February 5

The Bundy Ranch Standoff: A Case Study of Two Americas

The last act of the standoff: unarmed, mounted riders pray together before confronting heavily-armed BLM agents. (New York Times)

The Bundy Ranch standoff that occurred in Bunkerville, NV, in April, 2014 [1] offers a clear view into two very different Americas: the urban liberal reality now experienced by a majority of Americans, and the reality of rural America which has little in common. I offer this case study in the hope that we as a nation can begin to understand that our experience, whether rural or urban, is not the experience of many other people, each of whom makes decisions– including political decisions– based on their own experience of reality. Only when we begin to acknowledge that difference can we possibly bridge the divide that has polarized the nation and brought us to the political state in which we find ourselves.

Rancher Cliven Bundy had been grazing cattle on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for many years, but had not paid his grazing fees.[2] The fees and related fines eventually totaled over a million dollars. After a series of legal battles, heavily-armed BLM agents were dispatched to impound hundreds of Bundy’s cattle. When videos circulated of Bundy family members being physically assaulted by BLM agents, hundreds of supporters streamed to the ranch.[3] These included a few dozen militia members from Idaho, and hundreds of ranchers and other supporters from Nevada, Utah, and other western states.[4]

Ranchers, farmers, and other interested parties supported Bundy because of ongoing, widespread problems with federal land management.[5] It is little recognized outside the West that 81% of the land in Nevada, 67% of Utah, and 62% of Idaho are owned by the federal government—the majority of it managed by the BLM.[6] While these federally-owned lands are seen by many Americans as wilderness to be protected, they are also an important source of livelihood for the people who live in those states.[7] Land use issues affect livelihoods, and therefore survival and identity.

On the final day of the standoff, according to eyewitness Symbria Patterson, 40 unarmed men and women on horseback gathered under a freeway bridge and approached the BLM command post southwest of I-15. “They stopped and said a prayer, and talked about whether they would survive this. Some of them discussed who they wanted their horses to go to if they died,” she told me. As they exited the cover of the bridge, hundreds of protesters on foot streamed across the freeway in support. The BLM sent an agent to negotiate, and the protesters demanded that jurisdiction be turned over to the Clark County Sheriff, where (according to the protesters) it belonged. Sheriff’s deputies took control, the cattle were released from their pens, and the standoff ended.[8] Supporters also documented the BLM’s abusive handling of the impounded cattle.[9]

None of this was reported in the mainstream media, and the narrative of violent uprising continued in coverage of the legal aftermath.[10] Associated Press quoted the prosecutor in the criminal case as saying, “[The Bundys] got what they wanted that day. They got it at the end of a gun.”[11] Meg Dalton writes that Bundy “and an armed militia held off the feds from rounding up his cattle.”[12] To the mainstream media, this incident represented a bizarre confrontation contributing to the belief that rural, white Americans are irrational and violent.[13] The most noteworthy image is that of a militia sniper on a bridge with his rifle aimed at federal agents.[14] (The photo of a BLM sniper posted outside the Bundy ranch before supporters arrived, which inflamed many people in the West, was never seen in the mainstream media.) The land was portrayed as pristine wilderness, the habitat of the desert tortoise.[15] The narrative, for much of the country, was that a racist, domestic terrorist was defying federal jurisdiction—and his supporters were just like him.[16] Yet we can also hear a narrative of structural violence as described by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers: “Criminals or rebels using guns are wrong, but officers or soldiers using the same guns are justified, even heroic.”[17]

The local narrative was much different. A local editorial contrasted this, stating,

Since 9/11, we’ve seen our federal government intensify its focus on national security to the point where it is actively eliminating our freedoms… Whether boarding a plane or purchasing a firearm, the federal government views every citizen as a potential criminal or terrorist until they have submitted to its screening. Its agencies are arming themselves at an unprecedented rate.[18]

Dalton acknowledges that the national media failed to cover this issue well. She quotes Ryan Haas: “To just dismiss [the Bundys] because their trial is over is sticking our heads in the sand about something that is really important to Western people.” And indeed, government officials are quoted as saying, before the standoff, “Mr. Bundy believes the BLM’s actions have nothing to do with cattle or the desert tortoise, but rather that it is an attempt by the federal government to take land from the state and the citizens who live there. This sentiment is held by almost every individual who was interviewed.[19] Symbria Patterson adds, “You should have heard the stories being told around the campfire at night. So many people, especially older people, thought they had a right to land their grandparents had homesteaded.  Then the government took it away. One man in his 70s said he’d been fighting for his land since 1946.”[20]

