I’ve been thinking about guns and gun control and the Second Amendment since the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, but today I found a guy who’s done a much better job of it than me.
I’m not a gun guy; never have been. I was born in New York City to parents who’d been born and raised in the city, whose own parents and grandparents had lived their whole lives in New York, or Baltimore or Boston, or in Ireland and Wales in the mid-19th Century and on back…we just weren’t gun people. What I know about actually shooting guns is what any kid from the Houston suburbs learns at a Central Texas summer camp or from going out to “the country” with his teenaged friends. Not afraid of guns, but not interested in them, either; I’ve thought more about guns and gun rights from the perspective of the U.S. Constitution than I ever have from a personal point of view.
My non-legal-scholar’s interpretation of the words of the Second Amendment is that it was plainly the intent of the authors to preserve the right of citizens to bear arms so that they could all participate in the common defense. (And if you want to hunt for food or shoot for sport, fine.) I’m aware that this interpretation is not universally accepted. My non-mental-health-professional’s interpretation of some of the most extreme anti-gun-control arguments of the National Rifle Association and other ”gun rights” groups is that paranoia is a powerful affliction indeed. This interpretation is not universally accepted, either.
I agree that guns don’t kill people; people using guns do kill people, though, with relative ease, and since the Second Amendment doesn’t identify a right to bear arms only for the clear-headed and law-abiding but not for the crazy or the lawless, we rightly pass laws in an effort to provide some security for all while not violating the basic rights of all.
I think most of the people who own guns are fine with that setup, and aren’t fretting away their days with worrying about having to use their guns to defend themselves from their own government. I imagine they’re thinking some of the same things that Walter Kirn has written in The New Republic this week:
Growing up around guns and owning them as an adult affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to guns may have trouble understanding. The divide is phenomenological, not political (or not political until it gets to be), like the gulf between those who’ve had sex and those who haven’t or those who smoke and those who’ve never lit up. Pulling a trigger and being prepared to do so cuts patterns in the self. Depending on the nature of your social life, which time around guns can shape and color in ways that I’ll describe, you might forget that these patterns are even there, because you’re surrounded by people who share them—until someone or some event challenges you to answer for your thinking.
When the time to lay blame for the [Aurora, Colorado] massacre arrived, it wasn’t Americans’ easy access to firearms that I found myself deploring, but a depraved, unbalanced culture of splatter-fest games and other dark entertainments. I blamed the potential for gruesome fame nurtured by the Internet, as well as a mental health system that’s not a system.
But then, soon enough, another mass shooting occurred, at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. And then another, at Sandy Hook Elementary. The crimes were no longer discrete abominations but one continuous siege, it seemed, broken only by pauses for reloading. This was a war that warranted wartime thinking; cultural criticism could go to hell. The hour of reckoning had come, particularly for gun owners like me who’d never thought clearly about where we stood, only that it was somewhere between the militants and the innocents—a dangerous spot, since both sides felt attacked.
My friend, an Army captain, a tall West Pointer, was just back from Iraq. He’d had a tough time there. We were wrapping Christmas presents. He asked me if I’d ever heard of a law passed under President George W. Bush (he called it a new “order,” actually) that established a formal military command, USNORTHCOM, over the country itself. His tone was dark, insinuating, and I looked at him, concerned. PTSD. We’re all hip to its signs (at least in others), and a moment ago my friend had asked me (oddly, I thought) to turn off a ceiling fan whirling above our heads whose blades kept distracting him as he tied ribbons.
When I asked my friend what bothered him about the Northern Command, his answer, as I half-feared, boiled down to this: Americans beware America. I pressed him. Did he seriously, genuinely believe that soldiers, our soldiers, soldiers much like himself, could possibly be prevailed upon to intimidate or attack their fellow citizens?
Affirmative. If ordered to. They’re soldiers.
Statistics on the dangers guns pose to the health of their owners and those who live with them suggest that I’d be safer selling my guns than reserving them for Tombstone II. Trouble is, in an armed showdown, statistics tend to lose. In those who’ve learned to imagine assailants everywhere and may even have faced a real assailant, guns encourage a sense of personal exceptionalism. It’s the essence of their magnetism. Firearms exist to manage situations where rationality has failed, so thinking rationally about them can be hard.
Will there be fewer murders with tighter gun laws—the modest laws that might actually materialize rather than the grand ones that probably won’t but will surely rev up the rhetoric and the hoarding—or only fewer or smaller massacres? Can we expect less violence altogether or merely less outrageous acts of violence? And if the answer is fewer catastrophes, fewer Auroras and Sandy Hooks, would that be a worthwhile accomplishment in itself? I think so. Horror and panic themselves are forms of violence, and diminishing them, restricting their dimensions, is itself a civilizing act.
Of the five or six guns I’ve gathered over the decades (IF YOU KNOW HOW MANY GUNS YOU HAVE, YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH read a t-shirt I saw once) only one is designed to use on human beings: a .38 revolver of the type that burdened policemen’s sagging belts once, before the adoption of sleeker 9mms. The gun is a stodgy old classic, Smithsonian-worthy, that evokes the Made-in-USA age and also speaks of my distance, I like to think, from the cult of maximum firepower that draws harder-boiled folks to stores and gun shows to handle Bushmasters and similar weapons with death-dealing, quasi-military designs. Such ominous firearms hold no allure for me, in part because I doubt they’d do much good against a maniac carrying one or a hypothetical goon squad equipped with their vastly superior big brothers. Ban those guns. Neuter them. I’m fine with it. I can hunt with my shotguns and my deer gun (although I’ve grown tired of hunting), and I can protect myself from miscreants with my trusty .38.
To some in the gun-owning fraternity, this view makes me a traitor. So be it; I think they’re wrong. As they have repeatedly pointed out themselves, and as even Wayne LaPierre might agree, assault rifles are functionally similar to ordinary semi-automatic rifles, differing chiefly in their sinister cosmetics, not in their underlying ballistics. This being the case, what will be lost by giving them up? Nothing but their destabilizing allure for the grandiose, image-obsessed mass killers who favor them—and whose crimes represent a far greater risk to gun rights than does the perceived hostility of certain politicians. By assenting to such a ban, the gun-owning community can demonstrate precisely the sort of reasonable public-mindedness of which some believe it to be incapable. Otherwise, the showdown will go on and we will have only ourselves to blame if our self-destructive intransigence leaves us despised and cornered, with no way out.
I’ve quoted extensively, but please go read the rest—it’s a great, thoughtful essay that offered me, the non-gun guy, a valuable perspective on some of what gun guys are thinking. I already know what Tom the Dancing Bug is thinking…
(Thanks, TtheDB and GoComics.com)
So let’s state the plain facts one more time, so that they can’t be mistaken: Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.
The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.