15 December 2012

 

A Conversation on Mental Health and Guns

Hi, all.

The events of the last few years, much less the last few weeks, has led me (among others) to the conclusion that we have to have a serious conversation in this country about the kinds of mass killings we've seen all too much of in recent history. So, as my entree into that conversation, I want to put down for all my own history, my own biases, the way I frame this, to the degree such is possible through self reflection.

Yes, self reflection. You know, actually taking a moment to think about your stances, how you got to them, instead of reflexively spouting a story you've told yourself and others a thousand times. Or worse, reflexively spouting someone else's story that you've told yourself and others a thousand times.

History

[Danny, Gloria, Pam: If I get any of this wrong, y'all please correct me.]

I grew up in a family that had guns. Our dad—I have two older brothers—dabbled in collecting guns. He wasn't a serious collector, but he had friends who were. I don't think anyone would've characterized him as a "gun nut", but I don't think many who had guns would've been characterized as gun nuts back in the 1950s and 1960s. Where I grew up, in rural middle Tennessee, gun ownership was part and parcel of the local culture.

How much of that is tied to a culture that valued hunting and shooting—for food, as cultural legacy, just for the hell of it (out at the churt bank off of Grays Bend Road)—and how much of that is tied to our long national, amplified in the rural south, period of white supremacy, I can't characterize. He died the spring of my senior year in high school, so I never had an adult relationship with him. Relatives have represented to me how much of a racist our dad was, but I don't have recollections of arguing with him about that, and as soon as I got my head out of the Sons of the Confederacy nonsense they tried to indoctrinate me into when I was in the fifth and sixth grades, I ended up pretty much on the political left side of things. We would argue politics, but if we argued race politics, I don't recall it. Maybe I shut it out.

He did hunt. He'd go squirrel hunting locally, and we'd have squirrel for supper every once in a while. He once went pheasant hunting in South Dakota; don't recall what the outcome of that was. He'd hunt sometimes with our Uncle Vernon: his and Vernon's friend, Joe B. Pitts, of Cerro Gordo, Tennessee, on the Tennessee River, was the collector and trader of note. He ran a general store, but it was also a local place where people traded guns.

So, our dad had guns: There was a nice gun cabinet we had with our guns in it. Want to say it was made of redwood, with a glass door on the upper part where the rifles and shotguns were. It was locked, but we all knew where the key was. One of those guns was my 22-caliber rifle, although I didn't get to shoot it until I was older, and by then I wasn't very interested. I don't remember the gauges and calibers. Shotgun shells and bullets in one of the drawers. I want to think there was at least one pistol in the other drawer. Cleaning stuff down below. 

He also had a pistol he kept in his and our mom's (He was "Daddy", but she was "Mother": go figure that one out) bedroom, probably in the night stand on his side of the bed, but maybe in a draw in a short cabinet in their room. He also kept one—at least one, maybe more—in his office at his factory. (He was in the garment business. We made ponchos for the Army during the War in Viet Nam, as I've told elsewhere.)

Both at home and at work, there was also booze. His drink of choice was Very Old Barton, which I have learned might be the best damned bourbon for its price, but he would also drink vodka straight out of a small orange juice glass. These days, we'd probably characterize him as pretty much a functioning alcoholic. 

But he did drink to excess at times. I mean, way the hell, over the top, excess. Both in degree and in time. I can recall our mom going and looking for him after he'd been missing for at least a day at least once. Maybe it was more times.

He wasn't necessarily a fun drunk, although at the time, I 'm not sure I even realized that he was drunk sometimes. When I was in the seventh grade, he and my oldest brother Danny yelled at each other a lot.  It made me uncomfortable. Around the same time, I found letters my brother Ray had sent from his one year in military school. A light bulb went off in my head, and I decided I could go to military school.

I researched places that advertised in Boy's Life, and ended up going not to military school, but to a prep school in Florida called Florida Central Academy. Before the school year started, my mom mad plans for her and me to make a road trip across Tennessee and North Carolina to the Outer Banks, and then we would drive down through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to Daytona Beach, then back home to get ready to head off to school. Both my brothers were too old to think they would enjoy that kind of trip. I don't know if it was business or something going on between my folks that led to my dad not making that trip.

We stopped in Oak Ridge (nuclear stuff!), Gatlinburg (tourist stuff!), Raleigh (the Holiday Inn has a pool!). We drove to the Outer Banks and saw the obelisk at Kitty Hawk and National Park Service displays about the first powered flight. The Outer Banks were so different than the beaches I had seen in Florida. Tall dunes, no beach driving. It was cloudy and damp and remote from tourists and commercialism: what kind of beach is this?

We drove past and stopped at the site of the Lost Settlement, I think. We made our way to New Bern, North Carolina, for the night. In the middle of the night, the phone rang, and I was our family friend, Nina Harney. She had been trying to find us, and calling motels in towns in North Carolina until she did. I remember getting a glass of water for my mom while she was on the phone, because it was clear from her side of the conversation and her body language—did she blanch, too?—that something awful had happened. 

