Guns Are Just Like Cigarettes

Cigarettes don’t kill people, people do. That would be the tobacco lobby lying to the world. We’d recognize the claim at once as transparent nonsense. So we tax tobacco, using the proceeds to pay for, among other things, health-care for those destroying themselves by indulging their right to smoke.

Why not use the same public policy tools to attempt to control gun violence?

I concede a hidden agenda. Were it within my power, I’d repeal the Second Amendment. It is an anachronism. We aren’t armed against foreign invaders; no militia is necessary to protect against a wild frontier. And, despite all the brash whining of politicos, we really don’t take seriously the notion that the government has become a tyranny. We aren’t arming ourselves to preserve liberty.

We are armed to recreate the state of nature, a place in which, as Thomas Hobbes argued, life is “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.” We are armed because we fear one another, not the state. So we’re making a violent frontier out of inner cities, suburbia, and now, classrooms.

Guns, like cigarettes, kill people.

So if we won’t outlaw the private possession of firearms, let’s at least take steps to make sure gun manufacturers, gun sellers, and gun owners both pay the social costs associated with gun violence and have a stake in preventing guns from flooding the streets. We can do this with a tax and civil forfeiture policy.

The price of a pack of cigarettes in Connecticut is roughly $9. Most of that is tax. Why not a hefty tax on the sale of each gun? Let’s face it, guns are not necessities. You want the luxury of arming yourself in preparation for Armageddon? Then why not pay for it by contributing something to the inevitable costs associated with gun violence in terms of imprisonment, injury, lost wages and death? I’ll bet we could put a dent in the national debt taxing guns.

When an inherently dangerous product is placed in the stream of commerce, all those who introduced the product can be forced to share the liability for the harm the product causes. Why not treat guns in this manner?

Suppose a Colt firearm is used in a murder. Upon proof that the Colt was used, assess a $250,000 fine against the manufacturer, a $10,000 fine against the seller, and $5,000 fine against each registered owner. These fines would catch the attention of folks trucking and bartering in firearms. It might also inspire a sense of greater accountability and responsibility.

It is not uncommon in large urban areas for armed suburbanites to troll the city’s illegal drug markets looking to trade a gun for narcotics. Often a young man or woman steals a parent’s gun to trade for an evening’s pleasure. These guns remain in the inner city, where they are used in catastrophic acts of violence over often trifling causes. If gun owners knew they were going to get smacked with a hefty fine when their guns killed someone, I suspect they’d take greater pains to secure their guns.

I can hear the gunpowder chorus now: Those using the guns to kill should be responsible, not us. Most gun owners are pacific, peace-loving people. That begs the question. Most smokers are peaceable, too. I am simply asking that we use social policy to manage risk and assess costs.

Another two-step used to divert attention from gun violence is to argue that what we really need it more effective mental-health treatment. This is a variant on the guns don’t kill people argument: if we had better mental health treatment, there’d be fewer murders, at least fewer mass murders.

That’s not much of an argument. One in four Americans will suffer depression in their lives. Many will suffer psychoses of one sort or another. Millions take mood altering medications. The ubiquity of mental illness is really another argument in favor of gun control: With all these smoldering personalities in the world, why do we think drenching ourselves with gasoline will make us safe?

You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead fingers, a friend said not long ago. Fine, I say. Game on. It’s time to get serious about gun control. Gun violence is a matter of life and death. Don’t expect me to fight fair against the fear your gun will kill me.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


The End That Never Comes

I am willing to bet that you’ll able to read this come Dec. 22, and thereafter, too, should you be so inclined. That’s because I don’t think the world is going to come crashing down around us, as the Mayans predict, on Dec. 21, 2012. For that matter, I don’t think any cosmic ending is about to befall humankind. Ever.

We might just well succeed in destroying ourselves, however. Civilizations — ways of life built around common myths, ideas and settled practices — come and go. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, cataloged some 21 civilizations in his 12-volume lifework, A Study of History, published in 1961. By 1940, 14 civilizations, 14 distinctive ways of looking at, and organizing the world, had vanished. Each had a story of origins and endings, each tried to situate people in the seemingly infinite expanse of space and time.