Two distinct narratives are evident. Outside the intermountain West, the incident at the Bundy ranch was seen as irrational lawlessness or rebellion against federal jurisdiction. The presence of militia members bolstered this perception; the fact that these represented a minority of the participants was not reported.[21] Even the need expressed by the ranchers was in some circles dismissed as unimportant. One man in Los Angeles commented to me, “No one makes a living ranching anymore.”[22]

Those involved saw it quite differently, particularly in Utah where cultural memory includes the so-called Utah War of 1857 between settlers and federal troops.[23] The memory of the intermountain West also includes the Downwinders, tens of thousands of residents in Utah and other western states who were intentionally exposed to radiation from nuclear tests beginning in 1951 to assess the impact of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, and the later Divine Strake bomb test proposed in 2007.[24] Combined with massive federal land ownership and lingering resentment over lost homestead claims, the belief that the federal government stands ready to do violence against them is not difficult to understand.

This narrative informs other social issues as well. For example, ranchers regularly use guns as tools of their trade, protecting livestock from predators. With a narrative of federal animosity, along with incidents like the recorded video of BLM’s manhandling of Bundy’s 57-year-old sister,[25] it should not surprise us that some westerners actually do believe that guns might be necessary to protect themselves against the government. Typically living in states with high gun ownership and low gun violence, the narrative of gun control threatens not only their livelihood but their perception of safety from an institution that appears adversarial to their way of life and even their existence.[26]

It’s easy to paint Cliven Bundy as a fanatic. It is less easy to explain away the broad support he received from across the rural intermountain West, unless we believe that the majority of rural residents are irrational fanatics. It’s not uncommon to see this as an underlying assumption by urban liberals. However, as this analysis shows, there  is another side to the story, as there always is. Human beings are, at the root, rational creatures; there is nearly always a reason for our actions, however invisible that reason may seem. Some of us may not want to hear about the historically-adversarial relationship between government and the rural West. We may not understand how people can cling to what to urban people is an outdated way of life, even dismissed as “cowboy culture.” We may not realize that thousands of Americans still make their living ranching.

We dismiss these realities as fiction at our peril. When we dismiss the experience of a minority– any minority– we drive a wedge that cannot easily be removed. A person whose lament goes unheard may seek to be heard by any means, even destructive means. That their actions may also be self-destructive becomes irrelevant.

Conversely, one of the most radical actions we can take is to listen to the narratives of those who disagree with us. This doesn;t mean to take their sound bites at face value, any more than they take ours at face value. It means, rather, to listen deeply to life experiences, generational histories, and most importantly woundings.

This is not an easy thing to do. It means risking the notion that we may have had some part in those woundings. It means risking our pride and our self-image of righteousness. Yet that is the risk required for healing. And without healing, we face a dark national future.



[1] This analysis is less interested in rancher Cliven Bundy and his interactions with the legal system, and the government’s failure to heed internal advice that might have avoided the standoff, but rather with the standoff itself and the hundreds of supporters who became involved.

[2] A reasonably fair analysis of the events leading up to the standoff can be found at Leah Sotille, “Report: FBI suggested waiving fees for Cliven Bundy before ranch standoff, did not consider him a threat,” Washington Post Dec 8, 2018 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/fbi-suggested-waiving-fees-for-cliven-bundy-before-ranch-standoff-deemed-him-not-a-threat/2018/12/08/f64cbf48-d630-11e8-aeb7-ddcad4a0a54e_story.html, accessed October 31, 2018). For a history of the conflict see Jaime Fuller, “The long fight between the Bundys and the federal government, from 1989 to today,” Washington Post, Jan 4, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/04/15/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-long-fight-between-cliven-bundy-and-the-federal-government/, accessed October 31, 2019).

[3] “Defense in Bundy Ranch Case: ‘Videos Don’t Lie,’” Associated Press, Nov 14, 2017 (https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2017/11/14/cliven-bundy-ranch-standoff-trial-test-american-land-policies-las-vegas/862322001/, accessed October 31, 2019).

[4] When I visited the site of the standoff on April 11, 2014, a participant who identified himself as a rancher from Utah told me, “They [the militia members] keep to themselves… They’re a little scary; we don’t mind that they stay away from us.”

