I recently heard (no, I don’t remember which scholar said it, nor on which PBS program, but I will check) that the second amendment to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the one about keeping and bearing arms, was heavily inspired by laws of the era that obliged residents of an area (the population group of whose members a militia would be made) to own firearms. Because some people’s religious beliefs precluded this, their right NOT to use firearms deserved as much protection as the right of their compatriots to own them. After all, the First Amendment, protecting their freedom of belief, was already there.
I’m not sure of all the details of this; as I said, I’ll have to research them to understand that, but it does reaffirm my belief that the authors of our national guiding document understood the equal validity of different views and the likelihood that our country’s experiences would make those views evolve and become not less complex over time, but more so. So here’s my assessment of the meaning of their words: We need to be able to protect our safety as individuals, families, communities, and a nation. This is why we have municipal police departments, a National Guard that grew out of militias, and a national military. The men and women who make up these defense forces are trained to do their jobs professionally, and are expected to know when–and when not–to employ deadly force while on the job.
And what about the rest of us, as individuals and families? Should we be allowed to keep guns in our homes and next to our bodies for our own protection and that of our families and neighbors? Some countries’ laws forbid that, and as far as I know, their rates of gun violence are no higher than ours. In such nations, no civilian possesses a gun legally, so no one’s family or neighbor is at such risk. What about laws regarding recreational shooting and seasonal hunting, in both cases restricted to specific locations and in the former to ranges? Having spent time in my youth at professionally-run and well-equipped recreational rifle shooting ranges, at which no one was permitted to do anything without proper professional supervision and from which no weapon could be removed, I know that such facilities can exist and not endanger anyone. I’ve never hunted and I know there are dangers inherent in it to people as well as animals, but I also know that those dangers can be minimized through careful and thorough planning and regulation; it’s also true that regulated and limited hunting is a more humane way of controlling animal overpopulation than no attempt at all. But all of these situations are controlled. There are professional people in charge. They make the big decisions. Yes, disasters and tragedies can still occur…but the risk is greatly reduced.
It escalates radically when ordinary civilians can easily obtain firearms. Some of them do so legally, with sufficient instruction in the proper use of these weapons and a permit they keep with them wherever they go. I assume they make sure their eyes function normally, giving them proper depth perception as well as binocular, near, and distant vision. If they need glasses or contact lenses to have proper vision, they need to wear those aids whenever they have the slightest sense that they might need to use a gun. If their vision is compromised in any way, they should never have a gun, proximity to one, or a permit to own or use one. I know this because, despite three major eye-muscle surgeries, I still have congenital strabismus and see double at times with my right eye, blurry with both eyes, and am unable to fuse images. The problem is far less severe than it was, but it’s still with me. A gun? Too risky. The bullet it shot would not know about my eye problem or be able to compensate for it. Fortunately, I was very vigilantly supervised at those shooting ranges. In fact, while I strongly suspected that my father took me there in the hope that the practice it gave me would teach my eyes to work together better, I ultimately realized that I was never going to be able to shoot well, and simply gave it up. Are there others out there with vision problems, some like mine, others more common? People who are nearsighted or farsighted in one or both eyes even if glasses or contacts help to some extent? People who are legally blind in one eye, people who have limited depth perception for some other reason? Millions of them. Should they be allowed to use firearms? What do you think?
Then there are those who obtain weapons by criminal means, and plenty of those people already have violent-crime records. No one wants them to have access to firearms. Should we make this harder for them? Of course, since a gun is meant to kill and to injure by violence.
From this obvious statement comes one that is assumed to be correct: people with psychiatric disorders are naturally more dangerous than others and therefore more likely to use firearms for deadly purposes. In recent years, we’ve seen mass shootings committed by a few such people at schools and other public places; in each case, one or two young people, armed and very ill indeed, have killed defenseless, innocent, unsuspecting men, women, children, and/or teenagers, and left others with longterm, perhaps lifelong physical and/or emotional injuries. Sometimes the national aftereffect has been nothing more than hate, no more than the wanton use of a label that has harmed millions and destroyed many of those millions: “the mentally ill.” Even the Americans with Disabilities Act offers only limited protection against the professional, personal, educational, medical, and financial harm and destruction incurred by that label. Sometimes those who wish to cause such harm, or at least have no objection to doing so, find easy ways to make it happen.
But something seems to be happening now, something that may actually be helpful to everyone. Individuals and organizations dedicated to reducing gun violence and the damage caused by (another label) “the stigma of mental illness” (I do hate labels!) are speaking out now, with facts and personal experiences to support them and to help them teach and reach others. Compared with the new Sandy Hook Promise, the NRA may be large, strong, well-organized, and well-connected, but so are other organizations, like NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and the DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance).
I know this as a member of both of these last two organizations. I know that for every American who we hear is dangerous because of a disease that affects the brain chemistry, thought processes, moods, or behavior, there are millions with such diseases who don’t endanger anyone’s safety, as long as they are able to get a proper diagnosis and state-of-the-art treatment. Can these illnesses be cured? In most cases, no…or at least, it wouldn’t be wise to assume that a cure exists yet. But in most cases, treatment of the kind that enables a person to lead a normal life does exist.
I am among those who don’t believe that guns belong in civilian hands and homes. I’ve known of, and known, people who lost loved ones in situations in which guns, and the bullets in them, were the killers. The people who used the guns were civilians: young adults, teenagers, children, and others. Thieves, drug addicts? I don’t know. They weren’t police officers or military men or women; they were civilians. One victim was a boy of about 13; another was a young graduate student. Would I be dangerous with a gun? Well, with my eye-muscle disorder, quite possibly.
That fact would make me a lot more dangerous with a gun than the fact that I have bipolar disorder.