Monday, December 17, 2012

Guns Don't Kill People; Ideas Kill People

The national conversation will be dominated for a while by the events this past Friday in Newtown, CT. Very few can remain unaffected by the tragedy of so many young, senseless, and brutal deaths, and we will mourn the lives of those slain for some time.

In a society as raucous and open as ours, it is also not surprising that the arguments started soon afterwards. The double-edged sword that is social media allows us to see reactions in real time, unfiltered by CNN or the NYT or anybody else. Much of the initial response was simply shock, grief, and sorrow - all appropriate and to be expected. But some of the early and continuing responses have compounded our sorrow by reminding us of how, as a society, we are trapped in a spiral of recrimination and spite. Every time we witness another mass shooting, the same bitter dance is replayed. On this subject, we are as dysfunctional as any sitcom family, repeating the same lines over and over - except that in this case, there's no laugh track.

The magnet that keeps us trapped in our rut is guns. That is not to say that we don't need to have a serious conversation about guns. It is also true that the conversation about guns shouldn't come at the expense of conversations on other issues like mental health, as my friend Steve Saideman has pointed out. But the gun conversation has become stuck in a decades-long cycle of repeated sound bites that no one else listens to anymore. A brief synopsis would go something like this:

- Gun-Control Liberals: Guns are bad. Take them away if possible, regulate them to the hilt otherwise.

- NRA Gun Advocates: Guns protect people. Everybody should have a gun. Guns don't kill people - (bad) people kill people.

These are, of course, exaggerations - but not by much. I have seen both arguments made in social media over the last three days. And in each case, the argument is accompanied by a demonization of the other side. Thus, in the middle of the day on Friday - mere hours after the tragedy, when details were still emerging - I saw Facebook posts that started, "those take-away-my-gun liberals are at it again". I've also seen arguments that the Newtown event is somehow the fault of gun and ammunition corporations funding the NRA, which then buys members of Congress - a sort of "Browning pulled the trigger" explanation.

This kind of demonization not only accomplishes nothing, it adds to the pain. Some people are so attached to their principles (however sincerely held) that they would rather thump their chest and feel righteous than acknowledge that others may feel differently - and that their sorrow and grief are no less than ours. We rub salt in our own wounds with every fresh tragedy.

Why can't we move beyond our bumper-sticker argument? In part, I believe, because we're focusing on the wrong thing. The guns themselves are tools, technology. It's the use of guns that we need to talk about. But to do that would require confronting the real issue: violence and the appropriate boundaries around the use of force (including deadly force).

Both sides in the debate have unexamined beliefs about violence, and contradictory ideas about when it is or isn't appropriate to use. If we're going to make real progress at reducing gun violence in society, we need to stop hiding these ideas and bring them out into the open. The question isn't who should or shouldn't have guns - that's merely instrumental. The real question is, who should be prepared to kill another human being and when?

In this regard both sides of the gun debate have much to answer for, in large part because they don't listen to the legitimate concerns of the other side:

- For gun-control advocates: What is the appropriate role of self-defense in society? If I am attacked, what am I permitted to do to protect myself? If I have to rely on the state to protect me I'm in trouble, because no police force can preemptively protect everyone - they exist to deter and to respond, not to protect (whatever their mottos say).

- For gun-ownership advocates: How do we weight the benefits of self-defense against the collateral costs of accidents and misuse? Under what circumstances can someone use a gun in "self-defense", and when does it cross the line? (Bernie Goetz, anyone?) What do we think are acceptable and unacceptable uses of force?

Readers of my blog (all three of you) know that I am not a fan of guns as a means of self-defense. But the broader point is far more important - how guns get used is driven by how we think about guns and violence. This is the national conversation we desperately need.

Three recent cases will serve to illustrate the point:

- I wrote a blog post recently about a fellow who shot and killed two teens who had broken into his home. In the name of self-defense, he killed these kids in cold blood, pumping extra shots into their heads in a calculated fashion to make sure they were dead. He did so in the apparent belief that what he was doing was perfectly legitimate and reasonable.

- A couple of months ago during the election campaign, a student of mine mentioned how she had threatened a political canvasser, who had knocked on her door about a local elections issue, with her gun. The canvasser's "crime" was intruding on the student's time with a political view different from hers. She thought it perfectly reasonable to threaten the woman with death for disagreeing with her and ringing her doorbell - again in the name of "defending my property."

- In a recent case in Florida, a middle-aged white man killed an unarmed black teen in an argument over loud rap music. This fellow apparently thought this an entirely appropriate response to a conflict he himself had initiated.

The key point in all of these cases is not the presence of guns but the ideas of the people who were carrying them. Each thought, in response to a stressful situation, that using or threatening lethal force is the first and best option. The thing about stressful situations is that they are very revealing. We don't have time to consider all the consequences, or to think about how others will view us. Our responses comes from the ideas and the reflexes we have in place - ideas often built up unexamined over years.

This is the conversation we need to have. Not just who should have guns, or which guns, or where - but what are they supposed to be used for. Far too many people are carrying guns around with the undefended (and indefensible) idea that guns are tools for resolving conflict. In all three of the cases above, the armed individual got into a conflict and saw lethal force (or threatening it) as the best way to resolve the situation.

Brought into the light of day, this is a barbaric notion unworthy of a civilized society. Gun advocates like to point out that the Swiss population is even more well-armed than America, yet they have almost no gun violence. There's a reason for this: the Swiss don't consider guns to be an acceptable way of settling disputes. Far too many Americans, on the other hand, do.

The current debate over gun control legislation is deadlocked precisely because different groups have profoundly different assumptions about how people will use guns if they have them. Liberals are afraid that if everyone has a gun, there will be shootings every time someone gets annoyed at someone else. Conservatives believe that the problem is a "few bad apples," and that if the rest of us are "law abiding gun owners", we can take care of the few bad guys. In a complex world, both of these are fantasy caricatures. And nowhere are we talking about what ideas people should hold and when guns should be used.

Personally, I would support a number of legislative changes in response to this most recent senseless slaughter, starting with a reimposition of the lapsed ban on assault weapons. But laws are not going to solve the problem, because the problem of gun violence (writ large, not just one nut job shooting up a school) is a problem of human behavior. Like racism, and domestic violence, and child sexual abuse, and any number of other social pathologies, that behavior flows from ideas. Let's move beyond the bumper stickers and have a real conversation about those ideas. In the end, that's the change we really need.

UPDATE: I sometimes wish I was a cartoonist, because they have an ability to distill a lot into a few images. Here's an excellent one from Tom Tomorrow that gets at some of what I wrote above (taking a lot more space than he does). He's a little harder on the NRA side, but the larger point is pretty clear:


  1. Bill, I would edit a sentence in your last paragraph to read " ... gun violence is a problem of human behavior, especially when those humans are American.

  2. Great post, Bill. I've found this article really useful in thinking about the debate. The gun rights people hold gun ownership is a "sacred" and thus absolutist belief, whereas most gun-control advocates take a consequentialist (realistic) approach. Politically speaking, that's a very uneven playing field.