[This post has been migrated from an older blog. It was originally posted on 8/17/08.]
I just finished Guns Don’t Die — People Do by Pete Shields, the founder of the National Council to Control Handguns (NCCP) — what would later be known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The book is a manifesto of sorts, and follows the journey taken by Shields as he became more and more perturbed by the presence of Handguns following the slaying of his son in the Zebra Murders.
First of all, I have to mention how human I found the narrator. Shields writes with depth, eloquence, and genuine emotion—a sad passion identifying him as a man who has experienced tremendous loss and wants desperately that nobody else should ever have to suffer what he did. Pete Shields is a good man, an honest man, but his decisions have been clouded by the red haze of grief. As he himself admits, the random, senseless killing of his son made him desperately seek some sort of meaning to the tragedy that befell his family. What he found was the need for tighter gun control, specifically that targeting handguns.
Never having experienced anything even remotely approximating the death of a loved one, I almost don’t feel I deserve to be able to critique the way Shields deals with his loss. I know what such traumatic grief does to people; who are we to judge how they cope? The trauma simply breaks some, transforming them into shadows of their former selves; others it unhinges, never to be the same again. Still more are infused with a zeal to ensure that no others are made to endure what they did. This is simultaneously the most noble and selfless way of coping, but also the most dangerous; after all, what has more potential for harm than a fanatic who’s wrong but can’t possibly see it?
And that is the man who Pete Shields is; honorable, kind, warm, eloquent, passionate, wounded, and very, very wrong.
In the pages following Shields’ description of the act and aftermath of his son’s murder, he outlines the laxity of U.S. gun laws by tracing the path of the gun used to kill his son as it traveled from hand to hand, from law-abiding citizen to friend, to pawnbroker, to customer, to thief, to drug dealer, then finally to murderer. Yet Shields never actually gets around to discussing how any of his proposed legislation would have broken this chain or saved his son’s life; the weapon used to kill him was legally purchased by a man who would not have been prohibited from doing so had the controls we have today existed at the time. The future murder weapon was legally transferred to other law-abiding citizens until it was stolen from one of them by a burglar, at which point it entered the unregulable black market where Shields himself admits that nothing can be done to curb the flow.
Shields himself at times seems unsure of his position; he readily admits that he’s making it all up as he goes along. For example, he can’t seem to figure out his stance on banning handguns: on one page, he’ll assure the reader that neither he nor his organization sees it as remotely appropriate, yet on the next he’s explaining how he supported or campaigned for someone else’s existing or proposed handgun ban. And then there are the times when he almost overflows with emotion, describing guns as “portable death machines”, or “concealable murder machines” “whose only purpose is to kill and maim human beings”.
You see, Pete Shields has been so thoroughly traumatized by the impact of gun violence that he has lost all sight of the handgun as a potentially useful tool; he urges citizens who are violently attacked and are mindful of preserving their own lives to capitulate, to cooperate fully and surrender whatever property is demanded. But he offers no satisfactory answer in response to the question of what to do in the case of an assailant intent on committing murder or rape.
I found it interesting to see Shields take a position that I myself did many years ago: that we should work towards the obsolescence of the handgun. It conjured up a half-finished piece of art I began in 2001, depicting a handgun and some cartridges in a glass case. I intended the display to be a museum piece, and though I never finished it, in my vision for what it would become, I imagined patrons gazing with puzzled looks at the strange conglomeration of metal and plastic, wondering why humans would have voluntarily created devices to murder one another. I, like Shields, was naively focusing on the cold reality of the tool itself rather than trying to understand why such an object came about. The answer is that people created handguns not because they wished to kill each other, ((Rifles were created for that.)) but because they wanted protection from others more powerful then themselves who wanted to do them ill. As crazy as it would have seemed to me at the time and as crazy as it evidently seems to Shields, the handgun is an equalizer: no matter the size, strength, toughness, brutality, or hand-to-hand combat prowess of your assailant, you will triumph if you have a gun, often without firing a shot.
