Monday, July 23, 2012

Firearm Legislation: Why We Have So Much Trouble Talking About It

This past week, there was a terrible massacre at an Aurora, Colorado theatre on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises.  The perpetrator used tear gas and a variety of firearms to inflict numerous casualties before being captured.

As with the Gabby Giffords shooting and many other high-profile acts of extreme firearm violence, there was an immediate call for increased firearm legislation.  This is an understandable reaction, but debates on the topic are almost universally unproductive, typically because they aren't actually debates.  They are usually online shouting matches and polemics that are designed to draw agreement and ire.  I'd like to give my perspective on firearm legislation and why discussions surrounding it often go so poorly.

I grew up in Wisconsin, a state with a large population of hunters.  Though my father hunted when he was young, he did not hunt at all as an adult.  I had a BB gun and a pellet gun, but never had a non-air-powered firearm.  My mother hated guns and still hates guns of all kinds.  A few years ago, I started taking handgun safety classes and eventually purchased a Colt M1991, an updated version of the .45 ACP sidearm used by American armed forces from WWI to Vietnam and beyond.  I also purchased some lever-action rifles, some military surplus WWII-era battle rifles, and a pump-action shotgun.  I went to local indoor and outdoor ranges by myself and with friends who were also interested in firearms.  I talked with range masters, gun store employees, and fellow shooters at the range on subjects ranging from practical to political.

My interests were mostly academic.  For better or worse, many video games feature firearms, and I don't like being ignorant about the things I work on.  Don't get me wrong: I also enjoy shooting and maintaining firearms, but that enjoyment followed the academic interest.  As with many of my hobbies, my interest peaked, tapered, and has fallen off.  I'm about to sell most of my firearms, mostly because I don't have any practical use for them and I just don't get out to the range that often.  I'm glad I learned what I have, but it's just not a big part of my life.  One of the most important things I've learned is what it's like to be a gun owner in America.  I believe it's helped me understand these debates much better than I previously had.

In my (admittedly short) time as a gun owner, I've heard a lot of complaints from other gun owners about why they hate gun legislation.  Some of it is rabid hostility, but it's foolish to dismiss all of it as such.  I've also had a lot of criticism come my way for owning firearms and for going to ranges.  From these two general perspectives, I have developed some theories about why gun control debates get very unproductive very quickly.

Many of the people who are most vocal about firearm legislation are the people who understand firearms the least.  A subset of these people are even proud of the fact that they don't know anything about firearms.  I believe this attitude is extraordinarily foolish.  Ignorance leads to bad legislation, regardless of the subject.  Most firearm legislation is bad because the public's understanding of the realities of firearms in America is bad.  When I say the legislation is bad, I don't mean that it's bad because it tramples rights or isn't constitutional, but because it doesn't even accomplish the things its advocates want it to accomplish.

The 1975 Firearm Controls Regulation Act (a.k.a. the D.C. handgun ban) accomplished virtually nothing because the legislation ignored the practical realities of how firearms are trafficked across state lines and how available they are across the country, legally or illegally.  The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was similarly ineffective because "assault weapons" as defined by the AWB are used in a fraction of firearm-related crimes.

Many of the people who are most vocal about firearm legislation are transparently disingenuous about their end goals.  If your end goal is to reduce firearm-related crime, present your ideas and desires sincerely with that in mind.  If your end goal is for all firearms to be banned and all extant civilian-owned firearms to be reclaimed and destroyed by the government, be sincere about that as well.  There are many, many cases where people advocate legislation disingenuously.  They suggest a modest restriction under the pretense of reform, but their actual desire is to make the United States a nation without civilian firearm ownership.

If you wonder why some firearm owners react to talk of incremental gun control as though their houses are going to be raided and they are going to be arrested for owning a bolt-action varmint rifle, it's because they don't believe in the sincerity of people advocating incremental legislation (and they are often right not to).

The NRA is awful.  I know some firearm owners and NRA members are going to read this blog and be upset by that, but I find it hard to defend the NRA.  It's an organization that frequently rabble-rouses and presents an eternal us-vs-them conflict to firearm owners.  Many of their positions are extreme and unsupported.  The NRA, along with many firearm manufacturers and gun store owners, "predicted" a huge storm of firearm legislation after Obama was elected.

