An open letter to my gun-owning friends

Ever since Newtown I’ve been seriously grappling with how I feel about guns. And strangely, Facebook has brought me more awareness of how many of my friends feel. I’ve had many conversations about it, but all partial and fragmentary. Some friends have taken the time to write thoughtful explanations of why they own guns, and some of those feel strongly that they should be regulated no more than they are now, if not less.

This is my response. I am writing this primarily to express myself, so I admit to some passionate language, at the cost of persuasive power for those strongly opposed. All charts in this essay are clickable, and link to their sources.

In brief, my argument is that guns must be controlled much more strictly, that arguments to the contrary are fallacious, and that large-scale reductions in U.S. firearm ownership are desirable and feasible.

Thank you for reading this.

Contents:

  1. Where I’m Coming From
  2. The Purpose And Hazard Of Guns
  3. Reduced Gun Violence Is Desirable
  4. The Second Amendment Must Be Reinterpreted
  5. Guns Do Not Prevent Tyranny
  6. Gun Self-Defense Is Insignificant Compared To Gun Assault And Intimidation
  7. The Freedom To Not Be Shot Must Trump The Freedom To Shoot
  8. Guns Are Deadlier Than Cars, Bombs, Or Knives, And Gun Control Will Restrict Outlaws Too
  9. Even So, Not All Gun Ownership Is Wrong
  10. Mental Health And Violent Video Games
  11. The Road To A Post-Gun-Culture America


Where I’m Coming From

I have never owned nor fired a gun. But I am a programmer and tech geek, and I have sometimes considered learning to shoot. I actually am still interested in doing so someday, even after Newtown.

I am not a libertarian by any stretch; in some ways I’m more of a socialist (public health care seems outright economical, for instance), and in other ways I’m a social libertarian (I’m in favor of drug legalization). I am a Democrat by today’s party definitions, mainly because of the Republican party’s current attitude towards science and towards women’s rights. I am an advocate for science and for the humane use of technology to improve the human condition.

And I have two children, both in elementary school, within a year of the age of all the Newtown victims.


The Purpose And Hazard Of Guns

A gun makes holes in things. That’s its function. Unfortunately, when you make holes in people they tend to die. Anyone holding a gun is a deadly threat to anyone they can see. That’s a simple fact that all gun safety classes drill into their students.

So having a gun in one’s possession is inherently immensely dangerous. You have to work hard to avoid accidents (just look at all the toddlers killed by getting their hands on their parent’s unsafed gun). The ease of shooting a gun, and the dramatic and instant reaction from pulling the trigger, is both the key appeal (ask any shooter) and the key threat. Studies show that many gun suicides are impulsive acts that might not have happened — or been successful — if a gun weren’t present.

A quote I heard recently that really stuck with me is, “You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it.” Anyone holding a gun is one finger-press away from being a killer. And for a high-capacity, high-accuracy weapon, this is far more the case.

Guns are simply much more hazardous, both to their owners and to everyone else within range, than any other device short of a bomb. And guns are much, much, much more widely available in America than bombs, as well as far less hazardous to the user.

Therefore guns pose a threefold risk: they may be used unsafely or accidentally; they may be used impulsively; and they may be used maliciously. Having guns in the home, or carried in public, greatly increases all three of these risks.


Reduced Gun Violence Is Desirable

It’s indisputable that there are very many lethal injuries caused by guns in America every year. It’s also indisputable that there are far more such incidents in America than in any other first-world nation.

The question is, what kind of problem is this? Is this a simple inevitability, or is this a serious cultural issue? What, if anything, should be done to reduce the amount of lethal gun violence?

My clear bias is towards reduced violence. I consider it a major public health problem (arguably a mental health problem) that there is so much gun violence in America. After Newtown and all the information that has been shared since, I have a very hard time understanding people who disagree with this.

It is encouraging that violence in the U.S. is dropping overall, but it is still astonishingly higher than in the rest of the world.

It is hard to tell whether gun ownership is dropping or increasing overall. Some trends show it declining nationally overall, but spiking locally after massacres such as Newtown.


