I met up recently with my baseball pal, Anna Newton. We two are comfortable in our disagreements: She follows the San Diego Padres, I follow the Angels. She prefers the National League, I like the American.
Over lunch at Rose Bakery Café, I mentioned I was working on a column about gun violence.
Right away Anna took issue with my choice of terms. “It’s not a causal relationship [between guns and violence],” she said. “Guns are a tool, like knives.”
Two words into the conversation and we were at odds. I wished for a return to the benign subject of baseball, where the term “gun” simply means a strong throwing or pitching arm. But I hung in. I knew Anna’s opinions on the Second Amendment run strong — her husband sells at gun shows, her younger son served two tours of duty with the Army in Iraq. I wanted to hear her thoughts on our national debate in the wake of Sandy Hook.
It occurred to me to listen — I mean really listen, instead of mentally filing pithy comebacks as soon as Anna paused for breath.
“You have to ask who is doing the shooting,” she continued. “It’s remarkably dismaying that it is so often young white males who feel cultural and social disenfranchisement. (Ex-Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner was a variation of this despair.) Their despair is made worse by the scarce resources this country has for treating mental illnesses. Violent behavior is the issue, not the means used when acting out. This issue of violent behavior in society has no connection to the Second Amendment.”
Newton added, “The NRA’s `guns don’t kill people, people do’ is a simplistic knee-jerk response which dismisses the anguish of the general public, [but] this anguish is not impacted by the sanctity of the Second Amendment. The two issues exist side by side; the issues are not causally related.”
A few days later I spoke with Randy Garrell, the owner of The Grant Boys, in Costa Mesa. For years I’ve shopped there for camping gear, passing by the array of rifles and shotguns for hunting and shooting at the gun counter. Now I wanted to know whether he sold assault weapons.
Garrell immediately questioned my choice of words.
“Assault weapons? The term is just a big bucket — it’s hazy about the elements that would qualify a gun as such.”
He pointed out that the two agencies that regulate guns, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF), and the California Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms don’t always agree on firearms. So “assault weapon” may mean different things to different people. Garrell prefers the use of precise terms, like make, model, action, and caliber, to identify guns.
The Oxford English Dictionary does not list the term “assault weapon.” It does define “assault rifle” as “a lightweight rifle developed from the sub-machine gun, which may be set to fire automatically or semi-automatically.”
Why dwell on the terminology of this consuming issue? Because it shows why we’re failing so miserably in our national dialogue.
To return to baseball for a moment, fans may differ fiercely, for example, about which players of the steroids era deserves to get into the Hall of Fame, but we understand one another because we speak a common lingo. On the crucial issue of gun control, though, we do not even agree on the language, so how are we to progress in addressing the culture of violence — and the part guns play – that besets our country?
We must talk and, more important, listen to those who differ with us. For those of us on the left, it means listening hard enough and long enough to Second Amendment passion-istas. After that, it means holding them — and us — accountable for finding common ground and then acting for the common good.
Like many of us, I have more questions than answers on this complex issue – but maybe questioning is a good place to start.