Before his inauguration, there was an astounding market run on items that they "predicted" would be legislated or banned: >10 round magazines, certain types of ammunition, and anything previously covered by the AWB (that they said would be renewed despite virtually no signs the administration had any interest in doing so).  AR-15 receivers were among the most insanely market-inflated, but many types of ammunition were also hoarded in large quantities.  Gun store clerks were even re-selling ammunition "under the table"  with dramatically increased prices.

The saddest thing is that gun owners across the country bought into it.  All of it.  For the past year, the NRA has been building up for the 2012 election, promising that Obama is going to go into firearm legislation overdrive if he is re-elected.  Again, to date, there's no solid evidence this is going to happen, but the NRA is terribly good at spreading panic.

The media is just as ignorant as the public.  It's also sensationalist.  So despite the fact that the AR-15, one of the weapons used in the Aurora killings, fires a 5.56x45mm round realistically described as "mid-powered" (its parent round, .223 Remington, was developed for hunting "varmints" -- rabbits, coyotes, squirrels, etc.), many papers and blogs describe it as "high-powered" or "fearsome".

Writers will also draw similarities between situations that aren't really relevant, but promote radical panic.  The Aurora shooter used a Glock.  Jared Loughner, the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords, also used a Glock.  These facts shouldn't be that surprising considering that the majority of police departments across the country use Glocks and it's one of the most popular brands of semi-automatic civilian handgun around.

Some people may say that these points of contention don't matter.  When it comes to legislation, those points are very important, and popular opinion often drives legislation.  When gun owners scoff at advocates of fingerprinting when people buy "handgun ammo" or restricting the sale of "assault weapons", it's because those quoted terms are vague or nonsense.  Unfortunately, many members of the public become concerned about these specific ideas because they're the things that reporters in the media promote, regardless of relevance.

Proposed actions are often radical and irrationally focused instead of progressive and comprehensive.  These discussions happen in cycles, usually launched by a national (or international) tragedy.  Specific things happen in the tragedy: Glocks are used, large-capacity magazines are used, a certain type of ammunition is used.  Instead of looking at national (and international) trends in firearm ownership and crime, people get hung up on the specifics of the tragedy: ban Glocks, ban large-capacity magazines, ban this type of ammunition.  For many reasons, it's important to talk about the specifics, but legislating around the specifics usually doesn't solve larger problems.  Most of the time, it doesn't solve any problems, and the divide between firearm owners and gun control advocates grows even larger.

Widespread firearm ownership, legal and illegal, is a practical reality in the United States.  Gun violence, even adjusted for population, is also a much larger issue here than it is in most ostensibly "peaceful" countries.  It is sad that the salient times we have to discuss these problems are often preceded by terrible events like the Aurora shootings.  It is even more unfortunate that all sides of the debate spend so much of their energy locked in fruitless arguments instead of approaching the subject with sober, sincere, and considerate minds.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Art and Appreciation

I grew up in a household where one of my parents was self-employed.  My mother began a career at a magazine publisher when I was young.  Barring a few short stints in the late 70s and 80s when he worked as a full-time employee for various companies, my father has been a freelance sculptor for the entirety of my life.  He has sculpted belt buckles, busts, fountains, seals reading books on benches, giant flamingos, torch-bearing Sauks, lamp posts, Erté-inspired art deco female figurines, the Fonz, and myriad corporate doo-dads.  He also draws and paints.  In our house, there's a painting of me sitting on the steps of our old house in Caledonia, Wisconsin.  On another wall, there's a huge painting of some insane abstract whatever he made long ago.  And on his computer, he uses his Wacom tablet daily to make some of the most bizarre, Boschian, hellish landscapes I've ever seen.

I never really made a distinction between these things as "art" or "not art".  In my mind, I considered all of them to be art.  It never crossed my mind that the commercial pieces were less art than the personal pieces, or that the giant abstracts were more art than the portraits of family members and friends.  Many people attach personal drive and tenacity to artistic merit.  Surrender of drive, surrender of vision, surrender of principle -- that's selling out.  I never associated this with my father because, to be frank, in his professional dealings he's often been stubborn, hot-tempered, and implacable.  It didn't matter if he was working for a school district, the city of Milwaukee, or a self-made billionaire.  If you asked him to make a change that he thought was bad, the response was fast and often not diplomatic.

