Part I: The Battle Of Narratives
There are two competing narratives at work in the gun control debate (narratives that, in general form, define many of the debates dividing the political “left” and the political “right”). One narrative views the world as a dangerous place, with bad people who do bad things, and that therefore an armed populace needs to be ready to stop those bad people before they can do bad things. Another narrative views the world as not just a dangerous place, but also a promising place and a complex and challenging place, a place where the number of bad people, and the degree to which they are equipped to do bad things, can vary according to the arrangements by which we coexist. In the latter narrative, the former narrative is seen as a facilitator of violence more than as a bulwark against it, a set of memes which increase rather than decrease both the reliance on and recourse to violence as a fundamental defining characteristic of our society.
The first narrative seeks a static equilibrium in which bad people are counterbalanced by good people equally well armed. The second narrative seeks an evolving condition through which both the inclination toward and means to commit acts of violence are gradually reduced through policies which address both the causes of those inclinations and the instruments through which they are realized.
More fundamentally, the first narrative is locked into a status quo rooted in mutual fear and antagonism, whereas the second narrative is reaching for paradigm shifts based on addressing underlying causes and reducing violence by proactively addressing the human physical and socio-emotional needs of our populace to a greater extent.
We are, in fact, by far the most violent developed nation on Earth, as measured by homicide rates. We are also by far the most violent developed nation on Earth according to several other measures, such as gun laws which are based on a paradigm of readiness for violence, capital punishment and in general a very retributive penal system, violent video games and movies, and a too frequently militaristic orientation toward the world.
The adherents to the first narrative want to deny any causal relationship between our lax gun regulations and our high murder rates. I want to emphasize that regardless of whether such direct causal relationships exist, a subtler and more systemic relationship certainly exists: We are a violent culture because we are a violent culture. In other words, our dramatically higher rates of acts of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations are rooted in our dramatically more pervasive attitudes favoring violence in comparison to other developed nations. And, arguably, the rise in violence that those other developed nations have experienced in recent decades (though still never anywhere near our homicide rate) is attributable to the export of some of the products of our violent culture (e.g., violent video games and movies).
There is much we need to do to address our culture of violence in America. I have frequently said, throughout all of the discussions in the wake of repeated mass public murders, that the most fundamental factors and challenges do not involve guns: It is more about becoming a society that is more able to lift one another up and less eager to knock one another down, a society that looks for ways to take care of one another rather than for rationalizations not to, a society that addresses problems more by preventing their growth than be reacting to their presence.
What concerns me most about the very strongly positive attitudes toward firearms expressed on many blogs and message boards are the attitudes themselves, a belief that instruments of violence are the defining tool of civilization, and a belief that the best we can do is to impose on one another the constant, ubiquitous threat of mutually available deadly force.
The social order based on mutual threat is not an optimal social order, because it leads to more violence than a social order based on centralized pacification of mutual threat. In 19th century Appalachia, there was little formal government or police, so the inhabitants forged a social order based on mutual threat of retaliation for doing one another wrong. It worked when it worked, but gave way to spiraling descent into generational violence whenever it broke down. The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is one example.
International relations is another. It is an order based on mutual threat rather than centralized government, and it is a more violent order, with more breakdowns in the peace, than that of a political unit with a functioning government. That’s the purpose of government; that’s what it can be used for: To remove the need to create a precarious order based on the threat of mutual violence, and replace it with the knowledge that mutual violence isn’t acceptable.
Yes, those laws have to be enforced. But using the degree to which any government inevitably fails to (because there is always a failure rate) as a justification for giving up on government as the pacifying agency of a society, and returning instead to the more precarious and less effective paradigm of mutually threatened deadly violence, is a regress away from being a functioning society.
We can’t solve our problems or grow as a society into something ever-better simply by pitting the “good guys” against the “bad guys” in a societal wide gunfight. We have to pit ourselves as individuals and as a society against our own demons as human beings, our own foibles. And that requires thinking in different ways, on different levels of analysis, with greater aspirations and more commitment to the possibilities.
