I remember sitting at a bar in Chicago with some friends after one of the countless – and senseless – mass shootings over the years a while back. We were talking about gun control, and as always, I was playing the devil’s advocate roll. He said something along the lines that high-caliber weapons should be made illegal because their utility is excessive and unnecessary in civil society. I countered with this thought: “Well, that logic would also imply that we shouldn’t have 60 televisions, or cars with 400 horsepower either. It’s a slippery slope when you start rolling back what people can and cannot have.” While those on the left reading this (one of you) might gasp at that failed comparison, and those on the right reading this (one of you) might respond with applause, let me tease this idea out a little more; but let me start with the benign before I step back into the political fray.
There are an awful lot of things we do not need in this country. We’re a country of excess and never-ending wants, always impatiently waiting for the next best thing. I was watching a TED Talk the other day about innovation and early adopters of it, and how they drive the consumer culture forward. I would actually say they drive it backwards. What we measure as progress these days is anything but. If you don’t believe me, unplug your screen, take out your earbuds, and step outside. The cacophony of hyper-mediated noise and a restless society should scream the obvious in your face. We want and we want with no limitations, and never is there an end in sight. Our wants are our needs are our rights; our rights are not to be trampled upon.
I was driving back home from some errands today and had NPR on, and being just two days after the Las Vegas tragedy, the discussion was centered on gun control, especially other countries responses to it, and our seemingly consistent lack of response. The discussants mentioned the UK and Australia, and how their anti-gun programs have led to less gun violence and homicides. But while something works in another country, it doesn’t mean that it will translate elsewhere. What it seems is American gun owners and gun rights supporters want predominately is not less guns, but greater prevention of violence. Some on the far right, including the once proud Bill O’Reilly, said that these types of tragedies are the price of freedom. Wow. How stupid. And while happy to point out that he is a blowhard, I also have to admit that there is a lot of truth to this idea. If there were no violent people, there would be no gun violence. That’s pretty straightforward. So it seems that one area we need to explore is the cause of violence. Many are quick to point to issues of mental health, and while potentially true, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that only 3-5% of people with mental illness are prone to violence. And that is not to say that they are violent with intent to kill; simply that they may act out violently through tantrums, self-harm or threatening behaviors, much of which is never actually acted upon. And while you’d have to assume that any person who would take someone else’s life without great cause has to be off their rocker, we have to accept that some people are just bad apples. Plain and simple.
There is the age-old question of whether or not humans are inherently bad with good intentions, or inherently good with bad intentions. Often the story of the fat man and the train is used to illustrate this scenario. Let me explain: if you’re walking on a bridge over a train track with a train on it barreling ahead and about to hit someone who is stuck on the tracks, and your only option to save them is to push a fat man in front of the train, killing him but saving the other person, are you a bad person? You traded one life for another, but you did so with good intentions. Now the scenario is slightly changed: instead of one person stuck on the tracks, there are five. If you push the fat man who stops the train and dies, yet you save five others, are you a good person? Doesn’t saving five lives offset killing one? Or is it never okay to kill, regardless of the circumstances?
Another stance that gun advocates defend is that, “A good guy with a gun is better than a bad guy with a gun.” The logic here is that if a well-armed populace can defend itself, eventually we’ll weed out all the “bad guys.” Well, I can imagine several scenarios where this might be true as well. For instance, fairly recently I saw footage of a cop who was being choked by a criminal, seemingly about to lose his life. A Good Samaritan was nearby and had a gun – the cop told him to shoot the assailant, killing him. A clear example of a good guy with a gun overcoming a bad guy with a gun. We have to accept that we will never go and get everyone’s guns, nor should we, and many people will not be willing to turn them in of their own volition, either. There are too many legitimate reasons to have guns: hunting for food and subsistence, home protection in remote areas (violence comes in many more forms than simply guns, and sometimes it could require a gun to overpower a psychopath, even if he/she is unarmed), to practice a skill for those who use them in their profession (cops, military, security, bodyguards, etc.), and hell, we even have Olympic sports related to shooting. So there are plenty of reasonable defenses of guns and gun ownership, and there are too many loopholes and dark alleys to get around in regards to the prevention of gun violence. So where does this leave us?
I don’t own a gun, but there are several in my family, all of which I will inherit at some point. I have thought about buying a gun though, but I don’t know that my reasons are sound. While not a gun owner, or really even a gun advocate, I do find something scary about the potential to have a right taken away. I guess there are so many others that I really want to keep (freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, the right to be secure in my home, a free press, etc.) that I feel you have to protect all of our given rights from being taken, right or wrong. Maybe it is simply unfortunate that Amendment II was so prominent, or at least interpreted as it is – which is another point to chew on: some of the current right-leaning thinkers, those identifying as “Originalists,” strive to interpret the Constitution as the Founding Fathers would have back at the time of its writing. And I’m admittedly not smart enough to work through the nuances and the twists and turns that would inevitably be massaged or adulterated, but if the Founding Fathers could have envisioned such high-powered weapons and carnage, would they have thought otherwise? I’d hope so.
Back at the bar in Chicago the discussion went on. We talked about how tanks and rocket launchers were not accessible or legal to be owned by the general populace. I agreed this was sound. So my friend asked me, “So why should an assault rifle be legal?” I responded, “Of course no one needs an assault rifle. There is no rationale situation where you could ever defend the use of it unless it was Armageddon or WWIII. Or the government had been corrupted and was seeking to imprison and enslave its citizenry.”
And this brings us back to the militia. Does our society distrust Uncle Sam and think that we should be stockpiling for the next Civil War? I mean, we see corrupt governments destroy their citizenry all the time, all throughout the world. Is it rational to think it might happen here? That could be the only rational explanation for our collective defense of high-powered and automatic weapons, including those that can be modified from semi-automatic to automatic. That is a question we may have to answer. If the answer is “yes,” then we’re in trouble for many reasons. But if the answer is “no,” then we need to keep weeding out the other rationales for having these weapons in our homes and communities.
I guess we just don’t trust each other. We’re all fat men getting pushed in front of trains. We’re all scared by the hyper-sensationalization of mental health and the stigma associated with it. We’re all scared of radical religious folks. We’re paranoid. We’re victims. We’re indulgent. We don’t listen. We don’t even want to be heard. In fact, even if we wanted to have a discussion, you couldn’t hear us over the gunfire.