When she hung up the phone, she turned to me and said "Your daddy has shot Danny."

And he had. If Danny is comfortable with it, he can fill in the details from his point of view, but I want to say he took a bullet in the right leg above the knee. From what gun, I'm not sure. Yes, Daddy was drunk. If I understand correctly, in a replay of a story that as old as the Bible (see drunken Noah well after all the flood stuff), Danny was trying to get drunk Daddy to go to bed. I don't really know enough to tell the story accurately, but that's my memory of it. Our brother Ray was there, and I know he's told it to me before, too, but it's not something we talked about a lot.

Talking about it would've probably killed our mom to the same degree as Daddy having shot Danny in the first place. She did not want to talk about it; she didn't want to talk about emotional things, period. She and I drove I-40 all the way from its then eastern terminus to back home. I don't recall a word being said.

Danny was in the hospital, but was going to be fine. The local prosecutor had found a way not to prosecute our dad, but I kind of remember there was a story in the local paper about it. Our mom moved into the guest room for an extended period; our dad went on the wagon for an extended period.

A few weeks later, I went off to prep school. Our dad drove me down here to Florida in the Fleetwood sedan he had bought her the day Robert Kennedy was shot. We had a black woman who cleaned for us—a colored girl, in the language of the times—and I can remember her waking me up that morning after Sirhan Sirhan had assassinated RFK, saying "they got our man." I hated that car. We had a blowout somewhere around Cullman, Alabama, and our dad, in his typical over-the-top pissed-off way, had all the tires on the car replaced. He dropped me off at the school the next day, and I was ready to begin a life that was far away from those crazy people that were all I knew, that I loved, but that I had no idea how to be happy around.

That was summer 1969, the summer of love. The White Album was out, and songs off of it pervaded the radio in the car. "Birthday". "Obla-di, Obla-da". "Helter Skelter". I wanna say the Tate-LaBianca murders happened while our mom and I were on that road trip. Crazy times to be alive. Crazy times to grow up. Crazy places, crazy times.

I was anti-gun for a good while after that. There was no joy in guns for me. 

Later, much later (when I went back to college in 1982), I took pistol for a phys ed class. I learned the joy of hurling hot lead at high velocities from a hand-held object. I took the class to deal with the biases I knew I had about guns. Since then, my relationship with guns has been much more complicated and nuanced.

I have friends who love guns; I have friends who hate guns. I don't own any guns, but it's more out of not wanting the hassle of having guns, not because of any now deep-seated aversion.

I am skeptical that arming everyone would work. I am skeptical that you can disarm this nation. Still, if you can't see the data that other countries with more restrictive access to firearms actually do have much—very much—lower rates of violent crime, then you are not paying attention to reality as it is. That is, gun control is very much able to reduce the rate of violent crime. 

I think we all have to look out for our own and each others' civil liberties, but I think people who construct frameworks about the government coming for their guns because governments are intrinsically evil are goofy. Our great democratic-republic is nothing like the state systems of Russia or China during the Communist heyday, nor like the Nazis or other fascist states. People who are looking for totalitarian overlords of the left or the right in the US system are not well-connected to reality in my opinion. 

That said, I think our attractions towards libertarianism are understandable, maybe even innate, since most of us just want to be left alone. My own thinking, though, is that without big government, you give everything up to big business and big finance, especially with the decline of big labor. If you make me choose between big business/big finance and big government, I'll take big government. The latter represents us all; the former represents the interests of shareholders, possibly non-US national shareholders.

The gun manufacturers are a part of big business.

