“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
“But people with guns kill people far more easily.”
“Yes, but those guns don’t kill by themselves.”
“I know, but you can’t have a gun murder without guns.”
And so on and so on.
The “guns don’t kill people” slogan is an ingenious bit of political rhetoric, because it frames the debate over guns in a way that captures the core dispute between the conservatives and liberal worldviews. If you are a liberal, you tend to believe that what people do is in great measure a product of their circumstances, and that changing the circumstances will change people’s actions. The gun issue is simple, then: if you want to stop people from shooting each other, stop permitting a set of circumstances in which guns are floating around all over the place. If you are a conservative, on the other hand, you are pessimistic about human nature and believe it is difficult to tinker with circumstances. You tend to believe that what happens depends on what people choose to do, how they exercise their personal responsibility. If people want to kill each other, they will, and if they don’t, they won’t, and whether they have access to guns or not isn’t the issue. The only way to make humankind behave better is through exhortation to better moral choices, probably through increasing the spread of religion and religiously-derived cultural norms. To stop murder you don’t need fewer guns, you need better people, a better culture. (This explains the seeming absurdity of Peggy Noonan blaming the Stoneman Douglas shooting on America’s tolerance for abortion. Nevermind guns: a culture of “death” will produce killings and a culture of “life” won’t.)
A liberal sees “guns don’t kill people” as obviously irrational: it’s like saying “nuclear weapons don’t kill people, countries with nuclear weapons do.” Well, yes, but the nuclear weapons certainly help. A conservative sees “guns don’t kill people” as so obvious that anyone who disagrees must be a brainwashed bleeding-heart: thinking that guns kill people is like thinking that cars and knives kill people and so we should ban them. What matters is obviously the set of decisions people make, and you’re going after the wrong thing if you go after “the means people use to achieve their ends” rather than “the ideologies that make people want to pursue those ends.” Ban guns and ISIS will use trucks as weapons, to just as deadly effect. You need people not to want to kill in the first place. Finding Jesus would help.
Nobody should be surprised, then, that the American right has historically been so adamant about the Second Amendment and so totally unwilling to consider even the most modest restrictions on gun ownership except in the very immediate aftermath of some especially heinous tragedy. I am sure some of the inflexibility is made worse by NRA lobbying. And I’m being generous to conservatism by giving a reasoned account of their position; a lot of it probably does, as Jim Jeffries says, just boil down to the petulant declaration “But I like guns.” But liberals need to realize that for the right to accept the liberal position on guns, it doesn’t just need to accept “common sense.” It has to give up a core part of its worldview. The conservative creed is: “People make their choices and the government shouldn’t try to alter those choices, and when it does it almost always makes things worse.” Compromising on gun control means compromising on conservatism. That’s also why nobody should be shocked that conservatives offer few “solutions” after massacres: if your general take on the world’s problems is “life is violent, cruel, and unfair, suck it up,” what solutions could you possibly offer?
It’s obvious why holding such a simplistic political framework is wrong: it assumes a view of human nature without cautiously examining whether it’s true. “They would have done X with or without a new gun law” is usually not a conclusion that comes from empirical examination but from a pessimistic disposition. Albert Hirschman accurately summarized conservative arguments against reform as appeals to “perversity,” “futility,” or “jeopardy.” Reform X is perverse, meaning it goes against the natural moral order. Reform X is futile, meaning it won’t solve the problem it’s meant to solve. And Reform X will put everything else in jeopardy, meaning that it will actually make things worse and hurt the very people you’re trying to help. Each one of these arguments is an attempt to rationalize the status quo and caution against trying to meddle with it. And we hear all of them in the gun debate: Gun control is morally wrong, because it tramples on people’s natural freedom. It’s futile, because When You Outlaw Guns, Only Outlaws Will Have Guns. And it will actually make matters worse and jeopardize the existing state of things, because you need Good Guys With Guns if you’re going to stop Bad Guys With Guns. Note that these clichés are often deployed regardless of the underlying facts: conservatives have been warning about the perversity, futility, and counter-productiveness of proposed changes for as long as there have been proposals for changes.