It is also certainly the case that the odds of dying in a Newtown-like massacre are much, much less than the odds of dying in a car accident. But there are two counterpoints: one, Newtown-like massacres are sufficiently horrible that they merit disproportionate effort to prevent them; two, non-massacre gun violence is uniquely high in America, and is by far the more significant problem.

Gang violence is responsible for most gun-related homicides. And gun control by itself will not address gang violence. But the most effective strategy I have heard for reducing gang violence involves isolating cliques of violent gun users, closing off their illicit weapon sources, and driving them into a new norm of non-violent conflict resolution. Gun control is not the entire solution, but it is very definitely part of the solution.

One strong argument against the NRA is that it has sought to suppress scientific and public health research into the extent of gun violence in this country. There can be no justification for such anti-scientific action, which obscures and minimizes the extent of the problem.

But still this leaves open whether the laws should be changed (to enforce reduced gun ownership), and/or whether gun ownership should be more stigmatized (to encourage more voluntary reductions in gun ownership). Perhaps tragedies such as Newtown, continued into the future, are the only way to shift the dialogue. But I don’t think we should wait for more massacres.


The Second Amendment Must Be Reinterpreted

Of course, the second amendment to the Constitution is the primary reason guns are such a uniquely toxic issue in this country.

Many of my friends have cited the second amendment as the key reason they feel gun ownership is a civic virtue, not merely a personal choice. This article lays out this position quite forcefully, claiming that the second amendment is a key bulwark against an unfit government. I find this argument seriously broken on multiple fronts.

I don’t believe that any amendment to the constitution is above reinterpretation. Times change, technologies change, cultural realities change. Every amendment to the Constitution must continue to justify itself over time, rather than being treated as sacrosanct purely due to its age. The claim that the second amendment is indisputable simply because it comes second is, to me, just like the claim that evolution is wrong because Genesis comes first in the Bible — it is insufficient justification on its own.

The second amendment is hugely open to questions of scope. What exactly does “a well-armed militia” mean? A militia armed as well as the armed forces themselves? Clearly we have never had this interpretation in this country — it has never been legal for private citizens to own tanks, or fully automatic .50-caliber machine guns, or nuclear weapons. The second amendment does not give license to own any armament in existence. Given this, we must define what armaments are or aren’t permitted.

It’s often claimed by gun advocates that “assault rifles” are a technically meaningless category, since a powerful semiautomatic handgun in the hands of a skilled user can put out about as many rounds. I am disheartened by how many of my friends have made this point. It is obviously untrue, in that if assault rifles really made no difference in lethality, then there would have been no reason to invent them. I can’t give credence to this claim at all; there is clearly a spectrum of lethality, and rifle-like, high-accuracy, high-capacity weapons are clearly more dangerous than handgun-like, lower-accuracy, lower-capacity weapons.

Even today’s semiautomatic handguns are far more reliable, concealable, accurate, and rapid-firing than any firearms available when the second amendment was written. Weapons technology has advanced on all fronts, obviously, but the fact remains that in the founders’ day, it was never imagined that all citizens might have access to weapons that can kill dozens in seconds. Therefore it is debatable whether the founders intended all citizens to have access to such firepower.


Guns Do Not Prevent Tyranny

It was clearly the founders’ intent that the second amendment stand as a defense against tyranny. But does it still serve that purpose effectively today? That is, does private gun ownership really reduce the chance of a dictatorial U.S. government?

I find no reason to believe it. The violent rebellion that created the USA was driven by armaments provided from France, not by guns owned by private US citizens. So even the American revolution did not happen purely by means of citizen-owned guns.

Would private gun ownership be a meaningful defense against a dictatorial government? What exactly is the scenario? I can only imagine a case in which the majority of U.S. citizens find the government to be illegitimate, and use their guns to fight back.

But if the majority finds the government illegitimate, wouldn’t they simply vote the government out? That’s the very essence of democracy, and the very basis of America itself. Guns would make no difference.

If it’s only a minority that finds the government illegitimate, then we would be looking at a violent civil war. And in fact, that is often advocated by very many racist and hyper-right-wing groups in America. Timothy McVeigh was of exactly this belief. This is my biggest concern with the second amendment: it gives Constitutional authority to a viewpoint that says that the government can’t be trusted and that everyone should be free to rebel against the government, violently, by means of their guns. (And, of course, a minority rebellion would be both democratically illegitimate and hugely outgunned by the military itself.)

