Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Really, REALLY Excessive Force

I'm a little surprised that this story hasn't attracted more attention. It's a story that I'm sure the NRA would love to have buried and forgotten:
'Chilling' testimony from man who shot intruders
The linked article is difficult to read, but it's important. Here we have a man who has killed two teenagers who broke into his home. He didn't just shoot them; he shot to kill, in both cases firing execution shots to make sure they were dead. I have no doubt that the law will put this man away for a long time - the "self-defense" argument in this case is legally absurd.

I'll say this up front: it is absolutely unfair to use this case to besmirch gun owners in general, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding citizens and decent people. This is clearly an extreme case.

But even as an extreme case, we have to ask how far outside the mainstream this man's thinking - the arguments behind his actions - are. The claim he makes is that he was defending himself, because either or both teens could have been armed. Of course, in both cases he didn't let them get far enough down the stairs to see if they were armed or not (neither was).

And this is where the use of guns for self defense is so problematic. I have written before (here and here) to the effect that I think guns are terrible for defending yourself. This case illustrates one reason why. They encourage - even demand - a shoot-first, ask-questions-later logic. They encourage people to think - not as a last resort, but as matter of first principle - in terms of "it's either him or it's me". They make it easy for people to justify shooting someone in all sorts of circumstances - whether it is actually necessary or not - and easy to carry out that act with a minimum of effort.

And how extreme is this case, really? Yes, the outcome is unusual. But I have heard others express opinions that amount to, "if they set foot in my house I can shoot 'em." This view is, I suspect, more widespread than we might like to think. And some of its adherents raise it to a moral imperative - that you are obligated to shoot someone who invades your property.

In a genuinely dog-eat-dog world, there might be some functional relevance to this view. But as the Harvard psychologist & author Steve Pinker has pointed out, violence is actually radically lower now than it has been throughout human history, and it continues to decline. Especially in the US, we don't live for the most part in a dog-eat-dog world. We live in a civilized society which has come a long way towards living up to universal human ideals that are centuries, if not millenia, old.

In the world we actually live in, "it's either him or me" thinking is both retrograde and dangerous. It pulls us back towards our darker past, and away from (as Pinker puts it) "the better angels of our nature". The more people who think like this shooter did, the poorer we all are for it - not only in lives lost, but in opportunities missed. Yes, the two teens he killed had committed a crime. But he denied them any opportunity to atone for that crime (and others), or to contribute to society. Instead, he destroyed three lives - theirs and his. His was a fundamentally anti-social and destructive act.

This same mindset, even when not put into deadly action, breeds fear, aggression, and confrontation, all of which simply breed more of the same. Unchecked, it can spread like cancer through a community, cutting people off from one another. It provides neither security nor peace, but erodes both.

I hope that this case becomes more widely known, not because I want to push a specific agenda of gun regulations - that's a tired and old conversation that yields far more heat than light. Instead, I hope that seeing this kind of thought put into raw action will help us to stop and think about our own views - about how we relate to each other, how we protect ourselves in a mostly-safe-but-still-sometimes-dangerous world, and how we build a better world together. Even tragedy can yield fruit - but only if we learn from it.

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