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Once upon a time, the National Rifle Association was a leading voice for gun control legislation. Owners and sellers of guns had to register, all receipts had to be available to the police, and the president of the NRA testified to Congress, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The argument made by gun control supporters like me, that the Second Amendment was never intended to allow citizens unrestricted access to guns, would have put us right in step with the NRA leadership.

When the NRA Supported Gun Control, Time Magazine

That was in the 1920s and 30s. Many states imposed restrictions on the carrying of weapons, but California was one that did not.

But then the Black Panther Party, concerned about police brutality, started patrolling Oakland with these arms they were legally entitled to carry, and several members of the California state legislature proposed a ban on the open carrying of loaded weapons. The Black Panthers protested the bill by showing up at the Capitol Building in Sacramento, where it so happened that Governor Ronald Reagan was on the lawn. The sight of a couple dozen black people protesting and carrying guns made restrictions on guns very compelling to white Republicans and Democrats alike, the bill passed, and he signed it.

Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” In a later press conference, Reagan said he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” The Mulford Act, he said, “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.”

(The Secret History of Guns, Atlantic Magazine)

Between incidents like this, the reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and conservative U. S. Americans’ anxiety about young radicals, the trend toward gun control only strengthened in the 1960s. There was just one problem with gun restrictions as a solution: white people couldn’t carry guns either. And unpleasant things happened, like an NRA member’s waving a gun in response to a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1971; the ATF shot him, and the NRA responded angrily, likening the ATF to the Gestapo. It was a conundrum.

I don’t know if it was unconscious or a carefully thought-out plan, but around then, the NRA began to change its tactics. It would put its resources into weakening gun laws and rest its argument on the “need” for honest individuals to protect themselves, while promoting the idea that “the honest citizen” was white and the feared predator was black.

By the 2000s, the pattern was set. The NRA’s line was that any kind of restriction was a step onto the “slippery slope” that would end in fascism and the destruction not only of the Second Amendment, but freedom. If police did not respect gun ownership, it would be the beginning of the end.

. . . if the owner was white. If the owner was black, he must be intending violence, and his summary execution by police for the mere possession of a gun would meet with no demur from the NRA. As case after case hit the news of black people who were merely suspected of holding weapons’ being killed by police or self-appointed defenders of public safety, the NRA’s true agenda became clear: not to protect gun owners from an overreaching state, but to protect white people from the black bogeyman they feared.

The Philando Castile case made it clear that even a license for a weapon would not protect a black person who wished to exercise the right the NRA called absolutely fundamental to freedom. In 2016, near St. Paul, Minnesota, Castile was pulled over by police and asked for his driver’s license and registration, at which point he sensibly informed them that he had a gun and a license for it, so that they would not think he was reaching for it in attack. This is surely the correct and cautious thing for a gun owner to do when interacting with the police–if, in the NRA’s view, one should have to explain at all. One of the officers immediately fired four bullets into Castile, killing him; his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were in the back seat. The NRA responded with a silence that, under pressure, it finally broke to say “The reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated,” declining to comment further or even use the victim’s name.

Black people might want to arm themselves in self-defense, especially with killers like Gregory Bush and Dylann Roof gunning for them, but they have to consider the very real possibility that if they are so much as glimpsed carrying a weapon, the police will be called and they will be shot.

But to back up a few years. In the meantime, each mass shooting–now in the hundreds per year–had been met by the NRA’s claim that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And those of us who doubted this wisdom had pointed out that among its many flaws was the question of how police, called to a scene of mayhem, would know that the “good guy with a gun” was a good guy. Wouldn’t they be facing two armed people, with no way of knowing which was the instigator of the crime and which was trying to stop it? Those of us who, furthermore, had been paying attention to the disparity between the NRA’s responses, and police forces’ responses, to black and white gun ownership, thought we knew what the cops would do: if one of the people with a gun were black, they would assume he was the villain, not the hero.

