Eric Sentell shoots down the argument that “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”
Not long after the Newtown shooting, I discussed gun control with an older man whom I respect greatly. An honorable, good man in every way that matters. So even though he disagreed with me, I took what he said very seriously.
I suggested we should ban assault-style weapons and limit the capacity of magazines. An avid hunter and devoted NRA-member, he asked, “Why? So I can’t have one?”
Then he argued that criminals will obtain any weapon or magazine they wish on the black market whereas law-abiding citizens like himself wouldn’t get to enjoy their second amendment rights. He added that mass shootings will happen regardless of any laws, that they can’t be prevented.
When I pointed out the far lower crime and murder rates in countries with much stricter gun laws, he answered, “No, they just have suicide bombings.” I clarified that I meant developed countries like Germany and Japan, but my point still wasn’t persuasive.
More recently, I retweeted a call for universal background checks: “Why wouldn’t anyone want to make it harder for a criminal to get a gun?” To which another person replied, “A dangerous criminal will get their hands on a gun no matter how difficult.” When I asked if that was sufficient reason to let it be easy, I heard about the downside of infringing on law-abiding citizens as well as criminals.
To summarize, “Bad people will do bad things no matter how hard we might try to stop them, so why try things that also hinder good people?” Many people would add that guns prevent crime, but as this article points out, this claim is so questionable even the gun lobby has largely abandoned it. Rather, fatalism and the right to enjoy guns are today’s main arguments against gun control.
After both of these conversations, I asked myself about the value in fatalism. I wondered: Should I accept that tragedies will happen occasionally? Should I accept that neither I nor society can do anything to prevent them? Should I place the freedom and rights of millions of responsible gun-owners above striving to prevent gun crime, especially the statistically rare mass shootings that most motivate gun control efforts?
I concluded there is significant value in a certain acceptance of tragedy. I tried it on, and I felt some freedom in shrugging off Newtown, Aurora, Gabby Giffords, VA Tech, and Columbine as just a few notable examples of the unpredictable, unpreventable violence of the world’s inevitable psychopaths. I no longer felt responsible for doing anything about it. After all, I didn’t shoot anyone.
Besides, one can’t shoulder the burdens of all the problems in the world. There is too much evil for any human or human-made system to address. There will always be pain, there will always be tragedy, there will always be hardship. And if I can’t change it, if my government can’t change it, then at least I and my government can leave the good people alone.
But then I considered the underlying values behind this tendency to shrug off the occurrence of mass shootings and other evil in favor of preserving the freedom of the law-abiding.
And I decided, if people want to be left alone so badly that they’ll shrug off tragedy after tragedy, that they’ll accept easier access to guns for people who shouldn’t have access to any kind of weapon, then there is something defeatist in them that ought to be, well, defeated.
To put it another way, I refuse to accept that we’re powerless to prevent tragedies, that we can’t make the world at least a little bit better place. Perhaps most importantly, I refuse to separate efforts to prevent or minimize gun crimes from similar efforts to prevent or minimize other types of tragedies.
Following fatalistic logic, we shouldn’t bother trying to prevent future terrorist attacks since “dangerous terrorists will get their hands on weapons of mass destruction no matter how difficult” and the Patriot Act, TSA bag searches, taking off our shoes, going through metal detectors, and so forth all infringe upon the law-abiding masses as well as the rare terrorist. We should’ve just shrugged off 9/11 as a notable example of the unpreventable, unpredictable violence of the world’s inevitable psychopaths.
But that’s not how we responded to 9/11, and that’s not how we should respond to either terrorism or gun crime now. Even the NRA advocates doing something: arming “good guys with guns,” including teachers, as the only sure-fire way to stop “bad guys with guns.” The logic of the premise is undeniable, and its heroic idealism has great appeal. But this idea won’t seem so great when a student or group of students overpowers a teacher and uses the gun to kill others.
Nonetheless, I’m open to the idea of arming and training teachers, resource officers, and other “good guys” if it can be done in a safe, reasonable way. Though I believe in gun control, my argument in this essay is not that we should adopt any particular measure. Rather, my argument is that we should reject the notion that we can’t do anything and instead have an open-minded discussion about what we can and should do.
Some object, quite reasonably, that we shouldn’t sacrifice liberty for security, and thus we should leave the laws like they are. I also value liberty above security, but let’s not be dogmatic about it. Though Ben Franklin said people who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither, he also didn’t stick around in places taken over by the British Army out of a refusal to give up the freedom to be where he wanted when he wanted.
So, is it that unreasonable to require law-abiding citizens at gun shows to undergo the same background check as law-abiding citizens at gun stores? Would banning thirty-round magazines infringe on second amendment rights, self-defense, hunting, or recreational shooting any more than the long-standing ban on full-metal jacket rounds? And why isn’t the liberty to see a movie or attend first grade without fear comparable to the liberty to own any type of gun one wishes?
I realize an assault-weapons ban and new magazine restrictions won’t prevent determined criminals from obtaining assault weapons and high capacity magazines, especially since there are already so many in existence. I also realize an expert can modify magazines quite easily or simply change magazines in an eye-blink. I’m not at all suggesting that gun control will make gun crime disappear.
But I just don’t understand why we should make things easy for the criminals and the psychologically disturbed. Shouldn’t a mentally ill person with homicidal tendencies have to hunt high and low for some black market arms dealer? Shouldn’t such a person have to develop the expertise required to switch magazines in a flash? Shouldn’t they be forced to devote significant prep time to their crimes, during which they might calm down and realize murder-suicide isn’t their best option? How many future mass shootings might be prevented by the simple barriers of time and expertise?
Consider this: The Aurora shooter, James Holmes, rigged booby traps in his apartment. They failed because of his lack of skill. But what if he could have gone to an explosives show and purchased powerful, easy-to-deploy death traps without any type of background check? Arguably, many lives were saved precisely because obtaining or creating booby traps isn’t as easy as obtaining and using military-grade guns. I wonder, how many lives might have been saved if Holmes hadn’t been able to fire so many rounds so quickly?
Or think about this: The same day Adam Lanza killed twenty-six people at Sandy Hook Elementary, a man entered an elementary school in China with a knife and wounded twenty-seven students. Yes, people kill people, but guns make it much easier. Military-style guns make it even easier. Military-style guns in the hands of psychopaths make it almost inevitable. So the next time someone absolves the gun as a mere tool, the next time someone snidely suggests banning knives or hammers, ask that person how difficult (mass) murder ought to be.
But allowing easy gun access for criminals and psychopaths means that it’s also easy for me: that I’m left alone, that I don’t have to undergo an inconvenient and unnecessary background check, that I can fire a couple hundred rounds a minute just for the sheer fun of it. I’ll grant the right to enjoy anything that doesn’t harm others. Yet in my opinion, none of that justifies opposing any and all gun control efforts any more than it justifies giving up on preventing terrorism.
We won’t — we can’t — prevent every tragedy, but we’re wrong to reject reasonable measures and inconveniences that might make tragedies harder to achieve — and thus rarer and smaller. When it comes to gun control, fatalism and dogmatism are subtle forms of defeatism that we ought to reject.
Image credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr