Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Folly of Prohibition: why banning guns won't work

When did banning something make it go away?

In the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting…the 27th in America in the past 10 years…people again are trotting out the knee-jerk “ban guns” demand. And while it may sound good at first blush, a little critical examination will reveal that legal prohibitions against things that members of the public really want and are willing to break the law to obtain benefits nobody in the society except the criminals.

In 2010 the US government spent more than $15 billion…that’s $500 per second…on the War on Drugs. And that is just the tax dollars spent on a drug policy that is and has been an unmitigated failure…except for those who have exploited and grown rich and powerful in the black market America’s prohibition of drugs has created.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution took effect in January of 1920 and for the next 13 years, thanks to another black market created by the US government, liquor continued to flow throughout America due to the likes of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. The government hemorrhaged money into enforcing Prohibition and went without substantial potential tax revenues, since the production, transport and sale of alcohol was, officially, not happening. But it was happening and it spawned and supported America’s first major foray into organized crime, an organization that stayed with us even after the Amendment was repealed in 1933: the Mafia. And the cost, both in dollars and in lives, has been vast and the legacy of Prohibition continues to this day, nearly a century later.

Prohibition of abortion did not stop abortion, it merely drove it underground. From conscientious doctors who wanted to provide desperate women with a medically safe alternative to an unwanted pregnancy to back-alley butchers who killed women with perforated uteruses and septicaemia to distressed women who attempted to abort themselves with coat hangers, knitting needles, and noxious potions, abortions continued despite laws prohibiting them and prescribing draconian punishment for doctors caught providing them. It didn’t go away, it simply provided yet another black market opportunity for illegally-generated wealth while it dealt death and disaster to those forced to seek abortion outside the clean, sterile, safe walls of a hospital or bona fide clinic.

With this for a history to reference, who in their right mind can possibly believe that banning guns will not result in a new black market and increased opportunity for a new organized criminal element to rise to wealth and power—illicit gun dealers? Why target the tool when the real problem is the people using the tool? If we want to spend tax money on making and enforcing a law designed to reduce or eliminate these kinds of horrific killings, why not invest that money into something more likely to have a positive result, like government-funded mental health programs and mental health laws that improve the quality of life not only for the mentally ill, but for those around them as well.

We live in a society that, in the span of just a couple of generations, has gone from valuing and admiring courtesy and “good guys” to a culture that admires the rude, the snide, the cruel, the sarcastic. It is no longer enough to win, you now have to rub the other guy’s face in the dirt and spit on him. Gone are the days when the losers in a contest were consoled, their successes during the course of the contest praised, and encouragement for the next time given. Instead, they are humiliated, castigated, shamed, and hauled over the coals, as if rebuking them further provides some kind of inspiration to do better next time. We embrace and admire and make wealthy celebrities of people whose stock-in-trade is cutting, degrading, mortification of people who have done nothing more than fail to live up to an expectation. Gordon Ramsey, Simon Cowell, Anne Robinson of TV’s Weakest Link: all epitomize the sadistic set down trend that passes for humour nowadays, entertainment wrought at the expense of the feelings of those whom they verbally abuse. And, being the Great Apes that we are, we humans imitate and try to top our celebrity mentors and we turn our friends, families, classmates, co-workers, neighbours and even complete strangers into the butts of our cruelly conceived and thoughtlessly delivered attempts at humour.

Brutality has not always been considered acceptable entertainment. Historically speaking, American entertainment has had guidelines, regulations, and controls in the past. The Hayes office controlled the content of movies for decades, which is why old movies showed married couples sleeping in separate beds and you didn’t see graphic sex or violence in the theatre. That said, French and Italian cinema produced some pretty steamy pictures at about the same time, and you didn’t see their societies implode as a result. I remember my first Sam Peckinpah film and how horrible the graphic killings were. It does desensitize a person to see this kind of thing, and when it becomes everyday fare both in films and video games, it has to desensitize a person to the carnage: imagine the impact on someone already disaffected and feeling disenfranchised?

In any given contest there is only one winner. Everybody else are either fans or losers…and if you aren’t the winner, the way you avoid being identified as one of the losers is to throw your lot in with the winner—become a fan, a sycophant, a toady. And so the winners of the world, be they jocks or bankers, celebs or mean girls of any age, are joined by their fans in creating the us vs. them paradigm in which “them” are grievously insulted, assaulted, disrespected, humiliated, diminished and generally shat upon, all in the name of entertainment and humour.

And what are these “losers” supposed to do with their feelings of outrage and hurt? Suck it up? Shrug it off? Not have any feelings at all? One of the things people do when they are deeply and repeatedly wounded is they stop feeling. They become emotionally numb, at least on the surface, so that they don’t feel the pain so sharply. One of the problems with that, however, is that this causes a loss of empathy and compassion because if they can’t access their feelings of pain for themselves, those feeling for others are pretty inaccessible as well. They aren’t really numb, though…they just repress the pain and it goes underground where it festers and grows. And if the targeted people are already struggling with issues of low self-worth, if they’ve been bullied before, if they aren’t pretty or popular or have some kind of physical anomaly or are socially awkward…how do they assimilate the emotional assaults and carry on with equanimity? With little or nothing available to the average person in the way of mental health care, a lot of them don’t. Some of them become withdrawn and anti-social, some of them become willing to do anything to be liked, some of them engage in self-harm, some join gangs where they feel accepted, some commit suicide. And some of them turn their rage outwards and they kill.