Part II: The Abuse of the Second Amendment
1) By one historical analysis, the “well-regulated militia” language referred to the state and local militias southern states relied on to suppress slave uprisings. Since the south feared that the growing abolitionist sentiments of the northern states would lead to the use of the federal government to deny the southern states this indispensible recourse to violent preservation of their inverted understanding of what “liberty” means, they made the inclusion of the second amendment a requisite to their ratification of the Constitution.
2) At no time previously in our history has the Second Amendment been interpreted to provide the absolute individual right to own and carry any firearms any time anywhere that our current gun idolaters insist it grants them.
3) The language of the Second Amendment is clearly ambiguous, and the emphasis on a “well-regulated militia” clearly leaves room to regulate gun ownership.
4) Discussion of the meaning of that term at the time (such as in Federalist Papers #29 by Alexander Hamilton) clearly defined “a well-regulated militia” as a state militia rather than as any gathering of individual gun owners.
5) Such ambiguities in Constitutional provisions are made functional through a process of legal interpretation and the institution of judicial review, by which the courts (and ultimately The Supreme Court) has the final word on legal interpretation. In the absence of judicial review, the Constitution would be reduced to a meaningless Rorschach Test on which each ideological faction superimposes its own ideological preferences and, through lack of any system for resolving such disputes, destroy the Constitution as a functioning legal document.
6) Even the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court, in holding for the first time in American history that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right, emphasized that the Second Amendment does not confer an absolute right, and that it does not prohibit reasonable regulations of firearm ownershp and possession.
7) In any case, when discussing these issues, we should always discuss legality, reality, and morality, not just one to the exclusion of the others. The ideal we are challenged to approach is the perfect alignment of the three. The quasi-sacred status of the Constitution means that when people cite it, and particularly the Bill of Rights, they do so as if that answers all three questions automatically. In truth, it only answers the question about current legality, not about morality (what really best serves our shared humanity) or reality (what a pragmatic recognition of the current social institutional landscape recommends). Citing The Second Amendment, regardless of its interpretation, does not prove either the morality or the practicality of our gun culture and the laws which help to perpetuate it; it is only a discussion of legality, and, as popular sovereigns, it is always our responsibility to question whether current legality aligns well with reality and morality or not.
Part III: Why the “Defense Against Tyranny” Argument Has It Backwards
1) Neither violence nor the general threat of tyranny are likely ever to cease. But we can affect the RATE at which violence occurs, and the DEGREE of the threat of the imposition of dictatorship, and, in fact, in the modern context, BOTH are reduced by a less rather than more heavily armed population.
2) The right-wing belief that an armed population reduces the chance of dictatorship is questionable, since armed factions can as easily band together for the purpose of overthrowing the rule of law and imposing their own dictatorship as for the purpose of preventing a government that has no need to use such force from doing so.
3) The political economy of developed nations has developed in such a way that the means of exercising power, and the benefits of that power, are much less dependent on the overt use of force against one’s own population, and much more dependent on the continued peaceful rule of law, than in any previous era.
4) In other words, it’s really not in “the government’s” interests to fundamentally change the current status quo, and the current institutionalized rule of law.
5) The very notion of “the government” is a bit of a fiction, especially in a modern democracy; it’s really a large, complex institution comprised of numerous people and branches with frequently conflicting interests, held increasingly in check by a combination of size, non-monolithic interests, and a complex web of civil restraints. The notion that these millions of people, or even hundreds of very centralized and influential actors will at any time in the foreseeable future have either the desire or ability to conspire to overthrow the system from which they already enormously benefit, in a political culture in which it would only serve to bring infamy and resistance down upon them and would almost under no circumstances succeed in actually improving any aspect of their lives by any measure, is a very large stretch of the imagination.
6) The notion that a heavily armed faction of grease-painted citizen-fanatics, not so steeped in the reality of our political economic landscape, not so socialized into the pragmatic demands of the governance of a modern nation, might engage in activities which harm people and threaten our rule of law, is not at all a stretch of the imagination (in fact, there are examples of it occurring in recent history).
