In an earlier post I argued that the numbers (yearly deaths by firearm) don’t make a strong case for gun control. Compared to other causes of death, there just aren’t that many people who die from firearm violence. Still, after the massacre at Sandy Hook, it’s really hard to look ourselves in the mirror and not wonder how we as a society allow such an event, rare as it may be, to happen. Even The Economist, not known for being a sensationalist newspaper, called it “evil beyond imagining”. The fundamental question is, “Should something be done to prevent this in the future?”
While almost everyone may agree on this, there are vastly different views on the solution. Let’s frame the argument by taking an eagle-eye view of the issue for a moment. Roughly speaking, the problem is made up of two elements: crazy people who would actually want to conduct a shooting massacre and weapons to kill with. Reduce either and you reduce the problem. In the land of proposed solutions, some people focus on reducing weapons (and pay varying degrees of attention to mental health issues). Others consider weapon ownership to be a fundamental right, so they try to limit the argument exclusively to mental health and criminology, usually by suggesting more weapons as a deterrent. The arguments between camps are animated, lead to political paralysis, and turn the answer the to the question, “should something be done” from a rhetorical but useless “yes, of course!” to a practical “no”. Clearly, there is a need for sensible dialogue on the issue at all levels.
This article explores some issues surrounding gun control, starting with the culture of gun ownership and then the different types of weapons involved in the debate. The conclusion, probably offensive to anybody on either fringe, is right in the middle of the road: it makes sense to forbid some guns and allow others. Part II will explore self-defense and tyrannical governments.
Culture: Enlightened, educated, urban liberals (in the American sense of the word) often gather over a glass of Merlot to muse on the oddities of redneck hicks and their guns. In a display of intolerance they would never allow against some of their own deeply held views, they explain away gun ownership as an unfortunate feature of the less civilized elements of society. Is this a caricature? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not rare and it is a major barrier in the debate.
There are parts of the country where people grow up with guns. They learn to use guns safely and practically never view guns as a weapon to use on humans. Owning and shooting guns in this context can be at times fun and harmless and at others useful for hunting. Speaking personally, while my social position puts me most often with “enlightened, educated, urban liberals,” I’ve done a bit of shooting, including shotguns, rifles (.30-06 and .22), and handguns (.50, .375, and .22). I am sure that I never thought of killing somebody when I was holding a weapon and I wasn’t concerned about my safety when somebody else was holding the gun.
All parties in the debate need to realize and admit that it is possible to own a gun sensibly. There are a good number of guns in the U.S. that don’t contribute appreciably to crime; were these guns suddenly to disappear, we’d see no difference in the crime rate. I am tempted to think that some part of the desire to enact gun control comes not from sensible argument but from intolerance and fear of the other. Cultural relativity can only be taken so far, but in this case, if somebody’s idea of a good life includes owning a gun responsibly, I’m OK with that.
The weapon continuum: This said, not every weapon is the same. Weapons differ in their killing effectiveness, killing purpose, and killing rate. Large caliber weapons can take down a bear; a small-caliber weapon may just anger it. Handguns are useless for hunting, but are easily concealed and useful against humans. Bolt-action rifles can shoot a few rounds per minute; fully automatic weapons can fire at peak rates of several hundred rounds per minute. Beyond this, knives are less deadly than guns and nukes are more deadly. These and other differences between weapons place them on a continuum. If we were to poll the entire U.S. and ask them for each weapon, “Would you be OK with your neighbor owning a weapon of this type?” we would find that the answers arrange themselves along a continuum as in the hypothetical figure below.
This exercise readjusts our thinking from the binary and toward the fuzzy, away from yes-no, either-or and towards a continuous scale. It seems safe to assume that there is broad agreement that it is OK for your neighbor to own a kitchen knife but not a nuke. While legally speaking, we need to draw at least one discrete line between kitchen knives and nukes, but there should be little disagreement that we need to be drawing lines somewhere.
Unfortunately there is disagreement. Some of the more vocal parties insist on sticking to their guns (pun intended) and refusing to admit that it is sensible to want to control guns at all in any way whatsoever. To these people I ask, if not at guns, where on the weapon continuum do you draw the line and more importantly why?
Coming next: self-defense and tyrannical governments.