Friday, December 21, 2012

Everyone's a Law Abiding Citizen ... Until They're Not

One of the popular phrases in the ongoing discussion about guns and gun restrictions is "law abiding citizens", as in this quote from Ohio Governor John Kasich:
"Whatever we do, we don't want to erode the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens."
He said this in the context of signing a bill slightly tweaking Ohio's concealed-carry laws. The changes in the bill are fairly minor, and don't have a lot of impact on the broader national debate. But the phrase is indicative.

Update: Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, made the same point at a news conference today by uttering the following:
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association
The image of the "law abiding citizen" is a popular one in gun-rights rhetoric. Its popularity stems in part from its emotional, mom-and-pop, America-and-apple-pie feel. Who would be against the notion of law abiding citizens exercising their rights? Isn't that what freedom is all about?

Underlying the idea of the "law abiding citizen" is a fundamentally Manichaean view of the world. The term assumes that there are two categories of people in society: "law abiding citizens" and "bad guys". The law abiding citizens are good and trustworthy and would never misuse their guns or do other bad things. The bad guys, by definition, are the ones that cause the problems. The proper response, therefore, is for law abiding citizens to make sure that they have more power than the bad guys, so that the latter can be kept in check and defeated where necessary.

This worldview permeates our psyche. It is the basic plot line of the vast majority of American movies and TV shows, and many of the most popular books. We bathe ourselves in this mythology on a daily basis, to the point that it is so deeply seated in our subconscious that it doesn't even occur to us to examine it. Which is why the phrase "law abiding citizen" has such staying power.

The problem, of course, is that as mythologies go this one is a really terrible reflection of reality. For a supposedly Christian (according to some) society, we have apparently forgotten the wisdom of Paul:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:15-19)
Eastern philosophy speaks in similar fashion about Yin and Yang, the darkness and light that dwell within each person. The Prophet Mohammed spoke of the greatest Jihad being the struggle within. That people are not "all good" or "all bad" is hardly news - we've understood this for thousands of years.

Even if we ignore the wisdom of collected human history, circumstances should show us the same truth. By all accounts so far, Adam Lanza was a "law abiding citizen" right up until last Friday. So was James Holmes prior to his shooting spree in Aurora. The same is true of two other recent unprovoked shootings (here and here), and of George Zimmerman, and of any number of other high-profile shooters. At the University of Toledo, a dispute between two friends who were rooming together apparently escalated into a knife fight that left one severely wounded and one dead.

In every one of these cases, people were "law abiding citizens" right up until the moment when they weren't. In some cases, the perpetrators were convinced that they were still "law abiding citizens" even as they committed acts that are against the law, and that society finds reprehensible.

If we're going to have a serious conversation about violence, the use of force, and the appropriate laws and means of preventing violent deaths, we have to get rid of our "law abiding citizen" mythology and deal with a far more complex reality. In a different context and long ago, Walt Kelly got it right: We have met the enemy, and he is us. If we acknowledge that, maybe we can move beyond childish simplicity to the difficult choices of a difficult world in which, often, we are our own worst enemies.

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