Friday, April 13, 2012

Guns, Self Defense, and Our Conflicted Ideas

As the Trayvon Martin shooting morphs into a broader debate about self-defense in the US, and as the usual players (the NRA, both political parties, the Brady Campaign, etc.) all stake out familiar forms, ordinary Americans (you and me) are being poked and prodded from all sides on an issue that isn't just about guns. It's about violence, the use of force, and protection of life and liberty. We just refuse to talk about anything but guns.

Today we find a Reuters poll showing that a strong majority of Americans favor a right to use deadly force (aka guns) for self-defense. The same polls also shows pretty strong support for the NRA as an organization, and yet VERY strong support for restrictions on who can buy guns. The Brady Campaign's original central battle to establish background checks as the sine qua non of gun ownership appears to have been won.

Gun ownership and restriction are important public policy issues. But the more we equate "self-defense" with "guns", the more we increase the likelihood that people will die needlessly. We need to move this debate away from particular technology and talk about what we really need to talk about: the range of options for self-defense, and what responsible self-defense looks like.

Those who say that guns are the only way for the weak to stand up to the strong might want to check out the story of an 11 year old girl in Britain who foiled an abduction by a man twice her size. Or the 4'10" 12 year old who stood up to the mugger who wanted his phone. Or the 77 year old woman who stopped an armed robber (armed with a gun, no less) using pepper spray.

The truth is that there are LOTS of ways to defend yourself, in all sorts of situations, that don't involve using a gun. They are widely available to everyone regardless of age, size, gender, or ability. Every year, millions of dollars are spent on pepper spray, mace, tasers, and similar non-lethal devices. And every month, thousands of Americans of all ages and sizes go to karate and martial arts studios to learn and to train.

As is so often the case, the law is not the issue here. As I have pointed out before, even the Florida law that has come under withering attack has the word "necessary" firmly embedded in it. If it was not necessary to kill someone to prevent your own death or serious harm, the law shouldn't shield you. If the law is interpreted otherwise by gun-happy Sheriff's departments, they should be voted out and replaced by people who can read.

So by all means, let's talk about self-defense. And let's consider realistically the range of threats Americans face, and the appropriate moral and ethical responses to those threats. Let's try to shape our laws to reflect those understandings. But let's stop pretending that the only way to defend yourself is to kill someone else. That road leads to very terrible places where the security of everyone is called into question.

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