Framework

There are multiple players in our national story of mental health and guns:
  • People with mental health problems; i.e., all of us. Of course, while almost all of us have acute mental health issues at isolated points in our lives, a lot of us (and I don't know the numbers) have longer term situations related to our emotional health, ability to cope, our feelings regarding how we fit in in the world, our being able to get motivated to do anything. 
  • Mental health care professionals: Counsellors, shrinks, nurses, doctors, and the like.
  • Advocates for people with mental health problems: This cohort is all over the place, no? Some advocates want people who can't cope institutionalized; other want people who can marginally cope, deinstitutionalized. The forces of deinstitutionalization have been more effective in determining policy at federal, state, and local levels over the past few decades than the forces of institutionalization. And there was a time when there was over-institutionalization, but there have also been plenty of people in positions of authority—statutory and regulatory authority—who have erred on the side of deinstitutionalization based on the idea that it's cheaper, not on the idea that it's either more human or more effective at treating people with emotional disease.
  • Gun owners who hunt.
  • Gun owners who collect but never shoot.
  • Gun owners who like to hurl hot lead at high velocities from a hand-held or arm-held device.
  • Gun owners who like having a gun because they think it protects them. I'm not sure of the efficacy of gun ownership at protection overall or on its impact on overall crime rates (and these ought to be something that can be measured), but I enjoy a good "granny shot a burglar" story as much as the next person. 
  • Gun owners who like having a gun because they think it makes their criminal activities or enterprises more effective. As with the above, not sure of the degree to which reality co-relates with their beliefs.
  • Gun owners who have a gun for one of the above purposes, but get their gun stolen and see it used for some other purpose. Mack still never got that Ruger he bought that got stolen before I met him back.
  • Gun manufacturers.
  • Organizations that represent gun interests. Here's my take on this: The NRA once represented the interests of gun owners, primarily hunters and sport shooters, but it became the lobbying arm of gun manufacturers. Our dad was a lifetime member of the NRA, and after he died and after we sold off the factory, I had The American Rifleman delivered to my dorm address at MIT. Like I noted above, I loved "The Armed Citizen" column. Who wouldn't? But I think that, contrary to what most of its members think, the NRA uses its members, underlyingly representing the gun manufacturers. This was cemented when Charlton Heston was its president: The marketing says "we represent gun owners", but if you look at who truly benefits from the policies supported by the NRA, it's not gun owners, it's gun manufacturers. So, I don't think the NRA can be an honest participant in this discussion, as much as many of you who are members would like to think so. This is entirely parallel to people who vote Republican on values issues, even though the agenda of the Republican party is, at its heart, to represent the interests of rich people. (This is why I was looking up Izzy Stone last night, because I can remember him saying something about the NRA and how it once represented gun owners, but came to represent gun manufacturers.)
  • People who don't like guns for any of a variety of reasons. I was one of these people once.
  • Police who would rather not have to deal with so many damned guns.
  • Politicians who try to respond to all the competing interest groups. The ones who seem to have been most effective at this recently are two recent Senators from New York, now Secretary of State Clinton and her successor, Senator Gillebrand. On the gun side, they have to represent strong rural gun-owning hunting constituencies as well as urban constituencies that are concerned about guns being used against them by criminals.
  • I'm sure I've left some out.
  • Clearly, this is complicated. 

Biases

I've already stated some of them, but here's a list: Big government doesn't freak me out the way it does some of you. Mental health advocates and gun advocates may have other agendas than the best intests of those impacted by emotional disease or of those who own guns. A lot of people who once might've used guns in the commission of crimes—disproportionately economically disadvantaged males of black or brown color—have been locked up under the auspicies of drug laws that are ridiculous. People can still buy guns of various sizes and shapes without background checks, meaning that folks from those with criminal records to terrorists to those under emotional distress can legally buy guns through various channels entirely legally without getting scrutinized.

Adult citizens of the United States of America ought to be able to buy guns for some of the reasons listed above: to hunt, as a hobby, for the sheer joy of shooting. Adults who aren't experiencing emotional or mental problems—and alcoholism, as per my tale above, is a mental problem—can manage to own a gun and use it properly. 

Even with proper training, people with firearms are less effective in a shooting situation than they fantasize themselves to be. Again, I love the granny shot the home intruder stories, but in shooting situations, even cops tend to shoot innocent bystanders. The idea that people who own a gun for self protection, go to the range every so often, and even practice certain situations are going to be effective when a mentally disturbed person with a semi-automatic weapon starts shooting in a close environment is going to be able to take out the shooter is a farce. It's laughable. It's a fantasy that the NRA has sold to a bunch of people so that the manufacturers can sell more guns

The mental health side of the story doesn't get nearly the attention it should. Media interests know that stories about guns, controversies about guns, sell newspapers more than stories about our national lack of attention to mental health does. 

Moving Forward

Since we're probably not going to make much progress on the gun side of things—gun ownership, for whatever reasons, is deeply intrenched in our culture—maybe we can make progress on the mental health side of things. Again, I don't think the argument that government can't be effective at gun control is true, since there are examples aplenty contrary to that. Whether those would work given where we are today is another question, as too is whether those scale for a large continental nation that's not under single-party control. (And do not start with me with your "both parties are the same" nonsense.)

For instance, maybe it's time to recognize that the deinstitutionalization of long-term mentally ill patients, begun under President Carter and adopted gladly by President Reagan, was wrong. Maybe institutions can better care for people sadly afflicted with such problems than their families can (and since many of their families can't, with better results than the sad, violent lives many of these folks live as homeless people). Maybe it's time to ensure that our national health priorities better recognize the emotional health, our own and that of those we love, those we live near. 

Maybe the single most effective thing we can do in a shorter run is make progress toward the destigmatization of emotional health matters. Responsibility, for critters like us that do make choices (although not always be the mechanisms we claim we make them by) is important, but don't we have to get away from the idea that people can will away their emotional problems? 

I've got to stop here; this is too long already. We have got to talk this out this time, though. The gun ownership cohort has got to understand that a goodly part of those of us who don't own guns are fed up with mass killings by unstable individuals with access to guns. Those who don't like guns need to give up on their simplistic ideas about making guns go away. Can't we all agree to work on the shameful state of our national response towards mental health matters as a start.

Good wishes to all.








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