If Not Now, When?

James Hayman:  On Christmas Eve, Portland got lucky.

On that Monday before the holiday, between approximately 11 o’clock in the morning  and 2:15 in the afternoon, a twenty-four-year old college student named Justin Dean was seen by numerous bystanders walking around the streets of the city carrying an AR-15 assault rifle equipped with a high-capacity magazine slung over his shoulder.  This is exactly the same kind of weapon Adam Lanza had used just ten days earlier to carry out the slaughter of twenty-six innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

According to an account of Dean’s walkabout, published the next day in the Portland Press Herald: “Dean said his AR-15 rifle was loaded when he walked from the West End to Parkside to the busy Back Cove Trail. Police said 65 people called the department to report concerns about a man carrying a gun along city streets.

“Dean was stopped and questioned by police, but it is legal in Maine to carry a gun in public, so he was not charged with any crime. (At the time) police did not know who Dean was because he had no obligation to identify himself.

” ‘At no point did I describe myself as an activist, and I certainly do not consider myself one,’ said Dean…who lives in Portland’s West End. ‘I am not a member of the (National Rifle Association), nor am I a Republican.’ ”

So exactly why was Dean wandering around crowded city streets carrying this very deadly weapon?  If it wasn’t to make a political point, what was the point?

Dean clearly wasn’t hunting.  There’s not much to hunt on the streets of Portland other than seagulls, the odd feral cat or runaway poodle and maybe a few thousand rats who have been scurrying around for generations under the city’s wharfs and inside the foundations of century old buildings.

Moreover, anyone who knows anything about guns would never choose an AR-15 to shoot seagulls, poodles or rats.   About the only thing in Portland worth shooting with an AR-15 is people.  Lots and lots of people.  In a very short period of time. With a very high kill ratio.

The AR-15 is the civilian cousin of the military’s M-16 and M4 Carbine.  General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, who I suspect knows as much about guns as anyone, described these weapons this way:

“I spent a career carrying typically either an M16 or an M4 Carbine. An M4 Carbine fires a .223 caliber round which is 5.56 mm at about 3000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed for that.  That’s what our soldiers ought to carry. I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America.

“We’ve got to take a serious look—I understand everyone’s desire to have whatever they want—but we’ve got to protect our children, we’ve got to protect our police, we’ve got to protect our population,” McChrystal said. “Serious action is necessary. Sometimes we talk about very limited actions on the edges and I just don’t think that’s enough.”

I agree with McChrystal.  Limited actions on the edges of the issue are not enough.  We need real change and we will never have a better opportunity to make real change happen than now, in the shadow of Newtown.

Let me interject here that this blog is not about limiting the right of hunters to own weapons for hunting. Or sport shooters to own weapons for target shooting.  Or, under the right circumstances, individuals to own weapons for personal protection.  I’m not against hunting and never have been. I’m also not against target shooting or skeet shooting.  I’ve enjoyed both. I also believe people who have a legitimate concern that they may be attacked have a legitimate right to apply for and get a permit to carry a weapon to use for self-protection.

What this blog is about is effectively limiting the right of any Tom, Dick or Harry to obtain any type of weapon they want at any time for any undisclosed purpose they fancy. And that means doing more than just closing gun show loopholes or doing more effective background checks.

What it means is banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the United States. It’s means overturning open-carry laws that allow someone like Justin Dean to wander the crowded streets of a city like Portland with far more firepower than any cop in a patrol car. It’s means overturning laws that make it impossible for the police to even check if the weapon Dean was carrying was loaded.

To those who ask “How can the government limit a right to bear arms guaranteed by the constitution?”   The simple answer is the government already does impose such limits. And should. Civilians have no right (nor should they) to legally own or carry large classifications of arms. Rocket propelled grenades, for example. Or 50 caliber machine guns. Or surface-to-air missiles. Or (dare I say?) nuclear bombs.  The right to bear arms is not, has never been, and never should be thought of as unlimited.

The real question is what are the proper limits to impose on Americans’ second amendment rights.

If I were in charge, the proper limits would start with a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  But I wouldn’t stop there.  I would insist on licensing laws for both guns and gun owners with stringent background checks and psychiatric evaluations to qualify for a license and/or a carry permit. Almost every state already licenses cars and drivers, hairdressers and barbers, massage therapists and chiropractors, liquor retailers and bartenders, and no one complains.  Why not license shooters and their weapons? And keep a federal record of guns in circulation so that when someone is murdered the gun and its owner can be identified.

The NRA would no doubt respond by saying actions like these will not keep illegal weapons off the streets or out of the hands of determined bad guys.  They’re probably right.  I read the other day that there will soon be more guns in America than people.  But limiting the number of new guns would be a start.  And, now more than ever, a start is what we need. Thirty thousand people are murdered every year by guns in America.  More than any other civilized country in the world. Maybe more than all other civilized countries combined.  Keeping one illegal gun out of the hands of one crazy cowboy and thereby saving one child’s life would, in my view, have been worth the effort.  Putting more guns in schools, as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, suggests would, I believe, have the opposite effect.

