Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Real and Messy Costs of Widespread Gun Ownership

I have blogged before about the complex calculus surrounding gun possession as a means of self-defense (here and here, among many others). I have focused on the relationship between self-defense and firearms, because self-defense is the primary justification for gun ownership given by those who advocate for few restrictions on guns. It is the battleground (if you will) on which they have chosen to fight, and so makes for a fair starting point.

In my previous writings, I've made it clear that guns can be useful for self-defense - I am neither an advocate for trying to ban all guns (an impossible task) nor a strict nonviolence pacifist. I have tried to make it clear that guns may be a useful but not sufficient condition for self-protection - many additional skills are needed (including a number not taught in most CCW classes).

On the other side of the coin - the one gun advocates rarely want to deal with in public - are the very real costs in innocent life of widespread gun ownership. I'm not talking here only of the high-profile Newtown or Aurora cases - discussions of which have often devolved into largely useless arguments over hypothetical tactics. These cases, while big in impact, are (thankfully) rare.

More problematic are the small encounters where the presence of a gun turns a senseless but probably harmful altercation into a deadly conflict. Emblematic of this kind of situation is this tragedy:
Alabama woman charged with killing fellow 'Bama fan after Iron Bowl loss
There are obviously a lot of factors at play here, and the evidence is admittedly incomplete. It is likely that alcohol played a role, which often lowers barriers and enhances strong emotions (in this case, intense disappointment over the outcome of a football game). It seems likely as well that the American worship on the altar of sports (football in particular) was an important factor, creating both the context in which strangers would gather and the emotional source of anger and frustration. Clearly if people drank less and were less consumed by sports, the conflict in this case would have been much less likely.

But it is one thing to talk about the sources of a fight between strangers, and another to talk about its outcome. I've argued before that the trite "guns don't kill people, people kill people" bumper sticker is beside the point. The reality is messier: gun's don't kill people by themselves, but they make it much, much easier.

The fact that one woman in this case had a gun didn't cause the conflict between them. It didn't make the shooter angrier about the football game, or make her dislike a complete stranger any more or less than she would have unarmed. But the presence of the gun changed one essential thing: the outcome. Without the gun, both women would be alive - possibly angry and with minor injuries, maybe even arrested on misdemeanor charges, but alive. With the gun, one woman is dead and the other's life is now ruined.

This is the reality that gun advocates need to confront, honestly and in public, if they want anyone outside of their tribe to take them seriously. The more guns are in public circulation, and the more ill-founded and even barbaric ideas people have about guns and violence, the more likely it is that minor scuffles that used to end in scrapes and bruised egos will instead end in funerals and murder cases. This is a very real price to pay for a particular form of freedom - and I think we have both the right and the responsibility to ask whether the price is too high.

1 comment:

  1. I so frequently encounter the argument that "more guns = greater safety". When I say: "Yes, but more guns will make minor altercations deadly - whether in road rage incidents, shopping mall queue/parking disputes, etc." I get told: "Aha - not if everyone is armed! You're going to think twice about being rude or abusive if you have a good reason to believe that the the other person is armed!" What this suggests is that a "civilian arms race" is somehow a good thing. It's a bit like saying: "The world was never safer than during the cold war. " I really don't know where to start dismantling such an absurd argument. Once again, marvellous post!