One of the biggest obstacles to a real dialogue about guns, gun safety, and gun regulation in the United States is the belief, staunchly held by some, that guns are always the best means for individuals to defend themselves. This has spawned a host of internet memes (the 21st century equivalent of bumper stickers), one of which cropped up on my FB feed the other day:
The message here is as clever as it is misleading. The basic comparison seems unassailable - firing a gun is faster than dialing a phone, and bullets travel faster than police cars. Of course, this is an irrelevant and dangerous comparison that rests on some very problematic beliefs - let me pick on two of them here:
1) There are only two ways to defend yourself: Call the police or shoot someone.
The meme above offers a choice. If you are in a situation where you need to defend yourself, you only get two choices (plus the bonus choice of which calibre of bullet you want to use!) This is, of course, patent nonsense. There are WIDE array of tools and tactics for self-defense - chemical sprays, sticks, knives, unarmed combat, or good old-fashioned running away. Situational awareness and common sense also play a huge role - as many in the martial arts community point out, if you have to use your self-defense tools you have already lost the real battle.
This also begs the question, defend yourself against what? Potential threats vary widely, both in terms of the potential assailant and their goals and in potential victim and their circumstances and profile. The 6'2", 30 year old guy who works out might make a great target for a slightly-drunk alpha male looking to impress his friends or defend his "turf", but is much less likely to be targeted for rape than a 5'2" woman (whom the drunk alpha male would likely ignore).
Our society, and our criminal justice system, have built into them a principle of proportionality. If I am threatened with deadly force then deadly force could be an appropriate response, but it would be inappropriate to shoot someone for shouting insults and shoving me in a bar. There are a host of other ways for me to address the pushing-and-shoving drunk or the guy that's getting a little too close and friendly. If I only have two choices - kill or call the police - then I am indeed in serious trouble.
2) Overwhelming force is always the best form of defense.
The meme above is tactically silly - guns are not the best method of self-defense in all circumstances, tactically speaking. I've blogged on that before - at certain ranges and in certain situations, you put yourself and other innocents at risk by brandishing a gun. But the far more disturbing message here is a moral one: that whenever I feel threatened, I have the right to kill.
Whether they admit it or not, this is what the National Association for Gun Rights (the maker of the meme above) is asserting. When you fire a gun, you have to assume that it is going to kill the target. Yes, people do survive bullet wounds, but largely by luck. A decision to pull the trigger is a decision to end a life.
When is this appropriate? Advocates of the "guns are the only means of self-defense" point of view apparently believe that it is always appropriate. I have yet to see the NAGR, NRA, or any other "gun rights" organization put forth an argument about when guns should not be used. So far as I can tell, at least by their rhetoric, they are willing to defend your right to kill at all times.
This is often behind the "Stand Your Ground" argument - the notion that I don't have to back down from anybody, any time, and I can escalate the situation to lethal force if I feel like it. This is the cry of the schoolyard bully and the dangerously insecure.
To put it nicely, this is not compatible with a civilized society. Last year a retired police officer took the life of a husband and father in a movie theater in an argument over text messaging, after the latter got angry and threw a bag of popcorn. There are far too many of these stories - if you want to depress yourself, go read the first few paragraphs of this article.
This is what too many gun-rights advocates don't get. It's the reason so many of us react in horror to their arguments. It's not that we want to take their guns away in all circumstances, everywhere, and impose a Nazi state. It's that they present themselves as dangerous, threatening, wild-eyed barbarians ready to shoot anything and everything that moves.
Until the NRA and its ideological kin come to grips with the moral implications of firearms ownership and use and are willing to actually talk about such things, most people won't take them seriously. They simply have too cavalier an attitude towards life to sit at the grown-up table. And while I am not an advocate for taking guns away from responsible adults, it's clear that there are far too many irresponsible adults out there.
Those who create flippant memes that celebrate killing make a good argument that they're in the latter category. If you want to talk about self-defense, let's talk about it. But I don't think that's what the NRA and NARG want. They want a world where they have the right to shoot anybody, anytime. That's not a world I want to live in.