This leads to laws such as a recent Indiana bill which allows homeowners to shoot at law-enforcement officers that they believe are on their property illegally. Or the hugely controversial and problematic Florida “Stand Your Ground” law which allows someone to shoot first if the shooter believes they are being attacked.

What all of these cases show is that this fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment leads directly to a vigilante attitude, in which all gun owners are entitled, by the Constitution, to decide for themselves who is and isn’t a threat, and to shoot accordingly. This is not liberty. This is terrorism masquerading as liberty.

The southern U.S. has the highest rates of gun violence in the country, and it’s likely that this is because that’s the only region of the U.S. that has actually tried to secede — in other words, to declare the national government illegitimate, and to act violently against it. That viewpoint lingers both inside and outside the South, and is a toxic mindset that makes gun violence much worse in this country.

We have much evidence from the 20th century that peaceful democratic action is more effective at confronting and overthrowing tyrannical regimes. So there is no real reason to think that guns are essential even if the goal is to overthrow the national government. A unified populace has many other tools at its disposal — widespread civil disobedience can cripple a government even more effectively than a militia shooting war, especially in an age when the rest of the world is watching (not the case in the founders’ era).

Even democratically speaking, a majority of Americans already support a variety of inconsistently implemented gun control policies.

So I consider the second amendment to be a historical artifact; its scope covers far more than the founders dreamed, it fosters anti-democratic vigilante attitudes that lead directly to terrorism, and its ostensible goals are far better reached by other means. Firearm ownership must be an earned privilege, not a universal right.

Therefore I am disheartened further by the uncritical attitudes my friends seem to bring to the second amendment and to its importance in society. In fact, I have come to believe that the second amendment should be repealed, and I intend to work towards this political end. The recent Supreme Court decision that affirms the individual right to bear firearms is a huge setback, but if the goal is popular repeal of the second amendment, that decision will be rendered irrelevant.

None of this is to say that the U.S. government is above reproach. The unconscionable drone bombing campaign in Pakistan, the warrantless wiretapping just renewed by the Senate, the impossibility of Guantanamo inmates challenging the legality of their indefinite imprisonment without trial, the shocking rate of incarceration… all of these are black marks on our American democracy, and the list could go sadly on.

But NONE of these abuses are effectively opposed by increased gun ownership. One can very well believe that, say, the first amendment (a free press) and the fourth amendment (habeas corpus) are critical to our democracy, while also believing that the second amendment has outlived its usefulness and is now poisoning America. Attacking one amendment is not the same as attacking them all.

Those of us who believe in reducing gun violence must, and eventually shall, take back the moral high ground from those who equate gun ownership with patriotism.

(Why, then, did the founders consider the second amendment so critical? I argue that, in a terrible accident of history, the founders did not trust the democracy they were creating. Seeking to defend against its corruption, they instead undermined it. The second amendment is undemocratic, but the founders did not realize this at the time. In short: they were wrong. Though see this interesting interpretation that says the original purpose of the amendment was not to facilitate overthrow of a tyrannical national government, but to allow local militias to suppress rebellions against the national government! That purpose, also, is now moot.)


Gun Self-Defense Is Insignificant Compared To Gun Assault And Intimidation

The single argument that most drove me to write this essay was that if all teachers were armed, Newtown wouldn’t have happened.

This argument’s fatal flaw is that, taken to an extreme, it results in every citizen being armed specifically to defend against all other citizens at any moment. It advocates for more gun violence as the best way to prevent gun violence. And, far more problematically, it puts all non-gun-owners at a severe disadvantage. This is morally unacceptable to me; a society in which peaceful non-gun-owners are disadvantaged relative to gun owners is an immoral society. We must be free to not own guns.

Moreover, the number of actual uses of a gun in self-defense are minute in comparison to the number of assaults or intimidations involving guns.

And finally, safe storage of guns — that will not permit minors or unauthorized persons to obtain access — impedes the quick use of guns in self-defense. In other words: a gun that is quickly available for self-defense is also quickly available for misuse.


The Freedom To Not Be Shot Must Trump The Freedom To Shoot

What about the freedom to own guns in and of itself?

