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For quite some time now, people have heard me often repeating an adage that I try to live by…

“Three things it’s never a good idea to do when you’re emotional: date, debate, and legislate.”

Rarely do we succeed when we attempt to keep a cool head, at least in the initial moments of shocking or upsetting news.

Lately however, as our nation sees firearms becoming a front-and-center topic of national discussion, I have been trying very hard to stay as objective and collected as possible. In spite of my strong feelings on the topic, I have tried to be a voice of reason and moderation in chats with friends, family, and even online.

I have sought out the opinions and views of others, particularly those whose ideologies do not directly parallel my own.

And I’ve even chastened many of fellow gun-rights supporters when I’ve felt their words have been coming across too harshly. A particularly rewarding dynamic has sprung up between myself and a reporter from my own hometown of Philadelphia. Tara Murtha is a delightfully outspoken journalist and artist whose beliefs and feelings about guns are very different from mine. And yet, we manage to speak with respect to each other online. Perhaps it helps that on so many other topics — from arts to women’s issues to inequality — we see more eye-to-eye.

I am very thankful for finding in her that rarest of gifts: a smart person with whom you can disagree even while learning from one another.

Through her I learned of the “Gun Crisis” summit that was taking place in my city, and I was astounded at how I felt upon attending. Despite a name that would seem to indicate hoplophobia among their ranks, I discovered a wide spectrum of activists, church leaders, local politicians, and even just men and women from our neighborhoods who were truly engaged and passionate about reducing criminal use of guns and reforming broken social systems… not seeing the law-abiding populace disarmed.

Other conversations about guns where she or I have tweeted various comments, facts, and opinions have been similarly rewarding.

Then, just the other day, our opposing views on the topic became more noticeable, at least in terms of how conversation and debate is best served. It is little surprise that this interlude of disquiet in our otherwise amenable chatter came at a time when emotions were running high. Tara had been tweeting about a story wherein two of her strong viewpoints intersected: a story about women’s issues and gun violence.

Sharing the heart-wrenching statistic that “90 women have been shot to death by their partners in the last 8 weeks” Tara tweeted the link to the above HuffPo article by Melissa Jeltsen. Almost immediately, as is often the case whenever Tara treats the topic of guns, her twitter stream chirped away with a mix of sympathy, support, and the inevitable criticism that hot topics unearth.

However, Tara then did something which I felt was unhelpful. Instead of merely ignoring the braying masses who seek to troll people on Twitter (or responding to them with brief follow-up inquiries, as she sometimes does) Tara announced to her followers that she was “about to tweet a few of the assumptions made & insults thrown” at her in response to the article. Then began a brief — yet somewhat shocking — series of retweets of persons like John Wizeman, Ken Soderstrom, and FPS Canada.

While these individuals, and others like them, may not be out to blatantly troll and flame people on the internet all of the time, a brief scroll through their Twitter feeds reveals that they are also not exactly sound and level-headed voices of calm debate. I might be doing them a bit of an injustice by saying this, but they strike me as being rather like Alex Jones, the Texas independent media personality who made quite a stir recently, bloviating and yelling at Piers Morgan on CNN during prime time.

I am of the opinion that people such as these are somewhat unhelpful to the gun rights debate. A brief sampling of the tweets that Tara shared in her stream paint the picture as to why I feel this way…

‏@JohnWizeman
so if there were no guns these women would still be alive? Come to the real world where ppl do the killing not inanimate objects

‏@FPSCanadaEH
I wonder how long it will take before they just cry out to ban men…

‏@soderstromk
Yes. Take away everybody’s guns. Then even those who care enough to defend themselves can be beaten to death too.

‏@FPSCanadaEH
it sickens me that libtards are so obsessed with “banning” guns that will put more woman in harms way

‏@FPSCanadaEH
how many unarmed woman were raped? Or beaten? Or murdered in general?

While clearly some of these men may be trying to espouse viewpoints with which I agree on some level, the nature of their comments — riddled with an unhelpful dose of snide sarcasm and outright anger — threaten to derail their whole argument. Is anyone going to read words couched in this manner and be swayed? Are they even attempting to convince others of their viewpoints? Or are they more akin to someone who is simply shouting at the umpire because they don’t like the call at home plate?

I would make the case that comments such as these and so many others like them are not examples of people who are actually trying to participate in meaningful discussion. And retweeting them as if they are exemplars of “opposing viewpoints” serves only as a rather weak tactic to bolster one’s own credibility. I bemoaned this problem to Tara, asking her whether it “truly [helps] debate all that much to highlight and give more prominent exposure to the most extreme and bellicose voices?”

