Columnist Stephen Boos: Move beyond symbolic meanings of guns


Published: 5/29/2018 8:12:58 PM

History repeats itself, often in the most tragic of ways, and that was the case May 18 at the Santa Fe High School in Texas.

That history will continue to repeat itself, as progressives and conservatives advance their typical positions, politicians pose as concerned and nothing really happens. And all of this will, quite unfortunately, happen again and again before it is all over.

Perhaps that can be prevented, but only if both sides of the political coin have their say, evidence guides a response and difficult actions are taken.

Conservatives will once again say that guns don’t kill people, people do. They will once again call for enforcing existing laws and looking at mental illness. They are right that existing laws need better enforcement, and conservative politicians will have to stand along progressives to do that.

Unfortunately, the mental illnesses that underlie most gun deaths are not the dramatic craziness that is easily labeled. We will need extraordinary protective orders to take guns out of the hands of people with depression, obsession, agitation and unregulated anger, during their most dangerous times, in order to really make a difference on the mental health front.

I hope conservatives will support these initiatives, as they will need both new legislation and a supportive judiciary. Additionally, gun owners and users need to demonstrate the skills and mind-set that supports a safe use of guns. The best way to scrutinize and control this is to license gun ownership, the way we do cars, with periodic relicensure.

Progressives may not immediately resume their call for a ban on assault weapons, as the recent piece of history was wrought with a revolver and a shotgun, proving that even the more mundane of firearms can be deadly. Guns however, need to be designed to increase the likelihood of safe use.

Child gun deaths often result from children playing with guns. Requiring longer and harder trigger actions may help. Designing guns with advanced features that limit firing by a non-owner would go even further.

The legitimate civilian use of guns does not require high-capacity magazines. Limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines and making them slower to reload may limit the carnage when someone decides to put a gun to illegitimate use. It should be difficult if not impossible to modify a weapon for full automatic fire and modifications that do so should be illegal nationally.

Many guns used for illicit reasons are stolen, or bought in low-restriction states and trafficked to states with tighter regulations. Registering weapons, with registration renewal, again like automobiles, will allow authorities to track where illegally owned or used guns have come from. This will also put teeth in the extraordinary protective order legislation mentioned above.

There is one aspect of guns that is not being mentioned on either political quarter: their semantic meaning. One reason we have not progressed, even with limited and sensible regulations, is that a gun has many compelling meanings to different people. For some, it is a symbol of Hillary’s “deplorables,” and an irrational dangerous risk. For others, it is a symbol of safety, freedom and resistance.

These meanings are not driven by either mainstream conservatives, or thoughtful progressives. Political activists, special-interest groups and the media drive these memes. They are seen nightly in television news and dramas, daily in computer gaming and regularly in movies.

Until we can start talking sensibly about guns as they are, rather than making them a stand-in for our fears and desires, and until we can police our language our media and our thinking, we will make no progress in lessening gun violence in the United States. Our problem is with both the First Amendment and the Second Amendment.

Stephen C. Boos, of Northampton, is a pediatrician at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

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