Until I read the volley of responses to my article of last Friday, "Gun Control, Rio De Janeiro, and the USA," I thought Huffington Post's readers were all Los Angeles and New York liberals. How wrong I was. Most of the nearly 1,500 comments were like bullets fired out of a 19th Century frontier town by angry right-wing gunslingers on a paranoid Tequila drunk.
I will return fire, but first let me calm things down a little by voluntarily taking three bullets in the arms and legs (of my argument).
First Bullet. I admit that liberals -- the classic version: white, educated, protected by money -- usually do not experience menace in the way other segments of the population do and aren't as sympathetic as they should be. Anyone who has suffered actual or threatened violence -- particularly on a regular basis -- knows how humiliating it can be, how soon the fear can turn into a consuming rage, and how long this unpleasant feeling lasts. I was raised in an English village that could not have been safer, but I left home early, began work when I was 16, and for several years had low wage jobs in sometimes threatening environments. I have traveled in dangerous countries. I have had my life threatened a few times.
This is not at all the same as a life of constant fear, but it's enough to understand not wanting to feel that helpless again. People who own guns for this reason are not stupid or insane, they're human. My argument is not with them, but with the limitation of their dreams.
Second Bullet. I made the connection between violence in Rio's favelas (slums) and North American cities partly because I had just watched 5 Times Favela: Now By Ourselves, a compilation of five short fiction films set in the favelas and directed by young favela-dwellers. I visited a "pacified" favela a couple of months ago while doing research for a film, but could not shake my image of the "typical" favelado: a homicidal drug lord with a semi-automatic in front of him and a gang behind. I saw ordinary people up there, mothers, fathers, children going about their daily lives, but in my mind they were just extras waiting to run for cover when the bullets started flying. My sense of what a favela was like was too ingrained to be changed by what was in retrospect just a pleasant walk through a poor neighborhood with great views.
5 Favela took me inside favelas in a more illuminating way. Beautifully and professionally made, only one of the shorts was about the drug conflict, and even that challenged stereotypes: the story included a young favela woman who wanted to be a classical violinist. The other four movies were about everyday favela life, the aspirations of young people, stories of kids, mothers, friends, lovers, neighborhoods. Most of the films were funny, some were very moving, all of them were characterized by optimism. By the time they were over, my image of favela dwellers was transformed. They weren't that different from me. They had dimension. They were human.
In the past when I heard gunshots on the hillside, I was more or less indifferent. Gangsters killing each other. Now if I should hear that sound again, new images of the favelas will come to mind: the young woman who longs to be a violinist; the face of a young man in another of the films who wants to be a lawyer; a boy who comically struggles to find money to buy his father a chicken for dinner. The movies expanded my perception of huge swaths of a large city. They changed me for the better. But if we assert that movies can change people for the better, isn't it rather conveniently dishonest to dismiss the idea that they might also be capable of changing people for the worse?
Many of the guns in the favelas come from the United States. So too do many of the movies. Whether it is intended or not, a lot of them appear to approve of gun violence. Shooting someone is often depicted as being morally preferable to going through all that slow and boring judge and jury nonsense. But that's the "intellectual" side of it. They also appeal to the emotions, celebrating guns as instruments of ecstatic orgasmic power. The gun is an almost laughably clear symbol of potency. How can this not affect young men growing up poor and powerless in an unequal society?
It's taken a while for this second bullet traveling toward me in slow motion to arrive, but now it is here: if someone is mentally unbalanced could a violent movie or videogame nudge them into murders they would not otherwise commit? I don't know how good the studies are suggesting that violent imagery can affect the brain this way, not least by reducing impulse-control in teenagers, but intuitively it seems to make sense. And if this is so, you could make the argument that some "artists" in my business, perhaps even me, may be responsible for causing or contributing to killings that would otherwise not have happened.
If we are asking gun owners to accept strict limitations of their rights under their beloved Second Amendment, should we accept, voluntarily or otherwise, stronger limitations of our First Amendment rights? If nothing else, to imagine this might help one understand how protective gun owners feel about their rights. It's a bad analogy, of course, but there has to be some middle ground we can all stand on. The oblivious smugness of Hollywood liberals is no less commercially motivated, irritating, and counter-productive than the vile obstinacy of the NRA.