If we destroy our way of life, the causes will be mundane, not cosmic. We might destroy the environment, and make life unsustainable. We might even succumb to collective madness, perhaps arming each and every person with an assault weapon and a thousand rounds, and then just wait for some unhinged soul to pull the first trigger. We can undo the work of civilization, or the very physical conditions that make life possible.

I had intended to write something light, and vaguely mocking, about our apocalyptic fantasies. Then gunfire erupted in Newtown. As if that weren’t crazy enough, the Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas rolled into town, threatening to spew its hellfire and brimstone brand of madness. In their view, we brought God’s wrath upon ourselves given our permissive ways: tolerate gay marriage and abortion, and expect God’s wrath, they say. I’ll defend their right to freedom of speech, but silently wish that God would prove His existence by striking these deluded fools dead, or, at the very least, turning them to pillars of salt.

But the Westboro clan isn’t really that much crazier than many of us, they’re just a little more open and honest about it — playing Old Testament prophet in the 21st century is, after all, a tough act. We all harbor deep-seated notions about the nature and destiny of the universe. We cannot help it.

Consider our Tea Partiers. They’re playacting — blind worship of the founders of the republic, and the claim that we’re a city on a hill, an example of something so new, and so special, that we should serve as a model to the world. What is that but another mythic rendering of origins? Rome had Romulus and Remus, we’ve George Washington and his cherry tree, both serving as discrete starting points orienting us in time. And where are we heading? Our city may not be eternal — Rome certainly wasn’t. But we must serve some discrete end, there must be some goal, some aim, some culmination toward which all our efforts drive us. Otherwise, we’re merely adrift in a senseless world of sense and sensation.

We seem to have lost confidence in the ends we set for ourselves. We’re pressing so hard at the boundaries of these ideas, that the center no longer holds. Equality for all? Why, yes. But not for gays. Why? Marriage is between one man and one woman for life, another time teaches. But what if yesteryear’s dogma no longer fits the felt necessity of our times? What then?

Dread sets in among those for whom old dogma sets the limit of what is acceptable. If events in space and time cannot be reckoned according to ancient standards, then there are no standards. All is flux. The end is upon us. I say the apocalyptic imagination is fundamentally an angry form of nostalgia. If the world as it is is no longer acceptable, then destroy the world. Wipe the sinners, and their sin, from the face of the Earth, and recreate a new, innocent society, filled with people sharing just the right values. That is the appeal of every apocalyptic vision.

We crave the very end we pretend to dread as a means of wishing for simpler times. How else to explain the appeal of movies and fiction about the end of the world?

Gun sales are soaring. Folks stockpile food and supplies to prepare for the end of the world. Others want to secede from a union they say they can no longer support. The gap between rich and poor grows. Although we all live together in a world we rely upon in common, sharing roads, foodstuffs, resources, too much of our politics is painted in the language of extremism. The libertarians want simply to be let alone. But no man is an island. We are social creatures.


Is it possible that increasing acts of violence are less a reflection of individual acts of madness than they are expressions of collective dread? The shooters aren’t mere madmen unhinged, capable of being identified and managed. They are troubled loners, to be sure, but are they acting on impulses the rest of us suppress? We are fascinated with play-acting the apocalypse because we sense how tired our ideals and ideas have become. The weak act, lacking the internal resources to tamp down what the rest of just experience as frustration.

What did Toynbee see when he saw civilizations in decline? What would he say were he alive today? I doubt we’re on our last legs as a civilization. We’ve too much energy for that. But there is something unhinged about the state of our culture and society. There are no ideals, just hatred. Our prophets seem mad, and without vision. We’re killing one another for no reason. Troubling times, but, certainly not end times.

Oh, and lest I forget, Merry Christmas. And Happy New Year, too. 2013 promises to be a wild ride if we don’t rethink the basics.

Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register company.



About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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