Guns, like abortion and taxes, is one of those issues that seems to turn everyone in America into frothing, rigid partisans, which means that it’s next to impossible to make progress on it. Gun-control advocates fought a losing battle in the 1980s and 90s, and no amount of blood spilled in Colorado, Wisconsin or Connecticut can convince us to open that fight back up. For the time being, any kind of serious gun control is not politically possible.
And yet, here’s a case that makes me think we ought to try: Sung-Ho Hwang, a local lawyer, headed into a New Haven showing of Batman this week with a gun tucked into his waistband. This seems like an incredibly bad idea, given the context of the painfully recent theater shootings in Aurora, CO, but he did it anyway, citing the need to protect himself on downtown streets late at night. He was arrested after patrons, understandably worried, called police to say there was a man with a gun in the theater.
Hwang, as it happens, had a valid pistol permit, and what he was doing was not against the law. Apparently just bringing a gun into a movie theater is not illegal. According to the letter of the law he shouldn’t have been arrested at all. And yet, like New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, I feel like there’s something about that action which is jarring and provocative. “Just because something is legal,” the mayor said at a press conference, “Doesn’t make it right.” The same goes for purchasing vicious, but legal, assault weapons in Colorado—which is exactly what the Aurora shooter did.
So what can we do to get past the arguing and suspicion and enact real reform?
I get all kinds of pro-gun spam to the email address I use to sign up for political lists, and sometimes I listen to radio shows on AM radio that have a strong pro-gun lean to them. When they avoid “Obama and the UN are going to take your guns away!” hysteria, their underlying arguments make a certain amount of sense. Many see gun control as a symptom of the much larger and more insidious problem of government intrusion into our lives. Guns are a right, says both the courts and the Constitution, and if the government can take that right away what stops them from taking others? Besides, gun advocates argue, many gun owners are brought up in a culture which teaches them to use guns responsibly. Being a gun owner doesn’t make someone a monster or a criminal. In Switzerland, for example, a huge majority of the population owns guns and yet there is so little gun crime that the Swiss don’t bother keeping statistics on it.
Despite that, the United States suffers from more gun-related injuries per capita than any other country in the developed world. People have used guns to commit horrific mass killings, and Connecticut is in no way immune. The lottery shootings in 1998 happened in the town where I grew up, Newington, and a little over a decade later there was another mass shooting in Manchester, only twenty miles away. Gun crime in our cities is depressingly common, though it happens in the suburbs and rural towns too. Something has to change.
It’s time to start using our common sense when it comes to guns. Mr. Hwang had every right to carry his gun into that theater in New Haven, but he should have known better. Mayor DeStefano is calling for state law to be changed to allow municipalities to restrict gun owners from carrying weapons into certain kinds of buildings. This is a good start, but we can do more. For instance, we can enact sensible restrictions such as keeping military-grade assault weapons out of civilian hands. Also, instead of trying pointless gun buy-back or trade-in programs, we should embark on an ambitious two-pronged campaign to educate people on how to use guns more safely, and to work to alleviate the social and economic inequalities that lead to gun violence in the first place.
In this age of austerity and blaming the poor for their lack of wealth, that seems like a tall order. In gun-friendly Switzerland, though, there is very little gun crime because there is very little crime of any kind. By and large, the people’s needs are met. If we really want to reduce gun crime while respecting gun owners and the Second Amendment, which should be our goal, we must look to common sense laws and social solutions first.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.