[5] See, for example, Max Roth, “Piute County Sheriff threatens arrest of Forest Service personnel,” Fox 13, Feb 23, 2016 (https://fox13now.com/2016/02/23/piute-county-sheriff-threatens-arrest-of-forest-service-personnel/, accessed October 31, 2019); “Tension grows between ranchers, mustang backers,” Associated Press, Apr 6, 2014 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/04/06/tension-growing-between-ranchers-mustang-backers/7380255/, accessed October 31, 2019). It is difficult to determine exactly how many cattle ranchers there are in the west because the USDA does not distinguish between feedlots, farms, and ranches. However, of the 700,000 beef production operations, 80% are small, family owned, and produce about 20% of America’s beef. 2017 Cattleman’s Stewardship Review, National Cattleman’s Beef Association (https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/Media/BIWFD/Docs/beef-csr-report-2017-final.pdf, accessed October 31, 2019), 10. Note that westerners continue to voice concerns about both constitutionality of federal land ownership (see Constitution of the United States of America I.8.17), jurisdiction of the BLM, and BLM’s status as a police agency.

[6] Andrew Prokop, “The 2014 controversy over Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, explained,” Vox, May 14, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2014/8/14/18080508/nevada-rancher-cliven-bundy-explained, accessed October 31, 2019). For comparison, the federal government owns slightly less than 10% of the land in Virginia. Public Land Ownership by State, National Resources Council of Maine (https://www.nrcm.org/documents/publiclandownership.pdf, accessed November 3, 2019).

[7] On outside attitudes toward these lands, see for example, Cassidy Randall, “Trump condemned over plans to allow drilling near national parks,” Guardian, Sep 14, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/14/conservatives-democrats-trump-drilling-national-parks, accessed October 31, 2019). Note that these leases are not in the national parks; there are surely issues to be confronted here, but I would venture to suggest that the majority of Americans who unilaterally oppose commercial use of these lands have never been to them.

[8] Symbria Patterson and Sara Patterson, personal interview, April 17, 2014, documented by D. J. Mitchell, “Portrait of a Protester: Not What You’d Expect,” Notes from D.J., Apr 18, 2014 (http://djmitchellauthor.com/portait-of-a-protester-not-what-youd-expect/, accessed November 3, 2019). Patterson and her daughter, Sara, then age 19, are organic farmers in Cedar City, UT.

[9] According to Sara Patterson, who was also present, agents had destroyed waterholes in the desert to encourage cows into corrals. “The conditions in the corrals were disgusting. There was no water.  There were dozens of dogie calves separated from their mothers.  The cows were all full of milk because they had been separated from the calves.  Two cows had died, and two more had been crippled and had to be killed.” Bulls had been shot rather than impounded. Patterson.

[10] Bundy himself alludes to it in Sotille. No other report I have seen mentions the conclusion of the standoff.

[11] Associated Press (op. cit.).

[12] Meg Dalton, “With Bundy story, the national media slowly learns how to cover the American West,” Columbia Journalism Review, Jun 7, 2018 (https://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/bundyville-podcast-ranch-rights.php, accessed October 31, 2019).

[13] Ibid.: “The majority of Bundy supporters aren’t ranchers or farmers or cowboys, but militiamen, anti-government agitators, and white supremacists—the kind of people who flocked to Charlottesville last summer.”

[14] See Sotille; this is the first image shown in her article. See also Matt Ford, “The Irony of Cliven Bundy’s Unconstitutional Stand,” Atlantic, Apr 14, 2014 (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/the-irony-of-cliven-bundys-unconstitutional-stand/360587/, accessed October 31, 2014).

[15] Prokop.

[16] To be fair, Cliven Bundy has been in the spotlight for making remarks considered racist. Brett LoGuirato, “Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy Makes Ridiculously Racist Comments, Says Blacks Might Have Been ‘Better Off’ As Slaves,” Business Insider, Apr 24, 2014 (https://www.businessinsider.com/cliven-bundy-racist-comments-slaves-ranch-2014-4, accessed November 1, 2019). The standoff had nothing to do with racial issues, and to extend Bundy’s personal belief on an unrelated issue to all those who supported his protest against federal land use policies represents a guilt-by-association fallacy. While most ranchers are white—and indeed the majority of non-reservation residents of the rural, intermountain West are white—there are many exceptions, including my former neighbor, cattle rancher Reyes Carballo who, like his neighbors, grazes his cattle on federal lands each summer. But compare Bundy’s criticism of the effect of the Welfare State on Blacks, though worded inappropriately, to comments made by Haitian farmers with respect to subsidized rice imports from the U.S. that were supposed to help their economy but instead put local farmers out of work. Michael Matheson Miller, “Poverty Inc.,” Acton Institute, (2014).