7) Of the two threats to the rule of law in America, to our continued liberty and prosperity and security, it is beyond apparent that the by-far larger threat comes from the armed ideological fanatics, steeped in fictionalized nationalistic narratives, vicariously reliving the overly-sanctified centuries old birth of our nation due to a lifetime of political indoctrination that gradually detached them from any strong tether to modern reality.
8) I would much rather take my chances with the population of current and future political office-holders who have no need or benefit from recourse to violent suppression of the American people, than with any number of potential armed citizen factions whose ideological zealotry and fanaticism could at any time get the better of them and lead to unnecessary and counterproductive armed insurrection, destroying the nation they claim to wish to defend.
Part IV: Why the “Can’t Keep Guns Out Of The Hands Of Criminals” Argument Is Defeatist
First, I don’t accept the notion that, when confronted with a social problem, we should ever start off with the assumption that there is something physically possible that we are not able to accomplish. When Apollo 13 was stranded in space, the NASA engineers poured everything onto the table, and figured out how to get the job done, and, against overwhelming odds, did get the job done. Starting any policy debate with “it can’t be done” is not who and what we have ever been, nor who and what we should be now. We might, after very careful and thorough analysis, decide that the costs outweigh the benefits, but that should come at the end of a process rather than be mobilized upfront to preempt that process entirely.
Second, almost every other developed nation on Earth has succeeded in doing what these nay-sayers insist we are incapable of. If they can do it, we can too. And they did it without undermining the protection of basic liberties like freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the right to privacy and due process.
Third, while we try to tackle this challenge, we can fairly effectively regulate the production and distribution of rounds for specific types of firearms that we decide are not in our public interest to be easily available to anyone at any time. Without those rounds, the firearms become just unwieldy clubs.
Part V: Why The “Increases Personal Safety” Argument Has It Backwards
The statistical evidence very compellingly suggests that owning firearms makes people less rather than more safe. For every successful use of a firearm by a civilian to defend person or property, EACH of the following uses occurs numerous times: accidental shooting, suicide, crime of passion, use in escalation of a fight or in “mistaken” self-defense, commission of a felony, and, most ironically of all, the person trying to defend self or property getting shot him or herself.
An armed homeowner who confronts the intruder is four times more likely to get shot in a home invasion incident than an unarmed homeowner. A gun owner is more likely to be killed by gun violence than a non-gun-owner. A gun in the home is more likely to be the instrument of death of a member of the household, of or a friend of a member of the household, than to be used in self-defense.
And what was the outcome in the most recent notorious case of an armed “good guy” trying to protect his neighbors’ property from the “bad guys”? He ended up shooting to death an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That kind of “safety” we can all live without, because far too many end up not living as a result.
Again, the fact is that we have the laxest gun regulations of any developed nation, and 3 to 11 times the murder rate of any developed nation. Both intranationally and internationally (among developed nations), laxity of gun regulations is correlated with homicide rates. The vast majority of guns used in the commission of crimes in the United States are placed into circulation by being purchased in those states with the laxest regulations and then easily disseminated on the black market (due to a lack of internal barriers to the transportation of goods across state and municipal borders) to all locales within the country.
The proliferation and lack of regulation of guns increases homicide rates. A gun in the home increases the danger to the people living in it and visiting it. Ownership of a gun increases one’s odds of being shot to death. The gun-idolators are not increasing our safety with their mania, but rather decreasing it, dramatically.
Part VI: Possibly the Two Dumbest Slogans in Political Discourse
1) “Guns don’t kill; people do.” By this logic, it shouldn’t matter whether terrorists or rogue nations gain access to nuclear weapons, because, after all, “nuclear weapons don’t kill; people do.” Of course, we all recognize that tools and technologies do, in fact, matter. The modern world would look no different from the premodern one if that were not the case, and there would be no reason not to sell nukes at corner stores to whoever wanted one.
Tools and technologies, by increasing the convenience of accomplishing an act, and increasing the effects of the act being accomplished, amplify both the frequency and intensity of acts committed by people. We travel farther and faster, communicate farther and faster, calculate more and faster, build more and higher, and kill more and faster, as a result of having tools and technologies which facilitate these actions.
