Friday, June 24, 2016

Guns and Posers

For about 30 years (ca. 1982-2012) I wrote a more or less monthly column for my old hometown’s newspaper, The Ledger, of Polk County. Sometimes my writing was rewarded with hate mail, and it gradually dawned on me that the two topics that generated the most hate mail from my fellow Floridians were guns and racial equality. The writers of the hate mail loved the former and hated the latter. At first I didn’t see a link between these two issues, but finally I got it: what connected them was paranoia, irrational fear of a supposed threat. So if you want to receive hate mail, I recommend you write a piece like the one I'm working on here - a quick blurb that does not show love for the gun industry.

Today Orlando, of all places, has become associated with gun control issues, and this, along with the Democrats’ Congressional sit in, forces me to think about guns, something I generally don’t like to do.

   Orlando, Florida - my Boring, Bougie Neck of the Woods

 Actually, when the killing at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub took place, I was in Canada attending a wedding with my family. Because of this, I didn’t feel the emotional impact as powerfully as I might have, had we been home at the time. The impact did get to me, however, yesterday when I visited the site of the crime and saw the many comments and symbols left by caring individuals on behalf of the victims. I was surprised at how quickly I was reduced to tears at the site. Perhaps it was because it is a hangout for a lot of people who are dear to me - friends and former students.

           Pulse - With Wall and Memorial Markers

While we were in Canada, my wife and I had dinner at a Toronto restaurant in which a friendly waiter chatted with us about our trip. When we mentioned we were from the Orlando area, the mass shooting came up at which point he said to us, “That was an attack on my community.” At first I didn’t get what he was saying, and I asked him if he was also from Orlando. “No,” he said, “I’m gay.”

I should have understood more quickly. After all the Orlando killer didn’t target Pulse because of the city in which it was located.

       Winter Park's First Congregational Church 
                Birthplace of Rollins College

But back to guns. A terrific article in the current New Yorker by Evan Osnos digs into the multiple strands that bind the arguments over guns together. One point that leaps out at me in his piece is the fact that the gun industry is fundamentally anxious to maximize its profits by boosting sales. This, of course, is normal capitalism, when normal products are at issue.

What makes the “maximize profits” precept problematic here is that the proliferation of guns is resulting in deaths that need not occur – a few of which Osnos’s article describes. The current scenario, in which the gun industry, bolstered by the lobbying power of the NRA, pushes gun sales to the limit, reminds me of the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 60s. Tobacco executives at that time, though they knew their product was killing people by the thousands, peddled a bogus story that helped it maximize profits, no matter the cost in lives.

As Osnos writes at one point, “…a whistle-blower named Robert Hass, who had been Smith & Wesson’s marketing-and-sales chief, said that companies knew far more than they admitted about how criminals obtained guns, and that ‘none of them, to my knowledge, take additional steps…to insure that their products are distributed properly.’”

Of course they don’t, because capitalism says you must maximize profits, and taking such steps would surely put a dent in those profits. It seems the magic of the marketplace can make both ethics and lives disappear in a puff of smoke.

Osnos concludes his terrific piece with the comment that the pro-gun and anti-gun worlds are growing further apart to the point where each side is coming to see the other as wishing to inflict harm. I can’t say I disagree with this entirely, though as someone who would like to see stricter gun controls, I don’t think of myself as exactly “anti-gun.”

I can sympathize with hunters, with people who, misguided though their ideas may be, would like to have protective guns in their households, and so on. What I don’t have any sympathy for are such grossly misguided notions as that household guns are necessary for our “freedom,” and that increased regulations are somehow the tools of tyranny. These ideas are - not to put too fine a point on it - nutty. And I am especially hostile to the linking of ever-increasing gun sales to the raw avarice of the profit motive – a motive that has no regard for the bloodletting it triggers.

            On the Memorial Wall outside of Pulse