A LOT OF CONDENSED THOUGHTS ABOUT TALKING POINTS IN THE GUN CONTROL DEBATE IN AMERICA (OCT, 2015)
(EDIT: This was written after the UCC shooting in October 2015, but simply replace any mention “UCC” with “Orlando” and, well, you get the point.)
Every single time a tragic mass shooting occurs in America, our populace churns through the same familiar cycle of responses: panic and confusion, grief, obsession with the killer, and then either a vociferous call to action for preventative legislation, or a vociferous condemnation of anyone daring to ‘politicize’ the tragedy. The shooting at UCC followed this pattern with the usual depressing loyalty as the many before it. The killer upheld the archetypal profile: white male, early 20s, socially isolated, deeply involved with an Internet community that validated his slow-boiling anger (in this case against religion, but it can be anything, really), and access to some type of firearm.
My usual response is to bemoan the tragedy, read a bunch of articles about it for probably two to three days after the incident, and scroll past everyone on Facebook posting their two cents about it. And then it goes away and the country kind of collectively forgets about it. But since I have a rotten feeling in my gut that we’re probably not even two months away from the next iteration of this cycle, I wanted to fully flesh out all of my thoughts on the issue of gun violence in America and explore in-depth all of the major talking points and argumentative ammo that both sides on the debate deploy after every mass shooting. It will probably be long, but I wanted to have a single place that has my thoughts on the whole issue collected and streamlined so I could direct someone to it instead of hashing out the same nonproductive arguments over and over again.
So here we go. This is going to be EXTREMELY LONG.
PART 1: MY CORE INSTINCT ON THE ISSUE
I’m going to get all of my opinions and biases out of the way now so there’s a context supporting everything I’ll go into here. I’m not going to use facts just yet — this is the place where I open up my raw emotional reaction to tragedies like this and my gut instinct towards what causes it and what should be done about it.
I don’t like guns. The few times I’ve held real guns, it felt like stepping into a corner of reality I didn’t want to allow myself into. Holding in my palms 3lbs of potential death and violence really rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve never shot a gun, though I hear it’s a pretty intense thrill, even from friends of mine who are generally anti-gun. I don’t doubt it whatsoever — I’m sure there’s a reason our country is so infatuated with them, and the thrill of shooting a bullet is probably one of them. That’s why shooting ranges are endearingly popular, as they’re the safest way to experience that thrill. I’ve got nothing against shooting ranges, and I’d like to go to one sometime. But in general, the idea of mass gun ownership leaves me a bit queasy.
I’d also like to carve out a small paragraph and say that my views on gun ownership and correlating gun violence doesn’t extend to hunters. I’m similarly uncomfortable with hunting as a practice and lifestyle, but it’s wholly separate from the issues I’m talking about here, and I’m not advocating for diminishing anyone’s right to hunt. Any pro- or anti-gun arguments that rest on elements specific to hunting or being purposely omitted here.
I saw a man once at a Barnes and Noble who had a handgun secured in its holster on his belt and I immediately left. I’m sure that guy was a totally level-headed individual who owned guns safely, but in that moment, I don’t know that for sure. I don’t know if that guy is one of the deranged shooters that have become all too common in our society, so I’m not going to take the risk of staying around in case he is. For my safety, I’m getting the fuck out of there. And that’s basically a synecdoche for my perception of gun ownership in general, the wariness and fear of realizing that there are millions of private citizens who walk around with those 3 lbs of potential massacre on their hip. It makes me feel profoundly less safe, because I will never know who ends up being that motherfucker who snaps and starts firing.
That’s why I don’t really like guns. That’s just me, and that’s just my starting out position.
PART TWO: THE RIGHTEOUS SHOOTER DEFENSE
People on the other side of the debate perceive gun ownership a lot differently than me — to them, the idea of mass private ownership of guns makes the country safer because these guns are in the hands of noble, law-abiding citizens who will use them to take out that motherfucker who snaps and starts firing before more damage can be caused. Intuitively, there’s some basic logical truth to that. In a hypothetical scenario, let’s say in a public library, if patriot Frank is reading Ayn Rand with a .35 strapped to his hip when a teenager starts firing bullets, he can jump into action and shoot the teen before he has the potential to kill more people (or anyone, if acted upon quickly enough). Since Frank was armed, he was able to nullify the 3 lbs of potential massacre that the other person was bringing into that library. He saved the lives of who knows how many people had he not been there, or had he not been armed.
(Note: The Righteous Shooter is different from a purely self-defense based argument in favor of gun ownership, which I explore later in the piece)
This is an example that many people in this country cling to when blasting gun control proposals and defending their 2nd amendment rights. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. Or, on a more pragmatic level, more good guys with guns = less people dead by the hands of bad guys with guns. I call it “The Righteous Shooter” defense. And in the moment of debate, it’s a hard example to counter, because in that exact hypothetical instance, their argument is correct. Patriot Frank takes out Deranged Teen and is celebrated as a national hero for helping minimize a potentially far worse massacre.
The problem I have with this line of thinking is twofold: one, if so many Americans own guns (and a lot of them do — there’s the same amount of guns as people in this country), why have none of these disasters actually been prevented by a responsible gun-owning citizen? Maybe I’m being disingenuous. There was the case of an Uber driver who shot a man down after he started firing indiscriminately on the street, so that’s certainly a tally mark on the side of protecting concealed carry laws. Or this case, where a jewelry store owner managed to get a hold of his shotgun and shoot away three armed robbers. The largest collection of such examples I’ve been able to find is courtesy of gunwatch.blogspot.com, though many of them feature caveats that in my view undermine the simplicity of the hypothetical.