But the moment was already starting to slip further afield. She, too, was caught up to some degree in the poignant emotions which were running hot on both sides. She tweeted…

Fascinating how simply stating gun violence data is perceived as trying to “take away” guns.

… and followed this by asking…

If acknowledging gun-crime stats is inherently partisan & liberal now, is refusing to acknowledge gun-crime stats a conservative value now?

In response to my questioning of whether voices like the ones quoted above were really all that helpful to the process and deserving of retweets, Tara responded…

It’s a twitter feed, not a Senate hearing. In this context, yes.

 

It was also on this day that Tara encouraged me to blog.

Primarily, this was in response to my stating that I had similarly strong opinions about the Jeltsen piece, but that Twitter’s 140 character limit would make sane and rational discussion all but impossible. I am not totally sure if her suggestion to me was completely genuine or more of a brief dismissal, but I am inclined to think it was the former. Even with tempers a little bit piqued, I believe her suggestion came from a place of honesty and support.

So here I am.

I don’t anticipate blogging with any great frequency. I’m not going to try to develop some sort of following here. But I may use this platform from time to time when the random musings and strong opinions that surface within me fail to be constrained by the 140-character cage that is Twitter. (Fair warning — as people who correspond with me via email already know — when I do start to write, brevity often takes a back seat to expressiveness. What I might lack in frequency of posts here I’ll surely make up for in length of prose.)

 

Well, I’ve gone through all the trouble of setting up Word Press on my site. So let’s examine that article more closely.

It is chiefly a story of the tragic and despicable murder of a young woman, 21 years of age and a single working mother, shot at close range by her 18-year-old boyfriend (or ex-boyfriend, the matter is slightly unclear) who had a history of viciously abusing her and who was bound by court orders restraining him from coming near her.

Right off the bat, I honed in on one statistic that likely got the dander up when it was read by some of the voices whom Tara quoted…

an estimated 30 to 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check

Needless to say, I blinked for a moment when I read that. Thirty to forty percent of guns are purchased without background checks? I found that hard to swallow. And yet, that whole sentence appeared as a link, visually-assuring the reader that this was no mere musing but was, rather, backed up by hard facts.

Curious, I clicked through. Interestingly, that assertion was not citing a factual study, but rather President Obama’s remarks at a political appearance. While there are indeed problems in this country with regard to how disallowed individuals get their hands on guns illegally, I would argue that it’s rather disingenuous to assert that over a third of all gun sales take place outside of established channels like gun shops, licensed dealers, and the like. (If I am wrong, I welcome stats to the contrary, and will link to them here with an edit if they are credible.)

It is unfortunate that overall the article has a very noticeable gun-control air to it, because such an undercurrent will often cause some people to tune out precisely when they should be attempting to digest and analyze many of the points being discussed. Points such as this…

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) — chief sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act… — made the connection between gun violence and domestic violence. Leahy testified in a hearing that in states that require background checks for handgun sales, 38 percent fewer women are shot by their partners.

The truth is that violence against women, particularly firearm-related violence, shows alarming numbers. The article cites various heartrending and distressing cases of abusers and domestic arguments that ended in shootings. It is a trend that does merit real discussion. All too often, the system seems to fail women and other often-abused groups right at moments of crisis when they are vulnerable.

The article notes that under Federal law, convicted domestic abusers are required to relinquish their firearms, but enforcement at the state level differs. This was surprising to me. I was born in New Jersey, where those of us who are friendly with police or Feds know stories of the “green bucket” arriving at homes where all firearms are temporarily confiscated, due to restraining orders and domestic abuse convictions. The fact that convicted abusers (not merely accused persons, but people who have been declared dangerous by a judge) can retain possession of their firearms while legal matters are being sorted out is somewhat shocking to me. And it would be a point worth discussing in greater detail, particularly among people who disagree about guns.

The article mentions that the National Rifle Association “opposed universal background checks” but it inserts this comment without further analysis or explanation. In the past, I would often be critical of a journalist who would paint the NRA with such a broad brush and not include so much as a single line summarizing the opposition’s arguments, but frankly that organization has now slid so far to the margins in the gun debate that they themselves are rarely a part of the helpful discourse anymore and therefore I’ll easily forgive Ms. Jeltsen for that sentence. Still, given that the NRA so rarely represents the views and feelings of many gun owners anymore, it may have been helpful to simply not mention them at all.

