The response to my previous blog post, Thoughts on Guns, was the largest I've ever received. It was also so interesting and thought-provoking that it led to this follow-up.
The responses I received tend to confirm my suspicion that a lot of the acrimony of the debate over guns derives from the fact that the two sides are driven by different, and possibly antagonistic, values: gun ownership proponents (GOPs) are driven primarily by the imperative of individual rights; gun control proponents (GCPs) are driven primarily by the imperative of collective security. Of course, each side claims that its means will lead to the other side's end: GOPs argue that with more individuals carrying, criminals will be deterred, lessening crime overall; GCPs argue that gun control will lessen violence, thereby reducing the need for individuals to carry. The fact that each side can draw on its own statistics, case studies, and anecdotes to back up its claim only strengthens my suspicion that the debate derives more from some emotional bedrock than it does from logical topsoil. Because the two sides in effect speak different languages, they don't understand each other. Because they don't understand each other, they project and demonize: GOPs are fanatics, maniacs, and lovers of violence; GCPs are grass eaters, sheep, and surrender monkeys. And of course each side suspects the other of a maximalist agenda: GCPs seek the abolition of all guns; GOPs want any kind of weaponry to be available to anybody, anytime, anywhere.
Here's a question that might help you figure out where you're biases are. Would you rather live in a society where no one carried outside of law enforcement, or in a society where anyone could carry anything anywhere? Leave aside for a moment the Second Amendment and the practicalities; we'll get to all that. This is just a thought experiment to reveal bias.
While you're thinking, here's a parenthetical to chew on: This thought experiment was what the example of Japan was intended to illustrate in my previous post. I got a lot of mail about that example, most of it arguing for a single cause of Japan's remarkably low crime rates: Draconian gun control; the fact that Japanese think of themselves as subjects rather than citizens (whatever that means); the fact that Japan is a "police state" (if that's so, I don't know what to call North Korea and Syria... but never mind); the fact that Japanese society is inherently less violent than America's. Most of the people advancing these single cause arguments have never lived in Japan; some, I suspect, have never met a Japanese. And coincidentally, each of these single attributed causes had the effect of bolstering whatever argument the person wanted to make...
As my friend The Slugg, who has honored HOTM with the occasional insightful guest column, was taught in military intelligence: first, tell me what you know. Then, tell me what you don't know. And only then, tell me what you think. Good advice for all of us, especially with a debate as contentious as this one. And regardless of what conclusion you consciously or unconsciously hope to reach, ask yourself this: is a phenomenon as complex as crime and violence likely to be attributable to a single cause?
Okay, back to the thought experiment. My bias: I'd rather live in that gun-free world. Personal carry is a huge responsibility and a significant pain-in-the ass. If I could modify the cost/benefit equation enough to feel comfortable avoiding the responsibility and the pain-in-the-assedness, I'd be delighted. I would still use situational awareness as my first, and most cost-effective, line of defense, and I'd still want to carry a knife in case the first and other lines of defense failed me. But if I knew no one else -- that is, no psychotic or criminal -- could be carrying, I wouldn't want to carry, either.
Does that make sense? I doubt everyone will agree with it. Some people would still want to carry to protect against threats other than those that included firearms. Some people would think it's crazy to want to carry even a knife. Some people, not understanding the difference, will confuse the awareness I mentioned with paranoia.
Some of the email I received expressed anger and disgust that I would give up my right and ability to defend myself if the threat were lower. To which I respond, aren't you doing the same thing? Is your house perimeter secured with claymores, razor wire and tank traps? If so, why not? Is it perhaps because you are implicitly balancing the threat with your countermeasures?
As I put myself through this thought experiment, I realized that the exercise was a lot like what I do when trying to calculate the proper level of life insurance to carry. What are the chances that I might die? How much will my family need to live on if I do? How much is it worth paying every year to provide for these possibilities and ensure my peace of mind? I went through a similar process with regard to homeowner's insurance, and came up with policies that made sense for me and my family. Doubtless, different people will decide on different policies, depending on their circumstances and their fears. But this is exactly the kind of calculus that goes on in the mind of anyone who's trying to decide whether to carry a gun: how much do I need it (what is the threat, how likely am I to encounter it)? How much will it cost (the weapon itself, training with it, securing it, carrying it, being responsible for it)? You don't have to be a maniac to ask these questions. You only have to be prudent. And, as with insurance policies, different people will come to different conclusions about their own needs.
