The issue isn't hate speech or politics, but violence and gun control
By Chua Chin Hon
FOLLOWING the shocking shooting rampage in Arizona, American politicians and media outlets have embarked on a predictable round of soul-searching about the country's heated political discourse.
It's time to take a retreat to civility, says one editorial. Politicians need to stop employing rhetoric that invokes guns and anti-government insurrection, notes another.
This is all well and good. Following last year's bitter mid-term elections, the country could do with a collective chill pill.
But no one should be under any illusion that the genie can be put back into the bottle.
For one thing, there is no way to roll back the technological advances driving the political conversation these days. The advent of 24-hour cable news channels, the Internet, and social media tools have simply rendered any notion of 'control' over the debate meaningless.
Second, the so-called anger in US politics - the constant reference to war, for instance - is merely an extension of a broader, popular culture steeped in increasingly violent imagery of every sort. The politicians' heated rhetoric feeds off the American population's acceptance of violence in movies, music and video games, not the other way around.
The bigger problem with this torrent of commentary about the dangers of hate speech, however, is that it is fast becoming a smokescreen for the real issue at hand: the lack of sensible laws on gun control.
Yes, incendiary comments by politicians and media figures can incite some people to violence.
But lest anyone should forget, the 20 people who were killed or wounded in the city of Tucson last Saturday - including a legislator, a federal judge, a nine-year- old girl and 17 others - were cut down by bullets fired from a semi-automatic Glock pistol with a high-capacity clip, not a knife or a baseball bat.
We now know that the suspected gunman Jared Loughner is a deeply troubled youth with a history of disturbing behaviour that includes angry outbursts and hysterical laughter in the classroom. He was also rejected by the army when he tried to enlist.
Yet by all accounts, the 22-year-old did not have trouble buying a firearm. He reportedly walked into an outdoor equipment store in Tucson last year and bought the Glock pistol legally.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, one has to ask why anyone in a civil society should have unfettered access to such dangerous weapons in the first place.
Baffled foreigners in the US are usually given two answers. First, the Second Amendment of the US Constitution upholds the people's right to bear arms.
The second argument that you typically hear: self-defence. Since moving here two years ago, I've had the chance to visit some Americans at their homes in the quiet woods of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
For them, their nearest neighbour is a 10- to 15-minute drive away. They count themselves lucky if the police can respond to an emergency call within the hour.
After surveying the isolated surroundings that they live in, I've learnt to appreciate their arguments about self-defence.
But surely allowing people to protect themselves at home is not the same as allowing them to buy assault weapons like AK-47s, or to carry concealed firearms without a permit.
In Arizona, one of the states with the most lax gun control laws, you can do just that following a new ruling last year that eliminated the need for gun owners to get a permit for carrying concealed weapons. You can also carry loaded guns in bars and restaurants in the south-western state if you want.
Arizona is not the only place in the US with increasingly lax gun control. In the past, you could not carry concealed or loaded weapons into national parks or wildlife refuges across the country. But a new ruling last February legalised concealed firearms in nearly all 391 parks across the US.
American politicians are not unaware of the real problem. But few are prepared to confront the National Rifle Association, the powerful and well-funded gun lobby group, or the polarised politics surrounding firearms control.
Following last Saturday's shooting, only two lawmakers have stepped forward with plans to introduce some modest new form of gun control. Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy have said that they want high-capacity ammunition clips, like the one Loughner used in Tucson, to be banned.
No one seems convinced that an attempt to reinstate the ban on the sale of assault weapons - which the US legislature allowed to expire in 2004 - would get very far.
The country's top leaders, including President Barack Obama and newly installed Republican House Speaker John Boehner, have also steered clear of the issue on gun control, sticking instead to the perfunctory task of offering condolences to the victims.
Until they find the courage to have a real conversation with their constituents about the boundaries to their rights to bear arms, the rampage that took place in Tucson will only return to haunt the country in a different form.
[The classic hypothetical is that if law-abiding people can carry guns, then things like this is less likely to happen because when some madman stops shooting, the other armed citizen can shoot to defned themselves. But in one of the most liberal gun law states, no private citizen was able to respond with a firearm. What does that say?
The fact is law-abiding citizens don't go around thinking about defending themselves, or to look at every situation as a gun combat scenario, or even to go around carrying firearms. And when someone starts shooting but not at you, it still takes time to sort out the good guys from the bad.
If in this situation there were a private citizen and an armed plainclothes law enforcement officer imagine the possible chaos. If the lawman had drawn and fired at the shooter, and the armed citizen only saw the lawman shooting the gunman in the chaos, he might shoot the lawman thinking he was the gunman. Similarly, if the armed citizen had properly identified the gunman and shot him just as the lawman was arriving at the scene, the lawman might have shot the citizen by mistake.
