You almost got me. Almost.
I came this close to throwing in the towel: I actually posted a blog entitled “I Surrender.” And in it, I did so. I said there was no hope, no chance, no point. I accepted defeat. I ceded the field of battle to the enemy. I walked away.
But then I thought about it. I thought about how, even in my acceptance of defeat, I acknowledged that I have had some success in this fight. I thought about how important this argument is: quite literally, it is about life and death. I thought about how the last piece I wrote focused on the importance of never giving up: never give up your dreams, I said. Try, try again, I said.
I took down the white-flag-blog-post. I thought about this argument, and I realized, first, there is another aspect of it that should be examined, which I could examine, so that I wouldn’t just be saying the same old things over again, and expecting different results. I realized, second, that even if I don’t have anything new to say, I should still say the same things, say them again and again, say them loudly and repeatedly and, above all, reasonably; make it harder for the other side to shout me down with their inanities and their absurdities and their lies. Maybe it won’t work. But I should try.
And I thought: the hell with it. No retreat, no surrender. You can have my argument when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
So, once more, no matter how futile it may feel at times, because it is a fight worth fighting, because it is as important as life and death, let’s talk about guns.
First: for all of the people who, after this latest tragedy (If you’ve already lost track, or if there has been another shooting that I have not heard about yet, I am speaking about the ten deaths in Roseburg, Oregon.), are claiming that we should be talking about anything other than guns, you’re wrong. You’re just feeling what I was feeling, that there is no way to get this country free from its addiction to guns. But doing anything other than confronting the problem head-on is just enabling the continued destructive behavior. Praying for those who lost their lives, while admirable and surely comforting, does nothing to prevent the next atrocity. Focusing on mental health is ineffective, partly because those who commit atrocities are not consistently identifiable as mentally or emotionally unstable beforehand (though they surely are identifiable after the fact, which is what makes this such an effective distraction from the underlying issue), and partly because the key to changing the effectiveness of mental health treatment in this country is to stop thinking of mental illness as an illness, which goal will not be achieved through looking at mental health through the lens of atrocity. Examining the underlying callousness, or lack of empathy, or unconcern for human life, that plays a part in atrocities, although it certainly is a reasonable target at which to aim, is not a short-term solution, and so shouldn’t be the only target. While we are considering what may cause a man’s indifference to the suffering of his fellow man, let’s also do the obvious: let’s make sure that those who are indifferent to the suffering of their fellow men cannot shoot those men.
All right: one thing at a time. Let’s look first at my description of this country’s attitude about guns as an addiction. Definition, please, O Almighty Google?
“Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
That sounds about right. Our country is unable to consistently abstain from guns: no matter how many atrocities, no matter how many data sets show that guns are not safe to own, we still own more than any other country, per capita and total. We show impairment in behavioral control — certainly true; between accident, intentional homicide, and suicide, guns caused almost 34,000 deaths in 2013 alone. Craving? 300 million guns are owned by about 50 million households. When you already have a gun for each hand, a gun for each foot, and one for your mouth, and you think, “I should really have one more,” that’s a craving. Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships? And does this behavior result in disability or premature death? Of course it does. That’s the point.
How does one deal with addiction? First, we have to recognize the problem. We need to talk about it, and keep talking about it. We have to keep paying attention to gun deaths, both in specific and in general. We have to confront gun owners with statistics and facts. We have to treat guns as what they are: murder machines. We can’t shy away from it, we can’t ignore it and hope it goes away — and we can never give up. I will try to remember that.
