Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thoughts on Guns

If the shootings at Virginia Tech catalyzed a more rationale, respectful debate about access to firearms, perhaps some good might emerge from all the horror and loss. Sadly, from what I've seen, the debate remains as sterile as ever, and even more vociferous. Let's see if we can do better here.

I think the reason gun ownership proponents and gun control proponents vilify each other so much is that each side is blind to the emotional bedrock on which the other side's position is built. If we can identify that bedrock, maybe some mutual respect will emerge. Out of that respect might even grow... sensible compromise?

Gun control proponents (let's call them GCPs) are most comfortable in environments where there are no guns. Whether such environments can in fact be created is a separate issue; GCPs sense that a society without guns would be safer for everyone. In other words, the core value for GCPs is a safer society, and GCPs are willing to give up their individual right and ability to protect themselves and their family if doing so buys greater safety for society as a whole.

Gun ownership proponents (let's call them GOPs, no Grand Old Party pun intended) are most comfortable in environments where they feel they can protect themselves. In other words, the core value to which GCPs adhere is the individual's right and ability to protect herself and her loved ones. I don't know for certain, but my sense is that even if you could convince a GOP that free access to guns would lead to more gun violence overall, the GOP would say the overall increase in violence is an acceptable price to pay for preserving the individual's right and ability to protect himself and his loved ones.

I can understand both worldviews. I've lived in Japan, where guns are extremely rare and there are typically fewer than 100 annual handgun deaths, most of them accidents (there are rare exceptions, of course). I enjoyed living in a country so safe that even in Tokyo -- a city of 13 million -- women walk home from the train station alone late at night. But at home in America, with a dramatically higher crime rate and something like 200 million handguns in circulation, I own firearms. I guess I subscribe to both values -- I want to live in as safe as a society as possible, and I want to be able to defend myself and my loved ones, too.

Maybe there's a way to reconcile these potentially competing values: societal safety, and personal defense?

Start with this: I have no patience with the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument. I understand why GOPs trot it out -- both sides are afraid that if they give an inch, the other side will take a mile. But let's be honest for a moment: guns are superb tools for killing people. The Virginia Tech killer couldn't have done nearly the damage he did with any other handheld weapon -- knife, sword, spear, baseball bat, bow and arrow. If someone is inclined to kill, a gun will make him better able to do it.

The more interesting question is, does the gun itself encourage killing -- that is, does some degree of the motivation itself derive from the tool? I think the answer is yes. Look at the way cell phones affect public behavior. Otherwise discreet, polite people forget they're in public and start shouting into this little device -- behavior in which they never would have engaged in the device's absence. Take away the phone, and the shouting stops, too. The question is, are guns and killing as to cell phones and public shouting?

If you think that all killing is equally likely regardless of the tool at hand, you'll answer no. But if you understand the way a finger roll and distance make killing easier, and the way the much more strenuous and intimate requirements of a knife or bludgeon make it hard, you'll accept that yes, a gun is a tool that converts a higher percentage of homicidal urges into homicidal acts.

Thought experiment: in which society would there be lower rates of murder and other violence -- one in which no one but law enforcement carried, or one in which anyone who was so inclined carried? My guess is, the law enforcement-only society would be safer, and this is indeed the core GCP argument. But we're not done yet.

Another thought experiment: if you're a GOP, are you more uncomfortable not carrying in Japan, or in America? What about airplanes, where there's very little chance anyone other than a Federal Air Marshall or a pilot is carrying? What about government facilities where you can be confident no one else is carrying? Conversely, would your ordinary concealed carry be enough in, say, Baghdad?

My point is, there is (or should be) an implicit calculus between the perception of danger and the urge to carry. Neither value -- societal safety, personal defense -- sensibly exists independent of the other.

If it were possible to make America as gun-free as, say, Japan, I'd be for it. I'd be willing to give up some of my own right and ability to protect myself and loved ones if there were a sufficiently low need for that right and ability. But an America as gun-free as Japan is an unrealistic goal; guns are too widely in circulation here, the country is too diverse, and guns and crime are too much a part of the culture.

So maybe there's some basis for compromise in there. If GOPs can understand the value of certain gun-free zones, maybe they can understand the GCP wish to live in such a zone full time. If GCPs can understand how difficult it is to create an actual gun-free zone (the only ones I could come up are airplanes and government facilities), maybe they can understand why GOPs want to carry.

I think what we should be attempting is a balance that would maximize to the extent possible the imperatives of a safe society and of personal protection -- probably by being realistic about the relationship between the two in America. If there's a compelling reason to create a gun-free zone, and it can actually be done (airplanes, for example), I'm for it. If there's no compelling reason, or a gun-free zone isn't possible (even if you think the Virginia Tech campus passed the "compelling need" test, you'd be hard put to argue that it passed the "possible to do" one), I'm in favor of an individual's right to carry.

I don't think guns should be available without restriction. I think it's perfectly natural, and desirable, that people have to take a driving test before being licensed -- and licensed is the operative word -- to drive a car. I don't think it's unreasonable to require people who want to own guns to take a stringent course and pass a test on gun use and safety. I don't think a background check and cooling down period (in California, it's ten days between purchase and pickup) are an undue burden to a GOP's rights and abilities. I think background checks should be extended to private sales (mostly that means gun shows), which account for something like 40% of gun purchases.

In exchange for the temporary hassles of proving competence in gun use and safety, a clean record, and a cool head, GOPs could maintain the core of their self defense rights and abilities. In exchange for living in an armed society, GCPs would gain greater assurance that GOPs are neither criminal nor incompetent.

From what I've read so far, neither existing, nor my proposed, restrictions on gun ownership would have prevented the Virginia Tech killer from acquiring his guns (it does seem that the killer had some documented history of mental illness, though, something that ought to be a disqualification for firearms ownership, if such a thing is logistically possible). But if responsible students had been carrying, I doubt he could have done the damage he did. In fact, it's possible he wouldn't have attacked as he did to begin with. After all, if you accept that the presence of a gun makes murder more likely, I think you have to logically reach the same conclusion with regard to places, like the Virginia Tech campus, that are advertised as gun-free. If you had a gun and wanted to kill as many people as you could, would you choose, say, a school where students can carry only at the risk of expulsion? Or, say, at a bar popular with off-duty cops? If you're a GCP, before you answer "A killer like the Virginia Tech one would just find another way to kill," ask yourself why that wouldn't also be true if you denied him his gun. I don't think you can argue the one without also arguing the other.

Think of it as a layered defense for society. Appropriate restrictions would lessen the chances that deranged, pathetic individuals like the Virginia Tech specimen could acquire a gun. More citizens carrying would lessen the damage he could do if the first layer of defense failed. That's the kind of balance I think we should be going for -- and that we'll probably never achieve in the midst of so much political distrust, shouting, and vilification.