The famous saying “your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose” applies here. But any gun is just a finger-pull away from a murder. So any gun I can see is a deadly threat to me, since its holder can grab it and shoot me likely before I can reach cover. To me, this implies that any gun held or carried by anyone near me in public is as good as a punch in the face, in terms of the actual risk to me. And this directly implies that my freedom to not be shot must outweigh the freedom of gun owners to wield their weapons in public.

A broader libertarian argument is that government monopoly on violence is not legitimate. The most insightful take on this question I have encountered is in Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined. Pinker describes the political theory of the Leviathan, the governmental monopoly on violence, as being instrumental in systematically reducing violence worldwide. While Pinker overlooks some important elements (such as the unconscionable rate of incarceration in America), the overall claim holds true. Moreover, the police and the military are subject to oversight, unlike private citizens. While oversight fails all too often, it is still fundamental to legitimizing the governmental monopoly on violence, and the libertarian argument completely ignores this.

If you do not believe the government should have a monopoly on violence, it seems to me you should move to Somalia, which sounds like your ideal nation-state — one which does not actually exist at all. Making this argument while remaining an American citizen is hypocritical at best.


Guns Are Deadlier Than Cars, Bombs, Or Knives, And Gun Control Will Restrict Outlaws Too

One friend of mine has passionately argued that cars are just as lethal as guns — that a madman could drive their car into a crowd of schoolchildren just as easily as shooting them. To me, this argument fails on two fronts: first, a car is much harder to conceal and target; second, school massacres are the small minority of gun violence in this country, and the strongest arguments for gun control relate to that large majority of suicidal or intimidation-driven gun violence, especially in homes that own guns. My friend recommended gun training that is just as strict and detailed as driver’s education; this seems like an entirely wise idea, but still does not address the immediate hazard posed by anyone carrying a concealed weapon to anyone they can see.

It’s often cited that on nearly the same day as the Newtown massacre, a madman in China attacked a school of children with a large knife and wounded 22 of them. But in that case, all 22 survived. Knives are radically less lethal than guns and equating the two is an irrelevant argument.

There’s a cliche that “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” And indeed the insane number of guns circulating in America (almost one per U.S. citizen) does make reducing them a daunting task, to say the very least. But that in itself does not mean that it is not a desirable goal. Measures to reduce illegal gun ownership, to limit ammunition and sales of new guns, to greatly expand buyback programs, to stigmatize gun ownership and reduce the number of young gun purchasers, all can combine to stem and eventually ebb the tide. It may take many decades, but all the more reason to start now.

Guns are imported from states with weaker gun laws into states with stricter laws. This is evidence that illegal gun traffic is significantly impacted by stricter laws, and is a strong argument for tougher federal laws applying to all states; these would restrict illegal supply. It is inadequate to argue that guns will still be available; we must focus on how to reduce their availability, knowing that reductions, iterated over time, can eventually have dramatic results.

In the interim, while there are still so absurdly many guns in circulation, there is a legitimate debate about whether properly trained civilian gun owners can de-escalate conflicts. But it’s indisputable that proper training requirements are not in place nationwide at the federal level, as they must be for such a solution to have merit.


Even So, Not All Gun Ownership Is Wrong

Now, that said, I do think that guns should be able to be owned by private citizens. But a legislative regime such as Japan’s seems far more appropriate. These are devices deliberately designed to be as hazardous as possible to anyone in sight. What technology could be more deserving of tight restrictions?

There are many reasons to think that effective no-loopholes bans on assault rifles, more effective laws (with enforcement) around secure storage, and mental health and background checks proportional to the lethality of the weapon / ammunition being purchased might well have prevented several recent massacres.

Japan has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world: mental and physical tests, strict training and required re-training, law enforcement verification of separate seccure storage of gun and ammunition. And virtually no gun crime.

England at one time had a law allowing private ownership, but requiring storage at a shooting range. That also seems appropriate — getting all semiautomatic guns out of the home, and ensuring no concealable or semi-automatic guns carried in public, would allow shooters to practice their art safely on the range (with assault rifles, even), without risk to the rest of the citizenry. I would probably even own a gun, and store it at my local range, in that world. (I may yet do so in this world.) Evidence shows that restricting soldiers from bringing firearms home with them reduces the incidence of suicides in soldiers’ families.

