As I watched the March for Our Lives protests taking place around the country on March 24, 2018, I was filled with several conflicting emotions. I was proud that students—a long ignored and discounted group—were organizing and harnessing their frustrations into something tangible. I was sad many were unwilling to listen to what they had to say, writing them off as nothing more than malcontents and “angry, opportunistic…media hyped know-nothings.” But most of all, I was unnerved, and that feeling had no specific source. I just know that when hashtags begin trending and momentum grows on either side of the gun debate, I begin to worry.
Guns are a touchy subject, and the spectrum of advocates on both sides is wide—from those who believe in zero restrictions to those who want all weapons banned. It’s not productive to rehash all the talking points here, and I wouldn’t presume to be able to solve such a thorny debate on this, my humble corner of the internet.
Josh Britton published an excellent piece over at Mere Orthodoxy this week about the march and why he didn’t participate. In it, he states, “I lament with the Parkland victims, and long for the day when God will put an end to all violence. But I also worry about putting too much hope in legislative action to solve the complex problems that confront our world, and can’t help thinking of how often such attempts have gone awry in the past.”
Something going awry. That’s the thing that gives me pause. There are always unintended consequences to social change and legislation. Consider Prohibition and the many ways it changed the United States for the worse. The War on Drugs is another stunning example of government overreach, and it is still having an impact on our nation—particularly on people of color.
If Only We’d Known…
The Ice Bucket Challenge, one of the biggest social media trends of 2014, certainly raised a great deal of money and awareness for ALS. (Funding also gave scientists a way to discover a new gene linked to the disease, so huzzah for that!) However, have you heard much on the subject since? ALS is still a long way from being cured. Many people participated out of peer pressure or to feel good about their social media “activism,” but how many of those same people would do such a thing again? The results aren’t reproducible, and overall, according to Jaqueline Herrera, the Ice Bucket Challenge was actually harmful to philanthropy.
The same is true for sending food overseas to those “in need.” According to the well-researched documentary Poverty, Inc. (available on Netflix), our good intentions can actually cause great harm. For instance, former President Bill Clinton, encouraged by U.S. rice producers, authorized sending thousands of pounds American-subsidized, tariff-free rice to the island. The catch? The decision drove local growers out of business. After all, it’s hard to compete with free. It has also had a huge impact on the Haitian diet. Rice, which was once consumed once or twice a week along with other healthier staples, now accounts for one quarter of the average Haitian’s caloric intake. We don’t think about this when we send in our donations, but it’s happening all over the globe. It’s not that we need to give less; we need to give more wisely.
What do both of these things have in common? A swelling of popular opinion driven by social media, much like that enjoyed by the March for Our Lives. If this movement (however well-intentioned) leads to sweeping changes are made to gun laws—restricting the average citizen’s access to them—what might the unintended consequences be?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I’m no gun enthusiast; however, I’m comfortable with them. I learned to respect them early and was taught how to shoot when I was old enough. But my view on their purpose, and the intentions of the founders in their creation of the Second Amendment, changed in the spring of 2013.
My husband and I purchased a house in Cobb County, Georgia. One Saturday morning, my husband left to run some errands, and not a minute after the garage door hit the ground, he called me. “Sweetie,” he said. “Do you have anywhere to be in the next few hours?”
I told him I did. “Well, you better leave now. I don’t know if you’ll be able to later. Just ask the cop in our driveway to move. He did for me.”
I looked out the window, and sure enough, a patrol car was on our property. I took my husband’s advice, grabbed the things I’d need for the afternoon, and headed out.
There wasn’t one sheriff’s deputy in our neighborhood that day. There were forty—all of them armed to the teeth. I saw countless military-grade rifles, men in SWAT gear bearing flash grenades, extra magazines, heavy flashlights, and truncheons. One officer lay on a shooter’s mat, sighting in a rifle. Another sniper was posted on a play set.
I wish I had had the presence of mind to take photos that day, but honestly, I was so bewildered by the sight of a platoon in my neighborhood, it was all I could do keep my car on the road. It was the quintessential definition of using a bulldozer to find a china cup.
There were no reports in the local papers about this incident, no coverage on the nightly news. But from what I gathered from neighbors, a family in one of the homes has a son who is mentally unstable and was holding his mother hostage with a knife. Thankfully, the situation (despite the seven nation army) ended peacefully, and the young man was taken into custody.
