Some of you may have read my response to the Sandy Hook school shooting back in 2012. Today, I am featuring a response to yesterday’s school shooting in South Florida, this one by a guest blogger, my dad, Todd Stockslager. Dad is a thoughtful observer of recent societal trends, and whether you agree or disagree with his arguments (most likely, you’ll agree with some and disagree with others, which is how normal argumentation works), you’ll have plenty to think about after reading. If you like his writing and want to know what he thinks about books and the topics they address, you can follow him on Goodreads.
Here’s the post:
Another shooting. Another round of press conferences with first responders and politicians expressing shock, grief, and prayers for the survivors and the families of the victims. Another round of tweets and condolences and visits from President Trump. The places and faces change. The words and responses don’t. It’s time for change: Gun control or mind control? Pick one.
President Trump called the Las Vegas shooter a mentally ill “very sick” person, apparently to deflect the issue away from the call for banning the assault weapons and the kits that can convert other weapons to fully automatic weapons. Now the same terminology is being applied to the Florida shooter, again for the same apparent reason, and already even though I have not paid full attention to the story I am seeing headlines that we need to do a better job keeping guns away from the “mentally ill.” Is anyone else as frightened by this trend as I am?
With a portion of the American population, access to assault weapons or these converter kits is an absolute political right that can never be taken away or even limited, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment. President Trump seems by his actions and words in these mass shooting incidents to support this position. So the only option is to increase psychiatric testing and monitoring of behavior, speech, association, and social medium usage to be able to better detect, predict, and restrict the freedom of speech, association, and belief of those who are deemed “mentally ill”. Behavior that is not wanted—bullying, membership in certain groups like white nationalist groups, or the reverse, seeking isolation from social contact—is to be not criminalized, but medicalized: identified as “mental illness.”
But who gets to identify what qualifies as “mental illness”? Who enforces the actions—legal, medical, social, financial—that being labelled “mentally ill” brings to bear on a person? What recourse does that person have to appeal the labeling and remove themselves from the action brought to limit their legal, medical, social or financial freedom? Have we forgotten that within the last century thousands of people were identified (by families, doctors, and others) as “mentally ill” and forcibly placed in mental institutions against their will with no recourse, where things like forced sterilizations, abortions, electroshock and drug therapy and lobotomies were performed, against their will with no recourse? Have we forgotten that Hitler labelled groups of people as undesirable and thus worthy of extermination based on characteristics such as ethnic and religious Judaism and mental illness? In labelling them together as undesirables, he made Judaism and mental illness equivalent and sent them all to concentration camps for extermination—all legally within the government policies of Nazi Germany, all against their will with no recourse, all ignored by the rest of the population? In case we have forgotten, it is history, it happened, it is called the Holocaust.
We started down this slippery slope with the criminalization of “hate speech” in the last few decades. As much as we may hate speech we disagree with and find despicable, absolute freedom of speech is the one true inviolable right that every American has and should have defended but gave away. Some speech, which should never be criminal, has now been identified as “hate speech” and criminalized. The next slip down the slope is medicalization of some behaviors that we disagree with and find despicable, and as should be clear from the argument I have already made, medicalization of behavior is potentially more dangerous than criminalizing it, and is just one short slip away from the Holocaust.
As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to a white nationalist group is not a sign of “mental illness.” As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to and training with a paramilitary group is not a sign of “mental illness” and should not be criminalized. The headlines I saw identified the Florida shooter as having these behaviors, and he has already been identified as “mentally ill”. He is not mentally ill. He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people. Full stop. That is the crime for which he should be charged and punished.
Note that I didn’t say: “He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people with an assault weapon.” Had he killed 17 people with a knife, or a handgun, he would be just as guilty. However, had he tried to kill 17 people with a knife or a handgun, it is highly unlikely he would have succeeded. The speed and effectiveness of what are essentially military-grade automatic weapons enable one person to fire off thousands of rounds indiscriminately and cause more death much more quickly. Just close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the Las Vegas shooting and remember that one person firing one weapon at a time fired all those shots and killed all those people.
But we’re back to the apparently absolute political right to access assault weapons or these converter kits, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment, so we have no choice but to medicalize the behavior. At least that seems to be President Trump’s position and the position of those identified as the “gun lobby.” Then who decides? And which behaviors are medicalized? Every person of faith, of every faith—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—should be frightened by this, because faith will be the next behavior to be medicalized. Again on that slippery slope we’ve already started down: business owners who refuse to serve homosexual customers because of their religious faith already face criminal prosecution. The next step is medicalizing the belief so that people who believe this way can be medicated, or institutionalized, or sterilized, or lobotomized, or—subjected to the final solution? That could never happen here, could it? If you are counting on President Trump to make clear moral decisions based on a consistent philosophy rooted in 5000 years of Judeo-Christian moral principle, in 500 years of Enlightenment philosophy, and in the Constitution that encoded both of those cultural legacies in our founding political document, you are expecting more than an amoral and incompetent businessman and reality TV star has ever demonstrated himself capable of even attempting. I do not trust anyone in American politics today on either side of the political aisle to make decisions about which of my behaviors and beliefs constitute mental health or illness.
For that, I might have to take up a gun to defend my freedom. OK, so let’s talk about gun control since we’re done talking about mind control and how horribly frightened we all should be by the prospect (I am reminded of Aragorn’s exclamation to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings when he said that he was frightened by the events he had just witnessed: “Not nearly frightened enough! I know what hunts you.”). I’m not talking about hunting rifles, vintage collector’s items like muzzle-loaders and Civil War weapons. I’m not even talking about handguns. We already have restrictions on buying, licensing, and carrying them, which may not be 100% effective, but limit use of them to either individual acts of robbery or murder on the one hand, or self-defense on the other. Handguns and hunting rifles are not being used to kill dozens of people in Las Vegas and Florida, and the incidence of misuse of handguns and hunting rifles, while sad, is an acceptable price to pay for the freedom to own and use them.
Can we then agree to ban the sale of assault rifles, automatic weapons converter kits, and other military-grade weapons to civilians? I would say again, close your eyes and listen to the video of the Las Vegas shooting and ask yourself in what context any civilian has any valid use they can make of weapons that can cause such instantaneous destruction. The instantly available horror of these events in the cell phone video era have made it unacceptable to allow such events to continue to occur without some political and legal response. If the choice is to accept control and limits to some types of guns or to accept control and limits to some types of beliefs and behaviors, then the smallest loss of freedom is in the controls on guns.
Those who are unwilling to accept these controls because of their interpretation of Second Amendment rights in the Constitution are ignoring their much more fundamental and important First Amendment rights. I am not arguing whether they may be right on the Second Amendment; legal scholars and the courts have been debating the intent and meaning of that amendment for 200 years, so I certainly have no insight on any of that debate that is better than that already expressed over those years. I just know that not all of us own guns that may be protected by the Second Amendment, but all of us own life, liberty and the freedom of speech to pursue happiness that are protected by the First Amendment.
And the alternative to that freedom is holocaust.