Armed response by untrained and unauthorised personnel may cause more confusion and tragedy.
In this incident the gunman was finally stopped by unarmed citizens when he was reloading.
Perhaps it would have been better if he never had the chance to own a gun.
Wyatt Earp had the right idea to ban guns in the town. With a properly trained police force, there is no justification for armed citizenry in peacetime.
Apparently, there was an armed citizen at the scene, and apparently he almost mistook an innocent man as the shooter. Fortunately, he did not shoot the man.]
Gabrielle Giffords and the perils of guns: How an armed hero nearly shot the wrong man.
Posted Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011, at 8:13 AM ET
Does the Tucson, Ariz., massacre justify tighter gun control? Don't be silly. Second Amendment advocates never look at mass shootings that way. For every nut job wreaking mayhem with a semiautomatic weapon, there's a citizen with a firearm who could have stopped him. Look at the 1991 slaughter in Killeen, Texas, where 23 people died in a restaurant while a patron's handgun, thanks to a dumb law, was left outside in her car. Look at the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, where 32 people died because under the university's naïve policy, nobody in the invaded classrooms was allowed to carry a firearm. Guns save lives. So the argument goes.
Now comes the tragedy in Tucson. And what do gun advocates propose? More guns. Arizona already lets people carry concealed weapons without requiring permits. The legislature is considering two bills to expand this right, and as Slate's David Weigel reports, the Arizona Citizens Defense League is preparing legislation that would require the state to offer firearms training to politicians and their staff. The bill is tentatively titled the Giffords-Zimmerman Act in honor of the wounded congresswoman and her slain aide. "When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim," argues the state's top pro-gun legislator. Beyond Arizona, at least two members of Congress say they'll bring guns while traveling their districts.
The new poster boy for this agenda is Joe Zamudio, a hero in the Tucson incident. Zamudio was in a nearby drug store when the shooting began, and he was armed. He ran to the scene and helped subdue the killer. Television interviewers are celebrating his courage, and pro-gun blogs are touting his equipment. "Bystander Says Carrying Gun Prompted Him to Help," says the headline in the Wall Street Journal.
But before we embrace Zamudio's brave intervention as proof of the value of being armed, let's hear the whole story. "I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready," he explained on Fox and Friends. "I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket here. And I came around the corner like this." Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire. As he rounded the corner, he saw a man holding a gun. "And that's who I at first thought was the shooter," Zamudio recalled. "I told him to 'Drop it, drop it!' "
But the man with the gun wasn't the shooter. He had wrested the gun away from the shooter. "Had you shot that guy, it would have been a big, fat mess," the interviewer pointed out.
I was very lucky. Honestly, it was a matter of seconds. Two, maybe three seconds between when I came through the doorway and when I was laying on top of [the real shooter], holding him down. So, I mean, in that short amount of time I made a lot of really big decisions really fast. … I was really lucky.
When Zamudio was asked what kind of weapons training he'd had, he answered: "My father raised me around guns … so I'm really comfortable with them. But I've never been in the military or had any professional training. I just reacted."
The Arizona Daily Star, based on its interview with Zamudio, adds two details to the story. First, upon seeing the man with the gun, Zamudio "grabbed his arm and shoved him into a wall" before realizing he wasn't the shooter. And second, one reason why Zamudio didn't pull out his own weapon was that "he didn't want to be confused as a second gunman."
This is a much more dangerous picture than has generally been reported. Zamudio had released his safety and was poised to fire when he saw what he thought was the killer still holding his weapon. Zamudio had a split second to decide whether to shoot. He was sufficiently convinced of the killer's identity to shove the man into a wall. But Zamudio didn't use his gun. That's how close he came to killing an innocent man. He was, as he acknowledges, "very lucky."
That's what happens when you run with a firearm to a scene of bloody havoc. In the chaos and pressure of the moment, you can shoot the wrong person. Or, by drawing your weapon, you can become the wrong person—a hero mistaken for a second gunman by another would-be hero with a gun. Bang, you're dead. Or worse, bang bang bang bang bang: a firefight among several armed, confused, and innocent people in a crowd. It happens even among trained soldiers. Among civilians, the risk is that much greater.
We're enormously lucky that Zamudio, without formal training, made the right split-second decisions. We can't count on that the next time some nut job starts shooting. I hope Arizona does train lawmakers and their aides in the proper use of firearms. I hope they remember this training if they bring guns to constituent meetings. But mostly, I hope they don't bring them.[Unfortunately, I think it will take a tragedy of immense proportion for gun control to happen. A scenario of a firefight among many innocent would-be heroes battling perception, fear and adrenaline will probably need to happen before the gun-right lobby can be defeated for their erroneous assumptions. ]