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The Politics And Psychology Of Gun Culture


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we'll take a trip to the Rust Belt. Writer Ann Hull wrote about a young woman's hard climb to a better life there. That's coming up. But first, we want to continue our conversation in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that took the lives of 20 children, along with six adults and the shooter.

With us are journalists Paul Barrett and Craig Whitney. They've both written books about guns in American life. And with us, psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell of the Institute for the Prevention of Violence. They're all still with us.

I want to pick up on something that we've been talking about a lot in Washington, which is this whole debate over addressing the federal budget deficit.

And in the course of that, we keep hearing that previously untouchable things are now touchable because people understand the severity of the situation, right? So I wanted to ask, you know, Paul Barrett and Craig Whitney to start with: Why not some of the things that we've previously considered untouchable, like some program to get some of the guns out of American society, or, for example, requiring more of gun owners? Craig Whitney?

CRAIG WHITNEY: Well, you could talk about taking another look at how you regulate the so-called assault weapons, which didn't really work well in the 10 years it was in effect. But we don't have a problem with machine gun assaults in this country anymore. We haven't had since it was basically made illegal for most people to have machine guns by the National Firearms Act in 1934.

Is something like that possible, thinkable today? I don't know, but I think you won't find out unless you try to start a talk across the ideological divide about it. That may be a way.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett, you've actually said recently that an assault weapons ban would actually be pointless. Why is that?

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah. Well, because I think what you really want to focus on is magazine capacity: how much ammunition a given weapon can accommodate. Calling something an assault weapon is largely just a pejorative term for a semiautomatic rifle, and is really neither here nor there.

An assault weapon is not, shot-for-shot, any more lethal than grandpa's wooden-stock deer hunting rifle. So let's talk about magazine capacity, which we did limit under the assault weapons ban enacted in 1994. We had a limit of no more than 10 rounds per magazine. And we could institute - we could reinstitute that kind of restriction.

And if we banned the possession of large-capacity magazines, that would be meaningful, because that would basically create a mandate for law enforcement to go out and collect the millions of large-capacity magazines that are already legally held in private hands. My point on this is simply that I don't think even Dianne Feinstein or Barack Obama or any other Democrat in Washington is actually going to contemplate proposing a law that would result in the confiscation of large-capacity magazines that are already out in the marketplace.

MARTIN: Because why not? Why not? It just isn't done. Confiscation is just not something that's part of the American story.

BARRETT: Because you imagine being the sheriff in a rural county in Texas given the job of going to people's homes and collecting their 20-round magazines. You're talking not just a political problem. You're talking about civil insurrection.

MARTIN: Well, and also, too, on the whole question of civil liberties, the whole question that the president raised of freedom versus the consequence of unchecked freedom, Dr. Bell, what about the whole question of a more aggressive approach to people with mental health problems? You can understand why that's also a sensitive question.

But I'm reminded that there was a Florida law restricting what doctors could actually say about guns to their patients.


MARTIN: It was passed, but then it was blocked by a federal judge last year. What about that idea of a more aggressive stance toward people with mental health issues?

BELL: You know, the problem is, is that most people with mental health issues are not any more dangerous or violent than average non-mentally-ill people. So, again, you run the risk of, you know, doing the squeaky wheel kind of an approach. And you're going to have a ton of false-positive people being restricted and inhibited from this.

You know, this is an interesting conversation, because I've heard two different things. One is sort of a biotechnical, and I agree with the whole idea of limiting the ammunition and the mechanism. But then there's the - also the psychosocial way of preventing things, which are teaching people how to minimize their hurt and not act out in an angry, aggressive way.

Making sure that people are being monitored and observed for their strange behaviors so that nobody goes off on the deep end and people say, oh, I didn't notice, trying to reduce stigma so that people can be more welcoming of those of us who have issues of mental illness.

Trying to teach people social and emotional skills so that they don't use their anger in an overt way, and making sure that people are connected to other people. These are all psychosocial prevention techniques which absolutely, positively work, but they're much more difficult to put into place than doing something technically physical, like reducing the number of rounds that a person can have in a magazine.

MARTIN: Can you just - Dr. Bell, could you just dream for a moment and tell me what that would look like? What would it look like to put in place just one or two or three of the things that you just talked about?

BELL: What that would look like would be to have communities have block clubs where neighbors actually spoke to one another and monitored one another's children. You know, a lot of these shootings that have occurred have been by young people, and my metaphor for complex neuropsychiatry is that people under 26 are all gasoline, no brakes and no steering wheel. And so they need the society to be the brakes and the steering wheel, so block clubs and neighbors getting to know one another.

And then the whole issue of trying to figure out how to reduce the constant fear that is being promulgated by the media. I mean, you would think that this sort of an incident is every two seconds, because it's all over everywhere.

And so people get scared. They don't talk to one another. They're afraid of things. Better education, having social and emotional skills in our school system. You know, schools are not just to teach kids technical things about reading and writing and arithmetic. They're there to transform children into being good human beings. So there are things that are being done, actually, but it's just difficult to get them ubiquitous.

MARTIN: I see. Craig Whitney, I'm going to give you the final thought here. You talked a lot, too, about - in your book about the fact that gun owners have rights, but they should also have more responsibilities. Can you - do you want to talk a little bit more about that?

WHITNEY: Well, I would urge them to remember that the whole history of guns in America was connected with civic duty, originally. That's why the Second Amendment was written the way it is. It was if you had a gun, you also had the civic duty to come when the militia called to join in the common defense. I think, though, that if we worry only about the hardware, we're never going to solve our gun violence problem.

We have to address the mental issues. And we have programs that do work with kids in troubled neighborhoods and big cities, for instance. Ceasefire is a violence prevention program that uses former members of gangs to talk to present members of gangs about how guns are not the answer to all their problems.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there for now, and I thank all of you for joining us for this important conversation. And I hope we'll speak again. Craig Whitney is the author of the book "Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment." Paul Barrett is the author of the book "Glock: The Rise of America's Handgun." They both joined us from our bureau in New York.

Dr. Carl Bell is a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He's also the founder of the Institute for the Prevention of Violence, and he was with us for member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Gentlemen, thank you all.

BELL: Thank you.

WHITNEY: Thank you.

BARRETT: Yep. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.