Thursday, April 23, 2015

guns don't kill, people do

           We've heard that old tired refrain from gun nuts and reactionaries for many years. But the libertarian baffle gab conceals many issues. Let's look at a few..

             The registration and control of firearms in North America turns out to be a tricky business. This suggests that it is not as straightforward an issue as one might at first think. 

              Firstly, why - exactly - do we have so many guns in the hands of civilians? Polls indicate that something like 40% of US households possess one or more firearms. "In the beginning", Americans, it is argued, lived on the land and guns were a means of self-defense for isolated families and a means of obtaining food. Also their political tradition gives the People the right to change their government if it serves them badly. (One could argue that this is the right of every People, so why so many guns in N. America?)

            Today, though, most of us live in cities and obtain our meat from the store. Even the argument about the right to change government is a bit weak on at least two points:

1- Though the People may indeed possess the right to change their government if it represents them badly, is arming the average household the most efficient way to obtain good government? We are no longer living in the 18th century with a weak central State. Modern military weaponry is highly specialized, modern standing armies large, well trained and equipped. Are citizens' militias a match for these modern fighting machines? Sure, one can argue that technology is not everything. Did not the Vietnamese pull off the impossible: beat the American behemoth, the mightiest military power that ever existed? (The Americans could, of course, have dropped the Bomb on Nam but would that could have been political suicide, hindering, rather than facilitating their future access to relatively undepleted 3rd world reserves of non-renewable resources like petroleum.) And look at the trouble the West is having today controlling ISIS! Their technology is relatively primitive compared to the resources of the West and we are having a gawdawful time controlling them. 

        So while it is true that human willpower is a wonderful and powerful thing, do we really want to govern ourselves by facing off poorly trained and equipped citizens' militias against modern armies in our city streets? It seems there should be better ways to implement democracy in the 21st century.

2- Another, practical, problem arises when one starts to examine the views and goals of militiamen. While posing as citizen "patriots" and opponents of tyranny, they often promote reactionary, racist even (proto-)fascist worldviews. The links below present a fairly balanced (moderate) view of the affair, I think. 

          In the present context I can't help but think that our violent, militaristic culture accords a high status symbolic value to the gun and the cult which has grown around it: I have a Big Gun that can kill a lot of people in a short time; that makes ME a Real Big Man.

The gun is the Great Equalizer. It makes the small man equal to the tall man.
                                                               - anonymous (American)

         The need for the Big Gun and the cult grown around it may, in fact, be more psychological than political or material. The role the gun plays in the urban gang culture may be reinforced by our collective social values. Perhaps, at the beginning of the third millennium we need to ask ourselves: if we want to survive as a civilization, perhaps we need a new set of value to live by?

The background: December 6, 1989, avowed anti-feminist Marc Lépine walked into the École Polytechnique, Montréal and cold-bloodedly murdered 14 female engineering students with a rifle because "you're all feminists!" To do his dirty work, he separated males from females, then gunned down the women. Afterwards, as so often in these cases, Lépine took his own life..

           Québec society was heavily traumatised. This type of thing was only "supposed" to happen south of the Canada / US border, and most certainly not in peace loving, tolerant Québec! We lost whatever semblance we had of (false) innocence in the months following the massacre.

            Families were broken, scarred, destroyed in complex and ramifying ways. Ripples of violence spread out from the Polytechnique massacre for years afterwards. Some  of the men present were crushed by feelings of guilt: "We should have done something! We should have rushed him en masse even if he did kill a couple of us.." A few of those directly connected with the tragedy or members of their families committed suicide: "post-traumatic stress". No man is an island, they say..

            The pro-gun regulation movement in Québec was mobilized (or born?) in those days and years following the massacre. Some of the survivors, their families and the families of the victims started a popular movement which led to the Canadian Firearms Registry  of 1993 under the Federal Liberal government of Jean Chrétien. The original cost of the registry was set to be a modest $2 million. But implementation costs inexplicably ballooned to a (possible) $2 billion: a mind-shattering 1,000 fold cost overrun! (Does this make the Guiness Book of Records? It should.) 

             This was also the time of the downfall of the Chrétien government, plagued by corruption scandals, broken promises such as failure to live up to the Kyoto Accord on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, budgetary muckups in military spending resulting from the government's attempts to pander to neoconservative pennypinching ideology and severe (and probably unpopular) cuts to the armed forces.

           The successive revelations of cost overrun and redtape, combined with rise of the New Right, eventually spelled the death of Registry. I believe it served as a convenient scapegoat around which to mobilize the forces of the resurgent Right. Harper and his crowd never tired of attacking the Registry for both good reason (overruns, redtape, missed deadlines, incompetence..) and bad ones (inconvenience for traditional - rural - gunowners or the idea that "urban criminals don't register their weapons"). It is interesting to note that police departments were among the biggest defenders of the Registry, claiming that it was a valuable tool in assessing the danger of a potentially violent confrontation: domestic violence with or without seizure of hostages, arrest of a citizen on their property..

            The Chrétien government are the real villains of the piece. They have, in effect, dishonored the memory of the slain through their incompetent destruction of a piece of potentially valuable legislation. 

The final chapter"On October 25, 2011, the government introduced Bill C-19, legislation to scrap the Canadian Firearms Registry. The bill would repeal the requirement to register non-restricted firearms (long-guns) and mandate the destruction of all records pertaining to the registration of long-guns currently contained in the Canadian Firearms Registry and under the control of the chief firearms officers.The bill passed second reading in the House of Commons (156 to 123). On February 15, 2012, Bill C-19 was passed in the House of Commons (159 to 130) with support from the Conservatives and two NDP MPs. On April 4, 2012, Bill C-19 passed third reading in the Senate by a vote of 50-27 and received royal assent from the Governor General on April 5. The Province of Québec protested, appealing to the Supreme Court to save that portion of the database relating to the Province. "On March 27, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the destruction of long-gun registry records was within the constitutional power of Parliament to make criminal law, denying the Quebec government's legal challenge and allowing for those records to be destroyed." (Wikipedia) 

            Thus the Registry became history, in the grave 18 years after its passage (or 22 years if you consider the Province of Québec where it continued to be used by police until the court ordered the destruction of the database for Québec in 2015).

              Québec is debating whether to invest in its own, provincial, Gun Resgistry.

             But what does this pathetic "debate" over gun control say about our society? That our political parties are vacuous? (And if they are, why?) That they have no real positions on anything of importance and so are forced to appeal to the lowest common denominator (division, scapegoating, spreading fear and hate)?

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