March 20th, 2013


gun issues revisited

Over at FaceBook, a friend posted a meme (at right) to my wall and asked for my thoughts. If there was ever a topic where I could be long winded, issues related to guns is it. I seem incapable of answering it simply, and since FB won’t let you fix typos, I decided to do it here. Also, I hope some of you will find it interesting.

Unlike some American progressives, I don’t think guns are innately bad. I think they’re dangerous, and need to have their power respected, but I also think they’re capable of achieving good things in at least two areas: hunting and other practical uses, and as self-defense against a criminal threatening you.

Even here, though, talk about “rights” makes me uncomfortable. I recognize that in America we have a legal right to arm ourselves, but I think when people frame the discussion in those terms they focus on what’s good for them, not the very real danger that possessing a gun can have for other people. Or indeed for themselves. I’ve never served in the military themselves, but if the veterans I have known are any indication, having to carry a gun and being prepared to use it does change a person. A gun may be useful and necessary for these purposes, but it is not something you simply buy and put away in a drawer. You must learn how to use it, and more than that, you have to be prepared to use it.

There’s also the very real possibility that you will damage someone. Kids find their parents’ gun and play with it, and accidentally shoot themselves. The risk of mental illness turning into suicide or angry arguments into homicide goes up. And dumb mistakes just happen. You accidentally shoot some dumb, drunk teenager (as the WaPo recently reported) who breaks into your house in the middle of the night, and you have to live with that death. Based on the reports I’ve read of that last incident the kid was definitely drunk and coming home at 2:30 AM, and sounds like he was going into the wrong mistake by accident. As for the shooter, he sounds like a genuinely good man. When you own a gun and hear someone coming up the stairs in the middle of the night, it’s natural to reach for your gun and use it. If I was prepared to have a gun in my house at all, I think I would have done exactly what he did. But now this nice man has to live with the fact that he shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

Would it have been better for him to risk his family’s life to the possibility that a robber would break in and put his family at risk? Maybe not. But these are the kinds of things that at least need to be considered when deciding whether owning a gun for self-protection really is the best course of action.

This, really, is the reason why I don’t own a gun. I live in New York, in the Bronx, and while I am careful and don’t live in a particularly bad part of town, there’s still a small chance that I will someday be confronted by an armed robber or that someone will break into my apartment. It’s a small chance, but not nonexistent. And I’ve decided that the damage having and being prepared to use a gun would have on my soul outweighs any good it would do in the unlikely chance I need to use a gun.

Now, that’s my choice. Other people have decided owning a gun makes sense for them. I can respect that. They may live in more dangerous neighborhoods, or they may be less sensitive to violence than I am. I think most of them do a good job keeping their guns secured through safes, gun locks, and the like, which I definitely respect. Maybe they accepted police or military service or have spent a lifetime hunting, and so they’re already affected by being prepared to kill, in which case owning a gun now to protect their family may actually make sense. I am not privy to every situation, so I can’t judge whether a gun is appropriate for each person. But my rule of thumb is actually pretty simple: if you are basing your decision to own a gun on a rational appraisal of the risks and benefits, and if you take precautions to minimize those risks, that’s at least a good place to start when it comes to owning a gun.

(Also, it deserves saying: if it wasn’t just my own safety but someone else I was responsible for, like if I was a parent, I really might reconsider on this point. It’s one thing to be willing to risk your own life and quite another to risk another. This is one of those circumstances that might make gun ownership rational.)

Michelle’s meme focuses on the right to bear arms. While I think we do have a right, I don’t think this makes it right –or more properly, makes it good– to have a gun in the home. I really wish people considering owning a gun would move beyond their legal freedom to own a gun. I am not disputing that legal freedom; but I am questioning whether this gives us a good reason to accept the risks of having a gun in their house. I have a legal right to smoke tobacco but I have chosen not to because someone with my family history of asthma and personal susceptibility to lingering bronchitis needs a cigarette like I need a good kick in the shins. It’s just not good for me. And neither is having a pistol in my house. I would be a lot less critical of peoples’ decision to arm themselves if it came out of this kind of analysis, based in the facts of the situation, rather than out of a desire to assert a right or an unreasonable was based on the reality of their situation, and in point of fact I am much less critical and more respectful when this turns out to be the case.

The gun-owner’s last statement in Michelle’s meme –indeed, the only statement besides “I have a right to bear arms” is “as a last resort, to protect myself against tyranny.” I agree we have that right, and if we were really to the point of last resort I’d probably agree with Michelle that everyone should own a gun. Or if there was a real possibility that the government really was going to take away our ability to buy new guns, I’d agree with her that people had a duty to acquire guns sufficient to mount a serious resistance, and be prepared to use it (but not actually use it until they had to, and try to be as unaffected by owning that gun as they could). And I’m not blind to the seriously disturbing trends in how the government uses violent means, form perpetual war and drones to the militarization of police forces and the corporatization of the criminal justice system. These are important problems and they need to be fought.