Third Bullet. I was accused of suggesting that Brazil is a utopia compared to the United States. I won't take this bullet if it comes with the admonition that one must never unfavorably compare the United States to any other country. "My country right or wrong," which appears to be the attitude of many of my critics, is a recipe for decline if not disaster. However, it is true that I failed to point out that Brazil is still far more violent and corrupt than America. I have heard gunshots in Rio, never in New York. I have even lived through the consequences of a small Brazilian massacre that was eerily similar to the Colorado massacre.
My wife's step-sister, who I knew fairly well, was shot in the head and killed in a Sao Paulo movie theater while watching Fight Club.
A medical student (who, incidentally, had been playing a first-person-shooter video-game almost ceaselessly for several days) came in the side door of the theater carrying an AR-10 assault weapon and started firing. Within the hour, my step-sister-in-law's three daughters had no mother. Two other people were killed and many others injured.
In Colorado, a would-be neurology student, this time carrying the upgraded AR-15, entered through a side door during a Batman movie and managed to kill 12 and wound more than 50. But events such as these are rare in both countries and not the main problem. Twelve young people died on Friday. Fifty children and teenagers die every week in America from gunshot wounds. Who knows what the figures are for South Africa, Thailand, Honduras, or Brazil, but chances are they're worse. So, along with all these lost kids, I take this last but far from fatal bullet to my argument. Yes, it is true: there are places where it is even worse than here.
If anything of value can come from tragedies such as this one in Colorado, it is that they make discussion of gun proliferation and violence unavoidable. But no, I take that back. The night after the Colorado killings I saw several politicians and gun activists on TV dodging important questions through the time-tested ploy of saying, in one form or another, "For the moment, I think we should just pray for the families of the people killed by this evil man." Translation: "I'm going to tell you I'm praying so I appear to care but don't actually have to DO anything - not even think about what caused this as I've already decided: it was 'evil'." I only saw one newsman, Piers Morgan, refuse to be bumped off point by this faux compassion.
David Kopel, who is an NRA member, suggested more attention be paid to the victims, rather than talking about gun control. "Honestly Piers, I think this is the wrong night to be doing this and I really wish you'd waited to have this segment until after the funerals." Morgan angrily replied, "A lot of people have said that today, a lot of people who don't want strengthening of gun control, have said 'This is not the day to debate it.' I'll tell you the day to debate it, it would have been yesterday, to prevent this from happening - so don't patronize me about when we should be talking about the gun control debate." I haven't always liked my fellow-countryman, but this was a rare and truly great journalistic moment. Enough with evasion and hypocrisy, let's get serious.
Let's get serious because America's best face has always been its honest and optimistic face. This is the face the world loves and admires, the face that says anything can be achieved here. At least this used to be what the world saw when it looked at America and what America used to see when it looked in the mirror. Perhaps it was always an illusion, this can-do hope, but if so it was an illusion that managed to get rid of slavery and segregation as well as landing someone on the moon.
This is perhaps the most disturbing thing about so many of the comments on my article: how utterly cynical, bitter and defeatist people have become, how scornful they are of even the possibility of social change, how scathing they are about the idea of things getting better through the will of the people, and how ready they are to accept this country as a dark place so intransigently divided a gun is a necessity.
A strange mix of self-defeating paranoias is involved, a vaguely articulated fear that "the government" will take over along with the notion that "the mob" will soon be at the door. That both they and the mob they fear ARE the government -- if they cared to stay informed and vote -- escapes them. The most fervent defenders of democracy, the ones most terrified that it will be taken from them, have already forgotten what democracy IS, never mind how powerful it can be. From the way they write, you can tell that many are not well-educated and therefore probably not that prosperous. But they are right, they are losing vital aspects of democracy, ones that could empower and protect them. Sadly, they are losing them willfully, of their own volition. Instead of fighting for themselves, they fight for the other side, against their own interests. As they go broke, they still enthusiastically support tax breaks for the super-rich and then diminish their own power further by allowing them to hijack the equalizing "one man, one vote" idea, turning it instead into the "one donor, more influence" idea. I know rich people, a lot of them, and they didn't get rich by giving money away without getting anything back. To allow all this to happen, to encourage it, and then gleefully take to the bunker with a gun is group masochism.
