Point of brew: Guns and beer and the ATF

By From page A7 | January 03, 2013

I am always interested in guns because they and cigarettes are controlled by the same agency of the U.S. government that controls beer; that is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (known as the ATF), which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

For that naive reason I try to draw parallels between guns, cigarettes and beer/alcohol and have done so several times in this column (most recently in August of this year following the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin). Usually, I take the view that prohibition is no inhibition or solution and, despite the recent unspeakable event in Connecticut, I still hold to that view.

I hope the second term of President Obama is not consumed in a contentious and drawn-out fight to pass some meager semblance of gun control, such as banning the sale of assault rifles, that will make a few lawmakers feel good but will have no discernible effect on the problem of gun crimes and violence, on the ghastly number of gun homicides, suicides, accidental killings and on mass murder.

Nevertheless, given the proximity of guns and beer at the enforcement agency, I have been trying to come up with some brewing equivalent of the National Rifle Association’s recommendation that there should be armed guards in schools (and presumably everywhere else that people assemble: campuses, theaters, malls, temples and churches and maybe sporting events).

But I cannot find such a parallel because it has to be a very targeted and clever statement as the NRA “shoot back” response was.

Many commentators would and did dismiss that idea as stupid and ludicrous, typical of gun-crazed wing-nuts, but it was not really either of those things.

In a nation that prizes guns and some prize the idea of unfettered freedom of action, inviolable individual liberty and strict personal responsibility (however delusional those ideas might be), the NRA statement was spookily attractive and weirdly convincing to many people because it spoke to their deep-seated impotence, anger and need for revenge. That is because for many citizens in our culture, which prizes the vigilante Wild West, being able to shoot back at the shooter is an obvious and satisfying solution.

A parallel statement to the NRA’s from the Beer Institute (the approximate equivalent organization) simply does not work for alcohol consumption. I suppose drunken driving is the alcohol equivalent to gun violence. Should therefore the Beer Institute suggest that professional drunks patrol the bars and parking lots on the basis that the only person to stop a bad drunk is a good drunk?

No! That idea does not have the same ring to it nor the same macho appeal to good-old American cowboys at high noon, full of testosterone and self-reliance, as the NRA announcement does.

But the Beer Institute does have a very honest and, at high cost, much-promoted recommendation to those folk who choose to drink. It’s this: “If you drink, don’t drive”; or “Drink responsibly.” The Beer Institute has had an advertising code of behavior for brewers since 1937 and that has been much developed into today’s voluntary and self-regulating code of advertising behavior as well as positive and cautionary promotion of responsible drinking in all its forms.

While I cannot conceive of a brewer’s announcement equivalent to the NRA’s “shoot back” recommendation, I also see no NRA equivalent announcement about responsible gun ownership such as this well-documented idea: “Having a gun is more dangerous than not having a gun.” (Can you imagine!)

And that is surely the arena where the NRA may have a true responsibility and a legitimate role to play and one that has the possibility of reaping many rewards for the organization.

There are two kinds of guns: those already owned in our society (approaching 300 million of them, or 90 guns per 100 Americans) and those yet to be sold. As for beer sales, this represents a mature market into which it is difficult to sell much more of the product; therefore, existing guns are more important than unsold ones.

Here is a fantasy: If the NRA were deemed the “well-regulated Militia” that justifies “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” in the indelible and indestructible Second Amendment, and, therefore, all gun owners were required to join the NRA (or the military), then the organization could bring to bear its expertise to rational gun regulation and control.

For example, gun registration, free of government and the police (feared as mechanisms for gun confiscation) would be possible; the NRA could establish a program by which applicants are pre-approved to buy a specified gun with increasingly intrusive pre-conditions depending on the weapon sought (up to and including personal interview and site inspection, as in Britain); the NRA could require that certain kinds of guns be stored at certified gun clubs or ranges, not held privately except some, perhaps, in approved safes; the NRA could enlarge hugely on its program of gun safety and education with regular retraining and practice required of all owners and maybe re-certification of some. And the NRA could engage in research that assures that guns can be discharged only by those whom the NRA approves to buy them.

And so on and so on.

Or, an equal fantasy, we can go for broke and repeal the Second Amendment as we repealed the 18th (alcohol prohibition) and so confiscate all weapons from all citizens in the nation who cannot show a legitimate sporting use for a gun. I am attracted to the British experience, where guns were so confiscated (e.g., by the 1997 Firearms Act), and where there is now less than 1/40 our rate of gun deaths; this is among the lowest in the world.

However, guns are how our nation arose, where we came from, who we are today and part of the national psyche.

I’m not sure I want to mess with that any more than I want to mess with my right to enjoy a glass of beer.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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