A Few Thoughts About Gun Culture
Some people refer to their gun collections as their toys. Am I alone in thinking that’s weird?
Look, I get it; guns are fun. As a Boy Scout, I earned every single Merit Badge that had to do with shooting guns. They make a loud noise. They help you feel empowered. They feel nice in the hand.
But, as I write this, the US has just had its 355th mass shooting of 2015. Let’s think about that for just a second, because it’s a state of affairs that’s completely unprecedented among “civilized” countries.
Guns have become an issue that Americans can’t talk about without completely surrendering objectivity and/or Reason. The real issues behind gun violence have been thoroughly eclipsed by the loud self-righteousness of the people who love guns the most. In other words, I disagree not with the spirit of the pro-gun movement, but rather with the hysterical, entitled culture that’s sprung up around it.
But before we get to the heart of the matter, I want to ask you a question. And I really want you to think honestly about it:
Do you think guns should be easy to acquire? Because that’s the real debate here. And currently, in America, guns are ludicrously easy to acquire.
Folks might tell you that guns are tools, in the way that cars, screwdrivers, or fire extinguishers are tools, but this is not so. Guns are weapons. They came into being because people needed a tool that made them more efficient at killing other people. They occupy an entirely different category of thing than any other item you can buy with legal tender.
Sure, you might be thinking, but scissors can be weapons too; it’s the reason you can’t bring them on planes. True, and true. But “able to be used as a weapon” is not at all the same thing as “designed to kill things.” I could probably kill someone with a tin of Altoids if I really put my mind to it, but that doesn’t make it a weapon. Guns were invented for waging war: something which we can accept as fact because the earliest firearms were neither accurate enough, nor practical enough, to kill animals. But to fire upon charging ranks of enemy soldiers? Sure, they did well enough in a pinch.
To classify firearms as trifling commodities or, worse yet, as little more than recreational baubles (“toys”), is to commit a grave lapse in judgment. America stands virtually alone in the developed world in our quest to fetishize the firearm.
And if that doesn’t qualify them for some very specific kinds of regulatory oversight, I don’t know what does. Arguing in favor of stronger gun control laws in the year 2015 no more makes you a traitor to the Constitution than did advocating for women’s suffrage in the early 1900’s.
Proponents of weaker gun control laws oscillate between two major arguments: gun ownership as a matter of safety and gun ownership as a matter of human rights. Today I’d like to address both.
If It’s a Matter of Safety…
The first argument used by proponents of weaker gun control is the notion that Americans have the right to defend themselves.
Sure. That’s fine. Nobody is going to disagree with that. But if you’re going to talk about safety, you’d better know what you’re talking about.
The truth is that America is safer now than it’s ever been. But it’s hard not to turn safety into a partisan issue when so many fear-mongering Republicans swear up and down (I’m not making this up) that the world is “literally about to blow up.” That was Lindsey Graham talking about foreign dangers, but his thoughts on domestic threats are equally sensational, and equally devoid of evidence.
But don’t take my word for it: according to John Chait, this miserable worldview “is not just wrong but insanely wrong.” He’s citing Steven Pinker’s book on the decline of violence. It doesn’t stop there, though: you could choose randomly from America’s authoritative voices and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Americans are safer today than we’ve been in decades, even when you factor in our ongoing epidemic of mass shootings.
But when facts still aren’t enough to move us toward consensus, or at least an honest debate, we turn to outside sources to complete our dataset. This is part and parcel of the scientific method, and it takes us to countries like Japan, Australia (see chart one below), and Brazil (see chart two below), where gun laws are much stricter than they are here.
It is a fact that America has the “loosest” gun control laws in the developed world. Despite (or, more accurately, because of) this, America has a gun-murder rate of nearly 20 times the other 22 “rich” countries combined. Again: this is a fact, and one that persists even as we continue to loosen our gun control laws and put more weapons into the hands of more“responsible, law-abiding American adults.”
Let’s take a look at Japan, which has probably the strongest gun control measures of any modern country. In 2008, Japan experienced just 11 firearm-related homicides.
Want to know how many we had in America during that same year? 12,000. That’s twelve thousand. If you’re trying to do the population math, I’ll save you the trouble: Japan had just 127.7 million citizens in 2008, to America’s 304.1 million. If you’re trying to explain away this appalling data point using population discrepancies, I’m not aware of any branch of mathematics that can make that kind of logic work.
There’s similar data from Australia, where gun control is equally strict: there were just 40 firearm deaths in Australia in 2012, which was a five-year high. In America, we had 11,622 homicides by firearm. And let’s be clear: rifles, shotguns, and handguns are all legal to purchase and possess in Australia. They’re simply subjected to much narrower restrictions.
Before we move on, I want to address one of the most popular arguments made by those who would weaken or hold the line on gun control laws in this country:
Gun control laws only hurt law-abiding citizens.
You know, this argument almost made sense the first time I heard it. But these days it’s so far from sound logic that I don’t even know where to begin.
What’s the point here—that criminals don’t obey laws? I’m pretty sure we all know that already. By this faulty logic, we may as well do away with every other law on our books too, since law-abiding citizens are already, you know, abiding by them, and criminals apparently can’t be stopped by them anyway.
