FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Gun control; How not to win a debate

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Gun control; How not to win a debate

Sam Smith - From the start of the debate over gun control, I viewed it more as a sports writer than as a political commentator. Although I think there are more effective approaches, such as lowering the exalted role that violence plays in our culture - from video games to movies, from what we don’t teach our kids about peace and mediation in schools to our approach to policing and foreign policy – I also was okay with anything that would make the anti-gun crowd happy but didn’t cause too much anger on the other side. Maybe then we could move on to some of these more significant matters.

So I didn’t have a dog – and certainly not a gun – in this fight. But as it escalated I realized that once again it was not the issue that was the real problem; it was how it was being handled. The gun control people were pissing off millions of Americans by their attitude, approach and solutions. Sort of like a pitcher throwing balls directly at the batter rather than in the strike zone.

How many Americans? By one estimate 40-45% of our households own guns.

But aren’t 90% of Americans in favor of background checks?

Right, but then most Americans want better healthcare and that doesn’t mean they support, or even understand, Obama’s approach. And most Americans want their kids to get a decent education, but that doesn’t mean they want them coming home and crying over the tests they’ve been made to take.

We are being taught by both advocates and media to go with the title of the fight and forget the small print.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah put it this way, “The background-check amendment offered by Sens. Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin was too vague for law-abiding citizens to understand with certainty, and too easy for criminals to avoid. The plan created more questions than it answered about which types of transfers are lawful without a background check and might ensnare law-abiding gun owners simply exercising their constitutional rights.”

The interesting thing about this reaction is how it echoes some of the public’s views towards Obamacare. People are scared, confused, uncertain, uniformed and don’t know what to make of it all. So you tell a gun owner that he can’t give his treasured pistol to his son, you’ve got yourself another opponent. And so forth and so on throughout endless articles and sections in major legislation.

The problem is not just what people believe, it’s what put down on paper. And too often, it’s the lawyers and not the savvy pols who do the writing.

It’s not just a matter of paranoia. On January 15, New York state’s new SAFE act went into effect. Less than three months later, the following story appeared on Time Warner’s Buffalo site:
Thursday, a state Supreme Court Judge ruled guns seized from David Lewis, 35, must be returned to him after he was incorrectly identified as violating the mental health provision of the SAFE Act….[Lewis' attorney, Jim Tresmond] says his client was ordered to turn in his weapons last week because he was once on anti-anxiety medication, which is a violation of the SAFE Act. Wednesday, State Police informed the Erie County Clerk's Office that it made a mistake when it said Lewis was in violation of the state's new gun law.
This incident involved misidentification but none of the stories I found clarified the misimpression that the 40 million Americans on anti-anxiety drugs are not permitted to have a gun in New York state. Any paranoia among them can be traced not to the NRA but to the New York state police and the media that reported the story.

The SAFE Law’s actual standard was described in one story as, “According to the New York State Office of Mental Health, any patient who meets the legal standard for reporting under the SAFE Act also meets the legal standard for ‘emergency removal to a psychiatric hospital for an examination.’ That did not happen to Lewis, which suggests the law was misapplied (or that clinicians are not reading it the same way the Office of Mental Health does).”

The gun control debate has been one of competing hyper-clich├ęs. Passing a law on something like this is a complicated business, requiring sanity, subtlety and care.

And, from a political standpoint, you shouldn’t act as though you don’t give a shit about what 40-45% of American households think. You find points of agreements, places to start, give and take. There was virtually none of that. In fact, moderate gun owners didn’t even get invited to take part in the discussion or be interviewed by the media. It was all a fight between Newtown parents and the NRA.

The sportswriter part of my soul said no good was going to come of this. This is not how you build new approaches.

And then I realized that it was not unique. It’s how we do political business these days. We treat politics like religious fundamentalists. I’m going to heaven and you’re going to hell. So who needs to count the votes?

We even have an unctuous preacher in the White House who spends more time scolding, than he does having lunch with, the people he needs to convince. I’ve been in this racket through nine presidencies and I can’t remember any as tone deaf as Obama.

But he’s not to blame; he’s just the highest placed example.

When I was learning about politics, they said you got to remember that some the people you are fighting today may be on your side on the next issue, so be careful whom you shut the door on.

During the gun debate, I found myself saying, for chrissakes, take it easy on these folks. They’ve been screwed economically and haven’t had a serious ally in Washington in two generations. You’re going to need them fighting for Social Security and maybe the minimum wage and god knows what else. At least try to work something out. Show a little respect.

I’ve never owned a gun. I haven’t shot one in some fifty years. But I’ve known a lot of decent gun owners and I found myself becoming increasingly sympathetic towards people those of my supposed ilk were calling dirty names, even if I didn’t agree with them.

And so when gun control folks lost in the Senate, I couldn’t bring myself to feel all that sorry for them. They had made decent politics in this land a bit harder.