A world without handguns is a world in which the physically powerful prey on folks who have devoted their time to more peaceful pursuits. It is a world where those who are elderly, disabled, weak, young, or female are vulnerable to assault, robbery, rape, and murder. The gun gives these people a chance to protect themselves from those who would otherwise have them at their mercy. In order to render the handgun obsolete, we have to eliminate violence itself. And good luck trying to do that.
The best example of Shields’ flawed thinking is embodied in a poster that NCCP disseminated nationwide:
The poster embodies all that’s wrong with NCCP: it’s breathlessly sensationalistic, vaguely fearmongering, and factually wrong, leaving out crucial information. You see, the poster fails to mention that Israel and Switzerland are virtual fortress-states, armed to the teeth with both handguns and assault rifles, and Shields himself misrepresents the laws in those countries in his discussion; he cites Israel’s tough handgun laws for instance
but declines to mention that the restrictions are placed on those who carry guns concealed and that those who openly display their weapons in public face virtually no restrictions as all. Update: it turns out I was wrong on this. Israel apparently does indeed have extremely harsh gun laws. I’m not sure if this was the case when the poster was put out in 1981, though. In switzerland, ownership of fully-automatic weapons is mandatory for men of militia age, and purchase laws are very lax. Great Britain has extremely low levels of gun homicide, but Shields doesn’t reveal that it did before the tough laws were enacted and that violent crime in general has in fact begun to rise since the laws were passed. I could go on and on.
Shields is especially fond of refuting the argument that gun regulation inevitably leads to a slippery slope of registration, banning, and confiscation, and he portrays gun owners as reactionary violence-mongers who selfishly prize their own convenience over others’ safety.
But he misunderstands the nature of their position; their opposition is grounded not in a disrespect for public safety, but on a legitimate fear of abuse down the road. Those pushing a piece of legislation that gives them some power—say, the capacity to wiretap citizens in the name of counter-terrorism, for example—will always claim that they will not misuse the power vested in them. Yet it’s equally true that these people will likely retire or be voted out of office, to be replaced with those of perhaps more dubious moral fiber. Even if we trust existing stewards of these programs, can we trust any and all possible successors? And if we disagree with the program to begin with, the possibility for abuse becomes all the more frightening. This is why Democrats fear President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and Republicans fear gun registration: the mechanisms put in place by the well-meaning have the potential to be co-opted and abused by those of fewer scruples in the future. ((To say nothing of the damage they may do in the present.)) As we have seen, this always comes to pass; Americans have indeed been illegally spied on by the government and guns have indeed been confiscated using registration information.
And we can even see this slippery slope effect in the positions espoused by Shields’ organization. Although in the beginning Shields talks only of handgun control, in the years since the book was written, the organization he leads has pushed for handgun bans, succeeded in regulating the very long guns that he promised would never be touched, gotten a great deal of guns of all types banned entirely, regulated ammunition of handguns as well as long guns, and kept silent when the weapons owned by residents of New Orleans were confiscated by police and National Guardsmen who combed registration documents in the wake of rioting after Hurricane Katrina.
But none of this changes my attitude towards Pete Shields; no matter how much I may disagree with his position, he is the sort man I could imagine myself becoming if pushed hard enough: one who throws logic to the wind and unchains his emotions in trying to heal himself in the aftermath of a horrific personal tragedy. It’s all we could really expect from ourselves; after all, who criticizes the coping mechanisms of the bereaved?
No, the only objectionable action Pete Shields took was generalizing the intensely personal healing process he had to undergo onto the rest of the country. I have no problem with him coming out strongly against handguns, but the issue arises from the fact that he did so in an extremely public and legislatively prescriptive fashion, despite the fact that homicide was actually falling when he started his campaign—a time when handgun ownership was in fact rising. These facts took a backseat to his profound fear of handguns. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly not strong base for a political movement.