Civil War

I am struck by the lack of data in the gun-control conversation I have heard on TV and radio lately. Perhaps this is because, as my friend Ethan wrote, “the dialogue on gun laws in the US is locked between two positions that are both completely divorced from reality,” and there is no room for data in that kind of dialogue. Whatever the reason, casual listeners like myself hear a lot of talk and very little statistics.

What kind of guns fire the bullets that kill people in this country? If for some reason we’re only interested in mass killings (which most of the time seems to be the case), what kinds of guns fired those bullets? What percentage of the guns were purchased (new? used?) by the shooter? What percentage stolen? How many killings were “good guys” killing “bad guys”? In other words, how much of the killing that has happened would be have been effected by each set of proposed gun-control regulations?

What are the media diets of murderers? Do they differ in any real way from non-murderers? Is there any hint of a dose-response relationship between media violence/1st person shooters and murder? In other words, do you increase your chances of killing someone by playing Half-Life 2 for 900 hours?

I am in a similar state of frustrated ignorance about mental illness and mass killings, or murder in general. This is a subject that interests me greatly, as I work in the mental health system. It is somehow much more controversial to increase the regulations on guns than it is to create a national database of people who have been diagnosed with mental disorders. I can’t think of a better way to reduce the number of people who get help with psychological troubles that to create a database of them.

Maybe I could be swayed, though, if I had some facts to work with. How many murderers have been diagnosed with what disorders? What psych meds were they on? How many had inpatient vs outpatient treatment? How do those numbers compare to the general populations? Clinical populations?

One thing no one seems to talk about is that mass killings could be a trend the way methods of suicide have trends. I find this idea plausible and quite disturbing. Now, in the US, when you realize that you need to do something spectacularly evil, the obvious thing to do is go to a school or mall and kill a bunch of people. I went to school in the 1980s, before this trend established itself, and I feel lucky to have gotten out when I did. I remember at least one kid who was bullied so bad I’m surprised he didn’t bring a gun to school. It just wasn’t what you did yet.

From that perspective, it seems unlikely that making it more difficult to buy certain guns will make much of a difference. (Of course, I have no empirical evidence to back myself up there, and I am happy to be swayed by evidence.) From that perspective, the most and perhaps only effective intervention for the problem would be the media refusing to report the incidents. This seems way less likely than gun-control legislation, and media-control legislation is more obviously unconstitutional.

The question of constitutionality of gun-control is also confusing to me. Assuming “arms” was synonymous with “weapons” in 1791, there was a pretty good constitutional argument against any kind of weapons-control 200 years ago. That argument is long obsolete. I don’t hear anyone advocating unregulated access to rocket launchers or nuclear weapons. So we’re left in this zone that is not mentioned by the constitution, where we have to draw a line between weapons we want to regulate and those that we don’t using the democratic process. That process doesn’t seem to be about the constitution any more, except when gun-rights advocates invoke it without getting into the issue of rocket launchers or Adam Lanza with a combat drone.

Finally, I am most baffled by the folks who are talking about “starting another civil war” if the government tries to “take our guns.” It’s not just that no one of any consequence is talking about disarming anyone. It’s the most clear example of the pro-military-anti-government disconnect in the right wing. Just like conservatives never seem to be thinking of the military when they mention government spending or government employees, they must not be thinking of our military as “the government” when they talk about a civil war. A civil war would not be fought against corrupt, middle-aged bureaucrats and politicians, it would be fought and lost against the United States military.


I once heard an interview on NPR with a woman who had been born a slave in the US. What struck me most about it was that it had been recorded after I was born, in 1971. I had never even considered the possibility that my lifespan had overlapped with anyone who had seen the Civil War! One lifespan between me and the Civil War–that means two lifespans between me and the Declaration of Independence. A 90 year old could have seen both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and a 101 year old could have seen both the Civil War and me. I’m about halfway through my life, so that makes the US about two and a half lifespans old.

This was my first taste of what a young country the US is. When I learned about it in school, the Civil War seemed so long ago. People dressed funny, talked funny, and so many of them still thought slavery was a good deal. But that stuff just goes to show how fast fashion and ethics can change.

Before this experience, racism always seemed like this inexplicable anachronism: Where do these backwards idiots come from? We figured this stuff out ages ago! But the last Americans who actually owned slaves, bought and sold people, died only about 20 years before I was born.

My second taste was when I house-sat for a family who were Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatics. I re-read some of her books and watched a bunch of Little House on the Prairie episodes and started researching her life a little. She was born in 1867, just after the Civil War ended, had her log-cabin, covered-wagon young life, got married in 1885, and died in 1957. Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t just around for Manifest Destiny and the destruction of the last Native American societies. She saw cars, radio, television, airplanes, and  the Jazz Age. She saw World War I, World War II, the atomic bomb, communist revolutions, Fascism, the Great Depression, Hitchcock movies, nuclear submarines, the Korean War, and DNA.

Even if Kurzweil and company are wrong about an exponential change trajectory, linear change would be dizzying enough. If Laura went from covered wagons to nuclear submarines, what am I going to see as an old man in the 2060s? Let’s hope for sustainability, teleportation and compassion, not creepy geo- and bioengineering disasters!