Thursday, December 20, 2012

Guns and the Temptations of Power

It is fitting that the first installment of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" series of movies has just come out. The Hobbit, for those who haven't enjoyed Tolkien's writing, is the precursor novel to the Lord of the Rings series. The thing that binds the books together is a magic ring, found by accident by Bilbo Baggins in the midst of an altogether different adventure.

Those who have read and understood Tolkien know that the ring is the fulcrum of the entire story. It is a stand-in for Power - the One Ring to rule all things, to command, to govern, to dominate. It is a concrete symbol of our quest for tools that will allow us to control others.

In the story as it unfolds, Tolkien - a keen philosopher as well as writer who regularly talked with some of the intellectual giants of the 20th century - made his views on the nature of power clear. The ring is all-consuming, and ultimately turns whoever tries to wield it to evil. It turns an ordinary hobbit named Smeagol into a nasty, brutish, almost inhuman monster called Gollum. It turns friend against friend, and tempts the already-powerful of the day to tyranny and war. Tolkien's entire Middle Earth saga - including the even earlier mythology in The Silmarillion - is a series of parables with one central theme: power corrupts.

We would be wise to heed Tolkien's message as we carry on our national conversation about guns. Guns are, for many individuals, the Rings of Power of our day. They offer the ability to dominate others. Much of the pro-gun mythology about guns as tools of self-defense ignores this reality, and assumes - as did Boromir and Saruman in Tolkien's stories - that power wielded by the virtuous ("law-abiding citizens") has no effect on their virtue. To believe this is to ignore thousands of years of accumulated wisdom. Tolkien's view is hardly original, and draws on a very long tradition. If we really believe that having guns doesn't change us, we are ignorant fools lost in our own hubris.

"Sure," our NRA friends might say. "Them's a lot of fancy intellectual words. But I don't believe it if I can't see it with my own eyes. Having a gun doesn't make me a bad person." Leaving aside the red herrings in that argument, let's consider these cases as examples:

- In a recent case in Florida, a middle-aged man shot an unarmed black teenager in an argument about loud rap music. The man started the argument himself (by insisting that the teens turn their music down in a public space), and then escalated the argument once they (predictably) objected by talking smack. Did he feel empowered to start the conflict, and to continue to escalate it, because he was carrying a gun? Put it this way - how many 45 year old guys would pick that fight with a carload of black teens if they weren't packing heat?

- In a similar incident, one man shot a stranger in a Little Caesar's pizza after an argument. The source of the argument? The victim began complaining about how late his pizza was. The shooter chose to confront him about it, and the argument escalated. When the victim shoved the shooter, the shooter pulled his gun and fired. The shooter later claimed that he was acting in "self defense" - apparently under the theory that deadly force is an appropriate response to being pushed by an unarmed man. Again, did the shooter feel more confident starting the argument and "standing his ground" because he knew he had a gun?

People every day are confronted with opportunities to start, escalate, or diffuse conflicts. In our muddled thinking, guns represent a "trump card" in any confrontation - hence the popularity of the saying, "never bring a knife to a gun fight." We believe that if we're carrying a gun, we're invincible - that if things get "out of hand", we can control the situation and win the argument because we have the power. To believe that having that power won't change people's behavior is lunacy.

Does this mean that everyone who has a gun will go around starting fights and shooting people? Obviously not. But the outcomes are easy to see in the aggregate. Having a gun in the home, far from making you safer, increases your likelihood of dying from either homicide or suicide by three to five times (not to mention accidents, which are also a serious danger - as in this heartbreaking case in which a father killed his own 7 year old son outside a gun store). Not everyone who has a gun ready to hand will misuse it. But a great many do, with tragic consequences.

The characters in Tolkien's story have a simple (if difficult) way out: they can destroy the ring, removing its power from anyone's reach. We can't do the same with guns - the genie is, as they say, out of the bottle. But there are any number of sensible proposals for reducing the impact of guns by reducing access to the deadliest types.

Those who oppose these proposals do so in the name of broad ideals of Freedom and Rights. They talk of universal truths of Liberty and Tyranny. But those are not the only universal themes of human experience. If you want to argue that gun access should be free and unfettered, you have to confront the reality that guns are a dangerous form of power - and that every form of power corrupts. Restraining power and its corrupting influence has been one of the main challenges of human civilization. Pretending that we ourselves are virtuous and incorruptible will only lead to more death. If we want to live in peace, we have to find a way to reduce the temptations of power - which means we have to give up the fantasy of "guns for self defense only" and confront a reality far more difficult.

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