Here’s the thing, though. We still have ways that we can fight these problems. Martin Luther King showed that a small group of people, joined by common purpose and a commitment to nonviolence and justice, radically turned around their society’s attitudes on race. Our biggest problem is probably apathy here, closely followed by our “boy who cried wolf”-style journalism and internet memery. But I do believe there’s hope for improvement on these issue through political activism and community organizing and generally people coming together and working together. And to me at least, guns send a message that makes it harder to do that. When I hear someone just bought a bunch of guns as a way to fight the government, that tells me they don’t think there’s hope that we can work together. It also tells me that if I tick them off enough they may come after me – that any alliance, any working relationship, is temporary and conditional.

And also, because I honestly don’t think it’s time to head back to the trees or think an assault rifle ban is the same as no guns allowed to anyone, I’ll probably question how clearly you’re seeing the situation. Meaning no offense, but if you’re arming yourself because you think you have to because of, you know, tyranny, I’m not sure how clearly you’re actually seeing the situation. It makes it hard to trust you as someone I want to work with.

The quote at the end points to a divergent moral standard between how we view Joe Citizen owning and using a gun and Mr. Policeman owning one. I think there is a difference here, because I think the state actually matters.This line of thought shouldn’t be foreign to conservatives in particular. I mean, I grew up hearing that capital punishment wasn’t murder because the state had the authority to end a life in those circumstances; and that war wasn’t murder even though it predictably ended thousands of lives (your own citizens and the other guy) even when your society wasn’t facing an existential threat because the state had a legal and moral right to protect society.

But even setting that point aside, we all choose to live in a society. Society is good, I’ll even say it’s essential to human flourishing, but it also requires a level of trust for people who really haven’t earned it. I know some of the people in my apartment but hardly all of them (in fact, I’d never gone to the other wing until our shower was busted for several days and I had to use an empty apartment’s). I certainly don’t know most of the people a few blocks over.  Yet I trust them. I trust that when I give the cashier my credit card she will only charge me the amount I owe. I trust the corner laundry to wash my clothes and not take them home as their own. I trust my internet ISP to offer me a full month’s service when I pay them upfront, and I trust my roommate not to raid my emergency money. I’m able to do all this because we live under a system of laws that make getting caught so dangerous that most people wouldn’t risk it except in extreme situations. That requires policemen have to have the power to make people do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. It requires guns.

And part of living in a society means someone else has taken the responsibility for bringing order to the chaos. Policemen have an extra responsibility, extra training, and extra authority that I do not. They are different from me, and I am better for it. In fact, this is a big reason why I’m willing to accept restrictions on my liberty – because having someone else watching out for my basic security and ensuring that laws that make this kind of trust possible even in situations where it’s not warranted by how well I know the person.

do think we need restrictions on how the government uses guns. This is why, not only am I not a gun-owner, I’m a practical pacifist: I think that war is so rarely justified, as a general rule we shouldn’t presume it’s ever justified. (The onus is on the person wanting to make war to show why this is an exception.) It’s why equal access to health care is so important to me, and why I am extremely bothered by capital punishment and police violence. And why, try though I might, I couldn’t cheer when Osama bin-Laden was assassinated. Police and the government generally need restrictions on how to use violence. They have some, though not enough. And I’m all for working with anyone who wants to push for more transparency regarding drones, more procedure when it comes to declaring war, less war generally, more inquests into police violence, more commitment to diplomacy and non-war solutions to international problems. You’ll really and truly get no argument from me on any of these topics.

And I don’t want to see the police taking away peoples’ guns. I honestly don’t see that threat. Saying you cannot buy certain models is not the same as banning all new purchases, much less demanding you turn over the one you already have. The only case where I can see the police trying to take away someone’s gun in America is if the gun is illegal or if the person is using the gun in a way that’s illegal. It’s also constitutional under the second amendment to deny gun licenses to people who have proved themselves incapable of being trusted with a gun (see Lewis v. U.S.), but this is rightfully very restricted.

Now, if you’re asked to turn over a gun in those circumstances, that seems reasonable. Because you chose to live in a society and because that choice gives the police certain rights to enforce the duly enacted laws. I would definitely be opposed to the police insisting everyone disarm, but I don’t see that or even the threat of that.

Really, Aragorn said it best:

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight!

Nonviolently, of course. ;-)