Confiscated guns packed into Philadelphia's evidence room, which can't hold them all. Photo by David Miailetti, Daily News.
Unless some of my readers are just emerging from a cave, I don't think I have to tell anyone about the horrific shooting at Newtown. If you're looking for some practical ways to help that community, here's a list.
In the days since, just about every aspect of gun violence has come up for discussion. As NSFW Corp editor-in-chief Paul Carr rightly predicted after the news broke, we've been subjected to perspectives "smart, trite, academic, contrarian, annoying, brilliant and all variations between."
But there's still a few assumptions worth tackling.
For context, I've covered crime in my city for over five years. I've seen cases where firearms stopped murderers and where they enabled them to do terrible damage. I'm also a gun owner who feels the black helicopter crowd is a cultural cancer that makes mature discussion of issues of violence and self-defense in this country nigh impossible.
Further, I believe it's possible to craft laws recognizing a basic ability to own a firearm (not military ordinance or a damn arsenal) while making it more difficult for violent maniacs to walk around with machine guns. Perfect systems are impossible, but we can have a far better one.
But my fear — and I hope to hell I'm wrong — is that we come out of this with some unenforceable mess, more surveillance, the return of zero tolerance at schools, a stigma against autism, another push to ban violent video games, and nothing that solves any real problems.
From drug epidemics to Columbine to 9/11, our country's track record for enacting sweeping measures in the wake of tragedy is terrible. There were real problems in all of those situations, but the attempted solutions didn't fix them, or even made things worse.
In the discussion of gun control after Newtown, there's too often an assumption of the efficiency of the legal apparatus, that it's simply a matter of deciding to enact properly strict laws, and we'll get down to the low levels of violence seen in other nations. I don't think that's merited.
Practically, we're not the UK or Japan, where civilian guns were never pervasive and laws restricting weapons date back centuries. We're not Australia, which had about 3 million guns for 18 million people when its government put major restrictions in place back in the mid-90s.
Instead, there are 270-310 million guns in the United States, almost one for every man, woman, and child. This isn't just a situation that no other industrialized nation has ever encountered, it's never happened in human history.
Whatever your opinions on gun control, whether you own a firearm or find them disgusting, that's the reality: 300 million guns is a hell of a foundation for a potential black market.
Don't believe me? Last year, over 100 guns went missing from Asheville's evidence room. A few years before, the same happened under county Sheriff Bobby Medford, who ludicrously claimed he'd buried some assault rifles in the walls of the local jail. Medford's currently doing a 15-year stint in federal prison, but the guns are nowhere to be found. My area ain't alone in this problem.
My fear is that sloppy policy creates a larger opportunity for corruption, including among some of those charged with enforcing any new rules. Many evidence rooms already can't handle the volume of weapons they take in, and that situation means it's easy for them to disappear.
I'm trying to have some hope too. For well over a decade, violent crime in America has declined rapidly. Hell, it's one of the only positive social trends we have. While firearms aren't going anywhere, the culture around them can change.
Paranoids who want to keep loopholes open, allow drunks to go armed in bars, and prevent doctors from informing people about gun safety don't represent many — even most — gun owners, and it's far past time more of us said so. The crazier parts of gun culture grow because they all too often find reinforcement instead of stigma.
It doesn't have to be this way: a country where gun ownership is viewed with adult responsibility instead of adolescent power fantasy will be a less violent place. That sort of cultural shift is trickier than passing a law, but it's essential.
While we're at it, let's look at halting the mental health system's decades-long free-fall. Let's look at why the legal system doesn't take domestic abuse and rape seriously, letting violent scumbags out repeatedly until the day they finally empty a clip into someone.
And yes, let's look at gun laws. But let's do so carefully, without pretending that fixing violence in a sprawling country with a mess of social issues is just a matter of writing a rule, and remembering the limits of law enforcement.
The urge to do something in the wake of a tragedy is laudable, but getting this shit wrong has consequences. I hope this isn't just history repeating.
Yes, if your neighbors get too annoyed at you in Holland's capital, they'll soon be able to have you shipped off to what's essentially a low-level gulag. In fact, "there are already several small-scale trial projects in the Netherlands, including in Amsterdam, where 10 shipping container homes have been set aside for persistent offenders, living under 24-hour supervision from social workers and police."
Just to make clear, these are people who might be annoying, but whose behavior "falls short of criminality." So they've broken no law, but will essentially go to prison. That's amazingly fucked up.
I don't know about y'all, but like most people who live in cities, my neighborhood's inhabitants range from wonderful to absolute assholes. Yet I've mostly chalked the latter, as long as they don't cross any major lines, as a natural downside to living in a densely populated place. I don't feel the need to put them in a damn camp because they occasionally get on my nerves, and I sure as hell don't want them to have the power to do so to me.
In practice, I can see this helping to put a really nasty edge on gentrification, shoving out the poor or different if enough of their neighbors get together. Indeed, that's how similar initiatives like the UK's ASBOs are generally used.
I've generally seen the Netherlands (from the outside, admittedly) as having an admirable combination between robust social services and a respect for individual freedom, but apparently that's not quite the case. Shockingly, to remain pluralistic, societies occasionally have to protect individuals from their own communities. Letting people send the couple down the hall to a damn shipping container because thheir neighbors think their sex is too loud doesn't accomplish that.
I stumbled upon an interesting idea recently while researching medieval social organization. While the topic may sound dry, it's actually fascinating stuff. A welter of communal, democratic and mercantile structures all co-existed. These are essentially the building blocks of the modern nation-state and corporation, along with many alternatives to those options.