This rhetoric is appealing, though, partly because it’s frequently true: the “moral order” may be a matter of differing instinct, but if reforms are proposed thoughtlessly they can certainly be useless or damaging. When it comes to gun control, there are actually good arguments for caution. After all, the more you crack down on guns, the more you expand the power of law enforcement. New restrictions on anything mean more policing. Restricting the ability of the mentally ill to buy guns means increasing the role of the state in determining who is “mentally ill.” And since the criminal justice system is racist, every criminal punishment is going to fall harder on black people than on white people. Current Affairs has written before about how debates over new laws should be driven by considerations of their consequences: laws depend on law enforcement, and we have to think about what the enforcement process of any given law will look like and whether it will worsen mass incarceration. (These considerations have in fact caused some on the left to oppose gun control measures, which they fear will fall most harshly on innocent gun-owning people of color like Philando Castile.)
Recognizing that “this won’t work” and “this will make things worse” are legitimate criticisms of policy proposals, though, means that the correct thing to do is try to fairly assess whether those criticisms are true. On guns, many conservatives assume that all gun control is necessarily hopeless. But many liberals, instead of responding to “Guns don’t kill people” with arguments for why gun control will work, fall into the aforementioned endless cycle of “No, it is definitely the guns rather than the people” “No, it’s definitely the people rather than the guns.” And since that’s never going to be resolved, and it’s just a matter of differing instincts/perspectives, it’s hard for anyone to change their mind on gun policy.
The truth is, guns in America are more complicated than anybody wants to admit, because resolving the gun question means negotiating between two fundamentally different views of morality and how the world works. To see what I mean, let’s think about the Good Guy With A Gun idea. I’ve had this on my mind since a few nights ago, when a deranged and violent man broke into my apartment building. He had been walking down the street trying to kick in all of the doors of all of the buildings, and ours was apparently the weakest and he kicked it open. I woke up around 4am and heard this man screaming in the courtyard. It was angry screaming, although incoherent, like he wanted to attack someone. I looked out the window and saw him kicking everything in sight. Then, he went to the door of one of the first-floor apartments and kicked it open. He went inside for a second, screaming the whole time. Eventually, he wandered back out of the building and resumed attacking things in the street. I am told he was arrested shortly thereafter, after causing about $5000 in damage to our building, including busting the door and ripping the fire alarm off the wall.
I am on the third floor, and I did not feel especially threatened by this man. I got to watch him detachedly from above. But if I had been in the first floor apartment whose door he had kicked in, I would have been absolutely shitting myself. He was scary, very scary. He seemed uncontrollably possessed with the need to do violence to everything in his path. He was almost certainly on some kind of drug, I could not say what.
The next day, I was talking to my neighbor on the second floor, who shocked me by telling me that when he saw the man, he had gotten his gun out. He wasn’t worried for the safety of himself or his wife, because he knew his friends Smith and Wesson would protect him. There had been nobody in the first-floor apartment that the screaming man burst into (the woman who had been staying there temporarily had just moved out), but my 2nd-floor neighbor was standing ready to shoot the man if he did enter one of the occupied apartments.
My first reaction to this was horror: I hadn’t even thought about guns as I watched the man rampaging in the courtyard. But then I thought: well, what if there had been someone in that first-floor apartment? What if this man had attacked someone? It is actually possible for a Good Guy With A Gun to do something sometimes: the man who committed the mass shooting at a Texas church was confronted by an NRA member with an AR-15, and I confess that I might have felt very grateful to my neighbor if the kicking-man had burst into my apartment and Smith and Wesson had showed up to encourage him to leave. Whether or not it’s true that a gun in the home is more likely to hurt the homeowner than somebody else, incidents of parents accidentally mistaking their children for intruders and killing them can be countered with incidents of people warding off attackers.
Then again: what about the man who broke in? He was out of control, probably on drugs. Possibly he was severely mentally ill. If he had attacked my neighbor, he would have been shot dead. But I don’t believe in the death penalty for any crime, let alone assault or property damage. And the idea of someone losing their life because they took a bad drug or had some kind of mad episode disturbs me. I would have been scared if the man had come in. But I have no evidence that he was armed himself. He was kicking rather forcefully, but I’d rather get a nasty kick than see a man die. What if the woman in the first floor apartment had been there though? What if he had stabbed her to death?
It’s all complicated because conservatives and liberals just think about these scenarios very differently. “It’s on you to exercise responsibility in a world that is cruel and unfair” leads to the conclusion “When you break into my house, you accept the consequences.” The liberal belief that life should be made more fair, and that people are the product of circumstances, leads one to believe that we should minimize harms. I embrace my leftist sympathies here: I don’t want people shooting burglars or even assaulters, because a mere act of wrongdoing doesn’t justify ending a life. But if I am honest I have to accept the consequences of that view: some people might get hurt that wouldn’t otherwise get hurt. Just as believing the police should be less trigger-happy means they need to accept a greater amount of risk, rejecting the case for guns as self-protection means that some people will get hurt who would not otherwise have. (Likewise: a commitment to reducing prison populations means some people are going to get out who end up hurting people. It’s uncomfortable and it’s certainly hard to explain to those who end up being hurt. But trade-offs can’t be avoided: you might be able to reduce crime even further by adopting a North Korean style police state, complete security is not worth trading in our liberty for.)
