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Your Humble Author Goes Off the Rails on Social Commentary December 18, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I invariably use my social media accounts to positively influence my standing in the world of technology. That said, I occasionally offer insights into my personality as a reflection of my point of view. As fair warning, I am now headed more deeply in that direction.

I grew up in more or less a gun culture. My father owned at least one rifle and a couple of pistols, and I engaged in target practice in my early teens and beyond. It wasn’t unusual where I grew up, in western Pennsylvania, where attendance at school during deer hunting season was almost optional. The newspapers published a daily count of deer kills reported, and even my female contemporaries were known for their prowess in hunting.

I didn’t hunt, but I appreciated the need to cull the deer herd every fall, and I respected those who hunted safely. Later, I qualified as a marksman with a .45 in the Air Force. I haven’t fired a gun since. That was about 30 years ago, although I haven’t forgotten.

A bit more about me as a youth. I wasn’t antisocial, but I did have poor social skills. I tolerated the usual teasing over not being socially adept, but never conceived of doing harm to those who either ignored me or actively mocked me. I possessed enough self-awareness to recognize my limitations and learn enough over the years to become a functional adult.

I would like to think I know something about mental illness, with two degrees in psychology and a long-ago internship in a state mental hospital. Despite the attempts by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) to define and categorize mental illness, we remain unable to recognize and treat such disorders. Throwing more money at mental illness won’t change this fact.

It’s not clear that we want to do so. Many people with mild or even moderate forms of mental illness have successfully compensated and are functional and often valued members of society. Writers, artists, scientists, and even successful business professionals sometimes thrive and contribute to society in part because of their mental illness. Should we really remove that element from society for a small degree of greater protection?

There are a lot of misconceptions about guns in our society. Several years ago, I had a colleague decry the availability of weapons that would fire at every pull of the trigger. “That’s almost all of them,” I explained. “Really?” He honestly didn’t know. We generally don’t own guns that fire multiple rounds at one time, as we see in war movies and in video games. But large capacity clips mean that we can continue pulling the trigger for long periods of time before reloading.

Today, millions of Americans legally own guns, and use them responsibly, for hunting or target practice. These are not bad or ignorant people. Regrettably, some of them are also too vocal in disclaiming laws that may require greater disclosure and perhaps denial of ownership in a few cases. That’s an understandable instinctive reaction, but it’s wrong.

Unless you are a part of a small minority here is no reason to fear greater information on gun ownership. That minority constitutes a small proportion of people largely suspicious of government intrusion into their lives. I can appreciate that sentiment, but don’t see any value to us or society in remaining outside of the rule of law.

What does this mean for preventing gun-enabled mass violence as we have seen recently? At least in America, there is little chance of squeezing guns out of common society. From a conceptual standpoint, we may lose more than we gain. From a practical standpoint, it is probably not realistic. We can’t also successfully regulate mental illness or resulting behavior (anyone remember the movie Minority Report?). So-called assault rifles are of little more danger than other modern weapons, although large-capacity clips can and should be restricted. And there’s no reason why we can’t more closely record and monitor purchases.

I would like to think that reasonable people can come up with reasonable solutions. We aren’t going to eliminate gun violence by any means, but if we can prevent one or two of the tragedies we have experienced through some common sense efforts, then we should do so.

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