We do also need to examine the underlying factors that cause the problem. In this case, here in America, I think the reason for gun ownership is fear. We fear our government, and we fear crime. It would be great if we could address the causes of that fear — eliminate crime through drug legalization and the reduction of income equality; reduce the fear of government through reducing the military, increasing government transparency, and improving political education — but what we need to do first is recognize our fear, and recognize that our reaction to it is irrational and harmful. Just as alcohol doesn’t fix the problems that drive people to drink, guns do not fix the problems that drive people to shoot. Good people with guns do not stop bad people with guns. Columbine had armed law enforcement personnel on campus. The Navy Yard shooting and the Fort Hood shooting were both on military bases. There were armed civilians at Umpqua College, and yet they did not stop the atrocity — and neither, for all of his genuinely admirable heroism, did the army veteran who tried to stop the shooter. Chris Mintz was shot seven times trying to keep the killer out of the classroom, and yet the killer got past him into the classroom, and murdered several other people inside. Is there a better argument for the particular deadliness of firearms than this? People say that, if guns were banned, killers would use knives. Do you think a murderer with a knife would have gotten past that guy? Neither do I. The shooter did, because guns are murder machines, and they are very efficient and effective. That’s why people use them. It stands to reason, then, that removing those murder machines would make murder less efficient and less effective, and therefore rarer. Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that the goal of everyone, including, in theory, those who want everyone to carry guns everywhere? Isn’t the argument against “Gun Free Zones” exactly this, that those places increase the likelihood of murder? So how can the removal of the murder machines do anything other than reduce murder? I know, I know: if we ban guns, only criminals would have guns, and if a criminal wants a gun, he’s going to get a gun. Gun bans in other countries have proven both of these tropes to be false. People make the same claim about easy access to illegal drugs, but that isn’t true either: right now, sitting here, I have no idea where I could safely buy crack. I know exactly where I can buy a firearm. The same goes for 99% of the population of this country. As sincerely as I oppose the war on drugs, I have to admit that it has made it harder to get those drugs than it would be if they were legal; can’t gun owners admit the same thing about a comprehensive ban on firearms? Just so we know we’re all on the same page, thinking rationally, and dealing with reality? Here, I will concede this: a comprehensive ban on firearms would violate the Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, and it would infringe on the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners. I’m not suggesting a comprehensive gun ban for those reasons. Can’t we all admit that, even if it is illegal and probably immoral, a ban on firearms would at least be effective in making guns harder to get, regardless of what other problems it would cause? Let’s at least face reality, okay?
Here’s some more reality people don’t want to face: even apart from atrocities, people do not use firearms to protect themselves from crime. Every claim of how often they do is based on one — one — thoroughly discredited random phone survey, performed by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz. (See here) It’s exactly like the link between vaccinations and autism, except the people who accept pseudoscience as reality in this case are more numerous. And armed.
Here’s the thing I’d like to address. It’s this notion of self-defense. I want to know what, exactly, gives someone the right to kill another human being. Why do we have the right, morally and legally, to use lethal force in the name of preventing the use of lethal force? Or even worse, the right to use lethal force to prevent non-lethal force? Even to prevent property crimes? I can legally shoot someone who is breaking into my house in order to steal my stapler. Can anyone defend that rationally?
I recognize that we have the right to defend ourselves, or another human being. But do we have the right to kill? If I can stop someone from killing me without killing them, isn’t that the extent of my right? Even if murder is necessary to prevent murder, how do we know that someone is intending our death? How can it be that I have the right to shoot someone simply because he breaks into my house? Someone breaking a lock or prying open a window does not put my life in danger. Even someone attacking me does not necessarily put my life in danger. People do not want to take the chance that an intruder is not an attacker, or that an attacker is not intending to kill; but that is a matter of convenience and egotism: it is only more convenient to assume that an attacker is intending lethal harm and therefore lethal force should be applied in stopping him; and it is mere egotism to say that my life is more important than an attacker’s just because he’s the attacker. I mean, seriously? Our moral argument is “He started it?”
Someone intending harm should be prevented from doing harm. But it seems to me that using lethal force to prevent that harm is, quite literally, overkill. If there are non-lethal means of preventing harm, aren’t those means the extent of what is justified? As soon as the attacker is no longer intending to kill me, I am no longer defending myself. Right? So if I punch him in the face, and he decides, “Never mind, I don’t want to kill this guy,” I am done defending myself. And if I punch him again, now I am the attacker. Now he should have the right to defend himself against me. The scenario as I describe it is absurd, yes — but how absurd is it to assume that anyone who breaks into my house is intending to inflict lethal harm on me? And without that intent, what is the justification for using lethal force to stop him?
