Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President: 

You and I have a lot in common:

  •          We both grew up in the Western U.S. in the 1960s and ‘70s.
  •          We both attended law school in the 1980s (but practiced law only briefly).
  •         We were both politically active Democrats during the Reagan / Bush era (before it was cool).
  •          We’ve both traveled internationally, and are members of multiethnic families.
  •          We’ve both spent most of our adult lives in public service (but haven’t served in the military).
  •          We’ve both worked as writers and educators.
  •          We’re both fathers who love our children and want to keep them safe.

I understand your desire to curb gun violence, your sense of urgency on this issue, even your frustration with those who oppose seemingly common-sense gun control measures. 
I’m a flight paramedic.  As a first responder and health care provider for over twenty years, in both urban and rural settings from California to West Virginia, I’ve accumulated more first-hand experience of gun violence than most people ever will.

So please don’t dismiss me as ignorant, irrational, or naïve when I urge you to rethink your call for what amounts to a War on Gun Violence.   

We’re a war-weary nation, Mr. President.  We’ve been fighting the War on Terror since 2001.  Although your administration retired the name in 2009, we’re still fighting President Nixon’s War on Drugs.  And we’ve been fighting President Johnson’s War on Poverty since he declared it during his first State of the Union address, 49 years ago.

These three wars have strained our military, clogged our judicial and penal systems, battered our economy, and reduced our political process to, as you put it, mistaking absolutism for principle, substituting spectacle for politics, and treating name-calling as reasoned debate.   Worst of all, they’ve led us far down the slippery slope of trading away our freedoms, our privacy, and the rule of law in an illusory quest for absolute security.

Just as the starting point in health care is “First, do no harm,” the bedrock of our political system has always been, as you eloquently put it, that “we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.”

The notion that we can somehow keep “all of our children … always safe” is beguiling, but no more possible than preventing every terrorist attack, preventing all illegal drug use, or ensuring equal outcomes in our pursuit of happiness.

By all means, let’s conduct further research on gun violence, its causes, and effective ways to limit it.  Let’s have a true national dialogue on the subject.  Let’s see what’s worked in the past, and what hasn’t.  Let’s see which new approaches work at the state and local level, and which don’t .

But let’s not:

  •  rush to re-enact an expanded version of the defunct assault weapon and high-capacity magazine ban (whether the original law was justified, logical, or effective is questionable);
  •  rush to “close loopholes” regarding background checks, antique guns, and gun tracing requirements (the “loopholes” could just as easily be characterized as “constitutional safety valves” or essential privacy rights);
  •  pressure health care workers to delve into their patients’ gun ownership and gun safety practices (it’d be at least as effective, less damaging to patient-provider rapport, and more consistent with current law to just hand each patient a gun safety pamphlet).

I’m especially concerned about your directing the Attorney General “to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.”

How would “dangerous people” be defined?

Recent state and federal government lists of potential indicators of terrorist activities (The DOJ’s Communities Against Terrorism flyers, to cite just one example) have cast a very broad net indeed:  most Americans at one time or another display one or more of these indicators.  Are these types of indicators to be used to determine which Americans can’t be trusted with firearms?

Should we declare that the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to any person who’s ever been treated for a mental illness?  To any person who’s ever suffered a stroke or other form of brain injury?  To any person who’s ever admitted to illegal drug use?

Mass murders are horrific, attention-grabbing … and fortunately, exceedingly rare.  No matter how “dangerous people” is defined, a definition broad enough to deny a single potential mass murder access to guns will inevitably deny hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Americans that same access.

As you said earlier this week, “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

I agree.  That’s why I’m writing you this letter; why I’m also writing my local, state, and federal representatives urging them to oppose a War on Gun Violence … and why I plan to join both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.


Dan Driskill, JD, NREMT-P

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