I used a comparison with Rio de Janeiro not to suggest that Rio is now utopia, far from it. It has a long journey ahead and it will be hard. Its problems are ingrained in its psyche. It has for a very long time been what the U.S. seems to want to become: a place of great wealth and great poverty, a country of stark and cruel social division, a place where disrespected and corrupt government abandoned and neglected its weakest elements, a place of little opportunity -- a place where drugs and guns often offered the only chance to move upward. And, of course, many of these conditions persist in Brazil. But -- and this is absolutely palpable when you go down there -- Brazil has become a place that dares to be optimistic.
Thanks in large part to a government whose economic policies empower working people and fairly taxes the most wealthy, it's a country that believes it can now unite. The favelas are a good symbol of this. Eighteen favelas in Rio are now controlled by the community and the police, not by drug lords. People from the wealthy Zona Sul, who once only went to the base of the long steps leading up to the favelas, often to buy drugs, now go up to visit, carried up there, in one case, in "gondolas," ariel cable cars similar to the ones that take tourists up to Sugarloaf. There are hotels in the favelas now, new businesses, emerging film makers and artists, and there is constant and hopeful discussion of the future. The ripple effect has been to make the whole city feel safer, much safer, so even the very wealthy, those who have had to pay higher taxes, feel safer and enjoy life more. Yes, the favelas were "invaded" by armed police and both cops and criminals died, and yes there are a lot of human rights issues involved in this, but in the wake of this came a real and vigorous attempt to improve social conditions.
By contrast, the United States continues to do exactly what it's been doing for decades, neglecting its urban poor and sentencing its minorities to absurdly long prison sentences to no effect. As anyone who has watched House knows, one way to diagnose a disease is to treat it in various ways until -- usually at the last minute -- one of the treatments works. Diagnosis by prescription. "Ah, so it was a lack of Vitamin X that caused the bowel fissure!" This is what Rio and its favelas can be for the United States if it has the humility to look beyond its borders. It's a chance to study the effects of a different prescription: a new tactic to combat gun violence which has succeeded to a very large extent.
Contrary to a lot of my critics, my original article was not at all suggesting that gun violence could be solved just through stricter gun control laws. On the contrary, I was and am suggesting something much more radical. Understanding the motivation for crime and violence, if we are honest with ourselves, is not that hard. It's not the super-rich who go out on the streets with a gun to deal, to rob, and to kill. Creating a more economically fair society is probably the only way in the end to achieve a more peaceful one. But as no one appears willing at the moment to make the sacrifices that could bring this about, yes, let's consider changing the Second Amendment. If we are unable to change ourselves, what else can we do? It would be a small step in the right direction and, really, not such a very big deal.
When the founders amended the constitution (note they AMENDED the constitution) and drafted the ineptly worded 2nd Amendment, the most high-tech weapon people had access to was a muzzle-loading musket. It's hard to imagine anyone involved in drafting the Second Amendment had in mind an automatic or semi-automatic weapon with a 100 round drum magazine shooting 50 to 60 rounds a minute, nor a killer who had legally bought this weapon, and others, and was thus capable of shooting over 60 people, including 12 killed so far, in under 5 minutes. He could have done it faster and perhaps killed more people, but apparently the gun jammed. In 1791 when the 2nd Amendment was adopted, a single shooter using a musket would have taken between half an hour and an hour to get off this many shots.
Things change. Some of us change too. We grow up and absorb new realities. The constitution has been amended 27 times. It's time for a 28th Amendment rigorously controlling lethal weapons that can kill innocent people in large numbers. It's time to stop the downward spiral. None of this assault-weapon-handgun fetishism has anything to do with hunting or protecting us from the government. The English left. We're not coming back. You have a democracy by which you can change anything if only you'd seek good information and then vote. Instead gun-addicts blindly cling to their guns (which nonetheless often get stolen) and obsess about imaginary wars that will never come. A left wing takeover of government? A military coup? One world government? Is this what is seriously being envisioned? Only by the lunatic fringe. The rest aren't thinking at all. They've given up on everything they claim to hold sacred, but won't admit it. What I hear in the comments on my article is just sullen, perplexed defeatism manifesting in wild declamations, lies, distortions, and arguments so weak that if they were bullets they wouldn't make it out the barrel.