In many of these cases, the savior gunman was an off-duty police officer, someone I, as a base emotional instinct, trust more with a firearm than Randy From Down The Block. In fact, a large number of these Righteous Shooters were off duty cops or security guards, ie, people with trained firearm experience (though, depressingly, this training often amounts to just 14 hours of handling education — less than three full days of middle school). The argument could be made that by enacting gun control legislation, the number of trained professionals who own guns would decrease: why would you take the guns from the ex-marine? I don’t buy into this line of reasoning because under any potential gun control legislation that’s actually possible in this country, clear-headed individuals with prior weapons training will still be able to purchase the firearms of their choice. Their right to bear arms isn’t really being threatened by anything anyone is proposing.
There’s also the point brought up that, in order to legally obtain a firearm, you have to pass certain training and safety exercises, so if you privately own a firearm, you’re trained to use it in situations in which you need it. It sounds nice on paper, but this line of reasoning has little basis in reality. Some states don’t even require a license to purchase and carry, and even amongst the ones that do, many don’t require any formal safety training, and even amongst the ones that do, you can finish them in a 30-minute online test. That is nowhere near enough safety training for me to believe any random gun-owning citizen will be able to leap into action and do the right thing when the time strikes, and nowhere enough for me to feel comfortable when I see a random guy at Barnes and Noble with a gun on his hip.
So, in addition to the Righteous Shooter being wholly unprepared for dealing with such a volatile situation, the Malicious Shooter often, in many of these cases, ends up killing and injuring many people before they were brought down by the Righteous Shooter. So the idea that private gun ownership in the hands of citizens prevents these tragedies seems disingenuous to me: there’s simply not enough cases to back up the hypothetical, and many of the cases present have other determinate factors that complicate the situation. Sometimes the Righteous Shooter takes down the Malicious Shooter, but only after the MS was out of ammunition, or after the massacre has ended (ie situations in which no action would have resulted in the same manner).
And for seemingly every case of a Righteous Shooter taking down the Malicious Shooter and preventing carnage from being spread, there’s a case in which the Righteous Shooter fucks up somehow, because as it turns out, people who don’t know how to expertly handle a deadly firearm in high-pressure situations don’t always impart their desired heroism. There’s cases where Righteous Shooters end up injuring or even killing innocent people while in pursuit of the Malicious Shooter, cases where the Righteous Shooter decides not to take action out of fear that the police will mistake them for the Malicious Shooter (we saw this this week with on the UCC campus), cases where the Malicious Shooter gets the upperhand and subdues/kills the Righteous Shooter, and, amazingly, cases where the Righteous Shooter shoots themselves.
Meanwhile in America, we’ve had a rate of over 1 mass shooting every single day in 2015 alone. No Righteous Shooters stopped any of those. This is after 2014, which saw 337 undeterred mass shootings. Which is after 2013, which saw 363. I don’t buy the argument that more guns will make America safer and lead to fewer of these shootings, because the evidence simply doesn’t back it up.
[will provide examples later]
Bite-sized version: The Righteous Shooter defense is disingenuous and logically errant because the evidence is flimsy at best when it comes to the efficacy of gun owners preventing violent crimes and massacres.
So that’s the first of my two chief complaints with The Righteous Shooter defense. The second is that I take issue with the prerequisite reasoning necessary to promote such this stance. The basic belief boils down to “more guns make us safer”, and The Righteous Shooter defense is just a logical progression from this prerequisite state of mind. But since The Righteous Shooter defense ultimately doesn’t hold much water, we’ve got to examine the other side of the coin. By advocating for diminished gun regulations so that it’s easy for the maximum amount of people to obtain firearms legally, the raw statistical probability of someone dying from a bullet wound skyrockets. And it skyrockets far past any perfect-world scenario The Righteous Shooter defense could possibly lay claim to. And — this is my basic argument here — it skyrockets past anyone’s individual right to purchase a gun easily. That last part is what sends the pro-gun advocates (forgive me) up in arms: the notion that gun deaths could (read: have) hit a number that justifies placing some limits on peoples’ 2nd Amendment rights. To fully explore what I’m talking about, let’s delve into…
PART THREE: THE ENTROPY ARGUMENT
To quickly restate my thesis here, what I’ve gathered about the issue of gun violence in America is that widespread ownership and disturbingly easy purchase processes directly increases the odds of someone being killed by someone else with a gun. I call this “The Entropy Argument” because the fundamental mechanism at work with America’s frightening levels of gun violence is entropy, ie, the amount of disorder in a given system. Entropy is basically a cooler word for randomness or chaos, and it naturally emerges in every system everywhere in every single measurement. Why? Because entropy requires the least amount of energy in which a system can organize itself. It takes a profound amount of energy to uphold order and patterns in a system. The easiest example — the one I was taught in middle school — is that as time goes on, your room gets messier and dirtier. You’ll leave clothes on the floor because it requires less energy than putting them in the hamper, you’ll leave crap on your desk because it’s easier than sorting them out, etc. The system only regains order when external energy, ie, you deciding to take the time to clean it, is applied. With no other action taken, entropy reigns supreme.
The same holds for mass gun ownership. The more guns there are in the country, the more likely disorder is going to impart itself on their use, and the more energy it takes to hammer out such disorder. This is not a problem unique to guns whatsoever; it’s a universal constant. The larger a system becomes, the easier it is for entropy to take hold because an even greater amount of energy is required to keep chaos at bay. In America, we’ve compounded entropy when it comes to gun ownership: not only are there more guns here than ever before, the laws regulating their sale and use have crumbled. The system is growing larger and we’re dedicating less energy to maintaining order. In this specific instance, for concrete clarity, order = lawful, safe gun ownership, and energy = gun control measures.