Australia found that gun homicides dropped sharply after adopting stricter gun control legislation, with no corresponding increase in non-gun homicides.

Germany passed laws after a 2009 school massacre there requiring random law enforcement checks of secure storage, a nationwide electronic gun registry, and plans to mandate biometric security on all firearms as soon as technologically practical. All of these are excellent ideas as well.

It is also reasonable to consider legalizing only single-shot rifles and manual revolvers for home ownership, limiting semiautomatics to shooting ranges only. This would address the legitimate needs of hunters without permitting private ownership of combat weapons.


Mental Health and Violent Video Games

Gun advocates often seek to shift the debate to mental health, or violent video games, or other social factors. I don’t deny these are related to the causes of violence in our society. But I radically disagree that they are anywhere near as important as more gun control.

One of the central themes of this essay is that school shootings are terrible enough to be worth strong efforts to prevent them, but that broader gun violence (especially in the home) is in and of itself a toxic blight on America. So focusing solely on the severely deranged individuals who commit massacres is actually a distraction from addressing the much more widespread and lethal violence overall.

Our mental health oversight system in this country has been seriously broken since the 1980s. This must be fixed, but none of the arguments in this essay are weakened by this fact; better gun control is still critical for all the reasons given here, even if we improve our mental health care system immensely.

Violent video games, likewise, do seem to be triggers especially for borderline psychotic individuals. But there are many rich countries with violent video game players, and only one with as many gun deaths as the USA. A video game player without a gun is no threat; a shooter who doesn’t play video games can be deadly. The NRA’s attempt to shift the debate from guns to games is an absurd act of political theater that will backfire on them in 2013.


The Road To A Post-Gun-Culture America

Finally, the fundamental issue I have with many of my gun-advocate friends is that they argue so passionately for the status quo. I have not heard them, for the most part, admitting even such basic concessions as that assault rifles are deadlier than handguns, or that secure storage should be not merely required by law but actively checked by law enforcement.

We seem to be at a terrible impasse, in which any action towards more regulation is opposed tooth and nail, reflexively, by most gun owners. I am disappointed in my gun-advocate friends who share in this wholehearted resistance. I understand it, but I hope it changes.

My sincere hope is that over time, three things happen.

  • Home storage of guns and public concealed carry becomes seen, even by gang members (thanks to social interventions), as not only uncool but actually wrong, morally wrong, thus continuing the trend towards lower levels of gun ownership nationwide.
  • Gun buybacks and other disposal strategies reduce the number of guns in circulation generally.
  • Gun laws become more restrictive and more effective at preventing unsafe, impulsive, and malicious gun use.

Obama plans to push for stricter gun control legislation early in 2013, which is very hopeful.

I intend to monitor and support political movements towards these ends. I recommend the Occupy the NRA feed on Facebook — while sometimes too strident, it is a great clearinghouse for those who agree that it’s time to reverse the two-century-old tide of pro-gun culture in America. Moreover, it’s conceivable that social change on this issue may happen faster than anyone expects — that’s certainly been the case with both gay marriage and drug legalization recently. Let’s push, push hard, and keep pushing.

Anyone who agrees that these shootings were terrible, and that gun violence is too common in America, must start pressing for stronger gun control, and never stop. Any other gesture in support of the Newtown victims is hollow at best.

This will not be a quick process — social change seldom is. And there are many who are quite serious that their guns will only be pried from their cold, dead fingers. But if we can decrease gun ownership among the young, age will take care of the old gun owners naturally.

It may take a century or more to reach an America that is as gun-free as the other first-world nations are right now. Even so, our great-grandchildren, living in that world, will thank us for having had faith that America is defined by freedom from violence through democracy, not freedom to be violent in the false defense of democracy.

(And a postscript: I will be editing the comments here to reject any that are flat-out insulting, such as the one calling me a “degenerate, Marxist piece of gutter trash.” If you see no such comments here, it’s not because I’m not getting them, I assure you! But I’m using a John Scalzi-style comment policy here, so if you flame me, don’t be surprised when I delete your post. If you want to call me terrible names, you’re welcome to do so on your own blog.)