[17] Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Diverse Christian Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking Vol II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 8.

[18] Bryan Hyde, “Perspectives: Does government see us as the enemy?” St. George News, Apr 10, 2014 (https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2014/04/10/perspectives-government-see-us-enemy/#.Xb7BKppKjIW, accessed November 3, 2019). On federal agencies arming themselves, see Sean Kennedy, “Why did the USDA buy submachine guns?” CNN, Sep 29, 2014 (https://www.cnn.com/2014/09/23/politics/auditors-guns/, accessed November 3, 2019); Robert W. Wood, “IRS has 4,500 guns, 5 million rounds ammunition: Paying taxes?” Forbes, Jan 14, 2019 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2019/01/14/irs-has-4500-guns-5-million-rounds-ammunition-paying-taxes/#12cc3b6a1f9e, accessed November 3, 2019).

[19] Sotille. Emphasis added.

[20] Symbria Patterson.

[21] The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks militias as hate groups. “Armed far-right militia groups in the US entangles in legal troubles,” TRT World, Sep 3, 2019 (https://www.trtworld.com/americas/armed-far-right-militia-groups-in-the-us-entangled-in-legal-troubles-29491, accessed November 3, 2019).

[22] This comment was made on a FaceBook post in 2014. I am unable to locate it. But note the statistics on small cattle producers cited above—many people do make a living ranching, though most of the beef we eat does come from large, factory “farms.”

[23] History.net describes this intervention as “a collision of territorial self-determination against [the] federal government…” The primary issue appears to have been the Mormon practice of polygamy in violation of federal law. Donna G. Ramos, “Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers,” History.net (https://www.historynet.com/utah-war-us-government-versus-mormon-settlers.htm, accessed November 3, 2019).

[24] Janet Barton Seegmiller, “Nuclear Testing and the Downwinders,” History to Go, Utah.gov (https://historytogo.utah.gov/downwinders/, accessed November 3, 2019); Benjamin Wood, “‘They said it was safe when they knew it wasn’t’: Utah downwinders archive scrutinizes fallout from nuclear testing,” Tribune (Salt Lake City), Oct 3, 2016 (https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=4427087&itype=CMSID, accessed November 3, 2019). Divine Strake was to be a massive conventional bomb test at the Nevada Test Site, which locals feared would distribute radioactive soil across the intermountain West. Ted Robbins, “Planned Divine Strake Bomb Test Incenses Locals,” NPR, Jan 18 2007 (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6906851, accessed November 3, 2019).

[25] Associated Press.

[26] The issue of rates of gun ownership versus gun violence has been clouded recently by a tendency to include suicide in gun “crime” rates. German Lopez notes, “Most gun deaths are suicides,” and states with lower gun ownership rates tend to have lower gun suicide rates. German Lopez, “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts,” Vox, Aug 13, 2019 (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts, accessed November 3, 2019). However, according to FBI statistics CO, ID, MT, ND, SD, WY, and UT all rank in the lowest 20 states for rate of gun murder; UT ranks 5th lowest in the nation. “Table 20: Murder by State, Types of Weapons,” Federal Bureau of Investigation (https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/table-20, accessed November 3, 2019). These states do rank higher in suicide rates. For comparison, CA, which ranks 34th lowest in gun murder, ranks 7th lowest in overall gun mortality when suicides are included. But note that nationally only 51% of suicides are committed with a firearm, and there are also questions of contributing factors such as the generally-higher rates of poverty in the intermountain west and other rural states, suggesting that combining suicide with gun crime obscures the causes of divergent problems in favor of a symptom-oriented approach, namely regulating guns.

November 26

The Real Fallacy of Liberalism

Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a conservative. In fact, I sympathize with many of the goals of modern American liberals. But there’s a problem. It’s not the social goals, though I do disagree with some of them. Nor is it the candidates they run, though some of them are abominable. No, it’s something far deeper, and something that few people, left or right, seem to recognize.