What The Entropy Argument does is that it offers a clean rebuttal to a pro-gun talking point that I’ve heard thousands of times by this point: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Again, on a purely literal and materialistic level, yes, guns don’t kill people, because guns don’t have independent agency. This is obvious, and anyone arguing for more gun control clearly doesn’t believe that guns themselves get up on their own two feet and decide to kill someone. So yes, obviously some person needs to be pulling the trigger in order for someone to die: people kill people. I’d like to offer an amended statement that clears up any misconceptions one might have if they subscribe to the “guns don’t kill people” line of reasoning. Here it goes: guns don’t kill people, but, the mass proliferation of gun ownership and ease of purchase statistically increases the amount of people who kill people. It’s not as catchy, but it’s the truth.
So how many guns do we have in America? I’ll let some charts do the talking, because the impact of this data visualization tells the story far better than I can with mere lousy words (full disclosure, nearly all of these charts are ripped from this Vox article purely because they were all in one place and are nicely designed; if you object to Vox as a legitimate news source, check the references they cite on each chart, because their numbers are correct):
The correlation is obvious in the data. The more prevalent guns are, the more there is likely to be disorder in the system, and are thus accompanied by an equivalent spike in gun deaths. These are raw, brute numbers. Places with more gun ownership don’t see decreased rates of homicide or violent crime. It just isn’t true. Also, as a brief tangent, I’ve read in some Facebook comments from highly conservative pages that most, if not all, of the incidents of mass gun violence happen in “liberal places”. I don’t know where they are getting their information from, other than saying “Hey! Oregon is a liberal state, and they had a mass shooter! It’s their problem, not ours!” because the data flatly refutes that claim. Wyoming, Alabama, and Montana have the highest per-capita rates of gun deaths in the country. I don’t particularly care about this point, and I’m not making the claim that it’s a problem only in conservative places, I just wanted to clear up that misconception that more than a few on the right seem to have. Tangent over.
But maybe I’m ignoring the good too much here — sure, it’s evident that with more guns comes more deaths, but what about all of the crime and harassment that citizens with guns deter? The American Gun Facts website (http://americangunfacts.com/) offers some statistics in favor of guns being used in safe, defensive, crime-preventative way. It says that guns are used for self-defense 80 times more than for homicide, so even if the number of deaths rises, surely the number of self-defense instances must rise as well, right? Unfortunately for both sides, capturing accurate data on instances of firearm-provided self-defense is notoriously tricky and a lot more difficult than gathering information on gun homicides. And nearly all of the sources AGF uses are from the mid-90s or earlier, so this flawed-at-best data is 20 years removed from our current cultural climate.
This isn’t to say that guns aren’t used in self-defense situations successfully, but since a) the number of them, and b) the efficacy of them (ie if using the gun was the necessary/decisive factor in ending/preventing the situation) are more or less unknown, we’ll have to take them with a grain of salt. http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-simple-truth-about-gun-control
There is one statistic we do know for a fact though: with more guns comes more gun deaths. I repeat it again because it is a brute fact. All else pending, with more guns comes more gun deaths.
And then the data gets scary. Because until now, every instance and statistic featuring gun deaths has referred exclusively to deaths caused by homicide. What about gun suicides? Let’s let the data speak for itself:
The suicide-by-gun rate is double the homicide-gun rate in America. For all the talk about mass shootings and violent crime, guns that are used to end someone’s life are used in suicide two-thirds of the time. So when we talk about lowering gun violence — which I think we agree everyone is in favor of, whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control — we can reframe the issue around what changes will most effectively decrease gun suicides, as this is both 1) the majority of gun deaths, and 2) more easily controllable. All other arguments in favor of gun control aside, let’s focus solely on the suicide element.
Suicide is often a hair-trigger decision made by people in an irrational state of mind at a point of desperation. Indeed, most successful suicides tend to be, for lack of a better word, spontaneous. Too many wrong things in a day can prove to be the final straw for someone operating in a deeply guilty and exasperated pit devoid of any self-worth or redemption. People who feel hopelessly suicidal on Monday may not feel that whatsoever on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s flexible. However, this “final straw” breaking point tends to go away the longer one lives through the feeling; the more you think through committing suicide and give weight to its very real consequences and — more critically — its barrier to entry, the more likely you won’t end up carrying through with it. Traditional methods of suicide are all very painful or fear-inducing: hanging yourself is hard to arrange properly and agonizing. Jumping off of a giant bridge requires the commitment and fortitude to actually drive all the way out to the bridge, stop the car, get out, look down, and still continue to physically jump off. Purposely veering off into traffic forces you to fight through the guilt of recklessly harming innocent people.
But if you had a handgun?
Well that’s suddenly that hair-trigger decision becomes a lot easier to actually follow through with. I don’t have to leave the apartment. No one else will be getting hurt. I won’t feel a thing. I just have to pull a trigger once.
It’s far easier for people in depression’s womb to successfully enforce the act of ending their own lives when a handgun is easily accessible. To be clear, these guns don’t cause more suicides. Owning a gun doesn’t make someone depressed enough to use it on themselves. But they do facilitate suicide at a scale no other method can compare.