I hope that if you're a GCP, my insurance analogy helps you understand the thinking processes of GOPs. Again, you might disagree with their conclusions, but once you know where they're coming from, they might seem a little less threatening. And if you're a GOP, I hope the analogy will help you understand the outlook of GCPs. Based on their environment and other factors involved in a cost/benefit calculus, they might rationally conclude that they're better off not carrying or even owning a gun.
And remember, my thought experiment is intended only to illuminate biases and to get people comfortable with the notion that there's an implicit balancing act in such matters. Remember, actually creating a gun-free zone in a country as big and open as America seems like a hell of a challenge to me. If you're a GCP longing for a gun-free world, ask yourself why our efforts at gun prohibition are likely to be more successful than were our efforts at alcohol prohibition, or our current efforts at drug prohibition, or our efforts to keep out illegal aliens. For all the reasons I argued in my previous post, I don't think guns should be easy to get. But if you make them too hard to get, is it possible you'll be keeping them out of the hands of people who could capably use them to defend themselves and others, as an armed citizen might have done at Virginia Tech, which was, after all, a theoretically gun-free zone?
Now let's talk for a moment about the Second Amendment, much cited in the responses to my previous post. The Second Amendment reads:
"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."
I have to say, I don't understand why so many GOPs cite the Constitution as the basis of their right to carry handguns. The second amendment is unique in the Bill of Rights in including an explanatory clause: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state...". You have to ask, why did the founders include that clause here? What does it mean? If the clause were absent -- if the Second Amendment read instead in total, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," the GOP argument for concealed carry for self protection would be stronger. But the Second Amendment doesn't read that way in total. And it doesn't say, "A citizen's right to protect herself and her family being essential, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." It frames -- in fact, it limits -- the right in question by reference to a militia and the security of a free state. If you don't think the militia reference acts as a limitation on the right, ask yourself: would the scope of the right provided for in the Second Amendment be broader in the absence of the militia reference? Or narrower? (Just don't argue that it would be the same, unless you want to argue also that the clause means nothing, and that the men who drafted it were stupid, weren't experienced lawyers, and didn't appreciate the power of words in a legal document).
I'm also curious about how adherents to an "original intent" approach to jurisprudence approach the Second Amendment. Is the right to bear arms limited to muskets? Or if the intent in question has more to do with the well-regulated militia and free state limitation, shouldn't all citizens be able to purchase, at a minimum, their own RPGs and claymores? What about armored personnel carriers and howitzers? All of which would be more effective against a would-be tyrant than a concealed pistol...
Also: background checks, waiting periods, etc. can't reasonably be said to be a constitutional issue. You might not like them because you think they'll be subject to abuse, but it's hard to argue that background checks etc. in themselves infringe the right in question. No right set forth in the Bill or Rights -- or elsewhere, to my knowledge -- is absolute. The First Amendment guarantees free speech, for example, but commercial speech is subject to less protection than political. And regardless of your right to speak freely, governments can legitimately regulate where and when you speak, by, for example, insisting on a parade permit. You get the idea: the exercise of every individual right must and should be balanced against its impact on society as a whole. I don't see why the right to bear arms should be an exception to this essential rule.
Where would the right balance be? Reasonable people will differ, but novelist Jonathan Kellerman had some interesting thoughts in an excellent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, where he argued that too much individual freedom makes it too difficult to involuntarily commit a psychopath
like the Virginia Tech shooter. In other words, in a mental health context, one possible cost of our adherence to individual rights is greater collective danger. And NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's initiative to provide for greater information sharing among disparate law enforcement agencies
also strikes me as a sensible way to protect society without unduly infringing anyone's individual rights.
Ah, but if it's too easy to commit someone, or we share too much information, there will be abuses, you say? Possibly, and these are potential costs that must be factored in. But we're still doing a balancing act, as we should be.
Actually, I think anyone who pauses to think about it will acknowledge that the Second Amendment doesn't, and shouldn't, create an absolute right. How many people really believe that children, criminals, or the mentally ill should have access to firearms? How many believe that firearms should be permitted anywhere (planes, government facilities)? Once you accept these limitations on the right, you've acknowledged that the right isn't, and shouldn't be, absolute.
When we're being honest and applying common sense, we all know that giving up a little individual freedom can create greater freedom as a whole. You might wish you had the freedom to run red lights or drive on whatever side of the road suited your fancy, but if everyone did so, the roads would be unusable. By each individual giving up some small measure of freedom, freedom is increased in the aggregate.
