Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 March 2018


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One of our species’ biggest defects is overkill. When we get a bug in our ear, we can go to extremes. Sometimes it takes generations for us to see we have gone too far and recalibrate. Sometimes it takes millennia.

So it was with Rome and Carthage. Their dispute was mostly a commercial one, like ours with China today. Carthage was “stealing” and blocking Rome’s lucrative trade around the Mediterranean Sea and points east. Incensed by the audacity of the “upstart” city-state, Cato the Elder repeatedly ended his Senate speeches with a bellicose meme: “Cartago delenda est,” or “Carthage must be destroyed.”

In the end, Rome did exactly that. It sacked Carthage, burnt its buildings to the ground, tore down its city walls, sowed its fields with salt, and took all who survived the attack as slaves. Rome erased Carthage from the map and from history.

We don’t do that sort of thing anymore. Even the Nazis didn’t deliberately raze whole cities to the ground and erase them from the map. In two millennia, our species got a little smarter and more civilized.

But overkill almost extinguished our species as recently as 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Only the cool judgment of three men saved us.

Each savior deserves a special place in memory and history. They were: (1) our own then-president, John F. Kennedy, (2) the then-General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, and (3) an obscure Soviet submarine flotilla commander named Vasiliy Aleksandrovich Arkhipov. This last was the only one of three Soviet naval officers to nix launching nuclear torpedoes at our Navy—an act that almost certainty would have precipitated a general nuclear exchange.

By the grace of fortune and the good judgment of these three men, we avoided Nuclear Armageddon. But nuclear overkill continues. Despite decades of nuclear disarmament, a number of nations—even just India and Pakistan together—have enough nuclear weapons to decimate our Earth’s protective ozone layer and cause a “Nuclear Winter.” This catastrophe would set human agriculture back to the Stone Age for decades and extinguish the vast majority of humanity.

If overkill threatens our entire species’ survival, it’s no surprise that it works on a smaller scale, too. And so it is with the NRA, the epitome of overkill in civilian America.

The bare statistics tell only part of the story, but they are stark. We Americans hold 42% of the entire world’s civilian small arms, although we have only 4.4% of the world’s population. We allow anyone, including teenage kids, to buy and keep AR-15s—military-style assault rifles that can carry large magazines capable of killing dozens of people at once.

Not only that. Our so-called “background check” system, which is supposed to prevent maniacs from getting ahold of such weapons, is full of holes. All a deranged kid has to do to get an AR-15 is to go to a gun show or buy one from another owner in a private transaction. In those cases federal law requires no background check, and the NRA has opposed every attempt to close these loopholes.

In any event, there is no justification for allowing ordinary private civilians to have or carry military assault weapons like the AR-15. They aren’t useful for hunting, for they’re not especially accurate at distance. And who wants to eat venison riddled with holes that allow the meat to get dirty and spiced with tics and germs? Proper meat hygiene demands a clean kill with an accurate single-shot rifle.

As for safety, you don’t need a weapon of war capable of killing dozens to drive off or kill a robber or burglar. You’re better off with a handgun, which is more maneuverable, easier to aim, and more capable of being concealed. An unwieldy, rapid-fire weapon like the AR-15 is more likely to kill innocents by accident, including your neighbors, friends or family.

As for fighting off a renegade or tyrannical government, let’s be realistic. Is an AR-15 going to let a Lone Ranger prevail over attack helicopters, fighter jets, howitzers, artillery and attack drones, let alone nuclear missiles? Not even the most deranged fantasist can believe than an AR-15 will make private civilians the equivalent of our Army, Navy, Air Force or National Guard. And anyway, who wants to encourage more suicidal cult rebellions against our own government, as in Waco and Ruby Ridge?

No, there are only two things that AR-15s in civilian hands are good for. One is killing large numbers of people in a short period of time. That’s why many of the most horrible random gun massacres have used these weapons.

The other is letting certain megalomanic gun owners indulge their fantasies of personal power and omnipotence. To gauge how many people enjoy this game, note a single statistic: only 3% of the people in the United States own half of all civilians’ guns. The average gun owner in this group owns seventeen. You can get an idea of their mentality from this viral video, showing a sensible man who once enjoyed that feeling of power and “fun” disposing of his AR-15 after the Parkland Massacre.

Does the NRA indulge all its extremism just for the sake of the fun of these few, the 3%? Is adult overkill-play a vital aspect of “freedom” for our people. Not hardly.

There is only one plausible reason why the NRA, time after time, promotes the sale and exchange of military-style assault weapons with large magazines that, time after time, produce the most horrendous firearm massacres in our history. These weapons are profitable to make and sell, much more so than handguns. The NRA serves as the de-facto marketing arm of the industries that make and sell them.