In his book The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah refers to primary and secondary cultures. Primary culture is that group with whom we have direct, personal relationships. It’s the people we look in the eye, the family, extended family, and community we trust because we know them.

Secondary culture, in contrast, relies on systems and structures. It is the roads we drive on, and the market we shop at where we don’t know any of the employees. It’s the schools we send our kids to, trusting in a system rather than in the people, whom we don’t have time to know, and it’s FaceBook, where we accumulate “friends” we have never met, and with whom we share a carefully-edited version of ourselves that portrays us in our best light. They’ll never know any different because they don’t know really us.

What does this mean for how we live? Rah describes the impact of primary and secondary culture on our childcare:

Formalized child care in a primary cultural system doesn’t exist. Children are allowed to play out in the village because extended family liver nearby and they would ensure that our children would be safe. They know and trust all of their neighbors, who are likely related to them… In a secondary cultural system, we cannot trust our neighbor to not harm our kids, much less look out and care for them. Child care is obtained through agencies found in the Yellow Pages or a nanny webpage. We trust our most precious gift into the hands of total strangers who have received a seal of approval from other total strangers. (p. 101)

If you live in a city, perhaps you can’t even imagine a primary cultural system. It sounds like a fantasy. It can’t really exist, right?

Wrong. I grew up in a primary cultural system. My mom knew she could rely on our neighbors to keep me safe, just as she would keep their kids safe. Later, I spent 12 years in rural Utah, where it was much the same. We never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. Some folks left their car running when they went into the post office or grocery store. Our neighbors wouldn’t care if we went into their house for an egg or a cup of flour, even if they weren’t home.

Life was very different during my 25 years in Los Angeles. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I locked my home and my car. I didn’t trust people I didn’t know, which was most of the 10 million people living in the L.A. basin. My safety and security were provided not by relationships, but by structures: locks, police, rules, and routines. Those friends I did have I chose because of shared interests and culture, not geography. There was really no sense of community, and what I thought was community was artificial.

Think about that when we talk about gun control. Many of those who favor it live in fear, because they don’t have much if any primary cultural system. Many who oppose it think it’s ridiculous because the chances of their neighbor shooting them are pretty slim. Both are true– in their cultural context. The fallacy is that one answer can apply to both situations. (That’s a liberal idea, too, though today’s conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.)

Think about the food you eat today. How much of it was grown by someone you know? How much of it was prepared by someone you know? If you’re a typical city dweller, chances are, not much. That may also be true if you live in a small town, though it’s easier there to eat more food that was grown locally by someone you know simply because there are more farmers. Most of us rely instead on faceless systems and inspectors to ensure there’s no nasty bacteria on our lettuce. And, as we learned again recently, that’s not always reliable.

Why does it matter? Because relationships build trust. Without relationships, we can’t have much trust in our lives. That’s sad. It’s also not good for us. We begin to see systems as more important than people. Perhaps you’re familiar with Bob Seeger’s lament, “I Feel Like a Number.” Elevating systems over people is dehumanizing. If you have any doubt, try conducting a transaction at the DMV in Santa Monica or calling the California Franchise Tax Board.

When liberals call for racial equality, I see that as a good thing. But trying to do it solely through systems is a faulty approach. We are (all of us) human beings, not cogs in a machine. Tuning the machine cannot fix the very real human problems we face. I wonder how many of my white liberal friends who support racial equality would actually make friends with someone of another race, eat together, and have their kids play together regularly? If not, that’s not racial equality. (Remember “Separate but equal“? The Supreme Court declared it wasn’t equal at all!)

So let’s apply this to another problem everyone recognizes: school shootings. The liberal answer is gun control. If they didn’t have access to guns, they wouldn’t shoot anyone, right? Let’s assume for a moment that gun control could work. Heroin control isn’t working, but maybe gun control will. So Nikolas Cruz can’t get a gun, and that’s the answer to the problem. This autistic kid was bullied his whole school career, had just lost his only surviving parent, and had dropped through the cracks in the system. But the liberal answer says it’s not his suffering that’s the problem, it’s the gun he uses to lash out.

It’s not systems that keep us healthy, safe, and included. It’s people.

Certainly there’s a role for systems. We can’t live without them. But putting our emphasis on systems over people dehumanizes us just as much as it dehumanizes everyone else. As Rah says, God created us in community, in relationship (81, ref. Genesis 1:28). Without relationships, we are less than human.





