Why the Gun Control Conversation Isn’t Going Anywhere Productive
June 29, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Christy Sheats’s senseless and unthinkable murder of her two daughters, one of whom was apparently to be married days later, will no doubt stoke the fire ignited by the mass shooting in Orlando for measures to restrict ownership of firearms after four legislative attempts to do something about it went nowhere. What Sheats did is horrific:
According to officials, Christy Sheats had arranged a meeting with the family at their home Friday in the 6000 block of Remson Hollow Lane near Blanchard Grove Drive. When her daughters and husband, Jason Sheats, gathered in the house’s living room, investigators said the mother pulled out a five-shot, .38 caliber handgun and shot the two women.
Officers said the daughters and their father managed to run out of the house, using the front door. Investigators said Madison Sheats collapsed and died, while Jason Sheats ran to the end of the cul-de-sac.
“We heard the dad say, ‘Don’t do this. They’re our kids,’” neighbor Fazz Zainuddin said.
Christy Sheats chased Taylor Sheats down the street, shooting her again, deputies said. According to a witness, the mother then went back inside the house and reloaded her gun. When she returned, a witness said Chirsty Sheats shot Taylor Sheats again.
Unlike in Orlando, this involved a handgun and not an assault rifle. Also, nothing released yet seems to suggest Sheats was on any sort of list that, if expanded to also deny its members access to firearms, would’ve prevented this from happening. Sure, she might have had some documented mental illness, but she was a homegrown, married mother of two from the heartland. It would take an entirely different set of extreme measures to make us feel that we’re preventing something like what Sheats did from happening again.
Perhaps more importantly, her position on gun control was such that it led to this headline:
Semiautomatic handgun advocate shot and killed her two daughters
Her advocacy was really just on Facebook, so although the idea she’s a gun advocate makes for a better story, it isn’t quite accurate. She wasn’t an advocate so much as just another person who posts their opinions on Facebook. People either post stuff about how we have to do something about guns or they post stuff about needing guns, and Sheats was very squarely in the latter category. Consider this post:
It would be horribly tragic if my ability to protect myself or my family were to be taken away, but that’s exactly what Democrats are determined to do by banning semiautomatic weapons.
With that alone, she could be the mascot for anti-gun crusaders. The worst thing anyone could do to her children with a firearm, she did to them herself. She’s the stereotype of the gun-loving hick idiot every learned city-dweller pictures as the only sort of person opposing their reasonable reform, and she proved every one of their bad opinions of her true.
Had the Democrats banned semiautomatic weapons, one or both of Sheats’s girls might well be alive today. That assumes a ban would accomplish what it was intended to do, however.
We have a justice system in this country. Whether it accomplishes justice may perpetually be up for debate, but that’s what it was designed to do. As much as I complain, and I probably complain as much as anyone, the system by and large doesn’t do a completely awful job of figuring out what someone deserves when they’ve committed what I’d consider “classic” crimes without any aggravating circumstances.
Putting aside a variety of issues that come up quite often, which I’ll get to in a second, your average first-time burglar or even murderer who kills in the heat of passion almost gets a fair shake. There are lots of unfair little procedural things here and there, but although the public would clamor for a pound of flesh if they knew more about what was happening, those people, if convicted, get to present mitigation that quite often works on judges.
Two lawyers who know the case present their sides in order to convince a judge who should also have all the facts to craft a sentence consistent with those facts. Informed people argue their positions, and another informed person does what he or she thinks is best given what the defendant did in light of all the other relevant factors. That’s about the best we can expect from the justice system.
Of course, it all falls apart quite frequently. When scary crimes or scarier thoughts about recidivism come into play and we start dealing with mandatory sentencing, the discretion of neutral judges is replaced with the discretion of often inexperienced prosecutors using a rigged system of guilt determination and punishment to further the agenda of their bosses, who tend to be elected based on the number and severity of the convictions they’re able to achieve. Moreover, the coercive power of the system is disproportionately used against the poor and non-white. As bad as it is, though, it’s sort of doing what it should, just in a perverse way.
On the other hand, what we do not have is a confiscation system. If the criminal courts aren’t always good at achieving justice, then they really suck at confiscation. For proof, look no farther than the drug war. Or more pertinently, look at the laws for felons or other prohibited possessors in possession of a firearm.
No guns for people who’ve been deemed unfit to have guns due to their criminal history seems like a great idea, and it’s hardly controversial. Talk with a defense attorney, though, and you’ll start to see what happens when the law is applied in the real world.