So this week, the killing of security guard Jemel Roberson, taken for a murderer when he tried to stop a crime in the course of his job, was not a surprise. It was the inevitable outcome of the plan that has been unfolding for decades:

(1) arm as many white people as wish to be armed by loosening gun restrictions;

(2) tolerate the summary execution by police (or citizens) of black people who possess a weapon (or a wallet, or a white cellphone, or a hairbrush . . . )

(3) and voila, the Black Panther problem is solved. We now have two categories of US Americans: the “honest citizens” who can–should–go about armed, and the ones for whom bearing arms is certain proof that they are criminals. The armed whites and the disarmed, terrified blacks.

It took a generation for the NRA to solve their conundrum, but they have done it.

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When we talk about gun deaths in this country, we don’t talk much about suicide. This may seem strange, since about two-thirds of our annual more-than-36,000 deaths by firearms are suicides. Most of the rest are homicides, with a small number of accidents (Centers for Disease Control figures for 2015; the 2016 total was over 38,000). In other words, you are twice as likely to die by a gun in your own hand as someone else’s.

You would think that suicide by firearms would garner attention, since it kills 60 U.S. Americans a day, but I think that neither gun control advocates nor those who want to permit free access to guns want to bring up suicide. The gun-rights folks may believe that people wanting to kill themselves should have the right to choose a gun, but it’s not really the kind of argument that wins you a lot of fans. And the gun-control advocates, of which (in case you haven’t read my blog before) I am most definitely one, tend not to bring it up because of a widespread belief that someone bent on suicide will carry it out, and the means are not significant. In this, we could not be more mistaken.

I’ve said it myself, this “they’ll find another way” mistake, but I was corrected, after a sermon on suicide, by a local activist, to whom I am very grateful. It does indeed matter what means people choose for suicide. Those who choose highly fatal means–jumping off bridges or tall buildings, shooting themselves, or, all too often in the community where I serve, stepping in front of a speeding train–are much less likely to survive a suicide attempt. That much is obvious, in fact tautological. But what is also true is that, denied these means, they are much less likely to kill themselves, then or ever.

This is why, thanks to the California state legislature, we now have barriers making it harder to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, along with hotline phones and posted phone numbers. There is nothing stopping someone who is turned back by the barrier from seeking another way to end their life, but the psychology of suicide is such that many do not: not that night, not the next day, not ever.  Of course, to cut the suicide rate, we can and must do more than just making the final stage harder; we need to reduce poverty and injustice, reduce drug abuse, restore meaning, and provide ample mental health care. But that final stage also matters.

Restricting access to guns–by far the most common way U.S. Americans kill themselves–is thus a very effective way to save many of those lives. When Australia responded to its 1996 Port Arthur massacre by putting tough gun laws in place, the rate of firearms homicide dropped, and so did the rate of homicide overall. The rate of firearms suicide dropped, and so did the rate of suicide overall. With homicide, the reason is obvious to those of us not being paid by the NRA: it’s much harder to kill a lot of people fast with a knife or a truck. With suicide, though? Why don’t people denied a gun find another method? I don’t know. But as often as not, maybe more often than that, they don’t.

So let’s stop shying away from the topic of guns and suicide. When people want to know what good it will do suicidal people to restrict their access to guns, the answer is: it can save the larger part of sixty lives a day.

Sixty lives is a Las Vegas massacre, every day, week in, week out. If you worry about your child’s safety, reflect: they are probably twice as likely to die by suicide as by homicide. To keep them safe, tackle suicide. To tackle suicide, tackle the gun lobby.

As long as lawmakers and courts insist that what James Madison had in mind with the Second Amendment was unlimited weaponry for the likes of Nikolas Cruz and Adam Lanza, we’re going to have to hit the gun lobby and its pals in the pocketbook. Some of the scummiest of those pals are the people who use the airwaves and internet to claim that these killings are hoaxes.

