This article originally appeared on Ethika Politika
With the tragedy in Colorado, guns are back in the news. The liberal media laments that the NRA and those on the right quickly state that events such as this sociopathic shooting are not about gun control. Those on the right quickly call for more rights to gun owners to defend themselves. Where can this debate realistically go?
I feel somewhat conflicted and undeveloped in my thoughts on guns. I disclose that I probably fail the test as a red-blooded American male from the great Commonwealth of Virginia to say I’ve never shot a gun. Heck. I’ve never held a loaded weapon. Quite frankly, part of this is culture: I’ve grown up in relatively safe suburbia where we hunt deer with our fenders not our shotguns. Guns simply aren’t a part of every day life. I grew up hearing, “If you have a gun, then you are willing to kill.”
It’s worth noting that guns and gun ownership are a good problem. They are the problem of a free people. Tyrants and autocrats don’t want the people to have guns because it represents a direct threat to their monopoly on force and on power. If you have a gun, then you know you can point that gun at someone and you can kill them. It represents a great deal of power. A natural reaction, of course, is that because it represents such a power, its permissive use ought to be limited. And this indeed is true: no one is free to kill another human being save in self-defense. Of course, there are many ways to kill another human being: thugs seem to like to use knives, soldiers are trained to use their hands, and Chuck Norris can do it with a stare. That a gun is one of the many ways that can be used to kill should not disturb us.
Nevertheless, we can’t ignore that a gun has a first and primary use of hitting its target and when that target is a living being, its use is to incapacitate to the point of subduing the target (in the case of hunting) or rendering the target no threat to the gunman (in the case of self-defense). In the latter case, I’ve heard most expert marksman agree that in a situation where your life is threatened, it is not really possible (or even prudent) to try to “shoot to subdue” vs. “shoot to kill.” Your first object is to protect your life (or that of others). Period.
Given that there are so many ways to kill another human being, gun ownership by our fellow citizens shouldn’t really be a concern. At least, the worry that my neighbor might be armed and might go crazy with the gun probably is as equally irrational as thinking he might go crazy and ram his car into my living room. Sure, it is probably easier to kill someone with a gun than a car, but that doesn’t negate that both are immoral acts, and that immoral act is murder. Thus, while we ask for a bare minimum standard for driving a car, we don’t really get much into whether the driver has the sufficient mental state or moral quality to drive a car. Simply put: driving a car like shooting a gun can both be accomplished with a basic understanding that in society people know that murder is wrong.
Thus, in a free society—or one that hopes to be free—it is not obvious that only the “special” or the “government” ought to have the sole power to possess weapons. A free man is sufficiently capable of restraining his actions to only use such force when such force is necessary. No more training (or no less training) is needed than being a civilized person. But what of the two exceptions that haunt us: the criminal and the sociopath.
For the criminal, it is fair to say “But for the gun, he would not commit the crime” or “If there were a gun, there would not have been the crime.” The former ignores the impact a ready tool or means has on the ease of doing an act; it’s easier to plow a field with a tractor than a horse and thus, it is easier to commit a crime with violent force. Conversely,the latter is also true: cops carry guns often as a deterrent to others to use deadly force and so do citizens carry guns. But arming often leads to escalation and even the possession of force does not negate the impact of tactical position, strategy and pure luck. It is fair to say that both the gun lobby and the gun restrictors have something to say on this point of crimes and gun. Crimes, like all human actions, go deeper than the mere implements used. Thus, guns probably should not play as big a role in the debate as they often do. Cain killed without a gun, so the questions of crime and murder go deeper.
What of the sociopath as we saw in Aurora and Tuscon and in Blacksburg…and…eventually somewhere else? Sociopathic behavior is also a “first world problem.” In less civilized societies the sociopath probably never makes it out of his home, due to the ever-creeping crippling of his condition and if he does, he finds a society short on compassion and accommodation. This is true regardless of questions as to whether or not society, with its atomizations and automations, breeds or at least doesn’t help those with profound mental disorders. Those who have no sense of right and wrong ought not have the means to act because they cannot probably measure the use of deadly force, that is, they use it wrongly and for evil. Cruel as it sounds, from the perspective of gun ownership, there may not be much that can be done to prevent such people from obtaining weapons.
In sum, a dispassionate conversation on gun ownership probably leaves us with more questions than answers. But it is possible to come to conclusions. First, it seems the ability for a free people to own weapons ought to be considered something worthy of a free society. Second, gun ownership itself for free people is not dispositive for the horrendous acts of the criminal or the sociopath. Third, despite the conclusions in the first two points, guns do clearly play a role in human tragedy that cannot be ignored.
Ultimately, the gun restrictors and the gun rights advocates proclaim the same end: security. One side believers the security necessary to achieve peace comes through eliminating the means needed to commit horrific acts. The other side argues that true security is never really possible because evil acts and evil men (and sociopathic individuals) never really disappear: we can never truly know that we are 100% safe. Neither position is without credit. So I ask: Where then do we go from here?