The Sound of Gunshots

On Truisms and Morality in the Gun Control Debate

I grew up used to the sound of gunshots. When a gun fired I did not flinch, or look around in surprise; it was normal while growing up in a remote, rural place. Lots of children in America grow up used to the sound of gunshots. Their experience is far different from mine, though. The guns are all too often pointed at them, wreaking havoc in their communities, robbing them of their parents and siblings and friends.

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In the wake of our country setting yet another heartbreaking record for the “most deadly shooting,” the usual pundits are deploying all the usual talking points, and we all have a sense that this will get us about as far as it always does. Barbs will be exchanged for a few days, maybe a week, until immediate outrage erodes and the go-to lines are filed away for easy reference when the next tragedy comes.

Some of the arguments I have heard over the years and am hearing again now are truisms at best, specious at worst. They are deflections designed to stifle rather than stimulate thoughtful conversation. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” At the surface, of course, this is right. A gun does not shoot itself. It requires someone operating it. Similarly, “Guns are not the problem, hate is.” Again, it is impossible not to concede at the most basic level: guns do not have intention or ill-will. They have only firing mechanisms.

But the problem with stopping here, as if such a line is a clinching argument, is that it leaves the most crucial aspects of the complex problem wholly unaddressed.

While it is true that people kill people, not guns, it is also just a matter of basic logic to admit that, given the fact that some people are prone to violent or uncontrollable impulses, the wisest course of action is to limit their ability to access the means that allow them to harm others. This is prudence, at a most elementary level. We do not want people to access explosives or nerve gas or vials of infectious disease. An assault rifle is similarly designed as a tool of mass harm. There is no reason anyone needs to own one.

Even more than this, though, is the claim that hate is the problem, not guns. While this is only meant to refer to the perpetrators of the crimes, it is time to face up to the fact that the sort of kneejerk suspicion of any attempt to discuss sensible laws about guns is the real heart of the problem. That is, the deep fear and sense of conspiracy and threat and hatred by partisans in this debate and in our toxically divided country in general only breeds more violence. There is incomprehension and the inability to imagine lives and positions other than the one a person is a familiar with (in this case, some hunters in the rural place where I grew up wrongly view the whole debate as an attack on them, and do not stop to take seriously the sickening reality of the extent of gun violence or that banning assault rifles is not the same as banning all guns; others far away who are rightly appalled by the chaos in cities cannot fathom why it is so hard for those outside cities to understand). This is not a basis upon which any conversation, much less the larger goal of a civil and safe society that recognizes the real moral issue at stake, can be achieved.

This gets to the real crux of the whole problem with deflective lines about guns: the argument that this should not be just a political issue. It’s true. It’s not, at least not entirely. Yes, there are overwhelming political obstacles to change: the power of the gun lobby, a subculture that perpetuates skewed images of masculinity, a general glorification of violence, undermining mutual fear that makes people want to defend themselves from fellow citizens they deem threatening in some way, the practical problem of implementing any limits or bans that could be adopted, and a refusal by some to acknowledge the government’s duty to promote safety and protect lives.

But ultimately, this is a moral issue. It all finally comes down to being willing to recognize the responsibility to choose a course of action that clearly prioritizes the right to life.

The horrible truth is that some cling to their guns more than they care about the right to life for their fellow citizens. The rush to buy ammo and assault rifles when there is a whiff of threat that there may be a crackdown on access is seen as a way to metaphorically give the finger to the government or a defensive gesture towards a still-undefined threatening other, but mostly what it does is tell people whose lives are upended by gun violence to go to hell.

Until we fully reckon with this as a basic moral issue about protecting lives, many more children will grow up tragically used to the sound of gunshots.