There is much to be admired in the attitude, if not always the ferocity of the response: the principle, the confidence, the determination.  It says, "I am the artist.  I am the one who makes the decision."  This attitude is not always rewarded, and it is typically not respected by the people who are likely to do the rewarding: the clients.  Throughout my life, I've watched my father sculpt many things for many clients.  I've seen him frustrated and triumphant as our family went through financial ups and downs.  I can't remember a time that I ever went hungry, that I ever felt poor, thanks to my parents, but I could tell that it troubled him.  To me, there was no importance on the labels: "art", "fine art", "commercial art".  The importance was the struggle.  How important is it to satisfy an audience?  Does your work need to have an audience?  Can you make a bad choice and fix it later?  Do you need to communicate something?  Do you need to pay the rent?  Do you give a shit if this person hates your guts?  Does it matter if you lose all future work with this client?  Are you willing to live or die on this one point?

After growing up with a sculptor; working with video game artists, writers, and musicians, for over a decade; and living with a traditional painter for almost as long, I developed a maxim for how I would approach creative work: Do anything you want to do in life. Just don't expect anyone to pay you or respect you for it.

This, to me, is the razor.  It's the distillation of any creative struggle with the audience: is the critical or financial approval of the audience worth making a creative choice you think is inferior?  The audience may change: your co-workers, your boss, your client, your lover, your mother, the critics, the public.  You give different audiences different weight, sometimes capriciously, sometimes rationally.  Different issues may weigh on you more heavily than others.  Sometimes it's easy to let go.  Sometimes it hurts like hell.  Sometimes you won't budge on principle.  Sometimes you won't budge because fuck you, idiot.

We often use art and the authority of the artist (or the author, or the director, etc.) as an abstract shield to justify choices we make contrary to the desires of an audience.  We make a choice, an audience complains, and sometimes -- all too often -- we say, "Sorry, but art."  This is unproductive deflection.  This is an absurd, conversation-ending non-argument.  It is presented as a wall that no criticism can breach.  How is the critic intended to respond?

Someone doesn't like how you portrayed a character.  Someone doesn't like how you ended a story.  Someone doesn't like how you framed your shots.  "Art" as defense is not a response to criticism, it is a hollow rejection of criticism.  It does not encourage dialogue, it does not promote introspection, and it does not (typically) ameliorate the audience's displeasure.  At its worst, such a defense encourages non-topical arguments about the nature of art itself.  These discussions, in which no parties are ever victorious, quickly spiral so far away from the actual point of criticism that they often never return.

When I see this, I ask myself: is this how authors and audiences should interact?  I don't think so.  I think both the author and the audience deserve, and can benefit, more from honest appraisals of why we make the choices we makes.  Stop talking about "art".  Stop talking about "entitlement".  How does casting blame elevate and advance conversation about the work?  This is about questioning our work, our choices, our relationship (or lack thereof) with the audience.

Ultimately, our works are our answers to those questions.  Implicitly, what we give to our audience is indicative of our values.  Everything that follows -- the sales, the reviews, the debates, the revisions, the re-releases -- should be viewed as tools for the authors and audience to reinforce or recalibrate those values for future work.  Unless an author plans on quitting creative endeavors after the next project he or she completes, this process is something all of us will go through for life.

If you want to end a conversation, to cut off communication, it's easy enough to deflect criticism.  Assuming you do make your work for an audience, you probably don't make it for all audiences.  Sometimes, the fuck you, idiot instinct is the right one.  If you don't want that audience to respect you or pay for your work, cut them loose; they're not worth your time and you're not worth theirs.  But most of us can also accept a certain amount of dissatisfaction within our target audience.  We make choices, some members of the audience are dissatisfied, but we still suspect they're the right choices.  For those people, and for the rest of the audience, we have the ability to engage them, to sincerely explain our values and hear theirs.

All people engaged in a life of creative work have to fight battles against their shifting priorities.  We all make trade-offs, one way or another. The more we illuminate the specific twists and turns of our own choices, and the struggles involved in making them, the more everyone can gain from the exchange.