Saturday, October 3, 2015

Gun Talk

The gun control debate makes me feel wishy-washy. I'm a liberal who dislikes gun culture, but I have mixed feelings about gun laws. The correlations between gun violence and gun ownership are really fairly weak, which means guns neither cause nor prevent as much crime as people say they do. I don't want to see all guns banned, but I don't think there's anything wrong with reasonable regulations on them. I think both extremes are wrong, and I suppose this post may upset people on both sides.

So I guess I'll start by upsetting the hard-core gun control types. But I'll work up to it slowly. First, the Second Amendment. I think it refers to a situation that no longer exists: a citizen militia in which people supplied their own guns. There was no standing army when the Bill of Rights was adopted.  In fact, people thought a standing army was a severe threat to their liberty. In that sense, the Second Amendment doesn't apply easily to these times. It linked gun ownership with the duty to serve in a militia. Those militias evolved into the paid service now known as the National Guard. Today, people want to keep the right to bear arms, even if they no longer feel the duty be citizen soldiers. And maybe they should keep that right, but it's worth noting how much the situation has changed.

Still, I'll concede that many of the founders probably thought of guns as a defense against tyranny. They were free-thinking, even radical, revolutionaries who participated in a war fought for the most part with individually-owned guns. They had clear memories of an occupying army; one which might return at any time. So, they probably thought it was necessary for individual citizens to own their own guns. Whether they would have thought modern, fully-automatic assault rifles were necessary, I don't know. I suspect some would and most wouldn't, but I'm certainly no expert, and I don't think we're bound to think as the founders thought anyway.

In any case, for decades legal scholars held that the Second Amendment protected a collective right for states to have armed militias. Only in the last few years have they started to see it as protecting an individual right to bear arms. The Supreme Court upheld that interpretation in 2008. I have to admit they were probably right. The Second Amendment probably was talking about an individual right to bear arms—but that right was tied, once again, to the duty to serve in the militia.

But the fact remains that many of the founders would have seen guns as a defense against tyranny. And that's another modern wrinkle: the idea that a gun will help you defeat tyranny is much less plausible today than in 1789. Even if you had an M-16 and a closet full of ammo, would that help you against guided missiles or drone strikes? Please. Still, an entire nation with guns in their households would be tough to boss around, even for a government with guided missiles. One household couldn't stand up to such a government, but several million might. And maybe one day they might need to. I do agree with the idea that government isn't legitimate unless it has the consent of the governed. But I think armed resistance is an absolute last resort. So did the founders, according to the Declaration of Independence: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

So, if the President starts quartering troops in people's houses, disbanding state legislatures, and so on, maybe people would be justified talking about rebellion. If he's just talking about waiting periods and letting the gays marry, then simmer down, minuteman. Some weak-minded people listen to that kind of talk and then go out and murder people.

I guess I've arrived at the part where I upset the gun crowd. So: even if the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, that doesn't mean this right is absolute. The First Amendment isn't absolute either. Slander and libel aren't protected under the law, nor are threats, fighting words, or dangerous speech like shouting fire in a crowed theater. Should we have the right to carry a gun into a rowdy bar where people are drinking? Should I have the right to carry a gun if I'm dead drunk? Do we really need more guns in crowded areas, where gunshots are likely to hit innocent bystanders as well as potential muggers? I don't think so. There's a balance to be struck, just as there is with freedom of speech. Even Antonin Scalia—not exactly a liberal—has made it clear that an individual right to have guns doesn't translate into an absolute right to have them, or to do whatever you want with them.

That's how I feel about gun law--ambivalent. What I'm decidedly not ambivalent about is the macho gun culture in the United States, which is somehow both scary and deeply ridiculous--like a wild boar in a tutu, or Walter from the Big Lebowski. I'm not bothered so much by people having guns as by certain attitudes surrounding guns. And I'm really bothered by those. I dislike the gun worship I see in this country, and I really hate the paranoia surrounding Obama, and the idea that he secretly wants to take everybody's guns away.