"Cars kill more people than guns do, so why not ban cars?" A false analogy. Cars have many functions other than their ability to kill, many of them beneficial to society, and they are indeed heavily regulated. Another tired argument: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Of course this is true in a banal sort of way, so let's take the argument at face value. What kinds of people kill what kinds of people under what circumstances?
2010, FBI statistics showed that "in incidents of murder for which the relationships of murder victims and offenders were known, 53.0 percent were killed by someone they knew (acquaintance, neighbor, friend, boyfriend, etc.); 24.8 percent of victims were slain by family members... Of the female murder victims for whom the relationships to their offenders were known, 37.5 percent were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends... Of the murders for which the circumstance surrounding the murder was known, 41.8 percent of victims were murdered during arguments (including romantic triangles)." It is not clear how many of these killings were by gun, but of the 12,996 murders the FBI had access to for that year, 8,775 were caused by firearms.
How many of those killings would not have occurred had such effective killing mechanisms not been readily available? How much easier was it for the killers who used a gun to shoot their victim, often from a safe distance, than to have to actually engage in physical combat? How much easier was it for them to kill a wife or lover impulsively, when drunk or high or in a jealous rage when all they had to do was pick up a little object and pull the trigger? Again intuitively, I think we all know the answer. (And let's not forget that the total number of deaths from guns in the USA each year is over 30,000.)
All comparisons are odious, but this is an odious subject so let's finally go to England, where I grew up. I still feel safer there than I do here in spite of this: every Saturday in this idyllic country, thousands of drunken lunatics stumble out of pubs and set about punching each other in the head as they lurch off to soccer matches trying along the way to kick each other in the balls, bite and stab one another, and then, once in the stadium, throw hard objects at their enemies across the field. These are the amateurs. The professionals, to quote from an article in the Observer, "hunt in packs, fueled by cocaine, hooked on violence and occasionally wielding chains. Some are as old as 65. They use mobile phones and the internet to arrange showdowns with rival 'firms' at agreed locations away from prying CCTV cameras and police surveillance."
As a tiny island nation, we massacred our way across the globe until we conquered so much of it that "the sun never set on the British Empire." Well, of course, it did, eventually, but my point is that we are a far more violent people than you are. We love violence! Nothing makes us happier! (Actually not me, I'm a coward.) And yet the murder rate in Britain is five times less than in the U.S. One only has to walk past a pub at closing time to feel pretty certain that if British drunks and psychos had access to handguns, the ratio would go the other way. Gun control works. If America is the "greatest country on earth", it should try to do as well as its vicious old colonial enemy.
(5 Times Favela: Now By Oursleves, and Peace In Rio, a documentary about the pacification of the favelas, do not have a US distributor, but they should. If anyone is interested, I can make the connections.)
Update: The following is a note I received from a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, following the publication of this piece.
Personally, I'm a gun-owner. I received my first gun from my father, a .410 shotgun at ten; a .22 at 14 (which I still have.) I still have the little small-of-the-back pistol I traveled with in the Sixties when I was camped out beyond the reach of the law's protection. During the Sixties, I was a poacher for the various communes I lived on, disappearing into the woods for several days at a time until I packed out a quartered deer in it's skin, with four slits cut in it as straps, and the legs knotted diagonally across the meat to hold it in. Because I was hunting illegally, I did this with a .22. In all the years when I still hunted, I never "lost" or wounded a deer that got away. I used a small light-gathering scope and learned to stalk.
I did not need armor-piercing bullets (they pass through the game and do not discharge their force into the animal). I had a friend with a .300 Weatherby magnum, and at least twice had to dispatch a deer he'd shot after the bullet passed directly through it, with a slower, heavier, bullet.