Lock and Load
Cobb County, like places around the United States, has received a great deal of surplus military equipment thanks to the 1033 program. Tactical gear and military-grade weapons are just the start of it. Armored truck and personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and helicopters have also been distributed to local police. Cobb County even added a tank to their arsenal recently. No kidding—an honest to goodness tank.
There’s a reason Ferguson, Missouri looked like a war zone when the riots over Michael Brown’s death were happening. It’s because the cops were armed like soldiers, and this is becoming more and more common these days. According to C.K., author of “The Rhetorical Power of ‘Support Our Troops’” over at The Economist, “There are now 50,000 to 80,000 SWAT raids each year in the country.”
He goes on to say, “There is little evidence that such militarization reduces crime, and a considerable risk that it alienates communities and leads to an increased number of civilian deaths….Using county-level data on overall deaths caused by the police in four states, Casey Delehanty, a social scientist, and colleagues found that larger 1033 transfers are associated with more police killings. The risk of a civilian killing by the police is more than twice as high in counties receiving the maximum 1033 transfer compared to counties that receive no transfers. The authors show that this relationship is not simply caused by a higher risk of criminal violence in districts that receive larger transfers by demonstrating 1033 receipts are also associated with police forces killing more civilian dogs each year as well.” (I know The Economist isn’t always top notch, but it was a solid summation. If you want to read the original paper in its entirety, it’s here.)
Apparently, not even our dogs are safe these days. #Merica
Police forces aren’t turning weapons down. They’re taking them from the government as often as they can, and these items are meant to be used. Hence, the stunning show of force in my suburban neighborhood when a few officers and a negotiator were all that was called for.
It is a hard truth, but one we must face. In the United States, people of all races—but predominately those with black or brown skin—are being shot and killed by police officers. #BlackLivesMatter began for a legitimate reason. Yes, some people are shot because they pose a threat to a community. Some do assault police offers and must be met with force. Some attack with every intention of committing “suicide by cop.” I’m not discounting any of that. However, just this month, Stephon Clark was killed in his grandmother’s back yard in Sacramento, California. The reason? He was knocking on the window to ask if she could let him in. (Apparently, the bell was broken.) He also had a cell phone that “looked like a gun.” For all that, he was shot at twenty times. Eight bullets hit him, seven in his back. Were the cops in the area to stop a murderer or rapist? Were they there trying to prevent a violent crime? No. They had been called in because of a vandalism complaint. Someone was breaking into cars and stealing stuff. A minor crime was met with major force—and someone’s child, someone’s father—is dead.
In the Name of Safety
County and city police forces are well armed, and they have shown they are willing to use the weapons they’ve received from the federal government. Now consider the fact that March for Our Lives has three primary demands of Congress:
- Pass a law to ban the sale of assault weapons frequently used in mass shootings
- Prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines
- Close loopholes in background check systems and require background checks on every gun purchase
Are these weapons and magazines banned across the board—for law enforcement as well as your average, law-abiding American citizen? The petition doesn’t call for such a restriction, and I’m fairly sure that if Congress does act on these demands, no such language will be included in the law either. Law enforcement will continue to receive (and use) the same weapons citizens are denied. How can a people peaceably assemble or petition the government for a redress of grievances if agencies “armed to meet any threat” deem protesters to be just that—a threat—and are more likely to shoot than listen?
Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens has already called for a repeal of the Second Amendment, deeming it “a relic of the 18th century.” He’s one man, but I wonder how many Americans feel the same way. How many watched the March for Our Lives—filled with emotionally-charged images and highly-tweetable moments—and agreed with the sentiments expressed without considering all the ramifications altering the Constitution? Keeping our kids safe in school. Preventing mass shootings and domestic terrorism. Both are good things that could be achieved in the short term via gun control, but what else might people with less altruistic goals accomplish through that action?
The long view must be kept in mind. If the simple act of donating rice has left a nation economically crippled and dependent on foreign aid, the danger is far greater when it comes to weapons. We must undertake the process of revising America’s gun laws with great care and consideration. No good decision has ever been made in haste or when emotions are high, and we cannot afford to get this one wrong.