I don’t think it’s easy to figure out an optimum gun policy, in part because America has let guns get so out of control. In a country where so many people are armed, what can you actually do? The reason conservatives end up proposing insane ideas like arming teachers (God, please don’t arm any of the ones I had) is that when you’re in a “Mexican standoff,” the one person without the gun is the most vulnerable person, and so the only thing to do if you don’t want to get killed is to get a gun like everyone else. If America becomes one giant standoff, crime might actually go down (the right is fond of pointing out that highly-armed communities have fewer crimes) but Mutually Assured Destruction is a pretty good way of creating “peace,” too. It’s just that a “peace” achieved by everyone putting a gun to each other’s heads seems to somewhat miss the point…
The core of my difference with the right on guns, though, is that they think guns are “neutral” and “inevitable” and I think guns are bad and should be eliminated. A world without guns is better than a world with guns, because possessing a gun is like having a magical button in your pocket that can kill whoever is standing next to you, and a world where people have such buttons is a horrible and frightening place to live. The first step to ending a standoff is for everyone to admit that we don’t want to be in a standoff anymore, and to gradually try to de-escalate. But if you have a certain group of people who believe disarmament is impossible, who don’t even want to try, or who think that being armed is a natural and desirable part of life, then you can never get anywhere. My problem with the right’s position on guns is that it pessimistically resigns itself to futility, instead of admitting that, however difficult it may be, the very long-term dream is to create a world without any guns in it. Pessimism is suicide, and I believe in trying to move slowly and carefully toward utopia, and my utopia has neither war, weapons, or murder. (I don’t accept the argument that there are legitimate uses for guns. Hunting is just murder of another kind, and if you just enjoy the feeling of spraying projectiles around you can play paintball. Weapons are designed to inflict injury on human beings.)
So I at least wish we could reach consensus around the “desirability of trying to create an ideal world” and the fact that we don’t yet know whether it’s possible, but it’s probably worth trying. That’s the core of my difference with conservatives on guns: not that I believe in gun control and they don’t (because if you could show me that gun control was impossible, I’d have to oppose it), but that I don’t think guns should exist and they think that guns either should exist and/or will be with us forever no matter what. And what I want to do is convince people to abandon the kind of conservative pessimism that discourages people from being outraged, that calls for “a good deal less passion in our public life” and suggest the best political program is to “let time pass” and in the meantime “just do—nothing.” If the proposed solutions to gun violence won’t work, that’s not a reason to resign ourselves to the inevitability of gun violence, but to think of better solutions.
One short-term consensus that needs to be established (though it will be hard) is that non-military justifications for semi-automatic weapons are nonexistent. As Adam Gaffney points out in The Washington Post, a lot of discussion around guns is misleading, especially when it focuses on “assault weapons.” What we should really be talking about is firepower—how deadly a given weapon is:
The liberal obsession with “assault weapons” is thus a colossal mistake. The assault weapons ban identified such firearms by a host of largely cosmetic characteristics that were mostly irrelevant to their lethal potential and had no discernible effect on overall gun deaths. Collapsible stocks, pistol grips, bayonet mounts — who cares? Perhaps there is some utility to some of these features in combat settings, but when it comes to a mass shooter in a civilian environment, what matters more than anything is the sheer quantity of terrifying projectiles flying through crowded spaces at thousands of feet per second.
(Yes, you can also drive a truck through a crowded space. But trucks also happen to be quite necessary.)
I am not ideologically committed to any particular kind of gun control. To me, it makes sense to make policy through experimentation and empirical study. But what I am committed to is a particular set of political goals: children shouldn’t be shot in their classrooms, and it’s everybody’s responsibility to figure out how to make that not happen. In fact, nobody should be shot, and what makes me a leftist is that I have the crazy notion that such a thing might be possible, or at least that resignation creates self-fulfilling prophecies. Whether you think “guns kill people” or “people kill people” depends on how you view the world, but everybody should at least be seriously committed to figuring out what kills people and trying to stop it.
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