 

Of course, the hard reality that we all must understand is that simple, one stop solutions are never going to be the answer. Background checks would prevent some abusers from obtaining firearms, but surely many will acquire them illegally (or already own them and will fail to be disarmed properly).

Likewise, gun ownership is not (pardon the unintentional pun) a magic bullet that will prevent victimization. Yes, it will often level the playing field, but without training and most of all without a healthy mindset… will it make a difference? I ask you, how likely do you think it will be for a woman who has been so emotionally tortured that she could barely stop dating her abuser to actually bring her self to level a gun upon him and fire?

For all the bluster and tough talk (on both sides of this issue) the reality of living in fear and of countering stalking is very horrifying. What happens when a squad car is informed by police dispatch that they have to wrap it up for the night and return to the station after sitting outside the home of a beaten woman? What happens when a helpful Uncle who says “sure you can stay with me a few days” has only a couch to offer and a home with very little additional privacy and personal space for a family seeking shelter? And what was the victimized woman who was the focus of this piece going to do for a daily routine? Does she stop showing up for work at the meat factory whose paycheck was supporting her children? Does she pull the kids out of daycare or school, to live in their apartment with the doors locked and all the windows blacked out until debt collectors start calling?

I have worked in the security industry for decades now, and the mantra among all those who know this field well is the notion of layers. You plan multiple lines of defense and you accept that many of your protections will fail. The solution to problems like the ones in this article are not about just owning a gun or calling police or locking up abusers or inspecting mental health records. The solution touches on all of those things, and so much more.

 

But just as the pro-gun crowd is often quick to summarize advice to abused women with a curt suggestion to “get yourself a firearm” as if they are the ultimate answer, the gun control voices often decry these implements as the ultimate evil. I also encountered this line in the piece by Ms. Jeltsen…

“having a gun in the home makes a woman eight times more likely to be killed.” (emphasis hers)

The link for citation of this “fact” was to an NIH study. And, indeed, the study did conclude that the presence of firearms in the home and/or in the hand of abusers had a correlation (it was not presented as a causation, mind you, but simply as a data correlation) with situations that eventually wound up in the tragic murder of the abused.

However, the study was very detailed and made in-depth analysis of a great number of factors, all of which were found to have great relevance when matters of domestic abuse and escalating violence are being inspected. They included…

  • perpetrator’s access to a gun
  • previous threat with a weapon
  • perpetrator’s stepchild in the home
  • estrangement, especially from a controlling partner
  • living together
  • prior domestic violence arrest
  • the victim having left for another partner
  • perpetrator’s use of a gun
  • stalking
  • forced sex
  • abuse during pregnancy

 

…to boil down all of those manifold and complex facts, which were studied in detail and analyzed across a whole series of data models, to simply “if a gun is around you’re more likely to die” is disingenuous.

And I’m willing to bet that many of the readers who follow links from reporters like Tara Murtha and then see an article like this are caught in the trap of painting with a broad brush. Tara, Melissa, and others like them who hope to encourage good discussion simply wind up being tagged with the label of “anti-gun” and are therefore dismissed.

If you’re interested in reading a very different piece about women, the threat of domestic abuse, and gun ownership, I would encourage you to scroll through the brief post entitled Stalked: Girl Without A Gun by Robert J. Avrech

 

So where does this leave us, in this heated and emotional topic of women, abusers, and guns? What should we ask ourselves as we seek to understand how awful violence like this continues to happen and how we might seek to thwart it.

I’ll tell you right off the bat, focusing too much on “Why was she with him?” is not a helpful question. “Why was she still with him after being beaten and/or verbally abused?” is more a more valid inquiry, but it starts to get into very delicate territory. Can you honestly say that every single person with whom you started a relationship turned out to be just the way you imagined them upon your first encounter?

Countless papers have been written about this. Some professionals have dedicated their whole career to understanding how battered women* can repeatedly fall into unhealthy patterns, either with one partner or a series of them. Not only does inordinate focus on this kind of a question often belie a person’s lack of education on matters like the psychology of abuse, it also often comes dangerously close to victim-blaming without ever actually landing on any facts or notions that might hope to break this cycle in the future.

* I recognize that many of these issues transcend gender, and I don’t want to marginalize the hardships of anyone who has had to face abuse. Still, since the original article and the Twitter debate pertained to victimized women, I am keeping my phrasing within that context of gender. I trust that my male and trans friends will all give me a pass.

