Is the need for people to be secure not undermined by their right to buy guns?
It is happening again. Another unhinged slaying of innocents. Another school, another young man unleashing a shocking expression of hate and anger. A scarily familiar news story emerging in its horrible details that resolve from vague guesses to real names and a score of small coffins. It is another addition to an ever-growing list of public shootings that result from the personal issues of a tiny minority.
In Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, things will never be the same. Like Columbine, like Virginia Tech, like Aurora. As a foreigner the place-names are learned through their tragedies. Why does “school shootings in the US” have its own Wikipedia page?”1
Coming from a country (Ireland) where the police rarely carry guns and where the scars of past violence help sustain a peace from ‘troubles’ (the Omagh bombing in 2008 killed 29 people, and was the worst single atrocity of the decades of turmoil((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omagh_bombing))), the regularity of public shootings in the US is shocking. These men, real people like any of us, in their moments of crisis, responding to bullying or some internal breakdown, their anger swelling out, knowing no innocence, can reach out with little effort and fill their hands with guns, their minds with precedent, their Internet history with gung-ho videos about guns and gunning. And after each event the society is cocked and primed for the next. So many triggers; so many fingers.
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed
(US Constitution, 2nd Amendment)2
To those who own or use guns, there are arguments of security, and arguments of rights. Are you more secure with a loaded weapon permanently to hand? In the few moments in life where you might ever feel the need and justification to point a weapon at someone, does having it actually improve your chances of surviving? On a battlefield or video game, sure. In a ‘domestic disturbance’ or a robbery, or in your kids’ school? Raising a gun dramatically increases the odds of you being shot. Having access to guns means having other people access guns. After the shooting in Aurora earlier this year there was a surge in gun purchases in the area3. In parts of Texas teachers can be armed, as can students in some Universities (concealed no less). It sounds more like the wild west than a modern state with a secure society. Yet if your neighbour were robbed at gunpoint, it would be hard not to feel the need for a personal gun, unless you could guarantee that others had none.
In Killing Them Softly, a 2012 film where failed and failing criminals engage in an unromantic battle under the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, Brad Pitt’s character sums up his attitude at the end of the film:
This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh! I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country, it’s just a business… now fucking pay me! (Killing Them Softly, 2012)
If you’re on your own, then you don’t just have a right to defend yourself, you have a need to. Again, it sounds like a lawless state of affairs. Killing Me Softly has a setting far removed from an Elementary school in Connecticut, but the price of the theoretical right to defend yourself includes the cost of others being able to express themselves in bullets and blood. Would you not defend yourself and your children more by taking guns out of reach of those who may one day use them maliciously?
This guarded right to carry arms is a core part of the national identity and concept of free individuals. It’s enshrinement in the constitution guarantees huge commotion when questioned. Is it related to the ideas of liberty, that it is acceptable to do something as long as it is not causing others to suffer? Do a breed of Libertarian principles push the perspective of society into the that of an isolated individual: a cowboy riding solo with only wits and a six-shooter between freedom and death? Or is it as a bastion of a personal freedom, constantly infringed by big government? Given that every gun has its inherent deadly potential, and given that fighting for the right to bear one is also fighting for the right for unstable individuals to obtain them, how wise is it to regard this right as something that cannot be sacrificed for the sake of a safer society?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
(US Constitution, 1st Amendment)4
The right to bear arms, the second amendment, is surely not built from the same stuff as the first. They are not built from the same foundations or aspirations. The right to free speech protects and encourages in any society and will always be a goal: diversity is healthy; necessary. Guns kill people. They are life-ending objects, much more than sticks and stones. It’s not that names can never hurt, but although some things are hard to listen to you don’t have to agree. The brutal argument of a bullet cannot be questioned. Having an armed population prepared to defend their right to defend their right with an anti-society device is hardly something to aspire to. It is not a goal.
