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A conversation that shows we can talk reasonably about guns

My cousin who’s a Facebook denizen is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. Lots of his posts spout garden-variety gun rights bravado, but some I find tasteless and offensive. I usually resist the urge to respond and call him a gun nut, because that doesn’t help foster thoughtful discussion about addressing gun violence.

My congressman, Rep. Derek Kilmer, is a Democrat who also says he supports the Second Amendment, but for him that support doesn’t preclude considering reasonable measures that might help prevent senseless violence that shocks us to our core, as happened at a Connecticut elementary school.

On Kilmer’s tour of the SAFE Boats plant in Bremerton with CEO Scott Peterson a couple weeks ago, there were conversations about improving manufacturing efficiencies and finding enough skilled welders and negotiating contracts with foreign military services — and then the freshman congressman met an SBI employee retired from the military, over chili dogs for lunch. The conversation on the factory floor turned to gun control, but it stayed civil — which all too often is not the case when that topic comes up.

Reasonable people — maybe even including my cousin in Missouri — ought to be able to respectfully consider each other’s views on such a controversial issue without resorting to mockery and insults that only harden us into our own unyielding positions.

It’s a nonstarter if the mere mention of gun regulations — not even using the loaded phrase “gun control” — provokes angry accusations of trying to abolish the revered Second Amendment. Nobody in their right mind is going to lead that crusade, nor think there’s the slimmest chance of amending the Constitution to deny citizens the right to bear arms. That would be even harder than restoring Lance Armstrong’s reputation.

The remarkable thing about that brief discussion amid the loud industrial setting at SAFE Boats was that two men, who might tend toward different ends of the gun rights spectrum, really listened to what each other had to say.

The retired military guy made it clear that he wouldn’t abide anyone taking away his legal firearms, but he said it so dispassionately, with no tone of defiance.

“I don’t want to have to go bury my guns out in the yard,” he told Kilmer, “because I’m not gonna give them up.”

Yet he seemed to regard the notion of government confiscation as farfetched, and to realize there are more pressing realities to confront.

He mentioned the need for legislatures “to hold people accountable,” referring to irresponsible gun owners and convicted violent criminals who are released after minimal jail time. And he didn’t reflexively dismiss any federal attempts to deal with the complex problem of gun violence.

“I think it’s appropriate for Congress to take some action,” he said, such as measures to enhance school safety and requiring more stringent background checks for gun purchases.

Kilmer talked about his visit to Kitsap Mental Health Services earlier in the day, which drove home the critical need to provide more treatment for people struggling with mental illness and to keep lethal weapons out of those folks’ hands.

“I think caring for the people in need of that is huge,” the worker said. But as for knowing who’s unstable enough to commit an atrocity like Newtown, “how do you identify that?”

It’s extremely unlikely anyone will. Because even though mass shootings — in a movie theater or a first-grade classroom or most recently in a pastor’s rural family home in New Mexico — are horrifying and spark widespread angst and outrage, they are still rare occurrences.

“These are very, very infrequent events,” Dr. Stephen Morse said on a public radio program I listened to driving back to my office after the SAFE Boats tour. The topic was gun laws relating to the mentally ill, and Morse, a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that “Not only is it difficult to predict future serious violence accurately, but the more infrequent the event you are trying to predict, the (harder) it is to predict it accurately.”

But whether or not we ever know if a mentally ill person or anyone else who might slaughter innocents with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle was thwarted because of a particular law or regulation, it’s worthwhile to do more than just collectively wring our hands.

“To me, there are some common-sense things we can do that both respect Second Amendment rights, and move the needle to keep our kids safe,” said Kilmer, who has two young daughters and reacted to the school tragedy “as a parent,” not as a policymaker. In the latter role, he said during the lunchtime conversation, he’s been “doing a lot of outreach to mental health professionals, gun owners, educators … to get their sense of what’s going to work.

“Not just some feel-good thing,” he stressed. “But what’s actually going to keep kids safe?”

Maybe if more people who are appalled by the menace of gun violence — the frightening specter of mass shootings and the reality of thousands of homicides every year — engage in discussions like Derek Kilmer and a military veteran at SAFE Boats did, there may be hope for figuring that out.

Tim Kelly's picture
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