December 4

Major Media Outlets Need a Fact Check on Guns

Today Rolling Stone published a list of 353 mass shootings so far this year. (The number 355 is what most media outlets are using.)

Click on this link and read carefully. You’ll notice that it includes gang violence, bar fights, riots, acts of terrorism, and plenty of domestic violence. The media has just redefined “mass shooting” to scare the crap out of us!

I agree there are way too many mass shootings. I agree there’s too much violence in general. But this is a factual misstatement worthy of Fox News!!

October 8

Guns and Scars, Liberty and Hell

“You should wear with pride the scars on your skin
They’re a map of the adventures and the places you’ve been.”Poi Dog Pondering

Let me tell you about the time I got shot in the head.  No joke.  I’d recently bought a Ruger LCR .38 Special revolver.  My friend Jason came over, and I wanted to show it to him.  I opened the cylinder and removed the bullets.  He closed the cylinder and took it from me.  Then he asked if he could dry-fire it.

I hadn’t looked closely to ensure that all five bullets were removed.  He hadn’t checked at all when I handed it to him.  There was still one in the cylinder, and it went off.

As best we could tell, the bullet went downward through my file cabinet, ricocheted off the floor, bounced off my desk, and hit me in the temple.  It stunned me, but bounced off.  We never did find it.

I was lucky in so many ways.  First, it was a .38 Special which, although one of the most popular rounds in the U.S. is not very powerful.  Second, the bullets were XTP, designed to expand on impact, so (though they are deadlier in a direct impact) the ricochets took much more velocity out of them than they would a full metal jacket.  Third, the bullet went through several layers of furniture before it hit me.  The accident could have been deadly, but wasn’t.

It was my second firearm mishap.  In the first, after following online directions to adjust and safety-test the trigger assembly on a Remington .270 hunting rifle, a round discharged when I released the safety in the kitchen, blasting through a wall and through my pantry, making a terrible mess and deafening both my dog and me for 24 hours.

I don’t share these two incidents lightly.  I learned from them.  First, always check and double-check to ensure a gun is really empty.  Then treat it as though it’s loaded.  Second, leave critical adjustments to the experts.

And that’s the point: I learned.

I’m always amazed at the conflicting “wisdom” our society offers.

“We learn from our mistakes.”

“Don’t make any mistakes.”

“Adversity builds character.”

“No one should have to face adversity.”

Is it any wonder our nation is led by idiots who have no character?

Some people seem to envision a world that is safe for everyone.  Motorcycle helmets are required.  Cars should be collision-resistant.  Swimming pools should be three feet deep, and fenced, and of course there’s no diving allowed.

I’m a little surprised that after the Boston Marathon bombing, no one suggested background checks and licenses be required to buy a pressure cooker.  Or, in more mundane circumstances, that the law require steel cables be attached to scissors to keep kids from running with them.

I was taught to dive at YMCA camp when I was a kid.  Yes, I can dive safely, even into three feet of water.  And I enjoy it.  Sure, I belly-flopped a few times as I was learning, knocked the wind out of me once off the diving board, and scraped my belly on the sand learning to shallow dive.  But I learned.

The “safe” world doesn’t appeal to me much.  In fact, it sounds like Hell.

As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859,

“[W]hen there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk: in this case, therefore, (unless he is a child, or delirious, or in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty) he ought, I conceive, to be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it.” (On Liberty, Chapter 5, v.5)

As for the danger to society,

[I]t must by no means be supposed, because damage, or probability of damage, to the interests of others, can alone justify the interference of society, that therefore it always does justify such interference. (5.3)

It is one of the undisputed functions of government to take precautions against crime before it has been committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards. The preventive function of government, however, is far more liable to be abused, to the prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function; for there is hardly any part of the legitimate freedom of action of a human being which would not admit of being represented, and fairly too, as increasing the facilities for some form or other of delinquency. (5.5)

Mill was required reading in my school, back in the 1970s.  How times have changed!

Before us is a choice about what sort of society we wish to live in.  On the one hand, some would have all dangers removed, and encourage government supervision to ensure such is the case.  On the other, absolute freedom for the individual, complete with its inherent dangers. (Few truly believe in this, for even those who claim to support it tend to want to limit others’ actions according to their own moral code.)

