Piers Morgan Is Right on Guns... But So Is the NRA

26/12/2012 18:15 GMT | Updated 25/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Our wretched gun violence in America continues. Over Christmas, two fire fighters were murdered in New York state in what appears to have been an ambush. This, on the heels of the 26 slaughtered at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a massacre so terrible - with 20 young children killed - that the horror drowned out most reporting of the shopping mall shooting outside Portland, Oregon that happened days earlier. In that incident, a gunman took two lives, that of a hospice nurse and a youth coach, before committing suicide.

What's going on?

You wouldn't know from the debate, or from growing pundit recklessness, which itself now shows signs of spinning out of control. 

Earlier this week, gun control advocate Piers Morgan called the head of Gun Owners of America an "unbelievably stupid man," in an interview on CNN. Second Amendment supporters are calling for Morgan's deportation. But apparently no one wants Piers back here in the UK. This we get to learn from a celebrity chorus over Christmas. Better Morgan be "strangled in his bed by Santa," tweets Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle. 

It would funny, if it weren't so sad.

What's urgently needed? 

A thoughtful, sober conversation. As guide, here are five key "Yes, but" observations in America's gun debate:

1. We need stronger gun control laws in America. Even conservative columnist Mark Steyn notes that, at the time the Second Amendment was adopted, the musket was the most lethal weapon on the streets. Principles require pragmatism. Making high powered assault weapons so readily available is exceptionally dangerous today.

However: Gun control will have limited effect. Congress enacted a ban on assault weapons in 1994. It was not very successful. Pragmatism requires realism. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer points out, unless you are able to confiscate all existing firearms and repeal the Second Amendment, it's unrealistic to think that gun legislation will magically fix the problem at hand (Note: Krauthammer supports gun control and supported the 1994 assault weapons ban).

2.  We need to devote greater attention and resources to mental health. Mental illness is the common thread that connects nearly all of the killers in these modern day massacres. In the United States, there's a Congressional Mental Health Caucus that works to publicize the importance of the issue. Membership includes 74 Democrats and eight Republicans. It's time to grow the constituency - on a bipartisan basis.

However: let's appreciate that understanding mental illness and development disorders requires immense humility. There's much that the most advanced of modern medicine and psychology still do not understand about how we tick. Alleged Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was said to have suffered from Aspergers, a type of autism. But there's no evidence that this condition is linked to violent behaviour, let alone to mass murder. 

3. We need greater security in schools and shopping malls. We've already done this on planes and in airports. Ditto countless intercity schools. Israelis made their peace with this sort of thing years ago. You pass through a metal detector and get patted down by an armed guard when you enter a Jerusalem cafe for a salad. Finding the right balance between liberty and security is an admittedly excruciating matter. Let's face up to it. Armed secuirty can in some instances help.

However: let's realise that we can't arm our way to perfect safety. Columbine High School had armed police on call and that didn't stop the slaying of 12 students and a teacher in 1999. Similarly, security officers at Virginia Tech were unable to stop the murder of 32 people in a mass shooting in 2007.

4. It's high time we figure ways to reduce gratuitous violence in entertainment. We do have a culture problem. I just saw the 2011 film, Drive. In one scene the protagonist kicks in the face of a would-be assailant lying on the floor of a lift. You get to see the fellow's head implode at the heel of our hero's boot. Violent video games can have a dreadfully de-sensitising effect.

However: let's concede that there is little scientific evidence to date to link what people watch in films and experience through video games to how they actually behave in real life.

5. It's also high time to find ways to reduce the viciousness that now permeates our public discourse. American talk show celebrity Chris Matthews calls conservative political activists the Koch brothers "pigs." Aging rocker turned political commentator Ted Nugent labels supporters of the President of the United States "subhuman varmints." It's time to dial it down.

However: let's be aware, you can't legislate civility and good taste.

What does all this mean? Among other things: less hubris and more humility; less talking and more listening. And in our apparently uncontrollable and seemingly irresistible infatuation with celebrity, it requires from our celebs and pundit class, a touch more balance, wisdom and restraint.