Words and Bullets

The "debate" about guns has clogged up the dialogue about a safe society, and I'm wondering what we can do about that.

Last week's Supreme Court ruling, which overturned Washington, D.C.'s gun ban and reinterpreted the tortuously worded Second Amendment -- "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" -- as referring to individual rather than collective armed self-defense, has stoked the "debate," of course. It has emboldened the gun-rights true believers, but managed only vaguely to acknowledge the larger context of America's spreading culture of violence, about which we remain officially clueless.

I'm willing to concede two points to the gun owners: One, the bureaucracy of gun control stirs up the same resentment and defiance that Prohibition did and such legislation applied too broadly and indiscriminately is likely unworkable; and two, the key to safety is empowerment, both collective and individual.

As one anonymous writer put it in response to a recent column of mine: "An Armed Person Is A Citizen; An Unarmed Person Is A Subject." To this I would say, sir, there are no subject-wimps or agents of the king participating in this dialogue. But I would add that empowerment is a function of inner calmness and courage; those who feel they must be armed to be empowered are not empowered.

And here we get at the essence of the clog. America's gun subculture affects to be participating in the dialogue, but is in fact merely advancing an agenda. For instance, one of the lurid, attention-grabbing signs that pro-gun demonstrators waved last week on the steps of the Supreme Court declared: "More guns equals less crime."

This is not a serious comment on crime or violence, but it's a hell of a distraction -- on the order of the "vigil" held by gun-rights advocates outside Columbine High School shortly after the massacre there, while President Clinton was inside meeting with students. According to news reports at the time, they held up bright yellow signs reading "Gun Control Kills Kids" and "We Will Never Give Up Our Guns," seemingly oblivious to the deep inappropriateness of such a political intrusion on the process of mourning and healing.

The message they in fact communicated, and which the country has taken to heart, is that they have no shame. They will stop at nothing, will manipulate any tragedy, in their defense of the right to bear arms, and any difficulties and complexities caused by such a right are not open to discussion.

It doesn't matter, for instance, that a gun in the house is more likely to be used on a relative (or oneself) than an intruder; that petty arguments (even between law-abiding citizens) frequently turn into unspeakable tragedies when a gun is involved; that in a country saturated with some 200 million firearms, anyone can get one for any reason whatsoever; that the nation's police chiefs and most law-enforcement personnel support gun bans such as the one the Supreme Court just overturned; and that gun laws do reduce gun homicide rates. None of this matters because the right to bear arms supercedes, if necessary, the right of Americans to live in peace and safety.

Because that last point cannot be stated overtly, many gun-rights proponents advocate a cover alternative for maintaining peace and safety: Let Americans carry concealed weapons! After every high-profile gun tragedy, I get press releases pointing out that if just one victim had been armed, the killer could have been stopped. "More guns equals less crime."

That there might be complex consequences to a society of armed high school students, armed teachers, armed churchgoers, armed shoppers -- armed 4-year-olds? -- apparently doesn't matter. Such a society would no longer be based on trust. If we reach that point, I guess the debate's over and they win.

But not even Antonin Scalia is that crazy. "Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited," he wrote for the majority. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

All this said, I return to the crying need in this country for a dialogue and soul-searching about who we are. The "debate" over gun control really has only one side, those who are against it. Their passionate faith in guns to protect them is not matched by opponents who just as passionately despise guns and want them all confiscated.

Our passion is for an end to violence and the building of a culture of trust, part of which includes sensible and workable gun laws. It includes much more than this as well. And such a project will take everyone, including those who vehemently disagree with some of the points I've made in this column. This is what I mean by dialogue, and the time to begin is now.

Like bullets, words can be used to wound. But they can also be used to transform. There's a reason why the First Amendment precedes the Second.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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