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Why gun ownership is like the lottery

NEWTOWN CT - DECEMBER 18:  Rachel Berger (L) GretWaag embrace while visiting makeshift memorial for shooting victims December 18

NEWTOWN, CT - DECEMBER 18: Rachel Berger (L), and Greta Waag embrace while visiting a makeshift memorial for shooting victims on December 18, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Funeral services were held in Newtown Tuesday for Jessica Rekos and James Mattioli, both age six, four days after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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Updated: January 20, 2013 6:18AM

The Westboro Baptist Church — they of the “God Hates Fags” signs fame — announced it plans to slink to Connecticut to celebrate the funerals of the children slain last Friday in Newtown — more divine punishment, in their warped perspective, for a nation that tolerates homosexuality.

When I first heard the news, I felt the usual deep revulsion that Westboro evokes in just about every decent, moral American.

But then I thought the church might, for once, be unconsciously pointing us in a useful direction, a possible first few steps out of the gun impasse that the country finds itself in.

The Phelps clan has the right, the courts agree, to vent their vile opinions, even at the funerals of soldiers, even at these heartbreaking farewells to these lost little children. Inhuman though it may be, the First Amendment gives them that right. That matter is settled — we don’t want opinions banned based on their wrongness, because who then would judge? My horrific worldview may be your image of Eden.

But I think we can all agree that, despite having the right to, Westboro still

shouldn’t do it, correct? They have the right, but it’s wrong. There are so many other ways to express themselves in this free land of ours, an omnipresent media, web sites, newspapers, books, tweets. A funeral protest stands out — it works — but it shouldn’t be done. Even if they can do it, under the 1st Amendment.

Now move from the 1st to the 2nd Amendment. It says that the right to bear arms “shall not be infringed.” Let’s say that truly means you can stockpile 50 guns, and assault weapons and cop killer bullets and all that stuff that people hoard for many reasons.

Should they? Maybe the debate is miscast. Maybe it shouldn’t be about what’s constitutional, but what’s right. The question isn’t the legality of guns. The question is the wisdom.

To me, clearly the core of this debate is how you view society. If you think we live in a lawless anarchy, or will, then of course you’ll want to get a gun, or many guns, so you have enough to beat back your fear with firepower.

If you — like me — think the glory of America is that we are a nation of laws, that crimes such as these are a rarity, so rare that we do not need to arm ourselves and dispense justice as we see fit — that doing so would lead not to more safety, but to more killing, to 100 Trayvon Martin cases instead of just one — you prefer to face your risks unarmed.

Why focus on law immediately? I’d much rather see a rethinking of guns first, because right now nobody is doing that. People either view weapons as essentials, like free speech, or perils, like drugs. To me, they fall into a third category, into the realm of magical thinking, like the lottery. People play the lottery by the millions, even though, for the vast majority, it’s a complete waste of time and money. They do it because of a rare outcome — winning all that wealth — that happens to a handful. They play $10 or $20 a week they can scant afford based on something that the staggering odds say will never happen.

They claim they’re paying for a dream.

People who arm themselves with guns are paying for a dream too: They’re going to get the drop on a bad guy coming through the window someday. It does happen, maybe even enough to make some sense if you live in a lousy neighborhood. But for most people in most places, a gun will never help, while posing an immediate expense and all sorts of risks that are far more likely. It is a low-level threat multiplied over years. That doesn’t seem to matter. They own guns to feel safe from crime. Nobody buys a gun to feel more endangered, just as nobody plays the lottery to be poorer, though that is exactly what happens for most people. Gun owners miss this, just as the lottery rolling over doesn’t give people who play the true message — you could have bought every single ticket and still lost, maybe you shouldn’t play. Rather, they act on a false dream — the lottery rolled over, hoo-boy, I better play more.

That’s why Newtown causes some to think, “too many guns” and others, “too few guns.” No law will bridge that gap, and first we need to discuss what guns mean to us.

This is three columns in a row on the Newtown shootings — appropriate, since it was a unique, penetrating horror, due to the youth and number of the victims. But just trolling Facebook, I see that people are now growing accustomed to it, returning to their usual gossip. There were two shocks related to 9/11, I used to say, back when we talked about the attacks. The first, of course, was the shock when it happened. The second shock was when it faded, because for the first week or two it seemed that it never would. We vowed we’d change, and did, in ways that now look like folly.

I can’t help but suspect that someday, when we live in the free-fire zones that gun fanatics seem to fervently dream of, even desire, so as to justify their fears and their guns, we will look back at all this quibbling over assault rifles as being too little, too late.

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