 

I tend to think it would be best to distill the question down to…

“How can we make things better/easier/smoother/safer for someone who finds herself in these situations?”

…ah, now we are coming closer to the heart of the matter.

And here is where I think the pro-gun and anti-gun folks actually all agree. People like ‏@JohnWizeman and @taramurtha would see eye-to-eye, and @FPSCanadaEH and @quasimado would stand shoulder-to-shoulder if we tried harder to keep focus on that particular question. Each and every one of us wants to see those who are victimized, abused, threatened, or scared find sanctuary, security, and peace.

 

And, frankly, i’m almost willing to bet that if there were a women’s shelter somewhere with throngs of drunken, irate ex’s roaming outside, throwing bottles and stones at the windows and screaming the trite bellows of “I’m coming in there and you can’t stop me!” you might even see Tara or Melissa willing to pick up a shotgun if they were within those walls. The willingness to protect those who need our help can supersede our discomfort with violence if people can be convinced that they are doing the right thing.

Likewise, the desire to guard against imminent violence and see victimized and helpless people protected from armed abusers could also — most likely — see John Wizeman and FPSCanada supporting improvements to the system that clearly can do more to keep guns out of the hands of violent abusers. The desire to prevent harm can overcome concerns of gun confiscation if people can be convinced that the state won’t be given additional power to harass or oppress them.

 

I would ask Tara and Melissa a very direct question:

If an abused woman, in control of her own living situation (meaning, with her own place to stay, not still cohabitating with her abuser) were faced with the possibility of this violent assailant calling upon her unexpectedly, would you be in favor of her choice to have a gun in the home or would you still prefer that she not have access to a gun in her home?

I would also ask John and FPS this very direct question:

If all gun sales were to involve a criminal background check, but said background check could be implemented in a way that the government was not maintaining records of what guns were being purchased by what people (if the NICS system was simply spitting back yes/no answers to the “is this person a felon” question) would you support wider, if not near-total, use of such a system for gun sales?

 

I can imagine a future in which the NICS database is so open and accessible that any citizen with someone’s name and SSN can type into a web form and instantly see the results of their query when they click “submit” in their browser.

Want to purchase a gun in a licensed gun shop? Fine. Go there, pick something out, and after you satisfy whatever paperwork the shop requires, the dealer punches your name and details into their laptop. You both can see the screen as it instantly returns a “yes” or “no” response. No waiting around as the dealer stands idle with a phone to their ear, endlessly on hold. No wondering exactly whom the dealer is talking to or what personal information is being discussed. And no question marks about your own approval process. Want to know if you’ll be alright in the store? Run this exact same check yourself at home before you go.

A purchase at a gun show? A sale at a pawn shop? A transfer simply between friends within the same state? The process would be no different. A web page is used, instant NICS result are returned, and a clean response means the purchase can proceed. If the system pops a negative result, the prospective customer could (in my view, surely should) be instantly be provided with some error code or detail as to why this is the case, and contact information could be displayed for the appropriate agencies who might help clear the problem if there is some error in the database.

Openness. Accessibility. And, most of all, a great degree of difficulty for the system to be abused or perverted into some additional form of control… those are the factors that would bring me to support increased background checks.

 

Could the state log which names are being run through this web-enabled check system? Of course they could. Would the data be useful at all to them? Hardly. Worried that the state might be trying to build patterns as to when and where your own name pops in the server logs? Pull your own NICS data every single day, from various computers and networks. Heck, I could see whole businesses advertising a service like this. Automated, random NICS checks happening on distributed networks to pollute the logs into random drivel if a bureaucrat were ever to try to mine it for identifying data. I can imagine gun shops and FFL dealers who tout “we use Tor networks for NICS checks” as one of the benefits for customer transacting with them.

If people like Tara Murtha and Melissa Jeltsen wish to portray themselves as common-sense gun policy advocates, would they support a system like this? If outspoken gun owners like John Wizeman and FPSCanada could rest assured that the data were not able to be used for tracking and ownership records (to the best of our abilities) would they speak up in defense of a system such as this?

I am not blind to the fact that this kind of system is imperfect. Show me just about any database that involves citizens’ personal information and I’ll show you one that might some day be used to infringe on civil liberties. Likewise, any system where background checks are a mouse-click away has the feeling of being “voluntary” or “unenforceable” to some degree. Who’s to say that, with no records after-the-fact, a private dealer at a gun show or a face-to-face transfer between citizens would actually opt to perform this proper NICS check? And let’s not get started on the possible problems with persons using false or stolen ID and passing themselves off as someone else during such a process.