This is not supposed to be a political blog and I’m probably not supposed to be espousing political views.  If you object, let me know. But this issue is too important to ignore. We have lives to save and we can only save them through concerted action. If you agree with what I have written here, please call your congressional representative and call your senator and let them know how you feel. There is no time to waste. Portland may not get so lucky next time out.

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8 Responses to If Not Now, When?

  1. thelma straw says:

    I agree 300% with all your points here – and hope and pray Joe Biden’s work will have the right power to get the Beltway and the Country to move in the right direction – and asap!
    In my experience, many crime writers write about political/social issues – even if disguised – and I believe this is an excellent forum for sharing one’s political views and inspiring other writers. Thelma Straw in Manhattan
    BTW… Maine Crime Writers, be sure to see Jim’s guest appearance on Crime writers Chronicle at http://www.crimewriters.blogspot.com this Sunday, Jan. 13!!!!!

  2. John Clark says:

    AMEN. I’ve hunted for 55 years, own several rifles and shotguns and cringe whenever I get in a conversation with a firearm zealot. No matter how many times I point out the insane disparity between death rates (accidental, suicide, homicide) by firearms in the U.S. vs other civilized (?) countries with some people, it’s a waste of time. Their eyes glaze over and they start babbling about guns not killing people.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Thanks, John. At the risk of stating the obvious, of course guns kill people. And they do it a whole lot faster and more certainly than other choices a nutcase might have: Knives? Fists? A chair leg? A garrotte? Like you, I have no doubt cutting down on the number of guns will cut down on the number of deaths whether accidental, suicide or homicide.


  3. MCWriTers says:

    Jim, this is the column I was going to write for next Thursday. I’m glad to see it here. One of the questions we crime writers often get asked is about the morality of glorifying crime and violence. What we do is so far from that. We ask the whys and the who’s, we explore the backgrounds that lead to the violence is our books, and usually, in the end, we reestablish the moral world. The world of crime fiction is, by and large, a safer place than the streets of Portland were on Christmas Eve.

    Something I would have written about is the why. Why, almost immediately after the massacre at Sandy Hook school, Justin Dean thought it was okay to terrorize the people of his city on the eve of one of the holiest, and most special, days of the year. Because terrorize is the operative word. He was able, legally and with absolute indifference to his fellow citizens, to strike fear into the hearts of many. A fear, I’m sure, that did not abate when he’d walked on. I’m sure many people whose lives intersected with Justin Dean’s decision to take his weapon for a walk went home and celebrated Christmas Eve with diminished pleasure and a sense that their worlds were a lot less safe.

    I’ve wracked my brain, trying to think of any other legal activity where someone could behave with such utter cruelty and indifference to others. We control noise. We control speeding vehicles. If he had been carrying a large, lethal knife, many of them are illegal and he could have bee properly stopped. But he could carry a loaded weapon with the capacity to almost instantly kill dozens of people, and no one could say anything.

    I grew up on a Maine farm. Guns were a part of everyday life. The deer my father shot helped us get through the winter. The woodchucks that were shot meant our crops were safe. The cans my brother shot didn’t suffer and no one felt too much compassion for the rats at the dump. Guns for hunting? Guns for sport shooting? Guns for personal protection? I have no problem with that. But there’s no reason why we can’t have reasonable licensing requirements. Registration to keep track so that people need to report stolen guns. Requiring a license to purchase ammunition. And bans on assault rifles.

    We brought the current situation on ourselves. Now we have to fix it.

    One thing that is coming down the road, which I raise here because Dean is a veteran, is the huge wave of violence related to unacknowledged and untreated PTSD we’re going to be seeing in the next decade. His explanation for his behavior is disingenuous and unreflective. Basically, it comes down to he did it because he could. He didn’t have a point to make; he was simply indifferent about the harm he inflicted on others. I worry that the next time, he might just fire it out of the same disconnected ‘look at me, guys, I can scare the living hell out of all of you’ curiosity. But given the nature of PTSD, it might be a cry for help. Only who is going to approach someone with a loaded high-capacity weapon and say, “Justin, are you okay?”


  4. Lea Wait says:

    Ditto. To all.

  5. Barb Ross says:

    I think we Crime Writers have this little forum a few times a month to talk about what’s on our minds. And how can this topic, of all others, not be on our minds.

    As it happens, I agree with you almost point for point. But I would also welcome civilized discourse aimed at solving problems from those who disagree.

    Civilized discourse, that thing that is missing almost entirely from American life.

  6. Deanna says:

    and ditto again. Dee

  7. Lil Gluckstern says:

    I agree with all of you. The graphic that is making around that strikes me is that it is harder to buy Sudafed than an assault rifle. Common sense would be nice here.

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