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Afterthoughts: Mass Hysteria

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Photo by TimothyJ, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by TimothyJ, Creative Commons Licensing.

It has been an interesting day.

In their zeal to do something, anything, about gun violence, House Democrats staged a historic coup, demanding a vote on a bill restricting gun sales to people on the no-fly and terrorist watch lists. They had an old-school sit-in, led by none other than civil rights activist-turned representative John Lewis. As Republicans tried to regain control of the floor, Democrats chanted “Shame” and sang “We will overcome.”

Twenty hours they sat. House Speaker Paul Ryan proclaimed it a “publicity stunt,” ordered a recess, and turned off the C-Span cameras (which he controls). But this is the smartphone age. The senators (who are more tech-savvy than I gave them credit for) turned on Periscope (a video streaming app), which got picked up by C-Span. All of this was in violation of House rules, of course, but the Democrats didn’t care a bit, and they were cheered on by an electorate disgusted with inaction.

It was a big moment for liberals. They had a revolution. Which, thanks to some clever tech, was indeed televised. Bernie Sanders showed up. Elizabeth Warren brought donuts. Today, liberals on social media are energized, defiant. For them, it’s a good day.

Which is why it may come as a surprise that the big thinkers at the Americans for Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have come out against the bill they sat in for. It isn’t every day that the ACLU agrees with the National Rifle Association (NRA). How did we get here?

Let’s rewind.

June 3rd. President Obama answered a question from a concerned gun owner about gun restrictions, Obama expressed frustration at how easily terror suspects could acquire weapons. He said:

I just came from a meeting today in the Situation Room in which I’ve got people who we know have been on ISIL websites, living here in the United States, U.S. citizens, and we’re allowed to put them on the no-fly list when it comes to airlines, but because of the National Rifle Association, I cannot prohibit those people from buying a gun.

This video went viral, and Democrats realized it was a good talking point. One that could cut through the clutter of the gridlocked gun control debate.

June 12th. Orlando happened. And it happened almost exactly as Obama described. An American, who had gone to ISIS websites (though, I have argued this was not his primary motivation), who had been under FBI investigation at multiple points, was able to acquire an AR-15-style weapon and kill 49 people.

Given this chain of events, it is easy to understand why House and Senate Democrats have gone to extreme measures to push for votes. The stars have tragically aligned.

And yet the ACLU is not happy.

They would suggest that the No Fly List is an anomaly in our free society. If you were to find yourself on it, you would be frustrated to learn there is very little you can do about it. You will have entered the black hole of our justice system, a twilight zone where no prosecutor has charged you, no jury has convicted you, but your rights have nonetheless been abridged. Authorities promise they aren’t abusing their power, that only people who create a credible threat are on it. But tell that to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose interviews with Edward Snowden landed her on it.

Our founding fathers had good reason to fear tyranny and required due process in our judicial system. The ACLU has long argued against the list, suggesting that having a list which bypasses due process is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Consider the power of such a list, with expanded suspension of rights, in the hands of Donald Trump. Who among us would end up on the list? How would you even know?

So with great respect to the passion of the Democratic legislators, and my appreciation for the political moment, I worry that this is not the right path.

I would suggest there is a calm conversation to be had about firearms in this country that we are not having, and not having it is making us hysterical.

And it’s a shame. It shouldn’t be this hard to discuss. We don’t allow citizens to make their own sarin gas, they can’t own uranium, and they can’t own a rocket launcher. Nor can they own military-grade automatic rifles. To me, reasonable people can recognize that there is a line, and discuss where the line should be. Reasonable people can also recognize that no amount of gun control will stop the incidents of violence, but that sensible limits may reduce the severity of these events. We can also learn a great deal from mental health professionals, who are chomping at the bit to help us through the complex ethics of declaring someone too unstable to buy a gun.

This is a problem with a lot of angles. But we’ve tackled harder problems. With good data and calm heads, we could take well considered steps to move this ball forward without offending the constitution.

But we don’t live in that universe. Republicans have blocked the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence. Right wing news outlets have convinced their viewers that Democrats are looking for ways to confiscate their guns. The NRA, and their dreaded grading system for legislators, makes it impossible to even discuss expanding background checks, which an overwhelming majority of Americans support. Closing background check-free gun show loopholes? Not a chance.

I would love to have a reasonable conversation about gun violence. But with one side simply opting out of the conversation, we are left with little but frustration. There is no middle ground to be had in this climate. More tragedy will occur, and little will change. It’s enough to make a reasonable person crazy.

And given that, maybe I’m being too hard on the sit-ins. Maybe under such conditions, the only appropriate response is a hysterical one.

Jay Burns is an actor, playwright, and lifelong Alaskan. He studied business and economics at Carnegie Mellon, and holds a theatre MFA from Michigan State. He's a former Hollywood development exec, a political junkie, a gamer, and father of three. What free time he has is often spent on the hiking trails around Anchorage with his wife and three kids or in the theatre.

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