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Dare to disarm

Envisioning a gun-free future for our species

Armed police officers wearing riot helmets stand ready on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Every time a mass shooting happens in the USA, our elected representatives offer the same predictable responses. Assuming the shooter was a white man, which is the usual case, Republicans call for “thoughts and prayers” and more awareness of mental health. Democrats call for “sensible gun control”. Nearly all emphasize their support of the Second Amendment, which granted US-Americans the right to bear arms.

Aside from questioning whether the drafters of the Second Amendment actually intended to create a right of individual gun ownership, I’m not interested in slavishly adhering to a Constitution and Bill of Rights that was written over two hundred years ago, by and for the benefit of straight white cisgender male landowners. But as long as Congress members are in the pocket of the NRA — an organization whose leader issued the infantile mantra “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun” — true reform is unlikely to occur.

Regardless, from my perspective as a pacifist, reforming gun laws is not enough. I don’t want guns “controlled”, I want them gone. All of them. Not just semi-automatic or “assault weapons” (an ambiguous term), but every single firearm that was designed for the express purpose of killing another human being.

I don’t want guns taken just from the hands of civilians, but from the police and military as well. As a queer black trans person I don’t trust the police, and detest violent imperialist acts by the USA (or any other country). While gun violence is a particularly acute problem in the USA, I do not support the moral right of gun ownership anywhere. I want a total end to gun manufacturing, and I want to see every firearm on Earth melted down and recycled into a useful tool. Swords to plowshares, people.

I speak of moral rather than legal rights because universal disarmament will not happen through legal means. We must come together as a species to agree to stop murdering each other. While people can and do kill without guns — even using their bare hands in some cases— guns are particularly efficient at this task. We have the intelligence to develop effective non-lethal means of restraint, for those who pose a true threat to the lives of others.

I recognize that most will see my views as hopelessly naïve or even dangerous, but this is how I truly feel. I’ll expand on my thoughts below.

Right to life

I begin with the premises that every person wants to live, and that every person has the inalienable moral right to that life.

I define “person” here as a human animal who is living outside of their parent’s womb. Some people argue from a “pro-life” perspective that life begins at conception, and consider abortion to be murder. I agree that life begins at conception, but I do not consider an embryo or fetus that is living inside its parent’s body to be a person. I also feel that the right to bodily autonomy of the gestational parent — who is usually, but not always, a woman (trans men and non-binary people can and do also get pregnant)— supersedes any rights of the potential person growing inside them.

As an ethical vegan, I personally also consider non-human animals to be people. I will discuss the implications of this consideration with regard to gun ownership (hunting in particular) later in this piece; for now I will focus on human animals.

The will to live is a fundamental survival mechanism of all animals, and humans are no exception to this. It is true, however, that some people are in so much pain — mental or physical — that they wish to end their own life, either by suicide or assisted means. A discussion of the ethics of suicide, including assisted suicide for the terminally ill, is beyond the scope of this post. I hope most reasonable people can agree that these cases are exceptional.

From crimes of passion to capital punishment, no individual or government should have the right to take another person’s life from them. Death is forever; a killer, even if they think their action is justified, removes all possibility of negotiation, rehabilitation, or restorative justice when they pull the trigger (or inject lethal chemicals, or launch a drone strike). The killer might be remorseful and seek forgiveness from God or their community, but the dead can never forgive.

Many claim to live by the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, but even in the Judeo-Christian Bible there are numerous exceptions for “justified” killing. As an atheist, I do not feel anyone should be beholden to the laws of any particular religion, and there is little to no agreement on interpretation of many sacred texts even among members of the same religious sect anyway. I cannot see prayer as a solution to gun violence when so many Christians in particular have historically oppressed marginalized people with lethal force.

Particularly under capitalism, marginalized people who resort to killing for self-defense or to secure food and other provisions should not be judged as harshly as those who kill for pleasure or for the purpose of enforcing repressive regimes. While I cannot condone deliberate killing under any circumstances, I recognize that as long as lethal weapons exist in such regimes, access to them will be unequal. Ultimately, all firearms and other purpose-built lethal machinery must be removed from the hands of the state as well as from individual citizens. How to dismantle the state without using such weapons is an open question.

Tools vs weapons

Firearms are not the only lethal weapons, of course. Mass murderers have used cars, knives, and even their bare hands to kill. Obviously we cannot cut off everyone’s hands, and knives and other potentially deadly tools have a host of practical uses.

I think most reasonable people can see that it is more efficient and quick to kill with a gun—even a six-chamber revolver— than with a knife, unless perhaps the killer is an expert at knife combat. But my main interest is emphasizing that guns, unlike knives, cars, and other tools, are designed for the specific purpose of killing another person. Yes, guns can be used intentionally to wound or maim rather than kill, but if used correctly and barring malfunction, a single gunshot can cause death very quickly; this is by design. Cars, in comparison, cause a lot of accidental deaths through impaired and distracted driving, but they are not designed to kill. (Though as a non-driver, I feel that if any other consumer product in the USA caused as many deaths as personal vehicles have, it would have been banned a long time ago.)

Some say that gun ownership serves as a deterrent to crime, and argue that arming even more “good guys” will protect us from the “bad guys”. I’ve heard the same “deterrent” argument used about nuclear weapons, and I don’t buy it there either; I don’t want any country, including the U.S. as well as North Korea, to have that kind of power.