And this argument is almost always accompanied by the supposition that areas with more restrictive gun control laws would have more crime than areas with more forgiving laws. This is also patently false, as confirmed by a scholarly, empirically validated paper by J. Ludwig. But just to be thorough, here’s more data from Harvard that says the same thing: gun deaths happen where more guns are present.
In citing safety and security, America has once again chosen to stand alone in a world where empirical inquiry and Reason should have long ago saved us from reckless ideologues.
If It’s a Matter of Human Rights…
For better and worse, the Constitution does give you the right to own a weapon. Nobody is disputing that. Saying the “liberal agenda” is hostile to the Constitution is one of the most infuriating examples of a straw man argument I can think of. I’ll say it more plainly: President Obama is not “coming for your guns.” Neither is Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. If they even tried, they’d be shot dead in the streets in what we’d be forced to call “the height of irony.”
No; for better and worse, the Second Amendment is here to stay. Nobody is questioning that (responsible, mentally sound, and licensed) American citizens have a right to buy guns in accordance with state and federal laws.
But that’s part of the problem: America is a patchwork of contradictory interpretations of what a human being is, and is not, entitled to. Conservatives seem to like it that way; they call the states “laboratories of Democracy” when they don’t get their way (see: Ted Cruz and legal pot). Yet when they want something (or want something repealed, like the Affordable Care Act), they angrily defend states’ rights as superlative to federal law. They want it both ways.
In New York State, anyone who wants to buy a rifle, shotgun, or handgun must submit to a National Instant Criminal Background Check. If you’re given the green light, you can walk away with your new “toy” that same day. If not, there’s a waiting period. Handguns are the only type of weapon for which you’ll need a permit, and that requires some paperwork. Rifles and shotguns require no such permit.
In Pennsylvania, I only need a permit if I intend to carry a handgun on my person.
To own a gun is to take on a significant amount of responsibility, and too many of our states have trivialized that responsibility. To own a gun is, in fact, to become a state-sanctioned extension of the law, if you believe the Conservative-flavored rhetoric that gun owners can (and should) intervene in matters of public safety, as they did after each of our recent mass shootings. “If there was just one more gun on the scene…” seems to be the common refrain these days.
But, just as you wouldn’t want some possibly unstable cop with a tendency toward domestic violence wielding a gun and presiding over the public’s safety, neither should we advocate for putting guns in the hands of any old Tom, Dick, or Harry who wants to own one just because they can. Or because they’re scared of being a victim. Or because “Obama and his Muslim allies” want to burn this country to the ground.
But we’re getting away from the real issue here: gun ownership as a “human right.” My biggest problem with the pro-gun movement is that the people who argue most vociferously for gun ownership as a human right will also staunchly refuse to recognize healthcare, education, or access to healthful food and potable water as human rights as well. Guns are your policy priority? Really? The rise of Obamacare was a litmus test for American priorities, and it’s only because the Supreme Court did the right thing this summer that we’re not failing miserably.
I’ll explain. The Republican Party’s (final) solution to healthcare goes something like this: “Let them die in the street.”
If you’re getting indignant right now, it’s probably because you know deep down that there’s truth to this. Whereas, in the early days of the ACA, the GOP assured us that it would create “death panels” and all manner of Orwellian and Kafkaesque methods for keeping costs (and populations) low, we’re now faced with the reality that, if the GOP gets its way, the ACA would be repealed in its entirety, bringing the ranks of the uninsured to 46 million, which also means that some not-inconsiderable portion of those people will also lose their very lives.
So, let’s recap: We’ll let millions of Americans be financially ruined (or worse) because we can’t recognize healthcare as a human right? Meanwhile, we can’t compromise on gun control because we believe that owning a gun is a human right? Get a fucking grip. And then revisit what the phrase “human rights” really means to you.
Furthermore, to lean on the Constitution as “proof” that owning a weapon is a human right feels more than a little like retreating behind the Bible to justify your assorted bigotries. Both documents are products of their time, and must be reevaluated, regularly, as we mature as a species.
In the meantime, here are a couple other things that the Constitution said once upon a time:
- 145 years ago, the Constitution said that African Americans didn’t count as human beings.
- 96 years ago, the Constitution stated that Americans weren’t permitted to purchase or drink alcohol.
- 95 years ago, the Constitution said that women didn’t have the right to vote.
It’s time to stop pretending that the Constitution is immutable or infallible, or that it was written by demigods. Public policy evolves as we acquire wisdom, and we are, today, no more beholden to a 230-year-old document than we’re beholden to the mistakes we each made in our respective childhoods.
The truth is that America is getting better and better (and much, much faster) at voicing support for so-called “progressive” ideas, including common-sense overhauls to our gun control laws (all of which will leave the Second Amendment intact). Meanwhile, many of us would still deny the emerging consensus on matters like gun control, climate change, campaign finance reform, marriage equality, equal pay for equal work, universal healthcare, privacy rights, and many, many more arguments that pointlessly divide us.
The solutions to these problems have nothing to do with ideology or opinion; we do not have to “agree to disagree.” Solving them requires nothing more than making our peace with the facts on the ground. All that’s left to decide is which side of the truth—and which side of history—you want to be left standing on.