. "Get on your knees," the kid with the Tec-9 said. He got no reaction from me — I was still gobsmacked by all the firepower — so he cracked me across the temple with the suppressor. This left a perfectly circular welt, which I'm thankful to say I was able to show my wife later.
Unfortunately, unbelievably, I could go on — I was first mugged when I was 5. But those incidents didn't educate me enough to avoid the paralysis I described earlier. The idea that anyone only partially trained carrying a concealed weapon could've prevented, or at least limited, the deaths in Aurora or Sandy Hook is based on so many variables as to be ludicrous. We the civilized are civilized because we walk around like citizens, not combatants. We don't expect crime. We may be street-smart, but the vast majority of us aren't trigger-ready or battle-tested, and even the well-trained miss (see New York City's recent Empire State Building shooting). Being civilized, we react to the crime, and we react late. That lag is what criminals rely on.
Heightened security, albeit important, is always an after-the-fact Band-Aid. (See: American airline security.) Yes, let us please review safety procedures at our schools. But remember, once the lockdown's taken place, someone's already in your kid's school, shooting up the joint.
I don't want to take guns away from responsible owners. Let them go to the range with their kids and shoot as many targets as they like. Or animals, for that matter. But stricter gun controls are needed. My humble suggestions:
1. You must be 30 years or older to own a gun. That way, your psychological history is well enough established that any flags would appear on a background check. Said background check must include medical/psychological history.
2. Add a prohibitive safety tax to the purchase of any handgun that is proportional to its firepower. So you have to pay, say, an additional $1,000 tax on an AR-15 Tactical rifle, as well as on its bullets. The latter will be known as "the Chris Rock tax."
3. Have the money raised by these taxes fund more school psychologists and give them a more active role in educating their student bodies about warning signs among peers. Make them the vanguard defending our schools from within. You won't prevent all crimes, but you'll prevent some.
4. Eliminate all extended clips.
But Christ Almighty, do something.
Adam Ross is the author of the novel Mr. Peanut and the short-story collection Ladies and Gentlemen.
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