But here’s the thing… no system is ever going to be perfect. The world is an imperfect place. As a society, we make due the best we can to protect everyone among us from very differing and often contradictory ills. Crime and oppression can bear down on us from lone bad actors, mobs of unruly attackers, and even from within the corridors of politics. Juggling how best to shield ourselves, our loved ones, and even men and women whom we have never met from forces such as these will never be achieved with a one-size fits all solution, nor will the “answer” ever solidify into one unified theory or be something approved of by everyone from all walks of life.

But I think a healthy place to start is to always keep in mind the virtues of debate and discussion… particularly when it involves smart people with whom you disagree. Bellicose rhetoric often makes you appear less intellectual and worthy of consideration by those who disagree, even while it garners sympathetic nods of support on the part of people who are ideologically aligned with you. Every time Alex Jones appears on TV or Mayor Bloomberg holds a dubious press conference or someone retweets a particularly nasty remark out of context or we groan as a loved one raises their voice while passing side dishes around a holiday dinner table, it simply reinforces so many stereotypes and causes viewpoints to become more entrenched.

While my friends and I all tend to be great fans of shows like Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” wherein learned skeptics cut through shoddy research using panels of experts and appeals to logic as opposed to emotion, something in me always yearns to see more than just voices of fiery rhetoric as witnessed on that program. I often think of someone like Noam Chomsky… perhaps one of the best thinkers and debaters of our time. Chomsky is someone whose near-encyclopedic knowledge of world facts and history make him able to parry and counter-argue with virtually anyone, yet his was never a ready-for-TV style of discussion given the fact that he would refuse to shout or interrupt others, no matter how rudely they did so to him. Endlessly giving others all the time they wished in order to ramble on and on about their views, Chomsky would so effortlessly respond point-for-point, dissecting errors in logic or correcting inaccurate facts.

I do not think I have ever seen a single speaking engagement of his (in person or even on video) where the man raised his voice.

 

The world could do with more of that. It won’t make for lively chatter on Real Time with Bill Maher or two minute split-screen talking-head segments on cable news, but there’s a chance that every now and then level-headed and emotion-free conversations might make the most significant impact of all: leaving people with a mind to be as careful and critical about their own deeply-held beliefs as they are about the thoughts and views of others.

 

 

 

Deviant Ollam is a libertarian who grew up in a Republican household but voted for Democratic politicians for most of his life. The owner of many guns, he frequently organizes public shooting events, safety education, and discussions about firearm ownership. Deviant sits on the Board of a nonprofit dedicated to teaching people about mechanical systems, with a specific focus on how locks and lockpicking works. He also is co-owner of a security firm in the private sector focusing in the same field. Creator of an internet community-drive project to deliver digital care packages to men and women serving in uniform, he has also participated proudly in anti-war marches. Though raised in a strongly Catholic home, one of his best experiences of young adulthood was being part of the March For Women’s Lives.

None of us is simply one checkbox. It’s time to stop speaking as though we are and seeing others as though they are one-dimensional beings who are either with us or against us.

Over the years, Deviant has had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Penn Gilette, Teller, and Professor Chomsky. He’s still waiting on a lunch with Tara Murtha, though. ;-)

 

P.S. – If you are truly interested in trying to see some of the facts and data as interpreted and viewed by people with whom you might not agree when it comes to guns, I would encourage you to follow the following accounts…

@DefensiveUse offers a running series of links to news articles wherein armed citizens legally used their guns to stop or prevent abuse and gross physical harm, often without having to fire a shot. Anti-Gun folk would do well to read this in order to understand that far and away guns are used more often in America for defensive purposes by law-abiding citizens.

@GunCrisisNews paints a stark picture of the violence that many citizens, particularly in bad neighborhoods, have to live with every day. Pro-Gun folk would do well to read this in order to understand how repeated loss of life can get into people’s heads and make them desperate enough to think that legislation is the only answer.

 

P.P.S. – I should point out that while it appears that Melissa Jeltsen does indeed hold views very contrary to my own when it comes to the topic of guns, I don’t want this post to come across as wholly critical of her or her work. Her article on HuffPo to which I linked was not a bad one, and she did appear to attempt to treat this very important topic from all sides. Furthermore, I finder her work in other areas, such as this terrific piece on Jezebel concerning sex and dating, to be exceptional.

 

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