I’m happy to note that some of the worst sites generating and promoting fake stories–Gateway Pundit and InfoWars, for example–have no actual advertisers. Gateway Pundit advertises one religious pamphlet by the site owner’s twin brother, and InfoWars sells a brain supplement (hold the jokes, please) and a toothpaste, fluoride free, of course, that seem to be manufactured by InfoWars. Breitbart appears to have no remaining advertisers. But some other sites do get advertising money from actual companies. So I took a few minutes today to breathe deeply, overcome my nausea, and tell these companies what I think about that.

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(NOTE: Earlier, I had the wrong e-mail address here; it was the support address for a company that distributes Berkey Water systems, and is not in charge of advertising decisions. The below address is the manufacturer’s.)

To: Customerservice@berkeywater.com

To the chief executive of Berkey Water Filter Systems:

I was appalled to read articles on NaturalNews.com promoting the idea that the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, are actors and that the entire event is a fake staged by gun reform advocates. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

I notice that you advertise there, and I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads and stop supporting this revolting site with your money. I am posting this letter on my blog and will post your reply there when I receive it.

Sincerely,
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To the directors of Food Rising:

I was appalled to read articles on NaturalNews.com promoting the idea that the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, last week, are actors and that the entire event is a fake staged by gun reform advocates. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

I notice that you advertise there, and I guess your partnership with the author, Mike Adams (the “Health Ranger”), is very close since he engineered your grow boxes. Maybe you are a one-person operation and he is it, for all I know. If that is not the case, and you are in fact dedicated to food innovation, I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads from NaturalNews.com and stop supporting this revolting site with your money.

I am posting this letter on my blog, sermonsinstones.com, and will post your reply there when I receive it.

Sincerely,
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To the owners of Zeta Clear,
The website therightwingextremist.wordpress.com specializes in “articles” such as the claim that the slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, CT, was a fake. Apparently it is not horrible enough to make such a claim, and add to the unimaginable suffering of the parents and other loved ones of these children, so the author prints one child’s name over and over with the ridiculous assertion that his death was a hoax, simply because a Pakistani mourner of the children killed in Peshawar, Pakistan, expressed solidarity by posting his photo alongside those of some of the Peshawar victims. Simple explanations have no effect on the cruelty and willful obtuseness of “The Right Wing Extremist.”

I notice that you are his sole advertiser. I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads and stop supporting this revolting site with your money. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

You claim you will respond to phone calls and e-mails, but you don’t actually post an e-mail address. So I am calling you and also posting this letter on my blog, sermonsinstones.com, and will post your reply there when I receive it.

Sincerely,

We are each entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. The fact is that arming more citizens than are currently armed will not reduce the number of deaths by gun. You cannot point to any statistics, any other country, any studies that indicate otherwise–I know because I read the ones people link to, and they never say what the poster claims they say. In fact, the facts are that we have way too many guns for safety.

Two kids died and another 15 were wounded in the shooting at a Benton, Kentucky, school yesterday. It was the 11th shooting on a school campus in the first 23 days of this year, a tripling of the past several years’ rate of one such shooting per week. After the Benton murders, as always, there are people pleading with the president or the NRA to say something. This is counterproductive, because if the NRA or Trump offer any policy solution, it is always in the vein of “More guns in the hands of more people.” And along with them, hundreds of internet commenters emerge like worms after rain to claim that the problem is not enough guns.

I am sick of our treating these claims as if they have a shred of evidence to back them up. “More guns” is no more a strategy for reducing gun deaths than “Pray to the Tooth Fairy.” If it were, I would support it.

You who make this argument, and you who are silent as it rages, I am sure that we have something in common: you, too, would like to see fewer people die by guns in this country. Will you embrace the solutions that are proven to be effective?

The gun nuts–oh, I mean lovers of the Constitution–are at it again. The response to the latest mass murder included the comment, “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED.” Clearly the author thought this settled the matter.

I’m pretty passionate about the Constitution, myself. So let’s look at a different amendment, the First.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pretty strong language. “No law . . . abridging.”

Have the courts determined that the First Amendment entirely prohibits any overlap between religion and state functions?

