The American Sport

The shootings in Aurora, Colorado have predictably sparked debate about gun control. That debate is easily rekindled. Sadly, we have many such opportunities in America.

I’m not part of that debate and neither is this post. I have nothing to add to the countless talking heads and political opportunists who stand on such tragedies as a platform to hear themselves speak. Although I am an attorney, I also won’t belabor the many court decisions interpreting the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution which guarantees the right to bear arms. We have that right, subject to limits.

I will offer this disclaimer: I have no problem with gun ownership. I own guns. I grew up around guns. When my father died, he left a veritable arsenal of weapons. The Second Amendment exists, and I wouldn’t support repealing it nor would I support leaving it to the states to decide. If this makes me a Second Amendment advocate, so be it. I don’t hunt, carry a gun or belong to the NRA. You be the judge.

I’m not foolish enough to say that what happened in Colorado had nothing to do with guns. Of course it did. I also recognize legitimate questions about how a person purchases body armor and thousands of rounds of ammunition without detection. That said, I leave it to others to decide what the legal reaction, if any, should be.

For me, the broader question, the American question, is Why? Why do we Americans kill each other for sport? We do, you know. We always have. It happens in other countries, but it is as American a sport as football. We’ve had our share of political murder, assassination and domestic terrorism. But, hunting each other remains an American past time.

We’re hardly the most violent or dangerous country on the planet. Many countries are little more than disorganized war zones. Organized crime permeates some societies. Our distinction is in the random or so-called “senseless” murder.

In our age of information overload, we tend to think that these things are a modern phenomenon. Nancy Grace will jump on one of these stories every day. My favorite cable channel is Investigation Discovery, an entire TV network built around people killing each other. Think about that.

We have school shootings. SCHOOL shootings. That should be unthinkable, but it isn’t. Here’s a story you probably haven’t heard. Andrew Kehoe was the Treasurer of the Bath Township Consolidated School board in Michigan. Like a lot of folks, he was against tax increases. The board approved an increase in property taxes to fund the schools. Kehoe owned a farm and was very much against this increase. He was legitimately concerned with his ability to pay the tax increase and keep his farm. He made his objections known but to no avail. Here’s what he did next.

He bludgeoned his wife to death and set off explosives in all his farm’s buildings, destroying his farm and all his livestock. The previous day, he planted explosives in the Bath Consolidated School. They detonated almost simultaneously with those at the farm. Over 30 died, most small children, while Kehoe watched from his car. The school Superintendent was at the school and approached Kehoe’s car. This time, a bomb exploded in the car, killing Kehoe, the Superintendent and an 8-year-old girl. In all, 38 people died. If Mr. Kehoe had committed his crimes today, he would be the subject of 24 hour a day coverage.

Why don’t you know about this? Because it happened in 1927. Our history of violence is as long as it is disturbing. Ted Bundy was the first murderer that I can recall being called a “serial” killer, but he was far from the first. Google the name Carl Panzram, and you will read of one of the worst of God’s creatures, an unrepentant misanthrope whose last words were: “Hurry up, you Hoosier sonofabitch! I could have hung ten men in the time it’s taking you!” He was hanged in 1930. There was Albert Fish, child killer and cannibal, a predator so vile that prosecutors weren’t sure how to even present his crimes to a jury. He was electrocuted in 1936. What of Ed Gein, a mild-mannered farmer from Plainfield, Wisconsin? When he wasn’t farming, he was a murderer, graverobber and necrophile and the inspiration for Norman Bates and many other fictional killers. He committed his crimes in the 1950’s and died as a model prisoner in 1984.

Read Erik Larson’s excellent book The Devil and the White City for an account of the crimes of H.H. Holmes during the Chicago World’s Fair in the 19th Century. The 1920’s saw The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders near Los Angeles. So common were child disappearances that as many as 20 children may have been killed before authorities acted.

Howard Unruh was a decorated World War II veteran. He was also a dangerous psychotic who woke up one morning in 1949, shot his mother and then roamed the streets of Camden, New Jersey shooting and killing 13 people at random. American as apple pie.

Charles Starkweather, Edmund Kemper, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy–the list goes on and on. These are the ones we remember. In 1984, James Huberty prepared to leave his home when his wife asked: “Where are you going?” He responded: “Hunting humans.” He went to McDonalds and killed 21 people. Remember that? Maybe not. After all, there have been so many since then. Murderers all, but they all don’t have guns in common. What they have in common is murder for sport.

Why? Maybe it’s because we have so much freedom that the dangerous and demented feel free to cut loose. Because of our freedoms, the police are often left only to pursue criminals, rather than prevent crime. That’s a trade-off for freedom. We don’t have tools to apprehend those with the potential for mayhem. The odd, curious or even dangerous person is free to roam the streets. You see them everyday. You might be one of them.

Of course, we can curtail some of this if we’re willing to pay the price. Nowadays, folks are fond of saying “Freedom Isn’t Free.” This is a mostly empty platitude said by folks like me from the comfort of our living rooms. When it comes to crime, that old saw is certainly true. We can restrict the Second Amendment. While we’re at it, why not the 4th and 5th Amendments, too? Allowing the state to randomly search us and extract confessions could well prevent the next Aurora. Too extreme?

Have you noticed the fine job the federal government has done apprehending potential terrorists? How do they do it? Whether you like the Patriot Act or not, it has been effective. The government can tap your phone, read your mail and pretty much track your every movement based on nothing more than suspicion. Add to that a prison in Cuba where suspects are held forever without facing charges or trial and you have a pretty effective crime prevention system.

We won’t, can’t and shouldn’t ever go down that road, of course. The swap of liberty for security is rarely a fair trade. Does this mean there should be no gun laws? Of course not. But taking the rights of the many because of the acts of the few is dangerous territory. The Aurora gunman (I will not dignify him by mentioning his name) is to the Second Amendment what the Westboro Baptist Church is to the First Amendment. Both abuse their rights to harm others, but neither is worth taking the rights of those who don’t.

Despite what some think, we aren’t easy on crime. Our prisons are bulging at their seams. We also execute people, putting us in the same class as Iran, China and North Korea when it comes to jurisprudence. Regardless of how brutally we’ve done it, killing people never seemed to help. Hanging, shooting, stoning, electrocution–they just keep on killing. We could hang every convicted killer tomorrow, and I can guarantee that there will be murders that afternoon.

The big question is never debated. What is it about our society that lends itself to these crimes? England and Japan, hardly police states, see almost no predatory murder. Yet, we see it daily. Someone smarter than I am will have to find a way to detect and stop these folks before they strike.

Despite all this, it is a mistake to condemn society. Most people–almost everyone–are good people. They work, help their neighbors and are good to their families. The exceptions scare us and fascinate us.

Where are these exceptions? Everywhere. Our towns, neighborhoods–maybe even our own homes. We can’t hide. We can’t pray our way into a protective bubble. We just have to hope we don’t cross paths with one of these folks at the wrong time.

We feel for the people of Aurora, although most of us, thankfully, can’t imagine what they feel. I imagine the sadness and terror are palpable. On a random night, they were visited by the worst in us. Hopefully, they will now see the best in us.

By chance, I once spoke to a man whose sibling had committed a notorious and brutal crime. He said he his family had no idea that it was coming and many years later couldn’t come to grips with it. He said: “He just had something bad going on with him, and no one could see it.” The question, which I certainly can’t answer, is Can anyone see it?

© 2012

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