Suicides-by-firearm have a success rate of over 96%. The other methods barely reached over 5. Suicides-by-firearm account for over half of all suicides in America by year. EVEN IF gun control legislation fails to prevent any future mass shootings or gang violence, it is nearly impossible to argue that it wouldn’t have a profound effect on those who would commit suicide if given the opportunity to easily do it. This line of logic is about as black and white as the issue gets for me: the less guns are available, the less they will be an option for suicidal people to utilize, and the less deaths will be the result. Remember, suicide is often not a methodical, deliberate choice. Just because someone doesn’t have access to a gun doesn’t necessarily mean they will go out and seek other methods.
A talking point on behalf of anti-gun controllers is that “a person who is going to kill themselves is going to kill themselves no matter what; if not a gun, it will be something else.” This is simply not the case. A simple night’s rest can quell those urges. A single phone call can quell those urges — that’s what the suicide hotline is for. And even if they do press on in search of killing themselves, the data tells us the success rate of the other methods is miniscule compared with suicide-by-firearm. Far less people will commit suicide if there’s no readily available handgun to make the decision that much easier for them. And this translates into a black-and-white fact: less people will die. By a not insignificant margin. And I’d hope that’s something everyone can agree would be a good thing, right? Anyone honestly advocating for more death because “if they’re so depressed they’re useless anyway” or “we have an overpopulation problem” (I’ve seen these arguments spouted on Facebook comment chains a plenty) isn’t taking the issue seriously like an adult. And I’m sorry if you are an adult reading this who adheres to that line of logic because, in my view, it’s quite heartless and devoid of the basic empathy our country was founded on. After all, All Lives Matter, right?
Bite-sized version: The Entropy Argument is that, as guns become easier to own on a mass scale without supplementary checks and balances, it becomes far more likely for someone to use it in a violent and/or deadly manner, whether it be homicide or suicide.
PART FOUR: THE NECESSARY DANGER TO UPHOLD FREEDOM ARGUMENT
An oft-repeated sister argument to the “someone suicidal will kill themselves anyway” defense is “well, people hang themselves with rope, and we’re not about to go ban ropes!” Another variation is “car accidents kill more people than guns, are we really about to ban cars?”
I really, really detest the logic in these arguments, and it took seeing one of my cousins use it in a Facebook thread to compel me to start writing this behemoth in the first place. The amount of fallacious interpretations packed into a single sentence makes my head spin. It crushes a complex and context-dependent issue into such a simplistic comparison that I’m continually amazed to see rational, full-grown adults honestly employing it as a defense of their beliefs. I’m going to very carefully deconstruct this argument so that if you ever see or hear anyone using it in favor of doing nothing/relaxing gun control laws, you can point them to this page. Okay, here we go. The basic logical construction of this argument is as follows:
- Guns are sometimes involved in deadly situations.
- Deadly situations are bad.
- We want to prevent as many deadly situations as we can.
- Therefore, we should get rid of guns.
- Cars are also sometimes involved in deadly situations.
- Deadly situations are bad.
- We want to prevent as many deadly situations as we can.
- Since we’ve put controls on other facilitators of deadly situations, we should continue to put controls on as many facilitators of deadly situations as we can.
- Therefore, we should get rid of cars.
That’s the basic formal structure. And again, on paper, in a logical vacuum, the arguments are cogent. Cars are very deadly, more so than guns. Wouldn’t banning cars prevent more deaths? Yeah, it probably would. However, there are a host of reasons why directly comparing the violent potential of guns and the violent potential of cars is a not cogent and dishonest starting place for the rest of the logic. Here we go:
1. Guns are manufactured for the sole purposes of seriously injuring someone, killing someone, or threatening someone with either of the prior two purposes.
2. As the data shows, in places with more guns, there are more gun-related deaths.
3. As a society, we want to limit deaths caused by this reason.
4. Therefore, when something used only for violence or the threat thereof is available very easily on a wide scale, we should make sure there are protections in place* to minimize the amount of times it’s actually used for its inherent purpose.**
5. Cars are not manufactured for the sole purposes of seriously injuring someone, killing someone, or threatening someone with either of the prior two purposes. They are manufactured and used for personal and business transportation, and our entire modern economy largely depends on their widespread adoption.
6. The data does not show that in places with more cars, there are more car-related deaths. In fact, there are more vehicles than ever in the United States, and the rate of accident-caused deaths is the lowest since it’s been in 1919, when far less cars were on the road.***
7. As a society, we still want to limit deaths caused by car accidents.
8. Therefore, we should make sure there are protections in place to minimize the amount of times cars are used in deadly incidents.
(Sorry for the footnotes)
* There are many people who argue that gun control legislation isn’t effective in quelling gun violence, so these protections shouldn’t be used in a cogent argument. I will address these claims later on.
** Many will also say the main purpose of a gun is for hunting (again, not relevant here) or self-defense. But self-defense literally means harming the other guy before they can harm you, or using the threat of harm to do so.
Also, while it’s true that cars are dangerous and accidents do happen, they are on a precipitous decline, and the amount of car-related deaths car-related deaths is actually less than the amount of gun related homicides and suicides put together.
Notice the difference between “Therefore, we should place protections on this deadly thing to quell the amount of deaths it facilitates” and “Therefore, we should ban the deadly thing”. Nobody engaged in legitimate policy discussions is advocating for the total ban of all private gun ownership and a complete nullification of the 2nd Amendment. So the jump to compare gun control to outright banning cars is clearly fallacious, not to mention flat-out ridiculous. The same applies for anything widely and freely available to people that has the potential to facilitate harm (cigarettes, alcohol, lighters, knives, pots and pans, literally anything that could possibly used in a violent manner) but in which direct violence or the threat thereof is not the foundational purpose for its use. As a society, we agree that the overwhelming utility of vehicles in America is a greater good than car accidents are harm; at the same time, we recognize auto accidents are a problem so we work on other ways to diminish their likelihood with means other than boycotting them, like airbags, seatbelts, and pretty soon, self-driving vehicles.