No. It is acceptable, for example, for the Congress to invite clergy to give an opening prayer. Some argue that this constitutes establishment of religion; the court finds that it doesn’t.

Have the courts determined that we the people have an absolute right to exercise our religion?

No. If our exercise of religion conflicts with other responsibilities of the state, such as the protection of children, it may be restricted. People have been convicted of child abuse for denying their children medicine on religious grounds, and the Supreme Court has concurred in this “abridgement” of their religious freedom.

Have the courts determined that the press may print absolutely anything?

No. Libel and pornography may be held illegal. Is that abridgement of the freedom of the press? Sure it is. And yet it seems to be acceptable. First Amendment activists believe in balancing freedom of the press with freedom from defamation, not dismissing the latter.

Have the courts determined that freedom of assembly is absolute? It says right here it can’t be abridged.

And yet a crowd may not walk down Market Street at midday without a permit, or even gather in a public park in large numbers without prior permission. It turns out that in consideration of other important principles, such as people being able to move freely around the city, the government may reasonably abridge a right, even one stated as baldly as those of the First Amendment. Even the ACLU doesn’t disagree. It will argue that parade fees can’t be excessive, and so on, but it doesn’t argue against fees per se.

So, what do you think? May the government put reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, or does the 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.

–mean that everyone must be able to buy any kind of arms, without any restrictions whatsoever? No background checks? No limit on what type of weapon or how many? For example, someone with diagnosed paranoia and a history of making threats cannot constitutionally be prevented from walking into a gun show and buying a weapon of war?

I would like someone to explain to me why not.

June 3 has come around again. Even though I was only not-quite-six years old on this date in 1974, when my aunt, Roslyn Shapiro Lewisohn, died, I think of her each year. She was 38 years old, which means she has now been dead for as long as she was alive. Her four children grew up without her. Her younger sister, my mother, was suddenly rendered an only child, and when their mother died several years later, my mother mourned without a sister to share her sorrow and memories.

Aunt Rozi was shot by her husband. He was drinking–he was often drinking–and they had an argument. At the end of it, she was dead on their kitchen floor. The reason he had a gun, according to what he had said some years earlier, was to defend himself from his enemies. What enemies a poet and college professor might have had to worry about, there in their home on the Maine coast, is hard to imagine. His own demons, I guess, and when those are your enemies, the very last thing you need is a gun. But he certainly didn’t have to prove he had anything rationally to fear in order to own a handgun and keep it loaded. He didn’t have to show that he didn’t abuse substances or his wife. He didn’t even have to show that he didn’t have a criminal record or any dangerous mental illnesses. It was just the way the “no to background checks” people want it to be.

When people talk about how we need to make sure “the good guys” are allowed guns, they are talking about people like my uncle Jimmy. He was a middle-aged, middle-class, white, college-educated poet and English professor. He was Jewish, for crying out loud. If we had decided to arm the good citizens of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, so that they might protect us from machine-gun-wielding drug dealers and mass murderers, Jimmy could have been first in line, and he would have been handed a lethal weapon with a smile. And taken it home and used it exactly the way he did use it.

Twenty-one years after Rozi’s death by handgun, another good guy tried his best to murder my father. This good guy was also middle-aged, middle-class–no, wealthy; white, a college graduate, a member of the Congregational church in town, a respected businessman and pillar of his community: again, just the kind of person who, in the mythical world of black hats and white hats, is supposed to defend us from the bad guys. When his wife left him for my father, Malcolm went berserk. He sought Dad out at the college where he (my father) taught, and stabbed him half a dozen times. Fortunately for Dad, Malcolm was scared of guns; otherwise he would surely have used one. Two very brave students wrestled him off my dad. Would they have dared to if he’d been wielding a gun instead of a knife? Not that it would have mattered. If Dad had been shot even once in some of the places he was stabbed–his chest, his temple–he would have died then and there, instead of arriving at Yale-New Haven Hospital on the brink of death and being dragged back from it by their highly expert trauma team. Not a visit goes by without my being keenly aware how close I came to losing him at age 26. Not a fatal shooting appears in the newspaper without my thinking, That would have been my family, if Malcolm had had a gun.