9 thoughts on “An open letter to my gun-owning friends

  1. How much government intrusion into your life are you willing to put up with in order to have this safety you so desperately seek? Which of your OTHER rights are you willing to sacrifice at this altar? Our world is full of predators that pay no mind to the rules (societal and otherwise) that you and I so stridently follow. These predators have existed long before there were firearms in the world and they’ve always preyed on those smaller and weaker than they. Have any of our advances in society changed that? You seem to think our species has advanced so much that there’s no need to be able to defend ourselves anymore; that those dangerous people in our society are only the way they are because they’re surrounded by evil objects and if we could only remove those objects we would be able to all live peacefully. Your world-view is extremely naïve – there will always be people willing to murder; either by criminal design or by mental impairment. As long as there’s crime, there will be people willing to attack innocents; as long as there’s mentally unstable people among us, there will be a select few that lash out and perpetrate terrible crimes. Your desire to remove firearms from the population means you remove the ability from a single mother to protect herself from a home invader; you remove the ability of a man going to his car in a dark parking lot to defend himself from a violent attacker that wants his wallet but has no regard for his life; in short, you remove the ability of people to be able to have a say about what happens to them or their loved ones in any sort of violent encounter. I hope you’re never in one of these encounters, one where you or your wife or children are seconds from violent harm. In the world you’re striving for, your only option in this situation is to beg your attacker for the lives of your loved ones – you won’t have a vote in the outcome.

    I choose to protect myself and my family. I choose to protect them with a gun. A gun I’ve trained with and know how to use both physically and legally. That gun doesn’t make me a threat to you or anyone else that doesn’t have evil intent. I love my family as I’m sure you love yours; I love peace as I’m sure you do; I also love my freedom – freedom to be able to protect myself and my family should the need arise. That freedom isn’t something you should be working to infringe.

    • John, if you reread my essay you will see that I’m actually not in favor of a complete ban on firearms. But I am in favor of eliminating the *right* to bear arms. Bearing arms should be a *privilege* granted only to those of sound mind and verified training. You know, just like a driver’s license.

      I am also in favor of preventing home use and concealed carry of semiautomatic firearms. That leaves revolvers and other non-semiautomatic weapons available for home defense, concealed carry, and sporting use. (I also suggest that higher-powered firearms should still be ownable, but only storable and usable at registered shooting ranges.)

      So I am not in favor of banning all guns by any means. But I am very much in favor of regulating them much more strictly. You ought to be in favor of that too, as it reduces the chance that a criminal or crazy person will be able to get a gun to attack you or your family with.

      • Rob, you state you want bearing arms to be a privilege. I have a hard time digesting this. As you well know, the RIGHT to self-preservation is a fundimental piece of any society. Are you saying that the ability to protect myself or my family should be a privilege? Or a just a privilege to use a firearm to do so? Are you going to put those same restrictions on my attacker? Oh, you can’t because they’re a criminal and won’t obey your rules! What then? If I’m attacked in my house by an invader with a gun who wants to murder me and brutalize my family, the ability to defend myself with a gun is a PRIVILEGE? Are you really saying that? Really?

  2. [edited for brevity]
    Your opening statement(s) are quite telling. Here, let me suggest a slight revision, and you tell me if – by simply changing the object in question – your observations still hold water:

    “cars drive over things. That’s their function. Unfortunately when you drive over people, they tend to die. Anyone driving a car is a deadly threat to anyone they can see. That’s a simple fact that all driving-safety classes drill into their students. So having a car in one’s possession is inherently immensely dangerous.”

    Should we also ban cars? They’re obviously dangerous.

    Or, perhaps, can you grasp that it is not the object, but the person controlling it, which determines whether the object is used for good or evil?

    • We shouldn’t ban cars. But we also shouldn’t defend a universal right to owning and driving them. Driving is a privilege to be earned and which can be lost, not an inalienable right to be universally granted. So should it be with guns.

      We already have some cars that are legal to drive on the street, and other cars that are illegal for street driving (very high powered sports and racing cars). So should it be with guns — some weapons (I would say all semiautomatics) are too powerful to allow on the street, but other weapons (revolvers, bolt-action rifles) should, I would say, be licensable for concealed carry and home self-defense.

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