Times change, societies change, and how a person act always needs to consider this. It is no longer 1791. The right to own and the decision to buy guns has powerful externalities: the ability of those who are consumed by intentions of harm and separated from the world by alienation and anger and a sense of injustice, to arm themselves and aim. In a dense interconnected world where we are always in a public domain, we have to have some trust in the social system. When we get on an airplane or in a taxi we have to assume that the pilot/driver is not drunk or high. We have no choice but to have faith in strangers, trust in others, while accepting the destructive potential of human nature. Our money is a number on a computer, our economies are constructs of confidence. Yet modern identity is based on knowing your own mind, making your own choices, and acting as an individual. These are not shopping cart choices though; these are the choices we make about how society works. And when the result of these choices is a situation where gruesome scenarios and public killings repeat themselves, new choices need to be made.
Modern society has countless rules that accept the potential failure of individuals. If everyone was an ideal human then there would be little need for law. What fully rational, empathetic socialized person would, for example drive recklessly on a public road? Every group of people has to balance the individual island with the social whole, balance rights with duties, and safeguard where possible against the threat of violence or corruption. If the system has too much power/responsibility there is no freedom. If the individual has too much there is a danger of chaos. In computer science it is commonly said that a very secure system is unusable, while a very usable system is insecure. There is a trade off between what users can do and how safe they are. There is a trade off between individual freedom and social stability. Where would we be without society?
And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short (Thomas Hobbes)
There are those that will be waiting for the powerful gun lobby to raise its vested voice loud above the affected and angry. Default behaviour of apathy and the reluctance to take on a well oiled set of arguments deployed by well positioned arguers and with the backing of a profitable business facilitate the next public shooting. It has happened too many times to allow everything to carry on as before.
Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.
This snappy return is fallacious. It relies on the flexibility of the verb ‘to kill’, which sometimes implies an intentional agent/subject ( a killer), and sometimes an indiscriminate cause of death. The ambiguous implication can be removed by rephrasing: Guns don’t intend to kill people (1), or ‘People are not killed by guns’ (2). Of course, only one of these is true. Of course people are killed by guns. The original argument implies that the only important factor is the intent to kill- that there is a murderous actor, which of course has to be a person. Switch ‘gun’ with ‘bomb’, a more indirect killing device, and it makes no sense any more; ‘Bombs don’t kill people. People kill people.’ ‘Drugs don’t kill people. People kill people’. This is not an argument at all, it is simply stating that guns do not intend or purposefully kill people, just like cars, or drugs or bombs. it tells us that if we are killed by a gun, that gun must be fired by a killer. Does this mean we should not notice or consider how or why the gun is in the picture? Should we simply look past it to the mind behind the finger on the trigger? The responsibility of not killing you is resting on the twitch of an enraged finger.
Go out onto the street, flag down a car, preferably driven by a tough-looking young man. Jump on the hood, kick the windscreen, insult the driver, his mother, car, children, religion, race, beliefs, job, and anything else you can identify. When you are sure he is utterly incensed, offended and enraged, hand him a loaded gun with the safety off. Has the situation changed? Has introducing a gun into this moment of rage raised the bar? Have your chances of waking away unscathed remained the same? Are you safe because the gun will not fire itself with its own subjective purpose? There is only the slightest squeeze of a finger between you and your death. No argument or situation is the same when participants are armed and guns are pointed. Introducing guns escalates the issue to a life/death situation with only the slightest of movement.
Some polar opposer of the gun lobby will likewise vent from a biased position (though probably one with less influence), and decry the whole apparatus of American society. Here, a country steeped in war and a history of warmongering, too heavily invested in the production of war machines for profit to be interested in negating the promotion of gun ownership. Points that need to be made, but it is important that this does not become a battle of extremes where the central majority ends up doing nothing. Lots of countries produce and sell guns, and no society is perfect. Many markets and products are loaded with incentives to not use them. Consider that in Australia cigarette packets are now completely de-branded, while in other countries they are splattered with abrupt messages along the lines of ‘you will die if you smoke these’. On top of that we have the laws and social norms that allow life to function in the first place, from road signs to bank regulations. When they fail, they must be addressed and altered.