I've already written about the peasant revenge gang that was the commune. The idea of a podesta is also pretty fascinating. While they started simply as foreign governors, they became much more interesting. From chronicler Leander Albertus:
The citizens, seeing that there often arose among them quarrels and altercations, whether from favoritism or friendship, from envy or hatred that one had against another, by which their republic suffered great harm, loss and detriment; therefore, they decided, after much deliberation, to provide against these disorders. And thus they began to create a man of foreign birth their chief magistrate, giving him every power, authority and jurisdiction over the city, as well over criminal as over civil causes, and in times of war as well as in times of peace, calling him praetor as being above the others, or podestà., as having every authority and power over the city."
There's a lot of factional strife in the modern era, after all, and some of the reasons for a figure like a podesta are still there. A capable outsider, mutually respected by most of the factions, might be a really good way to run a really fractious place and mediate disputes. Notably, the podesta's powers were later scaled back to mostly judicial functions, and they were intentionally isolated within their palaces to prevent any one group from having control
This idea seems like it could be really useful right now, especially for areas with a lot of distrust and political divisions. I could easily see something like a podesta being great for running a city-state or particular enclave. Outside perspective has its advantages, especially in dispute resolution. Local councils or military leaders still had plenty of power in cities with a podesta, but the respected stranger offered some check on local ambitions and provided a handy long-term perspective.
Importantly, in its most successful days, the podesta was chosen by locals, not imposed from the outside. Otherwise, they would end up terrible at settling disputes and would likely get thrown out by rebellion in the process.
An interesting War Nerd piece argues that once again, the U.N. and the array of NGOs in Africa have stopped a "Tutsi Empire" from developing and that this is, in fact, a bad thing:
The real bad guys in the Congo are what most people call the good guys, the meddling fools like Bono and the UN and all those NGOs and “International Peacekeeping Missions.” Those guys stopped a decisive war of conquest dead in its tracks. And yeah, that is a bad thing. A very bad thing. If they hadn’t stopped the natural course of the war, Central Africa would be a single state, maybe not as dead calm as an American suburb but as peaceful as, say, any region of the Roman or Mongol Empires—and remember, under the Mongols, travelers could ride from Tbilisi to Baikal without fear of robbery.
To show you what I mean, imagine that there’d been a United Nations, a lot of NGOs, and a noisy meddlesome “international community” to barge in when we were starting our Civil War in 1861. How would the Civil War have ended? Simple: it wouldn’t have. The “peacekeepers” would have intervened exactly when one side was starting to win—say, the summer of 1863—to freeze the two sides in position, “halt the killing,” and encourage a stalemate that left everything up in the air.
I can almost see the headlines and the photos that would hit the media if Sherman had started out on his march through Georgia in our time: “Refugees Flee Blue Advance,” “Thousands Starving,” and plenty of pictures of skinny towhead Dixie kids looking scared, with pillars of smoke from burning barns in the background.
As usual with his columns, it makes for interesting, pitch-black reading and has some pretty devastating analysis. I think a Tutsi Empire is a bit far-fetched, but his basic point is right. In fact, there's an even more clear-cut example to the north, in Rwanda.
There, Paul Kagame leads a regime founded by the army that actually ended the '90s genocide through the innovative solution of shooting the people committing it until they stopped. In the ensuing years, Rwanda's gone from a post-apocalyptic wasteland to one of the most stable countries on the continent.
Kagame's also engaged in relatively good government, encouraging a wrenching but necessary reconciliation, offering amnesty and rebuilding the society in a way that is slowly breaking the ethnic divisions that plagued it before.
He gets a lot of credit for that, rightly, even from the "do-gooders" the War Nerd column blasts.
At the same time, Kagame's relentlessly gone after the remnants of the genocidaires that slaughtered over a million people. These have included wiping them out even if they're hiding in refugee camps that the UN stupidly set up to give them cover (after neglecting to do a damn thing to stop the original genocide).
For this last part, he's gotten tut-tutting from lots of international institutions and worries that he's being authoritarian.
In fact, it makes perfect sense. Kagame's executing a classic "hand and fist" strategy. His country has a nasty ethnic division, and going after every Hutu that participated in the genocide isn't possible. All-out revenge, appealing as it may be, would just cause a repeat of the same scenario.
At the same time, he has to make damn sure that genocide doesn't happen again because the same leaders who committed it the first time build up their own army and undo all that hard-won stability. That requires crushing them. If that means intervening in the politics of the Congo, so be it. National sovereignty's always been more honored in the breach, anyway.
Instead of some regrettable deviation, this is the exact sort of politics war-torn regions need more of: neither bloodthirsty or endemically weak.
To keep the Civil War analogy going, it's a lot like Lincoln signing off on both "let 'em up easy" and Sherman's march. "Take this amnesty" gets way more appealing when followed up with "or we'll keep shooting you." To use a negotiated truce as an example, it's doubtful we'd have peace in Northern Ireland if the IRA hadn't shown they could bring London's financial center to a screaming halt.
Sometimes NGOs and even the UN do good work in an area. If peacekeepers are putting an exclamation point on an existing, stable deal, for example, they can actually be effective (the fact they're not usually used this way partly accounts for their horrific record). But in this situation, the colonial mentality is alive and well: what Kagame's done is nothing out of the ordinary for any sane government, and would be quickly recognized as such if he wasn't leading an African nation.