First, gun worship. I don't own a gun, but I do understand the allure. I've shot them (at inanimate objects), and yes, it's fun. You point it, there's a big boom, and something off in the distance has a new hole in it. But I dislike gun mania. I really do think it's akin to worship. As with religion, people slip into this elevated, reverential speech when they talk about guns, as though they're discussing some holy icon. There's a whole vocabulary, and even standard facial expressions.  People get this resolute scowl on their face (the one George W. Bush loved to use, though I think he might have borrowed it from Charlton Heston) and start talking about their “instruments of freedom”, or how there's just nothing like “going out to send some rounds downrange”. It's not a gun, it's a “weapon” or a “firearm”. Why all the elevated diction? And then there's the cliches: "from my cold, dead hands"; "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns"; "the door is locked for your protection, not mine"; "gun control is hitting what you aim at"; etc, etc. Gun people are the most cliche-loving people I've ever met. Can't you guys at least get some new ones?

And that reverential, stereotyped speech of the church of the firearm--what's that about? Maybe it reflects the fact that someone who talks this way sees himself (and it's usually a him) as a guy who's serious about standing up as a red-blooded American and protecting his family. And he knows his stuff. He doesn't shoot bullets out of a gun--he sends rounds downrange with his firearm (insert Charlton Heston scowl here). It all strikes me as puffed up and Walter Mitty-ish (is that where the Coen brother's got Walter's name? Hmmm). If you like guns, fine. Why can't you lose the posturing?

It's not like that kind of posturing convinces any reasonable person of anybody's toughness. Quite the contrary, actually. When I hear someone going on and on about how they always have their gun with them when they go to the city, or how they'll plug anyone who tries to come into their house, I think: you're a big ol' fraidy cat with masculinity issues. Guys who feel the need to carry deadly weapons wherever they go—and to tell everyone about it whenever possible—do not strike me as especially tough. Again, it's just the opposite. It makes me think, “You sound ridiculous and scared. Be a man and shut up about the guns already.” Do these guys really not know that's how they seem to most people?

I'm guessing there's at least three things going on with this kind of gun worship. One is just a fascination with guns and shooting them. I can understand that, as I said, as long as you don't forget how dangerous they are. Another is masculine insecurity, which is silly, but not necessarily dangerous. But then there's a darker impulse I see in some people. They don't just like to shoot inanimate objects. They like to shoot living things. And I'm not talking about hunting. This isn't about food; it's about killing something. There's a certain kind of guy where I grew up, for example, who just can't wait for an opportunity to shoot a dog that's wandered onto his property. And then brag about it. If you ever want to see my lip-curling contempt expression, tell me about the time you shot a dog. 

Not all gun lovers are that sort, I hasten to add. But I see hints of it in too many of them. Which brings me to another of the clich├ęs you hear over and over again: “If somebody comes into my house and I need to defend my family, I won't hesitate.” I don't know how many times I've heard that line, more or less verbatim. And OK, fine, I would also shoot somebody if I had to in that circumstance. But some people seem fixated on the idea. As a friend of mine said, “All these dudes who just dream, just DREAM of someone trying to rob them so they can kill someone. Then cover up their murder-boner talking about protecting their family.”

Indeed. Some folks just dream about having an excuse to shoot somebody. They really do. And that's an ugly dream to have. If those people really had the safety of their household in mind, instead of fantasies of pulling a gun on someone, they would talk endlessly about their home alarm systems. After all, those work even when you're not there, and your kid can't find fit and look down the barrel--like he can with that revolver Daddy loves to talk about. Funny how I've heard the gun speeches hundreds of times, and never heard the home alarm speech even once. Why is that, I wonder?

I despise the bloodthirstiness I often see associated with gun culture, but I also dislike the idea that guns are somehow noble. Maybe that's actually what's behind the elevated speech people use when they talk about guns. Maybe they see the Second Amendment as sacred. If they see the freedom to have a gun as sacred, maybe they see the gun itself as sacred. Some guys really do seem to. And that doesn't make sense to me. Even if a freedom is worth preserving, that doesn't mean everything it allows is good. As a solid supporter of freedom of speech, I'll stand up for people's right to say things I hate. But I can still hate what they say.