But aside from the lack of evidence that more legal gun carrying makes a community safer, I do not believe in separating people into “good” and “bad”, and giving the ultimate judgment over life and death to one side of this imaginary line. Rather than referring to individuals as “good” ,“bad”, or “evil”, I believe that every person makes choices which result in causing more or less harm to others. Give people the resources that they need to live fulfilling, healthy lives, and they’ll be less likely to want access to tools designed specifically to threaten others with bodily harm and death.

Set phasers on stun

What about self-defense? What about defending those who are too young, old, weak, or disabled to defend themselves? Are we to just allow bullies to terrorize law-abiding citizens?

While I feel that oppression of the marginalized and the artificial separation of “us/good” from “them/evil” is at the root of much of the violence in society, there will undoubtedly always be some people who present an immediate danger to the lives of others. Mental illness is too often blamed at present — people with mental illnesses, which includes myself, are not more likely to commit violent crimes— but some people are determined to kill, and cannot be reasoned with. In such cases, incapacitating and restraining them for some period of time may be necessary.

I don’t believe weapons that fire deadly projectiles should be used for stopping dangerous people. Tasers aren’t a great solution either, as they have limited range and can cause serious injury and death. I’m neither an engineer nor a physician, but I believe humanity has the intelligence and technological potential to design something better if we devote enough resources to it.

I’ve read and watched a lot of science fiction, which I see not as pure fantasy (though I enjoy that genre as well), but as an exploration of the possible. Everyone who has watched any iteration of Star Trek is familiar with phasers that can be set on stun and used effectively at long range without causing permanent damage to the target. Recently I’ve also watched a few seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where “icers” have similar functionality.

As with today’s lethal weapons, it won’t do to have these instruments only in the hands of the state, where they could be used to oppress and maintain class hierarchy. Safety training would still be necessary as well. Workable alternatives to the prison-industrial complex for violent offenders also need to be explored.

Of gods and evolution

Despite being an atheist, I understand the human impulse to reach out to a higher power in times of need. I just cannot relate to the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient being who created the universe and has a personal interest in the affairs of humans. I rejected that worldview over thirty years ago, when I decided that God was created by man, and not the other way around.

However, I hold out hope that there are more intelligent, more powerful beings somewhere out there in the cosmos. Perhaps some are even living among us now, invisible to our senses and technology. I would find it truly depressing if homo sapiens represented the most accomplished species that has evolved in the universe to date. I’m entirely open to the possibility of other beings who are so powerful that some humans would worship them as gods.

Of all of the episodes of the original Star Trek series, one that stuck with me the most was Errand of Mercy. This was not because it was the episode that introduced the Klingons to the franchise, but because of another species: the Organians. Disguised as humanoid elders who were adamantly opposed to violence, they revealed themselves at the end of the episode to be highly advanced beings of pure energy. The Organians disabled the weapons of both the Federation and the Klingon Empire, forcing an unwanted peace treaty.

Of course, this morsel of Gene Roddenberryesque idealism was isolated; fighting and killing continued throughout the television series, and the Organians showed little regard for human life in a prequel episode (though that episode was from Enterprise, the weakest of the Star Trek series). Still, I sometimes can’t help but think that intervention from an outside source is the only thing that will stop humans from being such a murderous species.

We humans are a deeply flawed species, and if we cannot evolve to cooperate peacefully with each other and the rest of the organisms we share the Earth with, we truly deserve to go extinct.

Animals are people, too

Many of those organisms we share the Earth with are animals who share an important quality with us: They are sentient. By sentience I do not mean intelligence, but self-awareness; they experience pain and fear and a desire to live and thrive, like we do. While some express doubt about whether certain animals such as mollusks and insects are actually sentient, the vast majority of the animals we commonly hunt and breed for food, clothing, and other products — including fishes; fishing is basically hunting underwater — are indeed self-aware.

Whenever gun control is discussed, inevitably most will defend the right of people to own hunting rifles, both for self-protection and for food. While I do not condone killing animals under any avoidable circumstances, I have far less of a problem with true subsistence hunting by indigenous people than I have with the buying and selling of the bodies and secretions of so-called “free-range” animals; humane animal farming is a myth.

Regardless, the vast majority of people I see arguing for hunter’s gun rights are not themselves dependent on hunting for survival. I cannot defend hunting for recreation under any circumstances; the fact that some consider killing animals with guns to be a “sport” makes me sick. Even many people who eat animal flesh bought from stores and restaurants are against this kind of hunting; they really ought to examine why they are OK with one kind of killing and not the other, if they don’t actually need to eat animal flesh to survive.

As for self-defense, the same rifle that can be used to bring down a charging bear in the wilderness can be used to kill a human being. If necessary to save a human life, tranquilizer darts should be used instead, and as with human subjects, other non-lethal options should be developed.

Finally, humans should stop taking over the territory of other animals. We occupy far too much of the Earth already. We do not own this planet, we are merely one of many millions of species that inhabit it. It’s time for us to stop spreading like a cancer before we destroy not only ourselves, but all of the remaining flora and fauna along with us.

I don’t have the answers to how to end murders in general and gun violence in particular, and I’m wary of those who claim they do. I just know I want the killings to end.