It seems to me that the people who buy semi-automatics and military gear for hunting are of two varieties -- those who 'pretend' they are hunting and killing men; and those living out fantasies of resisting a tyrannical government take-over. There are a lot of the latter. Whole sections of Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma are populated by guys who carry little red copies of the Constitution with them; deal only in silver money; and have sworn out death sentences on Judges, Game Wardens, Sherrifs and others who have pledged fealty to the Federal Government. My writing partner Joel Dyer, wrote an excellent book called "Harvest of Rage" and we wrote a script about these guys, I like a lot. He was also the government's expert witness on the Oklahoma City bombing because he'd spent eight years hanging out with militias, as a reporter, not undercover. He described them as 'like SDS without the analysis." He points out that there were six men involved in the Oklahoma City Bombing but that the government could only make a case against two. There are other cells out there, and every time you read about a farmer somewhere caught with Ricin or Sarin, he's one of them. Their meta-plot is to create a disturbance and 'take over a territory' (like the rebels in El Salvador) -- 10,000 armed men and they believe they'll hold a section of the country. They've thrown their lot in with the weapons industry which basically uses the 2nd amendment as a cover for lobbying.
More importantly, most pro-gun arguments devolve from adolescent understandings of "Freedom." They act as if freedom means being able to do what you want when you want to. They seem to ignore the myriad times we have to give up freedom for civilization: Stop Signs, for instance. All driving the same way on the same side of the road, another glaring example. In a world of absolute interdependence, "freedom" only makes sense in the context of accepting limits. No hunter needs drum magazines, AR-15s, military armor, tear-gas or stun grenades. Those things should be barred from civilian use, just like fully automatic weapons. No gun should be bought, traded or sold without a background check. As in England, penalties for crimes committed with a weapon should be higher than those without.
Finally, in the same way that few people would leave a five year old in a room with matches scattered all over the floor, current knowledge that 1 in 100 members of society are sociopaths, should caution us about the ready availability of deadly weapons. We'll never stop hunting or hunters, but if the guy in Aurora had a bolt action rifle, he might have killed one person or two before he was brought down. If he'd had a ball bat, perhaps one.
The insistence that any "regulation" is an assault on the 2nd amendment is like a vacuum cleaner salesman telling you that without his product you'll die of dirt. We are not talking (and never have) about taking weapons away. We're talking about the same sensible regulation that keeps cigarettes and alcohol out of the hands of kids; stops food producers from adding toxic poisons, and stops upstream neighbors from dumping poison into creeks. They're just common sense and the cost of civilization and functional society. It is the unfettered, unregulated power of free-market capitalism (the NRA for instance) which has conscripted the entire Congress as a concierge for corporate interests, (and doubts about global warming.) Given the funding and popularity of Fox News and a 24 hour a day propaganda network dedicated to corporate values and stirring up the uneducated, I've resigned my self to being a witness to America's descent into Third World Status. Until we have full Federal financing of elections; free air-time for qualified candidates, and Corporations (not their employees) are not allowed to participate in elections, nothing you or I will care about in the way of policy, will ever come to pass. Citizens United was a large, raised middle finger to that hope.
Other sources for readers:
* The FBI's uniform crime report crime statistics are based on reports to FBI bureau and local law enforcement. The figures are not complete -- there are no stats for Florida on firearm murders and the data for Illinois is "incomplete." But even so it provides a detailed picture of homicides.
Law enforcement reported 665 justifiable homicides in 2010. Of those, law enforcement officers justifiably killed 387 felons, and private citizens justifiably killed 278 people during the commission of a crime. (See Expanded Homicide Data Table 14 and 15.)
- Global crime statistics -- United Nations
- DOJ for percentage of guns used in murders.
- Other references:
In the UK (population c. 60.5m) there were 765 reported incidents of murder for 2005-6 (Home Office, undated) -- a rate of about 1.1 per 100,000.
In the US (population c. 298.5m) there were an estimated 16,137 homicides in 2004 (FBI, 2006a) -- a rate of about 5.4 per 100,000. Of these, 10,654 were carried out with guns (FBI, 2006b).