Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Plea for Meaningful Conversations: Gun Violence Edition

I want to have productive conversations about gun violence in this country, in part because I want my children to be safe and healthy and alive--and if we just shout at each other every time there's another mass shooting, we won't be able to take the steps that it makes sense to take.

When I first started seriously wrestling with this issue in the wake of Sandy Hook, I discovered that many of my own thoughts on guns were deeply naive and based on misunderstandings. This is not surprising. I grew up in a family that would never even consider owning a gun. I have not only never fired a gun but I have never physically handled a functional gun. I have absolutely no interest in ever doing so. But living for close to two decades in Oklahoma, I am immersed in a gun culture where gun ownership is routine and living without guns is as unthinkable to many as possessing one is to me.

I learned that as someone who has never physically touched a gun, I am understandably ignorant about them. I've made some effort to overcome this ignorance on a theoretical level (I now know, for example, that a semi-automatic AR-15 is not functionally very different from a standard hunting rifle), but I can imagine very few conditions under which I would be willing to actually touch a real gun. To me, they are symbolically bound up with human death in a way that makes the very thought of touching one fill me with nausea. And each new mass shooting--especially when the victims are children--only increases my aversion.

But guns are tools. They have legitimate uses. Some people use them to hunt, and the traditions of hunting give meaning across generations. Some find legitimate pleasure in target shooting, testing and improving their marksmanship in competitive sports. While I think the protective power of guns in private hands is overrated compared to other ways of staying safe--good locks on your doors, cultivating strategies of nonviolent conflict resolution, affirming the dignity and humanity of everyone you meet--there are occasions when a gun in the right hands could save lives.

And there are occasions when a gun in the wrong hands could turn vibrant young adults with their futures ahead of them into corpses. And while a culture that treats guns with respect, as tools that should be used with due care, has value, there exist subcultures that seem to fetishize guns in a way that is almost pornographic--subcultures that take twisted pleasure in the very things that make me nauseous.

We need to have honest conversations that distinguish between law-abiding users and those who would do violence, between a culture in which guns are a dangerous tool to be treated with caution and respect and a culture in which guns become a focus for feeding unhealthy and dangerous psychological urges. We need to make distinctions so that we can make changes--changes that keep us and those we love safer but respect our diverse heritages and traditions and experiences.

How can we have these conversations? What steps can we take to open ourselves up and have meaningful, productive dialogue with people whose views on guns are very different from our own?

I would discourage any answers that are only about how "they" have to change, how "they" are too unreasonable to talk to. What can "we" do to open up conversations in ways that inspire reasonableness and honesty and, hopefully, progress?

Correcting Unhelpful Gun Slogans

In light of recent tragic events in this country, I thought it might help to re-post some thoughts on how we talk about guns. Some common gun slogans gloss over important truths, making it harder for us to have thoughtful conversations. If we want to move forward as a country, part of what we need to do is set aside such unhelpful slogans in favor of thoughts that are more accurate and complete.

I don't pretend to know how to solve the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Even if, in theory, our country would be safer if far fewer people had guns and guns were much harder to acquire, the reality is that the guns are already out there in huge numbers. And the gun culture in the US pretty much ensures that any attempt to forcibly reduce the number of guns that are out there would be met with entrenched resistance--not just political resistance but other forms, in some cases armed resistance that could magnify bloodshed in this country rather than reduce it.

It seems to me that some policies make sense, even if they don't make a huge dent in the problem: closing the gun-show loophole, instituting mandatory training and licencing for gun owners, registering guns and keeping track of ownership in something like the way we do with cars.

But while I don't have a clear sense of how to solve the problem, I do know that certain slogans don't help us to think clearly and carefully as we collectively pursue a solution. So I've decided to correct a few of these problematic slogans. Here goes:

Slogan 1: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."

Correction: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people--but they frequently do it with guns, at least in the US, since guns are one of the most efficient tools for killing people and they are readily available. Since guns are tools specifically designed to kill things, they make it so much easier to quickly and efficiently (or accidentally, in the case of careless owners and toddlers) turn a living human being into a corpse."

Comment: The slogan above trivializes the killing power of guns. But the first step in responsible gun ownership is to respect the deadly potency of these weapons. Just as with cars, a gun in the wrong hands is a tragedy waiting to happen. It is recognition of this fact which inspires us, as a society, to train would-be drivers and test and license them before we let them operate a car unsupervised. Promulgating slogans that obscure how dangerous guns are is a bad idea if we want to come up with sound public policies and encourage private responsibility.

Slogan 2: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

Correction: "If guns are regulated such that everyone who purchases a gun (even at a gun show) is required to undergo background checks designed to block those we all agree shouldn't be entrusted with a gun, everyone will still have access to guns, but those who can't get them legitimately will have to rely on the black market and so will be guilty of a crime for which they can be arrested--meaning law enforcement will have a legal basis for taking action in cases where, had the guns been available for legal purchase, police hands would be tied until the guns were actually put to use in tragic ways."

Comment: Outlawing guns is not seriously proposed, nor is it politically feasible in the US. Arguably, it's also unconstitutional. More careful regulation of gun sales to keep guns out the hands of "outlaws" will, in a perfect world, mean that outlaws won't have access to guns but law-abiding citizens will. In our less-than-perfect world, "outlaws" might still get them from the black market. But if they do, they've committed a crime. And that magnifies the options that law enforcement has for preventive action.

Slogan 3: "The surest guard against tyranny is a well-armed citizenry."

Correction A: "The surest guard against tyranny is a military with a conscience."

Correction B: "The surest guard against tyranny is an informed and engaged citizenry with a conscience."

Comment: If the US government decides to impose tyrannical rule, armed citizens won't have much of a chance against the US military. Really. They'll get slaughtered. If the government decides to turn its formidable coercive power against its own citizens, our best hope is that our military, made up of our own young men and women, will say no.

But of course, tyrannical regimes tend to know that soldiers won't happily start shooting their own. They know that their power depends on the obedience of the soldiers who kill for them, and that these soldiers come from the very communities the tyrants want to control.

That's why tyrants are much more sneaky and incremental. They use ideological indoctrination and propaganda that plays on our fears and insecurities, selling their repressive system bit by bit as an essential means of promoting safety. They'll be especially interested in winning the allegiance of those who are most angry and most well-armed. They do this by pandering to these groups and carefully directing their fear and anger towards scapegoats who are blamed for everything that's wrong with the country. Pretty soon, the well-armed citizenry has been absorbed into the tyrant's forces and is kept busy herding Muslims into concentration camps (or something along those lines).

But if we live in a society that refuses to be sucked in by these us/them ideologies, a society whose citizens stand for human rights without discrimination and who keep themselves informed about current events and engaged in political life, then these indoctrination tactics are far less likely to work. Tyranny will be stripped of one of its most tried-and-true strategies for taking control.

In short, reasoned discussion about guns requires each of the following:
(a) Appreciation of and healthy respect for the lethal power of guns.
(b) Recognition that the choice is not between unrestricted access and a ban; the aim, instead, is to find a regulatory scheme that reflects the kind of balance between public safety and individual rights that is in play with automobiles.
(c) Setting aside naive fantasies that large-scale gun ownership is an effective safeguard against tyranny, and replacing it with the more realistic view that our best guard against tyranny is a citizenry committed to fairness and human rights and politically aware and engaged in our democratic processes.

(Originally posted Dec. 8, 2015 under the title "I Fixed It! Gun Slogan Edition")