Dear Abby

There are a number of media personalities who define an era. Those of us in Generation X grew up with a few TV networks and a relative conformity in popular culture until the late 1980s. This led to a few names being instantly recognizable, even if they were originally marketed to our parents and not to us. This was, after all, before the rise of child-centered life in America, when we were expected to be seen and not heard and did not get a veto over things in the home. It seems the icons of the Boomer generation are almost all gone now, and so the comfortable feeling of Gen X childhood memories are tainted as well.

My mother has always been a reader, and the books I read when I was a kid (at least between library visits) were frequently hers. Thus, I became a fan of Erma Bombeck, one of the great humorists of the 1970s and 1980s, who could be considered a precursor to the “mommy blogger” phenomenon of today. Erma died far too young in 1996, but I still remember the cover art for “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.”

In the days of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio was not nearly as pervasive and fragmented as it is today. One voice that everyone knew was Paul Harvey. When I attended a broadcast journalism class in the early 1980s, we put together a television news and commentary show. I chose to use the persona of Saul Garvey, which I thought was clever at the time. Paul Harvey died in 2001. And that’s the rest of the story.

We didn’t always have cameras following our every move in public, and we certainly didn’t have YouTube to share our private moments of embarrassment or inadvertent comedy. From 1948 until 1993, we got our dose of schadenfreude from Allen Funt and “Candid Camera.” Rarely mean-spirited, the pranks were hilarious and rather obvious to our older, jaded eyes today. Allen Funt died in 1999. I like to think he was smiling, and in on the joke.

This week, another of the great figures of the latter half of the 20th Century left us. Abigail van Buren was the woman everyone looked to for advice from 1956 until 2002. With wit and empathy, she made us all feel that she could be trusted with any secrets. Pauline Phillips died in 2013. Sadly, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was unlikely to be very much like her old self, but we can remember her wit, and her daughter continues the column with some inherited awesomeness.

I don’t think the younger generations will ever know the monolithic nature of popular culture we lived with before 100 channels of television and high-speed internet came along. We have so many more choices today than we did twenty years ago, not to mention the dark ages of the 1970s. Choices are great, and I love the options we have today. But, will there ever again be someone who is going to be remembered as such a pervasive part of everyday life as Dear Abby?

What Does Gun Control Actually Control?

There is a great deal of hyperbole, misleading statistics, and just outright lying surrounding the great gun control debate. Conspiracy theorists have also thrown their crazy two cents into the mix, which may be entertaining but ultimately not helpful. I approach many things with a scientific mindset. That is not to say that I have no emotions, but merely that it is better to look at things which have evidence for or against and weigh that evidence. Saying that something should work because you think it is obvious in no way proves that it will work in practice. Many things which I have thought to be true are not.

One statistic I’ve seen recently says that a handgun in the home is more than 20 times more likely to be used against a member of the household than to defend them. This includes suicides as well as domestic violence and accidents, and is certainly plausible. A reasonable person might like to prevent the bad things which arise from gun ownership, but keep the good (home defense). Is that even possible? The President says he wants to prevent avoidable gun violence, but not infringe on the Constitutionally protected right of individuals to own firearms. That’s a laudable goal, but how would you do that, exactly?

An old friend and Army buddy (which feels weird to say, like I’m in an old movie) lived in Chicago a number of years ago. She wanted to own a handgun but it was illegal. Chicago has one of the most restrictive gun control regimes in the country, yet the city is rife with illegal guns and gun violence. It’s possible to argue that removing legal guns from Chicago homes may have eliminated their use in domestic violence, accidental discharges, and suicides. But, it certainly didn’t reduce the number of criminals with guns. Is the tradeoff worth it? Did the tradeoff actually work to begin with? An honest gun control advocate would have to admit that the only way to prevent the bad things is to also prevent the good things. You simply can’t have it both ways. Meanwhile, thugs continue to own guns in great numbers.

And then there’s the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 and Senator Feinstein wants to bring back. Some of the things which this legislation banned in 1994 included folding stocks on semi-automatic rifles and large handguns with threaded barrels (to accept flash suppressors). The idea that those things make a weapon more deadly is laughable. Banning cosmetic features in no way changes the lethality of a weapon. The media seem to be almost obsessed with the term “semi-automatic” which they obviously don’t understand. Every pistol I’ve ever held was a semi-automatic. Almost every rifle I’ve seen was a semi-automatic. If you don’t have to pull a charging handle every single round, it’s semi-automatic. That in no way indicates what the rate of fire of that weapon is, but it sure sounds like it means something. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the assault weapons ban of 1994 and could not state that it was effective at its goal of decreasing gun violence. You would think ten years of a law would produce unequivocal evidence of its utility. The fact that it didn’t should make any new law subject to extreme scrutiny.

One of the few provisions that could potentially cause a slight decrease in the effectiveness of mass shooters is banning high-capacity magazines. But, there are still plenty of large magazines available, and a recent demonstration shows that a hard plastic magazine can be produced on a 3D printer, so that genie is no longer anywhere near the bottle. And, even if the ban on high-cap magazines worked to slow mass shooters, how many gun deaths per year are from mass shootings? Over 30,000 people died from a gunshot wound in the USA in 2010. According to the Brady Campaign, 225 people were killed in mass shootings in 2010. If every mass shooting that year was prevented entirely, that would have been nothing to the overall gun violence rate. The legislation as proposed and as implemented in 1994 is a flawed “solution” to one nearly insignificant part of the larger problem. Of those 30,000 people in 2010, nearly 19,000 of them were suicides. What law can even be conceived of that would prevent that?

And then we have the “blame the media” approach taken by a large number of misguided people from both sides of the gun control debate. Study after study has been done, attempting to find some link between violence on television or in video games and violence in real life. These studies have generally shown no such link. Most people are capable of discriminating between reality and fiction, and many people actually find catharsis rather than inspiration in these things. Oh, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly found 1st Amendment protections apply to media anyway.

I have no solutions; I propose no path forward. I merely point out that we must have truth in our debates, or we’ll never get anywhere. Reenacting a ban on bayonet lugs and barrel shrouds will do nothing, because it was tried and did nothing. Banning violent video games will do nothing, and is unconstitutional besides. Banning handguns has done nothing to make Chicago safer. These are things which we have tried. They have not worked. Trying them again is stupid and possibly insane. Doing something just to be seen doing something is no way to make society better or safer. Gun violence engenders a great deal of emotion, as does gun control. Emotion drives us to try to fix things, which is great, but we need logic in our laws.