Similarly, the right to bear arms might be necessary, but it's not particularly noble. Still less are guns intrinsically noble. They're machines for killing things at a distance. No, they're not intrinsically evil either. There's nothing actually malevolent about a gun itself, if it's never used to hurt anybody. But guns are used to hurt people, all the time. To the extent that this is true, even if guns are necessary for self-protection and preventing tyranny, then guns that aren't intended for hunting are at best a necessary evil. It would be better if we could have a society peaceful and free enough that they weren't needed. Yes, maybe such a society is far-fetched, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a better one. I tend to think a society that venerates weapons is likely to be a more violent society (or maybe it's vice versa). Is THAT so far fetched?

Another attitude I dislike among some of the right-wing gun crowd is the assumption that someone who thinks guns should be regulated must secretly want to come and take everyone's guns away. Maybe they do and maybe they don't. I have met people who do, but I know I don't. I do want guns regulated, but I don't want them all taken away. If the government really started calling for a full ban on all guns, I would oppose it. But the government isn't calling for a full ban. People keep saying Obama wants to take their guns away. How do they know that? Calling for regulations isn't the same as calling for a ban, and most slippery slope arguments like that are fallacies. Taking a couple of steps in a particular direction doesn't mean you never intend to stop walking. If I put a little hot sauce on my food, does that mean I secretly want to pour out the whole bottle? No. There's such a thing as “the right amount” and it's rarely either ALL or NONE.

As for whether Obama really wants to come and take everybody's guns away, I really don't think he does, and I think people should consider giving him the benefit of the doubt. If you look at the White House web page on his gun plan, it specifically says “Most gun owners are responsible and law-abiding, and they use their guns safely. The President strongly believes that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms.” Now of course his administration is going to say something similar to that, but I don't think they had to include that part about an individual right. They didn't have to acknowledge the individual right interpretation recently ratified by a right-learning Supreme Court, but they did. Maybe that's just lip service to the more legally sophisticated crowd, but I'm not sure. I think they may just be acknowledging that the majority of people in this country believe Americans should have an individual, but not absolute, right to own guns. Maybe they even believe it themselves. If you want to claim someone has a secret agenda, that's an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I just don't see it. I don't think Obama really wants to come for people's guns. I think those who are sure he does are being paranoid, and mistaking pragmatic liberalism for extreme authoritarianism. Maybe I'm one of the “sheeple”, but if you think so, I say the burden is on you to show me credible evidence I'm wrong.

To sum up this intemperate rant:

1. The violence in this country isn't so much a problem with how guns are regulated as it is with the glorification of, and comfort with, violence that we have in this culture. The puffed-up firearm machismo is an expression of that culture. Sometimes it's harmless, but sometimes people take it to far. Guys that rhapsodize about their guns may never want to hurt anybody with them, but they need to realize some of the people listening to them might. They might get the itch to use that sexy gun for what it was, after all, made for, and kill somebody. How about we tone down the gun worship talk a little? Children hear that talk, and it molds their attitudes and goals. Weak-minded psychopaths hear it, too.

2. The Second Amendment does protect the individual right to have some sort of gun. But that doesn't mean you should be able to do whatever you want with that gun, or take it wherever you want. The question is not, “Should I be able to have whatever kind of armaments I want?” Nobody thinks you should—after all, the Second Amendment doesn't even use the word “gun”. It says "arms", and surely no sane person thinks I should be able to have arms like, say, tactical nuclear weapons. Even if the Second Amendment used the word “gun”, a gun could be some kind of heavy artillery capable of shooting a ten-pound shell over the horizon. Everyone with any sense agrees that there is a line to be drawn, beyond which a weapon is too deadly to be kept by a private individual. The question is, where do we draw the line? How do we come up with laws that balance liberty and public safety? Life is full of trade-offs. Liberty is a great thing. But it's not the only thing.