It would be easy to outlaw the sale of these weapons to civilians. It would be almost as easy, but would cost a bit, to buy up those now in civilian hands and reduce dramatically their availability to mass killers. The only plausible reason not to do so is the profit that those who make and sell them enjoy. But after we spent $1.5 trillion on tax cuts for the rich and corporations, the tens of billions, at most, required to buy up these weapons of war would seem like a pittance.

The NRA’s overkill doesn’t stop even there. There are at least two other dismal consequences of a nation awash in guns.

The first is militarizing our police. Criminals, who ignore laws, find it easier to get ahold of guns than law-abiding civilians. As the number of civilians’ guns floating around our society has increased to nearly half the world’s total, the number available to criminals and terrorists has exploded proportionately. Criminals and terrorists can get guns by purchase, theft, “borrowing,” or fraud—in addition to exploiting legally the gun-show and private-sale loopholes.

As guns—including assault weapons—become more and more accessible to criminals and terrorists, the police feel they have to keep pace. Not without reason, they fear being left behind in the small-arms race by civilians and crooks.

So our police, too, indulge in overkill. In addition to their ubiquitous sidearms and tasers, they carry assault weapons in their squad cars. They arm Swat teams with surplus military equipment, including trucks with all the appearance of modernized World War I tanks. Then they often hide behind their military hardware, losing contact with their communities. Sometimes they terrorize communities of color, which they fear in large part because of the ubiquity of guns, especially in marginalized communities.

So a vicious circle has undermined our policing for two generations. As criminals and extremists get better armed, the police get more fearful and violent. The Black Lives Matter movement is a legitimate response to (among other things) this vicious cycle.

A civilian population awash in deadly weapons, even weapons of war, gives our police legitimate fear. That fear in turn motivates overkill and increasing brutality. If we get rid of the most dangerous weapons, maybe the police will have less fear and more humanity. They might even find it easier to recruit officer candidates who have a community orientation, rather than an authoritarian-military one. It’s certainly worth a try.

But that’s still not all. Another consequence of a society awash in weapons is even more profound. During my lifetime, three of our greatest political leaders were shot down by firearms in civilian hands. They were: President John F. Kennedy—one of three who saved the world from nuclear overkill—Attorney General and leading 1968 presidential candidate Robert M. Kennedy, and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior.

All three were rare, inspiring political leaders. All did much, even in their shortened lives, to make this nation a better place. And all were shot down in the prime of their lives and their political promise and power.

Their losses to our history and our social development were calculable. It’s impossible to imagine the bent Richard Nixon ever becoming president, or his Watergate scandal ever happening, if they had survived. It’s difficult to imagine anyone as inexperienced as Dubya, let alone Trump, becoming president.

One of President Kennedy’s most memorable lines was, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Can you imagine Trump saying anything like that, while he plays golf and invites foreign dignitaries to his name-brand hotels, or while his daughter sells her branded trinkets out of the White House? The loss of our three great 1960s leaders to assassination by firearms destroyed our politics and our national spirit for two generations, maybe three.

But the tide is turning, slowly but surely. For kids in the Parkland school, the ravages of guns in the name of so-called “freedom” are nothing abstract and remote. They’re personal.

Their friends’ lives were—and perhaps their own later may become—sacrificed on the altar of profit for an industry that is utterly insignificant in the grand sweep of our national economy. They are being left to fend for themselves against a two-generation GOP propaganda war designed to win elections by dividing rural and city folk who have much in common. So the kids just don’t like what they see.

Even the ancient Romans knew better. When they staged their gladiatorial fights to the death, and when they threw early Christians to the lions, they didn’t do it in their city streets. They kept their overkill inside their Coliseum.

Not so we modern Americans. We have let firearms overkill rule our streets, our communities, our police, and our politics for far too long. It’s now time for a change. Unimbued with the reflexes of two generations of nonsense politics, our kids have dedicated themselves to making that change. In the process, they just might improve their own chances for living a full life. Godspeed.

Footnote 1:What Cato the Elder is actually reported to have said is less punchy: “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem delendam esse.” (“But anyway, I think Carthage should be destroyed.”)

Footnote 2: Our species’ narrow escape from self-extinction in 1962 is something that every high-school and college student should study in detail. The best review of the deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev that avoided Armageddon appears in this PBS special program on the fiftieth anniversary of the Crisis. A fictionalized but mostly accurate account appears in the popular movie Thirteen Days. The story of Arkhipov appears in another PBS special, justly entitled “The Man Who Saved the World.” If our youth knows well the story of the overkill that led to near-extinction, we just might avoid another.

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