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Misunderstanding the problem


Farmers say, “One groundhog will eat a ton of beans.” They don’t mean one 13-pound marmota monax in a field can ingest a ton of soybeans, but that a single groundhog destroys bean shoots and mature plants that otherwise would produce a ton of crop.

Aerial views of bright green vigorous bean fields show large semicircles of bare ground at the woods edge or hedgerows where there are groundhog dens alongside the planted field. Many farmers, gardeners and orchardists in rural areas are in continual battle with groundhogs, crows and other pests. A small caliber rifle (.22) and a shotgun are indispensable garden tools in rural America. In my garden shed the .22 is alongside the hoe, rakes and tiller.

On the farms where I stayed growing up, the shotgun might be used to kill a blacksnake by the chicken house and on one occasion, when I was 10, I watched my 64-year-old great aunt Grace shoot a hawk that was perching on a branch over her chicken yard with the 12 gauge shotgun.

The .22 rifle was used for the groundhogs. Those were single shot firearms, usually kept unloaded, not locked away but accessible when needed. A handful of shot shells or bullets might not be used in many months, but when replenishment was needed any country hardware store sold several kinds of ammunition. Those firearms were dangerous tools but useful and necessary.

A child in those households wouldn’t think of touching those guns. Young children’s familiarity with rifles and shotguns was from observation; older children were instructed in safe use before even touching a rifle or shotgun. In the rural households that I remember it would be unlikely to find a pistol, a quite different class of firearm.

Some kind of wild game is hunted in all 50 states. Various firearms are used in that pursuit but not military weapons. Marksmanship practice and competition with small bore or large bore rifles, as well as pistols, is satisfying sport. Shotgun competition at skeet, trap and sporting clays is widely popular, but none of those pursuits call for the use of large magazine, rapid firing assault rifles that are designed for killing humans.

Firearms figure significantly in our nation’s history. Historical reenactors’ educational living history shows, rendezvous, and get-togethers feature firearms prominently; but the primitive, low-tech weapons reenactors and collectors cherish, even when operable, could not be regarded as a serious threat to the public or in the homes where they’re kept. To folks ignorant of the utilitarian use of guns in rural America and of weapon types and military nomenclature, though, guns are guns.

Typically, urban people of a politically liberal disposition are repulsed by guns and gun violence and, unable to distinguish between types of firearms and their use, know hardly more than they see in movies. It must be that we’re a murderous species to cause makers of movies, video games and television dramas to cater to fantasies of killing.

The scripted stories in popular movie entertainment and the scenarios for video games are authored to make some killing “justified” and a viewer or game player’s identification with the trigger pulling easy. The bad guys are really, really evil and the good guys are justified in their killing. “Revenge” scenarios are common fare and bullying in schools and workplaces make gun revenge a satisfying entertainment. For several generations in America, as we’ve become a mostly urban society, a great majority of Americans, young and old, have their limited knowledge of firearms mostly from that kind of entertainment and, lately of course, from the regular news about police killings and mass murders.

We are filled with revulsion at the stories of reckless police killing and insane multiple murders of innocents and the blame is placed on guns, all guns, any guns. Fantasy about killing is acceptable, it seems, but for a growing majority of Americans, the real world killing is becoming a serious public policy problem.

The problem is gravely misunderstood.

There is a proliferation of firearms in our American society and, yes, our dysfunctional legislatures are unwilling to approach the problem in an intelligent, responsible way. A confused and shocked (shell-shocked, one might say), badly informed, public wants a fix by federal and state governments, but the attempted fixes that will come would be wrong and hardly helpful. (Arm the schoolteachers!!?)

What seems to be politically feasible cannot end the insane mass murders, which now come almost daily. Or the too frequent police shootings utilizing their battlefield ammunition.

The tools of war are for killing people on the battlefield. Murderous tools of war have been introduced into civil society by a misunderstanding of the police function in society. That comes from a sense that all our perceived social ills must be corrected by enforcement and government sanctioned violence. Better we should seek adherence to “the social contract” with policies and norms that help people to do the right thing. Cultural shifts that occurred over generations have led us here. Deeply ingrained culture can’t be changed quickly and there are no quick fixes that can undo the complicated mess we’re in.

Police don’t need weapons of war except to satisfy their fantasies of warrior culture. On the seldom occurring occasions when civil police encounter dangerously armed criminal behavior, then delay, retreat and utilization of a specially trained armed unit of crisis teams is called for.

“Split second decisions” is nonsense in regard to lethal police shooting. That mentality at work gives us a Black man dead with seven police mushroom-point bullets through his back as a result of a trivial misdemeanor violation.

Our military forces are trained for war against foreign enemies, not with citizens of our own nation in our own streets and homes and public places. The often quoted phrase in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, “a well trained militia” comes from the time when citizen soldiers stood in the place of a large, disciplined, professional military that developed here many generations later than the time of the Constitution’s writing. Although there are examples in U.S. history of U.S. Army soldiers or Marines set against U.S. citizens (in 1791 the “whiskey rebellion,” in 1863 for the suppression of the New York City draft riots, in the 1932 disbanding of the Washington “bonus army,” and few others), using a government’s soldiers against private citizens has always been a feature of fascist governments and totalitarian communist regimes and should never, ever be a feature of American life.

The very existence of modern, military armament in the civil context is where our current problem is rooted. Private citizens or domestic police should not possess murderous weapons of war. Police should not be trained to kill. We must not be at war with each other.

Larry Hampt lives in Solebury.