The fact that I have a gun shouldn’t mean I am right in using it when I could use a Taser just as easily. Aren’t non-lethal means of prevention of harm available to citizens? Things like good locks, alarm systems, access to police? Self-defense weapons like pepper spray and stunguns? Martial arts training? Guard dogs? Neighborhood watch? How about a bat?
As far as I know, the only argument against these things is that they are less effective and/or less efficient (meaning “slower”) than guns in stopping an attacker. No: I suppose there is also the argument that “bad guys” deserve death. We Americans relish playing Dirty Harry and Wyatt Earp, blowing away the “bad guys,” thus making the world safer by ensuring that they won’t attack anyone else ever again, and putting a notch in our gunbelts. But apart from our comic-book-vigilante fetish, it is just this point: stunguns and pepper spray are not as effective as guns, partly because they require someone to get close enough for the attacker to fight back, and they do not cause as much harm as quickly as does a gun, and so the attacker may still harm the defender.
I refuse to accept that someone threatening me, or even worse, threatening to take my stuff, is deserving of the death penalty. If we believe that, why don’t we kill everyone who commits any crime? The best indicator of future crime is past crime; the best indicator of future violence is past violence. Shouldn’t we be lining schoolyard bullies up against the wall and putting a bullet in the back of every head? Ditto for every kid who shoplifts, or tags a wall, or smokes a joint? I also refuse to accept that the simple fact that I own a gun, but not an effective non-lethal means of self-defense, justifies my using the gun; when my explanation is “Well, it’s what I had in my hand,” I lose the argument. “Honey, why did you give me a ball of pocket lint and a used wad of gum for an anniversary present?” “Well, it wasn’t like I could just go to the store and buy flowers! You said, ‘Happy Anniversary,’ and I had to react in a split-second!” Or maybe this: “Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist you pay for your purchases with actual money, not this piece of paper with your grocery list written on it.” “Hey, man — you can’t expect me to get out my wallet, find the money, pull it out, count it, and then reach all the way over there to hand it to you! You could have given away my purchases half a dozen times by then!”
Self-defense should be limited to what is required to end the threat. Not the easiest means of ending the threat, not the fastest, not the most viscerally satisfying of my bloodlust; only what is necessary. Anything beyond what is necessary now makes me a greater threat to my attacker than he is to me. If I shoot an unarmed man, or even a man armed with a weapon less dangerous than my gun, then I am become the attacker, not the defender. Anyone who uses a gun to kill when it is not necessary is a murderer; isn’t that the standard we use for police? Aren’t we enraged to the point of riot when that standard is not upheld? And yet we think nothing of a homeowner with a gun safe full of weapons unloading on an unarmed burglar who was trying to score drug money?
Of course, those who own the guns almost certainly disagree with me; they probably think that police are justified and right in killing unarmed civilians who merely seem to pose a threat. (Though those gun owners should consider this issue when arguing that our government is a threat, as well; isn’t it this very standard that allows them to be such a threat? Maybe there is a solution to both problems . . . ) But here’s the thing I have to keep in mind: I have to remember that argument, particularly in a debate like this one, is not simply intended to sway the zealots of the opposition. It is intended to provide points of consideration for the rational, regardless of their initial position in the debate. So for those of you who are rational, consider this. How much offense is necessary for defense? How much harm can one do in the name of preventing harm?
How much harm must we do to each other, and ourselves, for the sake of clinging to our prejudices? How many people have to die before we recognize that we have a problem, and we need to deal with it?
Addicts must change their lives: they have to change their way of thinking, their understanding of themselves and their behavior, their concept of their addiction and what it does for them. They must avoid the people and the places and the activities that served in the past as triggers for their addictions. They need to work, and keep working; they can never ease up, not ever. We are addicted to guns. There are a lot of things that need to change before we can quit the guns; we can’t go cold turkey, that I will concede. But just because it’s hard to accomplish doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do, nor that it shouldn’t be attempted. 34,000 deaths a year beg us to do what must be done. Think of how many people you know. Think how much it hurts when one of them dies. Recognize how many orders of magnitude that is away from 34,000 deaths. Recognize that that number occurs in this country every year.
Let’s take the first step: admit that we have a problem. And let’s do the work.