You have the old black man with four marijuana felonies from half a century ago looking at a decade in prison for having his grandfather’s inoperable military rifle hanging on the wall. You have the ten Native American teenagers in the back of a pickup truck all looking at criminal convictions because their friend’s dad in the cab had a rifle hanging on the gun rack. Make sure you don’t forget the homeless guy sleeping next to a dumpster where someone discarded a gun, or the Mexican guy trying to explain to border patrol that his kid’s plastic gun isn’t actually real, all of whom are facing serious charges. Buy a defense attorney a beer and ask them about stupid gun possession cases they’ve seen; every one of us has a few.
The way I’ve come to view the relationship between the United States and its justice system is sort of like if you had a village, and the village has a longstanding tradition of kicking people in the balls and/or pushing them off of a cliff whenever something goes wrong. It’s a pretty diverse village, let’s say of about 300 people, and there are about 200 white people, 35 Hispanic people, 33 black people, and the rest are of varying races and ethnicities.
Most villagers think the ball kickers and cliff pushers are only targeting the people who actually do something wrong, and many of the people they target have in fact done something wrong. However, almost everyone in the village has done the same things. In reality, the folks in charge just round up a few of the poorest people in the village, which always includes at least one black villager, and kick them in the balls before pushing them off the cliff. For good measure, they round up a similar number, also taken from the village’s poorest and with at least one black villager, and just kick them in the balls. They tell them to behave and that they’ll be watching, however. And people kicked in the balls and watched are first in line to go off the cliff next.
To make it fair, they’ve got rules about it and employ educated people who prosecute those poor villagers, other educated people who defend them, and educated judges who ultimately decide who suffers, but it doesn’t change the nature of what they’re doing. Everyone except for the guy who’s trying to prevent the ball-kicking and cliff-pushing thinks the system works great because things are pretty good in the village and a kick in the nuts and a hearty push really feels like doing something. It’s the only solution they have to anything because of that, so whenever something bad happens, it’s all they request.
Getting back to the gun control debate, I’d wager that most people in favor of some sort of new measures don’t know exactly what they want. Clearly defining that is important, but even then, there’s a bigger problem. Whether it’s a call for a ban on assault rifles and a no-buy list, which followed the Orlando shooting, or a ban on handguns and an expansion of the no-buy list to anyone with a history of mental health issues, which is sure to follow what happened with Sheats, albeit with far less popular support, it’s all sort of the same. I don’t bother taking a position on any of this because, as much as I might love a lot of the ideas people are throwing around in theory, I know the only mechanism we have for accomplishing any of it is the giant, bureaucratic, and very formal modern equivalent of rounding up our country’s black people and kicking them in the nuts.
Our system is racist. It’s classist. More importantly, expanding its use to involve even more confiscation, something to which it is very poorly suited, makes it worse in every respect. Few things have served to erode our rights more than the loosening of the justice system that’s had to happen to accommodate its increased use as a confiscation tool. It seems the worst cases for our civil liberties for decades have all been to help the government more easily search its citizens for things they aren’t allowed to have, whether it’s drugs, guns, money, or alcohol in their blood. Any massive new criminalization effort would do even more damage.
People need to acknowledge that their desire to do something about guns will invariably lead to the use of our flawed criminal justice system even when it isn’t obvious that’s the case. No-buy lists are bad enough on their own, but they’re the sort of seemingly non-violent solution that appeals to people who are either not quite as outraged as the rest or a little too scared to just come out and say they want a complete gun ban. Still, when someone on the list gets a gun, what happens? Do we say “oh, you silly person, you got us” and let them go on their way? All of the gun proposals I’ve seen at some point will involve the use of force by the government to impose its will.
When people tell me they want to ban guns, I like to suggest that we don’t use the justice system or actively do anything, but instead just say that you can’t have them and that any gun any state actor encounters gets bought by the government for fair market value at the time guns were banned. If they possessed it legally at that time, they get the money. If they didn’t, then the money goes to a 501(c)(3) of their choice. You’d be amazed how much that offends even the people who outright agree with me when I say we shouldn’t be making stupid new criminal laws about anything. Where’s the accusation? The determination of guilt? More importantly, where’s the punishment?
We’re so conditioned to see institutional violence, which is what our entire system really is at its root, as a solution, that we’re hard to take seriously. We’re not that much better than my village example, and yet every time something awful happens, we do all these great studies, have countless thoughtful conversations about the cause, and then all band together to push a few random poor people off a cliff after a swift kick in the balls.
Let’s fix the system first. Let’s recognize the absurdity of the only tool we have right now. After that, maybe we can have a discussion about gun control and actually have a fair, effective mechanism to implement the solutions we want.