Similarly in America, we recognize that the right to bear arms is a greater good than gun-related homicides and suicides are harm. Some anti-gun advocates argue that the right to bear arms doesn’t overrule the damage they cause, but they’re certainly not in the majority or anywhere near close to influencing policy decisions in federal or state legislatures. But since we recognize that gun violence is a problem, we should work on other ways to diminish their likelihood with means other than boycotting them. Unfortunately, these methods tend to include stricter background checks, higher mandatory safety training, longer waiting periods, and limits on the amount of guns a single person can own, and to many gun owners, this equates to removing their rights as gun owners.
Which brings us to…
PART FIVE: THE VIOLATION OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS ARGUMENT
This is the loudest calling card that pro-gun advocates use in their defense: that the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms is a fundamental building block of America, and any attempt to place limits on this right is tantamount to a forceful intrusion by the government for the explicit purpose to deny this right. Much of the debate is framed this way: “President Obama wants to take away our rights”, “so just because a few deranged people misused their guns, you want to take away all of our rights?” and so on.
So does gun control amount to an unconstitutional limitation on America’s second-most favorite right? This is a meaty question with a lot of specifics we’re gonna have to examine if we want to get anywhere close to a potential consensus point. So let’s start at ground zero: The 2nd Amendment. The wording in the Constitution is fairly sparse, which allows for the semantic wiggle room necessary to nurse a wide variety of interpretations. Here’s the full text:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
That’s it, a single sentence. But there’s a lot of necessary assumptions the amendment makes, fully rooted in the cultural and political climate of the late 1790s. The first is that a militia (helpfully undefined) is necessary to the security of a free state. Militias can take many forms, whether it be citizen-led organizations of firearm owners, full-fledged local military forces, or the all-American army of one, gun at the hip. Since the wording here gives no further boundaries, we have to take all forms of them into consideration, since the deliberate lack of specificity was written to ensure flexibility over time (as was much of the Constitution in general). But those two preceding words are the key here: well-regulated. What does that mean? Well, that was deliberately left to individual interpretation by the courts, where the definitions reside today, malleable and frequently challenged.
Unmistakably though, these militias, in whatever form present, are required to be regulated. This is common sense, otherwise people would jump at the chance to manufacture and privately own military-grade weaponry, which is begging for disaster. Nobody is against regulations in firearm ownership in this way: obviously, it cannot be an absolute free-for-all. The problem then rests in the word well. Many people view the current limitations on gun access as perfectly acceptable, and that any more regulations and restrictions would be going overboard. And then at that point, they wouldn’t be well-regulated, they would be over-regulated. A sizable portion of the populace sits on the other side of the fence, believing that our system is not yet well-regulated because it’s too lax and permissive (it’s not terribly hard to deduce which view I adhere to).
The second clause is the “main” part of the amendment, defining keeping and bearing arms as a right that shall not be infringed. But remember, this right shall not be infringed in order for the well-regulated militia to keep the country secure. The right to bear arms isn’t just ’cause, hey, more freedom, it’s specifically in service of upholding a well-regulated militia to provide security. And this is the point where I think it’s necessary for modern discourse to take a hard break from Constitutional literalism and play catch-up with the significant differences separating our America from the America in 1791. Note: I am not advocating for removing the 2nd Amendment, and I’m not saying it’s a stupid amendment that should never have happened. What I’m saying is that the reasons for its existence in 1791 absolutely cannot be used to provide support for gun regulations in 2015.
In 1791, governments didn’t operate with autonomous armies acting like a thick protective layer around ordinary citizens like they do today; wars were fought with the armed populace volunteering as local militias in concert with national armies. During the Civil War, the Union army tallied about 16,000 soldiers. In a population of 32 million, this number would equate to an active force today of 160,000 soldiers. We actually have just under half a million soldiers today. During the Civil War, there weren’t even 2,000 Marines. Instead of having 20,000 today, we have 200,000. The military is quite literally orders of magnitude larger as it was a century after the 2nd Amendment was written, and I haven’t even touched the ridiculous advances in technology, equipment, strategy, and efficacy since then either. The point of all of this is just to show that the America we live in no longer depends on well-regulated militias to provide the safety and security of the state. We boast about having the biggest, baddest military of all time for reason: we fucking do. They’ve got security covered.
One of the most-enduring rationales in support of the well-armed citizenry/militia is the sister-argument to providing defense of the country: we need firearms to defend ourselves if the government turns on us! If the U.S. government takes a hard left turn towards totalitarianism, the populace will be able to rise with their guns and retake their country! Right. Did I mention the U.S. military currently controls over 7,000 active nuclear warheads? Disregarding every other massive leap forward in military technology, this fact alone should quell anyone who truly believes a nation of untrained citizens with handguns and rifles could fight back and win against the military. The NSA has so much information collected about us that it wouldn’t be too difficult for the government, should it ever suddenly become a hard-line dictatorship or something, to locate leaders of a citizen revolt movement and squash them like a bug.
Our military is so ridiculously expansive and advanced because we spend more on it than the next 13-runner up countries put together. It would take 13 other countries acting in perfect alliance just to match our level of military might. A nation of normal people with guns isn’t going to come anywhere close. Defense against an encroaching government is a nice ideal, but it’s just that; it can’t be used in any cogent discourse about gun ownership. And this is even if the U.S. government arbitrarily decides to turn against its own people, which is such a gigantic “if” that I’m surprised I spent such a long paragraph exploring it. It’s not going to happen.