(Yes, I know, the comparison between guns and driving is inapplicable, because driving is a privilege while guns are a right. Okay, let's assume that driving *is* a right. Would you then argue that the government couldn't tell you which side of the road to drive on?)
Now, I understand the reason otherwise reasonable people sometimes advance absolutist arguments. They're afraid (with some justification) that once they admit the right to bear arms, like all rights, is subject to a balancing act, with the individual on one side of the scale and society on the other, the balance will start to be drawn against them. It seems better -- tactically, at least -- to argue that the balancing itself is a Constitutional infringement.
The absolutist tendency extends beyond the Second Amendment. A lot of the email I received in response to my previous post included the following arguments: "Anyone who wants a gun can get one illegally, so there's no point in making guns illegal." "Anyone who wants to kill is going to kill" (the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" chestnut). "Locks only stop honest people."
These kinds of assertions are as self-serving as they are simplistic. There are degrees of motivation in all things, including crime and violence. Some people are so motivated to get a gun that they'll find a way no matter what. Some people are so motivated to kill that they'll find a way under any circumstances. Some people want to break into your house so badly that they wouldn't be stopped even if you secured the place like Fort Knox. But it doesn't logically follow that *all* people are that motivated.
This is why I get so disgusted with the "Guns don't kill people" nonsense. Yes, it's technically true, but so what? I got one email that said, "I've never seen a gun get up and go kill someone by itself." Well, I haven't, either. But nor have I seen a suitcase nuke deliver itself to its target. If you argue that the tool is irrelevant to the act, you'd be comfortable with the same level of restriction on the availability of baseball bats, pistols, RPGs, and suitcase nukes.
In fact, common sense and everyday experience demonstrate that for pretty much every behavior, there is a range of motivation. At one end of the extreme is the person who will engage in the behavior no matter what. At the other end is the person who won't engage no matter what. And in between are all the people who are more likely to engage in the behavior if it's easy enough, and less likely to engage if it's hard enough. There are countless examples of this obvious truth. To use just one: fast food. Sure, a few people are so motivated to eat a Big Mac that they'd drive for hours to find one. For everyone else on the highway, MacDonald's pioneered the drive-through, and the "easy-on, easy-off" location. By making it a little easier for the majority of people interested in a Big Mac to get one, MacDonald's dramatically increased sales. The "easier to do = more of it" rule is is true for all human behavior. I see no logical or empirical reason to believe violence is a unique exception.
In other words, it might be true that the Virginia Tech killer would have gotten his guns no matter what. It might be true that he would have gone on his rampage no matter what. It doesn't follow that this is true for all people who want to acquire guns for murder. All laws are violated some of the time. That in itself is no argument for scrapping laws entirely. Houses will always be broken into. This is not an argument for leaving the doors unlocked.
In other words, the purpose of gun regulation isn't to "stop" attacks, so "we can never stop attacks like this" is a bogus argument. The purpose of such regulation, like that of all regulation, is to make such attacks more difficult, and therefore less common and less destructive. No law in history has ever outright "stopped" anything.
The sensible -- and, for me, compelling -- argument about Virginia Tech is that while not all people will have the motivation to evade gun regulations and other laws to do what the Virginia Tech killer did, some always will. When that happens, the police will almost never be able to respond in time to prevent a slaughter. Only armed citizens on the spot can do that.
At this point, if we're all being reasonable, we can acknowledge that we're engaging in a classic balancing act. How likely are such rampages and other violent crimes? How effective are armed citizens in preventing or mitigating them? What would be the effects on violence if guns were freely available? What would be the effects on violence if they were tightly restricted (remember, tightly restricted doesn't translate into "unavailable to criminals..." see also, Controlled Substances Like Cocaine and Heroin).
Strange, in a sense, that both sides are driven by fear: GOPs, that gun control will prevent them from defending themselves against armed criminals; GCPs, that lack of gun control will force them into defending themselves against armed criminals.
The most interesting thing about this debate, and other contentious ones like it, is that people seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there is, and should be, a balancing act at work. Part of the reluctance, as I argue above, is tactical, in that each side is afraid to concede anything to the other. Part of it is just laziness, because balancing acts require more mental energy than slogans. But I think there's a third factor too -- an emotional one. Maybe the reluctance to balance in part derives from how good it feels to believe your position is absolutely right, and the other is absolutely wrong. How superior I must therefore be to the other sign, not just intellectually, but morally, too! I'm telling you, if a conclusion feels that good, we ought to pause to reexamine it. There's probably more going on than we want to admit.