We have a myth taking hold in this country, a myth of bad guys vs. good guys. It says that there are violent thugs, or crazed mass-murderers, and then there are fine, upstanding citizens. But as we know, most murders aren’t Aurora or Newtown. They happen in ones and twos, and aren’t planned, but result from the heat of the moment combined with a highly fatal weapon. Most murder victims know their killer; many, in fact, are killed by a relative, or a girlfriend or boyfriend. My aunt’s death and my father’s near-miss were typical: personal dispute + alcohol or other drugs + a person who is prone to irrational thinking and violent behavior. The difference between them was that in one case, the attacker had a gun, and in the other one, he didn’t. You can certainly kill someone with a knife, with a baseball bat, even with your bare hands, but bullets are vastly more likely than any of these to be fatal.

To those who say that good guys with guns could have saved my aunt, or made a more effective rescue of my dad, I have several questions from the real world.

  • Can you imagine my aunt pulling out a gun and telling Jimmy to back off? It would only have confirmed his paranoia, and paranoid people do not surrender their weapons. In a movie, he’d drop the gun, but in real life, he was drunk and enraged and irrational, and he didn’t take any crap from his wife (let me translate that for you: he was in the habit of beating her up). He’d be more likely to pull the trigger than to drop the gun.
  • Can you imagine being a college student who hears cries for help and comes running, to find one man stabbing another over and over? If you have a gun, what do you do with it? Shoot the assailant? Please don’t–that’s my dad a few inches from him, the walls are tile and metal, and the chances of you or Dad getting killed by a ricocheting bullet are high (a hostage was just killed, instead of rescued, by police in such a situation). Or should you yell, “Freeze!”? Great idea, but again, this guy is not exactly in the grip of reason. If he were, he wouldn’t have wrecked his own life by committing a felony just because his wife had had an affair.
  • Now, turning to the mass-murder scenario, where millions of Americans fantasize that an armed security guard or elementary school teacher or heroic passerby will save the day by plugging the bad guy. We’ll set aside the fact that this being the real world, heroes are not protected by the Principle of Evil Marksmanship,  and even trained gun users can’t just pull out their guns and hit their target (and while the linked-to video is not of a scientifically rigorous experiment, the attempts to debunk it are comical in their desperation. The experiment didn’t happen when Diane Sawyer told the subjects it would! The defender was wearing a long shirt over his gun! How unrealistic!). As my brother-in-law points out, if we follow the advice of the NRA and Gun Owners of America, when someone starts shooting in a crowd, what you will have now is a crowd with several people pointing guns. How is anyone–police, terrified bystanders, other would-be heroes–supposed to know which of them is a good guy and which was the original shooter? The scenario resembles nothing so much as the firing squad in the ethnic joke, except with dozens of innocent parade-watchers or elementary school students or moviegoers added to the mix.

There are good guys and bad guys in the world, definitely. But it’s not usually that simple. Often, a bad guy is someone who was a good guy until the moment he had too much liquor in him, too much wounded pride, too little ability to manage his anger, and a deadly weapon in his hands. That is one reason the gun in your house is far more likely to kill you or someone you love than any of your “enemies.” (Another reason is that it’s more likely to become a suicide weapon than anything else, but that’s another subject. So is the Second Amendment, which in my opinion doesn’t mean remotely what the gun-rights advocates, or half the gun-control advocates for that matter, think it does.) Let’s be clear, “armed citizenry” advocates: when you set out to arm the “good guys,” you are talking about handing guns to Jimmy Lewisohn and Malcolm Todt.

Of all the grief and fear that a tragedy like the Newtown massacre instills in me, the most terrifying development is the advance of the notion that arming more citizens will make us safer. It’s a profoundly dangerous idea, based on fiction and fantasy, and it is just plain wrong.

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