So the first clause of the 2nd Amendment, in 2015’s America, is largely irrelevant to the topic of the right to own firearms. Which means it basically boils down to, we have the right to own guns because we have the right to own guns. It’s just a right we have, and we’ve had it for a very long time. It’s in our cultural blood, so deep a part of our DNA that nobody is seriously pushing to overturn the 2nd Amendment. At this point, it becomes an issue of what level of restriction does it take to downgrade a right to a privilege? This is an incredibly difficult question, one I can’t hope to answer with any sort of acuity in this already way-too-long spiel. All I can offer is my own personal logical inductions based on the best available information at our disposal.
Right now, the right to own a firearm is unquestionably a right. It’s fantastically easy to purchase a firearm in America, and current gun control measures, in my view, have been modest at best. Our system of background checks, which is not federally mandated, is based on a quick search of your basic information from three crime databases: the National Crime Information Center, the Interstate Identification Index, and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. According to FBI officials, these searches take mere minutes, and if you don’t pop up on any of these immediately, you’re in the clear.
And that’s just for states that require background checks. Background checks don’t, for instance, cover any sort of investigation into violent behavior or tendencies that did not result in an arrest or criminal conviction. Their system of checks on substance abuse and mental illness is a single sheet of paper full of Yes/No questions. The only mental health stipulations that end up preventing someone from purchasing a gun are a) if a court determined you to be of danger to yourself or others, which would show up in the NCIS check anyway, or b) if you’ve been previously committed to a mental institution. If you suffer from bouts of severe depression and unpredictable bipolarity, but have never committed a crime, you can get a gun within three days. And if you’re prone to suicidal thoughts or tendencies, the pathway for you to acquire the most-effective suicide device is all but laid out for you. For people like this, there is no check. There’s no accountability for someone with undiagnosed anger issues whose previous outbursts may have been in private or unreported. And these are the types of people who end up being plastered on CNN for 19 hours a day after they snap and gun down 9 people in a church. They all passed our system designed to only license guns to responsible users.
In my view, strengthening these background checks would not result in the denial of fundamental rights to Americans who want to own a gun. For the vast majority of people with no criminal record or any potential red flags when it comes to impulsive behavior or anger issues, nothing changes. Their right is still intact. These are the people whom the right to bear arms is designated; the right to bear arms is not designated for people who, to the best that comprehensive collection of evidence would suggest, would misuse the firearm in a harmful way. At the same time, we also can’t assume that because someone fits the profile of a previous firearm abuser (let’s say the prospective applicant has bipolar disorder and attention issues), that they will become a firearm abuser, because that would be denying someone’s right based on what the government thinks you’re going to do. That’s some 1984 shit and nobody should advocate for that; what should be advocated for is stronger checks to ensure that beyond a shadow of doubt, this person has a high likelihood of using the gun to danger others or themselves. In my view, that safety precaution overrides the right of a clearly at-risk buyer to own a firearm.
Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar brings up a fascinating point in his article “Second Thoughts”, a point of which I was previously unaware until I started digging around. His conclusion about the very deliberate wording of the 2nd Amendment is quite revealing of the intentions of the Founders. Amar raises the point that across all semantics in the Constitution, the word “people” is used to refer to the public as a collective whole, and the word “persons” is used to denote individual citizens. Persons have the right to free speech, but the people have the right to keep and bear arms. The effect of this intentional word choice, Amar argues, suggests that the amendment’s authors perceived of a public militia largely in the way we view our current Army: a well-trained volunteer service used to defend the sovereignty of the state. Because in 1791, standing armies in peacetime were viewed with suspicion and fear; the idea was that if only the government’s army owned the guns, totalitarianism would be inevitable. But as we see now, the equation has flipped: America is deeply proud of its military might, and indeed, volunteering for service is seen as an honorable sacrifice.
By giving the right to keep and bear arms to the people, the authors assign firearm ownership to a collective body of citizens to defend themselves as a collective. In its original language, the amendment does not assign the right to keep and bear arms to individual persons. Our current system is a misreading of this, and due to its stronghold on American culture, is unlikely to ever go away. But what this does mean is that gun control measures, even highly restrictive ones, don’t violate the 2nd Amendment because preventing any individual person from owning a gun does not contradict the right of the people to defend themselves. I thought this article was absolutely enlightening, and it concisely provides swaths of historical context and support to the general idea that the intent of the 2nd Amendment differs greatly from our current interpretation.
Okay, that section was definitely too long and needs some major edits, but I owe it to myself to lay out as best I can in easy-to-understand language all of the arguments being used on both sides of the debate.
PART SIX: CRIMINALS GET GUNS ANYWAYS, RIGHT?
Here’s another line of logic I hear passed around all the time when it comes to discourse on guns in America: gun control will only limit responsible people from owning guns, since criminals will obtain guns illegally anyway. If proud, law-abiding citizens have diminished access to guns while criminals still traffic in illegal weaponry, more death and crime is sure to follow as a result, since the proud, law-abiding citizen can no longer defend themselves. This argument presupposes the cogency of The Righteous Shooter defense, so I can’t accept its basic premise. We know that guns in the hands of private citizens are overwhelmingly used to inflict violence, not for self-defense against a criminal with a gun. These Righteous Shooter cases are extremely rare when compared with the volume of incidents a private gun was used against a non-criminal or innocent person. So again, the idea that the populace would be less safe with reduced access to firearms because criminals would have a field day is not supported in evidence. Sure, armed criminals have mugged people at gunpoint and robbed banks, but these cases are in the definitive minority of the total uses for private guns in America.