Normal, mentally healthy people do not commit mass murders. And quite a few of the shooters in recent tragedies had mental health problems that could have been treated, or at least managed via medication or even hospitalization if it had been available to them. What few people seem to have noticed is that this mass murder as a means of payback or gaining recognition is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Very, very few comparable acts have been committed outside the US…and there has to be something to that. What is it about contemporary American culture that spawns this kind of heinous act?

One of our biggest failings, I think, is the abandonment of the mentally ill. Jared Loughner, had he been born a couple of generations earlier, would have been in a state hospital not for committing a crime but because he was mentally unstable and dangerous to himself and others. Today, state mental hospitals are almost exclusively for the criminally insane—after their mental illness has led them to commit crimes. In 1967 California passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act which, unfortunately, has only been enforced as far as relieving the state of the burden of care of the mentally ill; the provisions which would cost the state money have been assiduously ignored. Other states followed suit with similar limitations and basically put the mentally ill out on the street and took away the power of family members to do what is best for those people, and the state washed its hands of responsibility. Given that a significant portion of Americans do not have any medical insurance and those who do have it ordinarily have very little mental health coverage (certainly not enough to pay for extended confinement for a mentally ill family member), there appeared not a crack but a chasm in mental health care: with the exception of the independently wealthy, care for the seriously mentally disturbed was out of the financial reach of most Americans and the state washed its hands of any responsibility.

This “not my brother’s keeper” mentality has added to this problem by making people unwilling to have tax money spent to house and treat such individuals. Because the mentally ill are not gushing blood or spreading communicable disease like TB, the average American sees no reason why the mentally ill can’t just “suck it up” and behave like the rest of us. Ignorance of mental illness is rife—I remember being frustratingly unable to pry open the minds of people in the Andrea Yates case and get them to grasp what psychosis meant and why she could not be blamed. People kept saying “she must be crazy to do such a thing” without truly grasping exactly what crazy meant in the context of her situation.

Part of this “not my brother’s keeper” mentality includes a slavish but uncomprehending dedication to both competitiveness and capitalism. Socialism is beginning to take on the spectre that Communism had back in the days of the Red Scare and any program intended to help the unfortunate using tax monies is branded “Socialism” and backed away from with abhorrence. But the truth is, those countries that foster cooperation and respect and care for the less fortunate, like the Scandinavian countries, have the lowest crime rates, the highest education rates, the greatest “life satisfaction” scores. And these countries are heavily Socialist--they invest tax monies in their people through high-quality education, health (including mental health) care, and a societal attitude that does not foster a heavily competitive, win-at-any-cost kind of society. Norway had a single spree killing in 2011—America had four. In the decade from 2003-2012, inclusive, the whole of Scandinavia had just the one massacre, America had 27...five of which occurred in California, the most populated state in the Union, and six of which occurred in Wisconsin! In fact, the most recent massacre in Scandinavia, prior to Breivik’s attack, appears to have occurred in the 15th or16 century!

Scandinavians value the idea of not only a free and equal society, but one in which the more fortunate help the less fortunate through government social problems. You seldom see tax refugee Swedes or Danes, and the idea that allowing poor people to freeze to death or starve, or that their children should die due to lack of appropriate medical care, doesn’t seem to have much traction. And yet, despite the high tax rate and socialist government, many people make money and live affluent lifestyles...Sweden alone boasts at least nine billionaires (in USD), of which only two have left to escape taxes.

The bottom line here is that this is a complex problem that will not respond to simplistic solutions. Mentally healthy people do not commit these kinds of atrocities, mentally unbalanced people do, so it would seem the very first line of address should be to tighten up the mental health laws. Gun laws? I dunno—Texas, a state rife with NRA-types only accounted for one massacre in the past decade, and that was on a military base where gun control laws would not apply. And yet Wisconsin, a state with a low population and even lower profile, had more massacres in the last decade than any other. What is going on in Texas that has kept a well-armed civilian populace massacre-free over the last decade that is not going on in Wisconsin? Or, conversely, what is going on in Wisconsin that so many citizens feel the need to spray death upon their unsuspecting neighbours that is not going on in Texas?

More than anything, we need to think...really, truly think...about this situation and not take action simply because it is an action. Ill-conceived laws hastily passed end up getting tossed out by the courts, leaving us right back at the starting point, but with precious time having been wasted. It’s not enough to control guns—or even ban them. The disturbed and truly determined will find other ways... there are numerous other ways of committing mass carnage than firearms including running a motor vehicle into a crowd or busy establishment or even bombs...any fool can make a bomb, instructions and ingredients are readily available. Most of all, however, we as a people have to start changing our attitudes, remember we are our brother’s keepers, and that compassion and empathy get us all further in the long run than selfishness and scorn.