Finally, if the tool is irrelevant, if only the intention of the people wielding it counts, then why do those who make this argument feel such a need to protect their own access to this tool? If a knife or club kills as well as a gun, why not use a knife or a club yourselves and stop making such an issue out of your right to own guns? The reason is simple: Those who are adamant about their right to own guns know that guns are more efficient tools of deadly violence than the alternatives available in their absence, and they want to have tools of deadly violence as efficient as anyone who might confront them has.
Can we please put to rest this incredibly stupid slogan, already?
2) “Gun regulations are useless, because criminals won’t obey them.” Right. Criminals are criminals because they disobey laws. So, does that mean that our laws are useless, since criminals just disobey them anyway? Why have laws against murder, theft, rape, extortion, kidnapping, or anything else for that matter, since criminals just disobey them anyway?
Because we pass laws to make it harder for criminals to commit certain acts, and easier for agents of the public to prevent them from committing certain acts. And ease of access to firearms increases the ease of committing certain criminal (or accidental) acts, including acts of violence, many of which are committed by people who weren’t criminals until the moment they were committed, often because the ease of access of firearms increased the likelihood that a spontaneous act of deadly violence would be committed. The question, when passing a law, isn’t “will the people who are inclined to break this law obey it?” but rather “is this a law that is useful to the general welfare, all things considered?”
The argument that could be made (though I think it is still a bad one), is that gun regulations are particularly hard to enforce. in reality, they’re not. Universal background check law is virtually self-enforcing, the ones who must obey or violate not being “the criminals” who would buy guns despite being prohibited from doing so, but the sellers who are obligated to run a background check before selling to them. Bans on certain kinds of firearms and accessories, similarly, are either violated or complied with by venders, who are not “the criminals” who can be assumed to disobey laws.
Yes, there will be a black market, but one characterized by less ease of access, far higher prices, and diminished supply. That’s how laws work. Those who argue that outlawing anything for which there is any significant demand doesn’t work must, by logical extension, oppose the outlawing of child pornography, but we all know that the outlawing of child pornography is both necessary and useful. Just as is the outlawing of certain military grade weapons and accessories.
Conclusion: The War of All Against All or the Establishment of a Civil Society
There is a battle of narratives in America, with one narrative championing an irrational, counterfactual, and violent ideology, and the other opposing it in service to humanity. The former is rooted in fear and loathing; the latter in hope and aspiration. The former views the height of civilization and human consciousness as something defined by hostility and a mutual readiness for violence; the latter defines it as an articulation of realism and idealism that does not ignore the reality of violence but does not surrender to it as the apex of what we should aspire to. The former contributes to cycles of violence by inviting overreaction and error by the ostensibly well-intended, as well as by increasing the ease of access to instruments of deadly violence for those who misuse them. The latter seeks to reduce the ease of access to instruments of violence, and to promote a focus on the reduction in the underlying causes of an overzealous recourse to violence.
Embedded in this conflict of narratives is the awareness of, versus non-awareness of, a basic element of our shared existence: our fundamental interdependence. Yes, we value individual liberty, but individual liberty is something that emanates from, and has meaning only in the context of, a recognition of interdependence. Our Founding Fathers well understood that, drafting a Constitution inspired by such awareness, and dedicating much of The Federalist Papers to proto-game-theoretic arguments about the need to create a viable agency of collective action. See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for a more detailed discussion of this dimension of the issue.
There is something almost surreal about being in a developed modern nation still trapped in such a primitive and underdeveloped political division. That there are many in this country who aggressively insist that we must be a nation based on and committed to mutual violence, thus unsurprisingly resulting in our having three to eleven times the murder rate of any other developed nation, is simply mind-boggling. And yet that is the situation that we are in. May the sane among us prevail.
Statistics on greater likelihood of privately owned firearm injuring or killing an innocent person than being used in self-defense: http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNSTAT.html
Correlation between easier access to arms and higher homicide rates, both internationally and domestically: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/
Traditional interpretation of the Second Amendment: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/17/the-second-amendment-is-all-for-gun-control.html
Two classic statements of the above thesis: http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ and http://www.americanheritage.com/content/america-gun-culture
(For more on this topic, see A Gun Control Debate)