The Criminals Get Guns Anyways defense also presupposes something that gun control is directly designed to prevent: that a clear-headed and safe individual won’t be able to buy a gun anymore. That is not what gun control measures do. The point of gun control measures is to make it harder or impossible for people who, beyond a shadow of doubt, are highly likely to misuse the gun to harm others. Sometimes I get the impression that gun advocates think “gun control” just means “shut down every gun store in America and send federal agents to seize the guns you’ve already purchased legally.” There’s an assumption of a definitive totality of anti-gun measures when it comes to the connotation gun control is burdened with. The reality is far, far less restrictive than the greatest fear of gun advocates. Nobody is marching to your door to demand you hand over your firearms.* Nobody is banning the sale of all firearms to everyone. It’s a strawman argument that Level-Headed Joe can’t buy a gun because Government Is Unfair, and that Evil Killer Rodney will realize that Level-Headed Joe isn’t armed and jump at the chance to rob and kill him.
As for the meat of the argument, that gun control won’t have an effect on criminals who acquire guns illegally anyway, I believe it misses a key correlation in the relationship between legal, registered guns and illegal, unregistered guns. The correlation is pretty simple, actually: when legal guns are easier to acquire, illegal guns are easier to acquire. This is because, unless manufactured independently or imported from another country, illegal guns used to be legal guns. Somebody had to buy them first for the guns to leave a locked glass case and enter the stratosphere of society. It’s not a scenario that’s difficult to imagine, and indeed there have been (include sources later) many studies that explain the hereditary link between legal and illegal guns.
The Criminals Get Guns Anyway defense also presupposes a mutually-exclusive categorization of the behavior of legal gun owners and illegal gun owners: people who get guns legally are good people who use them safely, illegal gun owners are dangerous criminals inching for the chance to misuse them. This is an alarmingly simplistic way to perceive the issue, because the overwhelming majority of legal guns are used for illegal purposes. That linked study is from 1998, so it’s open to debate how reliable it may be, but its conclusions don’t seem tied to any particular time or place in recent history:
Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.
The implications of this are twofold: firstly, that level-headed people who purchase guns legally still, on a statistically significant scale, misuse them in dangerous, violent ways. Second, the conclusion implies that criminals can still get their hands on guns legally. After all, if you’ve committed acts of criminal violence without being caught, the system doesn’t detect you. If your criminal record prevents you from buying a gun but your cousin has one, it might not be terribly difficult to get your hands on it — you may even have your cousin act as a straw purchaser to buy a gun legally for you. If you’re incident-free prior to buying the gun, the very act of owning a gun paradoxically increases the chances that you do something criminal with it. Even if you’re Level-Headed Joe who just wants to protect his family. Because remember, as The Entropy Argument points out, the bigger the system, the easier it is for cracks to form. So you, Level-Headed Joe, may not misuse your gun whatsoever. But when millions of Level-Headed Joes own guns (many guns at that — the average amount of guns the average licensed citizen owns is between 5 and 8), mistakes are going to be made, accidents will happen, tempers will boil over, guns will fall into the wrong hands, and people will die. Nobody is infallible.
Additionally, the implication is that when it comes to gun violence in America, prior criminals are the main problem, if not the only problem. This is also a dangerously simplistic way to approach the issue. Lovers get into heated arguments and shoot each other. Children find their dad’s gun and accidentally kill themselves. Otherwise mild-mannered guys snap one day and shoot 12 people. The amount of non-criminals who use guns to kill themselves dwarf the amount of guns related to intentional and unintentional homicides, criminal or not. Would-be Righteous Shooters sometimes hit innocent standers by because they aren’t professionally trained. Shit goes wrong.
Here’s another example of shit goes wrong: the frequency and scale of armed response by the police has skyrocketed. “But you can’t blame the gun, you blame the officer making the decision to shoot!” you’ve probably heard someone say. But think about it: as incidents of gun violence become more sensationalized and publicized, cops can’t afford to assume that any potential suspect or citizen in general isn’t armed. Operating under that assumption, the institutional response in standard practice becomes more cautious, understandably: cops are given bigger and badder guns, and they’re prone to whip them out as an immediate defense rather than a last-resort offense. That system grows larger and entropy supplants itself, and the result is more police shootings, fatal or non-fatal. Yes, you blame the officer for making the autonomous decision to shoot. But the blame also lies in culture of mass gun ownership and media sensationalization of crimes, as the perception of a hostile public prompts an equal and opposite response of hostility on behalf of the police. More guns cause more deaths.
PART SEVEN: THE MENTAL HEALTH ARGUMENT
Another line of argument I’m sure we’ve all heard and/or considered by this point: guns aren’t problem, it’s the mentally disturbed individuals who get their hands on them. If we amended our current approach to mental health treatment, these people could get the help they need and thus wouldn’t lash out by killing ten people in a school. I agree with the notion that much more can be accomplished in the direction of destigmatizing and rehabilitating mental illness, but I don’t agree with the various slippery slopes that The Mental Health Argument implies.
Chief amongst these slippery slopes is the logical progression that follows The Mental Health Argument’s best-case scenario: that we somehow fix or create a system that marvelously rehabilitates those with at-risk-of-danger mental illnesses, and that everyone applicable goes through this system, thus largely eliminating those with at-risk-of-danger mental illnesses from being in society untreated. Would these people be eligible to own guns? Probably not, as current gun laws stipulate that those with certain disorders and/or those who have been committed to an institution (which would certainly need to happen on a large scale for this perfect-world scenario to exist) are too at-risk to buy a gun. If these restrictions were tightened on those with a history of mental health issues, we’d probably see less mass shootings, since those predisposed to a warped sense of needing to inflict large-scale violence wouldn’t have access to guns in the first place.