Does the US have a history or principle or special status that make it different enough to warrant more liberal gun laws? Coming from a country that has been wracked repeatedly by invasion, oppression, partition, civil war, and modern terrorism, it is hard to imagine. What country carries no history of shots fired, blood shed? As for unique rights; the whole notion of a modern democracy involves that of personal freedom. Yet anarchy is not endorsed, as it is generally acknowledged that there are those that will not act in their own best interest if given the chance. That is why drugs are illegal and alcohol restricted by age. Levels of restriction should be based on the levels of danger. Is it not strange that liberal gun laws are associated with conservatism?. The dual nature of a gun as defender and aggressor is divisive. When we are all armed we are in danger of separating everyone, from neighbours to nations, into aggressors and defenders. I have a brother who is a policeman, and he rarely carries a gun. I don’t take pride in many aspects of Ireland but I take a certain pride in that. Surely this should be the goal?
Some defenders of the right to be armed argue that more guns are required, not less; that the teachers should all be armed, that the students should be taken and trained in the use of automatic rifles in case they might have to save their friends with an act of heroism in a firefight. Here is the wild west dream again, alive and kicking. Flood the country with more and more guns, and rely on the judgement and aim of strangers to save the day when the calm is upset by a crazed killer (or an annoying driver breaking the lights). Can you really feel safe when every person you meet is four seconds or less away from moving their hands to their pocket, raising them, and squeezing a finger? This power requires responsibility: you must now rely on every person you meet every day of your life to be responsible, reasonable, and in control of their emotions and behaviour.
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. (Edmund Burke)
It is near impossible to make a black and white distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people in order to discriminate between them when it comes to gun control. Immediately we have to rephrase the targets to ‘probably good’ and ‘potentially capable of evil acts’. And it gets muddier: most of the savage killers have been young men with issues, perhaps quiet or aloof, distant and withdrawn, perhaps bullied or shunned. How many kids are aloof or bullied or shunned or distant? Surely a few in every class, and many in every school? Will identifying and targeting their isolation then restricting their behaviours serve any positive purpose? Would it not be better to aim to reduce their isolation and try to create conditions whereby an act of murderous intent would be hard to implement? Would simple paperwork and clear regulations not cut through the fantasies that burden those who may not have the wherewithall to discard angry thoughts of destruction.
In any case, time spent searching for errant individuals to monitor and control while at the same time promoting certain individual freedoms are at odds with each other. Surely it should be vital to make it very difficult for anyone, regardless of character or history to carry out these horrendous acts in the first place. It is obviously not enough to rely on moral character. It is impossible to identify potential suspects. Why isn’t there a trail of disincentives and obstacles to owning and using weapons specifically designed to kill?
It is deeply upsetting and profoundly unsettling to be continually faced with episodes of slaughter that could have been prevented. It is not possible to prevent all of them or remove their possibility completely, but changes have to made, and questions asked again and again.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results
History, psychology, science, anthropology, and simple people-watching all teach us that humans are fragile complex beings with a nature both social and selfish, docile and dangerous, caring and yet capable of irrational madness. In the tumult of debate and emotion, the desire to stem these events has to involve clear thinking and focus from all sides. Bias should be exposed, ‘rights’ should be questioned, and the core values of a ‘society’ held up in the spirit of amendment 1 to see the weakness of amendment 2. In nay case, if it was perfect first time round, it wouldn’t have been amended at all.
In a quiet town in Connecticut small coffins will be buried along with the hope and ideals of those affected. Parents, friends, brothers, sisters, teachers and students. Things will never be the same again here. But if no actions are taken, things will be the same again somewhere else. And again and again.