There is a middle path, for the liberty on which this nation was founded is not anarchy.  Polluting the oceans so that people get mercury poisoning from eating fish is not legitimate liberty, for it despoils the common resources of the people.  But allowing the majority of Americans who are not criminals to own firearms if they so choose is a risk that in my opinion cannot be legitimately argued against.

The opposing logic would suggest that the cheeseburger (or at least diet in general), which kills 130 times more Americans than guns each year, should be regulated before we even begin to discuss firearms.  Yet few are willing to give up their freedom of choice in food.

Some would argue there’s a difference, that for most Americans firearms are not a necessity but a pleasure.  I would argue the same of cheeseburgers, as I haven’t eaten one in 20 years.  The logic is the same: do we have the right to restrict another’s pleasure, even if its effects cause indirect costs to society?  (In this instance, I’m thinking about the billions of dollars in health care costs incurred by those who ate badly but can’t afford the cost of medical care, and the family members left behind as McDonald’s or Burger King takes another life.)

When I was 11 years old, my cousin Karl and I engaged in a mock duel.  My weapon was a bottle of Elmer’s glue.  His was the Exacto knife I used for building models, a pastime I very much enjoyed.  At that age the lack of parity between weapons did not occur to us.

Karl sliced open a knuckle on my left hand, which required a trip to the hospital and several stitches.  (Naturally, we lied to my mom about how it happened.) I still have that scar, and it’s a reminder of what an idiot I was.

Is the message of that event that children ought not to have access to Exacto knives, or that children learn from their mistakes?  I submit that a life that includes danger teaches in a way a padded room can’t.  Education serves us better than elimination.

August 12

Forget About Guns

I’m going to make a statement that will likely get me crucified by conservatives and liberals alike. Here goes: If you argue that the solution to gun violence is more guns or less guns, you are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

That’s because focusing on the symptoms of a disease doesn’t cure the disease. And America has a disease. It’s called untreated mental illness.

Ever since the national mental health system was dismantled under Ronald Reagan, our country has increasingly suffered from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.

It’s not just crazy gunmen. They’re the ones that make the news. But we live in a country where schizophrenics intentionally get arrested because jail is the only facility that will care for them, where PTSD sufferers live on the street because, even though they can’t work, they aren’t “sick enough” for admission to an institution, where bipolars who need six weeks of hospitalization to balance their meds get kicked out in 5 – 7 days because their insurance won’t pay for more, where mental health hotlines go unanswered, where GPs administer psych meds because psychiatrists are unavailable or too expensive, and where the suicide rate is more than double the homicide rate.

The recent wave of mass shootings is a clear sign of how sick we are.  Yet it’s only the visible tip of an unseen iceberg.  Mentally ill people don’t look different from anyone else.  We can’t see them.  We don’t count them.  At least, not until they’ve committed harm to another person.  And there are literally millions of them.  No one knows exactly how many, because too often we don’t diagnose them anymore.  But we can see from the suicide statistics that we are not a healthy nation.  Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in this country, and the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.  Veterans are reported to make up 20% of the suicides each year.  And the overall suicide rate is rising.

If you need more evidence, check the stats for antidepressant prescriptions.  CDC reports that 11% of Americans take them!  NAMI reports that one in four adults – 25% – experiences a mental illness in a given year. That’s an astounding figure!

Yet we spend our time arguing about guns.

Our mental health system is a travesty.  When Reagan dismantled the national system, the states were supposed to pick up the slack.  They didn’t.  They had neither the funding nor the inclination.

Now we have the third-highest suicide rate in the industrialized world.  We have homeless dying on the street because there’s no help for them.  We have people dying from poorly prescribed medication.  And, of course, we have people dying from murder by a growing handful mentally unbalanced people.

That doesn’t take into account the suffering of those who are untreated or poorly treated.  It doesn’t address the cost of using first responders to treat mental health emergencies, or the cost of medical ERs attempting to treat mental health crises from patients who can’t pay because without proper treatment they are unemployable.

What bothers me most is the suffering of those left untreated.  Mental illness isn’t fun.  Being unable to function isn’t fun.  Being unemployed because your brain doesn’t work right isn’t fun.  (Ask me how I know this.)

What bothers everyone else seems to be fear of getting shot.  So let’s face the truth: mentally balanced people don’t shoot each other, or attack each other with knives or hammers or hatchets or any other weapon.

While gun opponents and proponents argue, Americans are getting killed.  So please: shut up and let’s talk about mental health.