But… isn’t that just gun control? Tightening access to firearms for those who we have reason to believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are at a much higher risk to misuse them? So for The Mental Health Argument to work, one would have to concede that, if properly rehabilitated and set on the right footing, someone with a prior history of mental issues should be able to own a gun. After all, since we fixed their mental health, they won’t use it for senseless acts of violence, right? Would the country really be comfortable with that? It’s either that, or restricting/preventing those with mental health issues the access to firearms, which is just gun control. And again, this is all predicated on the perfect-world scenario in which we magically amend how we approach and treat mental health so that it’s not a problem. In reality, this will never happen. Mental health remains one of the most curious and poorly understood realms of medical science because it’s so dependent on the individual from case to case. The only clues we get to bend the mind back to level health is behavioral symptoms and what the patient tells doctors. With such highly flawed methods of recognition and equally flawed methods of treatment, combined with the profound variance across different sufferers, we’re left walking blind down a dark dungeon, navigating only through randomly waving our arms in front of us until we find the wall.
We can’t simply “solve” mental health. But we also can’t let the mentally ill own guns. But we can’t deny their rights! It’s a big counterintuitive fiasco that ultimately serves as a way to deflect the issue: since nobody is arguing that our mental health system doesn’t need stronger treatments and increased coverage, using it as a policy to prevent gun violence in lieu of something else is like saying abortions should be illegal because we can just make sure condoms work 100% of the time. It’s just not going to happen.
PART EIGHT: THE POLITICIZATION RETREAT
When gun supporters have had all other rhetorical legs of their ideology collapse under heavy scrutiny, there’s always the fallback position (which is usually employed first amongst all arguments, methinks in hope that they won’t need to ‘resort’ to arguments that can’t hold water): that bringing up methods and policies to prevent future gun tragedies “politicizes” whatever current tragedy is making headlines, which is insensitive to the victims and clearly a ploy by opportunist politicians to exploit a tragedy for the progression of their personal agenda.
I have but one central thought on the issue: so what? When something horrific occurs, it’s the job of the elected official to propose measures to prevent such horror from occurring again. That’s basically the entire point of government: when cracks in the system start to show, we mend them with legislative (or judicial, or executive) glue. When the dam breaks in New Orleans and millions of people are flushed out of their homes, policies on dam infrastructure and flood prevention services get written. No one cries about it. When the entire economy collapses due to shady speculation in Wall Street, more rigorous regulations are put in place to re-stabilize the economy. When people died from car crashes in the 1950s, proposals for airbags and seatbelts lifted off the ground. People may disagree with what approach would work the best to re-stabilize the status quo, but no one argues against the fact that something needs to be done to prevent this from happening again.
But when the issue comes to guns, attempting to start discourse on a path towards safety for potential future victims gets washed away in a sea of upstart shaming from those who believe that time is needed to sympathize with the victims. The problems with this line of reasoning go deep. Like really deep. It’s the single most ironically tone-deaf argument I think I’ve ever heard used in defense of any issue, ever. The Politicization Retreat is so blatantly a forfeiture that I’m continually amazed that people deploy it, thinking it a cogent argument.
So, as concisely as I can deconstruct it, here’s everything flawed with The Politicization Retreat:
1. Claiming that proposing methods to combat gun violence in the wake of a mass shooting is nefariously advancing a political agenda is itself advancing a political agenda. The choice to do nothing policy-wise is a political decision, and the choice to make it advances the agenda of the pro-gun interests. If the argument for gun control can be shut down on terms of insensitivity, then their coalition gets strengthened. Their preferred policies stay the way they are, and aren’t harmed by any competing legislation. Their political agenda is advanced.
2. Claiming that discussing gun control is insensitive to the victims is both grandstanding and condescending, as many heartbroken family members of souls lost to mass shootings immediately come out and say they are going to do all they can to help advance gun control. What’s insensitive to the victims, in my view, is to claim you’re speaking for them in order to protect an ideology that explicitly allows such victims to keep existing over and over again.
3. Political response to tragedy is one of the core functions of government. In other words, shaming politicians for doing their jobs is not the way to solve any sort of problem in America, especially as one as frustrating and frequently tragic as gun violence. Under this line of reasoning, gun control should only be brought up during periods where there hasn’t been a mass shooting for a while (which is sadly becoming rarer and rarer), when the issue is not in the public consciousness, when there is no urgency to directly address it, and when there is no corresponding media coverage to spur representative action. Good luck with anything being solved if we only talked about gun control during those periods of time.
4. The Politicization Retreat proudly relinquishes all other anti-gun control arguments to defeat by the other side, since it wouldn’t be necessary to deploy if those other arguments held up the truth. If all of your other views are correct (the mental health argument, criminals get guns anyways, basic human right, etc etc), then by now, the conversation should have ended in your favor. But it never does, and that’s why The Politicization Retreat gets brought up so often; it’s all they have left. Anytime someone resorts to this defense, they’re basically giving up the fight.
Alright, those are my incredibly long-winded deconstructions of everything gun-related I could think of as it pertains to the current debate as of October 2015. I’m sure there are other arguments both pro and anti-gun, but I’m exhausted and I’ve written enough. I’m sure there are typos and ugly run-on sentences and such, and I’ll probably fix them later, maybe. I’m exhausted. Please use/refer to any of the sections of this essay when engaged in an argument with someone who is pro-gun if it happens to phrase any particular argument or issue the right way. That’s what I wrote it for!