Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Disquieting Symbolism of Allowing Guns in the Capitol

Let's just get the perfunctory caveats out of the way first: We here at The Chief are aggressively ambivalent about concealed carry. Ultimately, we find the hand-wringing on the left about the potential dangers of the policy to be just as over-stated as the right's arguments that try to justify the measure on public safety or philosophical grounds. At the end of the day we think there are far more important matters that will directly effect far more people in Wisconsin that legislators should be working on.

This, however, worries us:
The public will be able to carry guns into most parts of the state Capitol, under a policy being developed by Gov. Scott Walker.

Lawmakers are developing their own policies that would allow individual lawmakers to decide whether to allow guns into their offices.

Under rules planned for one chamber, guns would be allowed on the Assembly floor and in the Assembly viewing galleries, said sources who have been briefed on the plans. That would mean the public could bring guns into the viewing galleries but would still have to adhere to other existing rules, including one that bars the use of still cameras and video cameras.
Allowing guns into a place where men and women meet to discuss the direction of the state is essentially an abdication of the promise of democracy. It says that the peaceful exchange of ideas cannot occur without the threat of violence from the very people we send to exchange those ideas. It's a capitulation of the notion that we can all act like human beings endowed with logical faculties and not animals butting heads to determine the leader of the herd. It's an admission that we really are not all that far removed from the "might makes right" mentality that led to countless duels, jousts and the occasional Thunderdome death match.

In other words, it's an enormous step backwards.

There is no question that there's a certain degree of security risk to legislators, but when they are in session and conducting business on the Assembly floor they are protected by strict rules that govern who can access the floor, decorum in the viewing areas and, most importantly, an armed security detail with full law enforcement powers in the Capitol Police.

There is no legitimate reason to carry a gun onto the Assembly floor. At best, the symbolism of the act says "I don't trust my colleagues to even regard my personal well-being as their own." At worst, it's an act of intimidation. It's an act that cannot say "I will protect my colleagues in the event of danger" because there already is an armed force -- the Capitol Police -- designated for that job. If legislators are so worried about their safety from visitors to the Assembly chambers, then they should consider closing the viewing areas and providing guests to the Capitol with the closed circuit feed of events on Wisconsin Eye.

This shouldn't be a partisan issue. It's one that should reflect the larger view we as a state consider to be the the goals of Democracy; namely, the development of the rule of law through peaceful discourse. One of the reasons the legislature holds sessions in ornate and gilded chambers is to remind members and visitors alike that the proceedings are the very highest form of human social interaction possible -- that laws are made using reason and debate and not under the threat, concealed or open, of intimidation.

Now is probably a good time to note that the whole point of concealed carry is rendered moot in a place like the Assembly floor, where a confined physical space makes it difficult to hide a firearm for a long period of time. Also, there's a good chance that one newspaper or another will check public records to determine who has applied/received a license. Outside the Capitol, where even most constituents are likely to have a hard time identifying their elected officials, it's a different story; but these rules are being made about a specific work place environment.

Concealed weapons in the rest of the Capitol is another matter altogether, one that is complicated by a variety of nuances that are not easily reconciled. For example: if concealed carry makes everyone safer by making firearms possession universally ambiguous, how do offices that advertise a "no guns allowed" policy, which some will do for political reasons, retain their protection from those that don't? The Capitol should be a place where no one is afraid to communicate their ideas or those of their constituents, but in this instance the office that puts a sign in it's window becomes less safe than one that invites (or more likely celebrates) carrying visitors.

There is also the issue of how visiting constituents might be intimidated when soliciting their legislators, who are already very powerful people even without the possibility that they might also be packing heat during a meeting. These tend to be very private meetings behind closed doors, where body language is scrutinized obsessively and frequently misinterpreted and where a dissenting visitor's account of potential intimidation will almost certainly not stand up to a legislator's insistence that any sudden moves he or she made during the discussion were not intended to be seen as reaching for his or her revolver.

It will not surprise me that no one considers the typical constituent engaging in the already intimidating task of appealing to a legislator when thinking about concealed carry rules in the Capitol. Putting more distance between legislator and constituent then there already is should not be seen a move in the right direction. This is a problem that will only be exasperated by the following prediction: by January 1, 2013 -- a little over a year after concealed carry goes into place -- there will be considerably more concealed carry permits among legislators than there will be permits issued to the general population on a per capita basis. The only question will be how large the multiplier will be.

All in all, the fact fact that we have to devote all this time and effort to this discussion is absurd when there are already extensive public safety measures in place at the Capitol that could be easily enhanced for the benefit of everyone. The rules, as they are described above by the MJS, create a situation where where some offices enjoy enjoy more power and safety than others, when through minimal sacrifice on their part, every office could enjoy the exact same degree of safety and power (with respect to carrying firearms).

This speaks to a larger issue: the fact that conservative policies are increasingly degrading the community by fetishizing the individual. It's not a good idea to allow concealed firearms into the Capitol. Any public safety expert will tell you as much and then give you dozens of better alternatives, but because conservatives say it can happen, well, then by golly, it must ... regardless of practical consequences. This inequality among legislators is just another example of policies that have promoted vast gulfs of inequity between all kinds of people over the last 30 years.

One of the great things about America is that it's historically been a place where individuals not only have the freedom to achieve, but also the tools to do so at their disposal thanks to collective effort among all Americans. That's how national identities are made and large concepts like the American Dream are fostered. If anything, this "every man for himself" philosophy that leaves major matters like personal security up to each individual, regardless of whether that person can fend for himself or not, is what ultimately rips any community apart and this has become the guiding principle of one of the two major political parties in this country.

That's not healthy for any democracy. In the end, we doubt concealed carry in the Capitol will ever become a serious issue. To the best of our knowledge, there has been only one instance of gun violence in a state capitol building (albeit an incident so infamous that it's stunning no one seems to have brought it up during the "debate" over the matter). Statistically speaking, it's far more likely that someone with a concealed carry permit will accidentally discharge their weapon while visiting the Capitol. But if someone should ever be injured by a firearm in the Capitol, it will be difficult for conceal carry advocates to argue that the victim's sacrifice is merely the cost we all must collectively pay for freedom.

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