Sam Harris Tackles America’s Gun Problem

Sam Harris, who seems to start a controversy anytime he talks about something not directly related to atheism, is now talking about our country’s gun problem.

It seems like a topic that could backfire (no pun intended) on him, but he handles the subject with a level of nuance you rarely seen from anyone discussing the issue. He’s not against guns, but he believes the way many of us (liberals) advocate for gun responsibility (“gun control” is a misnomer) is all wrong. The assault weapons ban, for example, would be meaningless since perfectly legal guns could be almost (if not equally) as deadly, but making gun licenses more difficult to acquire and closing the “gun-show loophole” could be helpful. In short, Harris writes: “I believe that good, trustworthy, and well-trained people should have guns.”

I own several guns and train with them regularly. Every month or two, I spend a full day shooting with a highly qualified instructor. This is an expensive and time-consuming habit, but I view it as part of my responsibility as a gun owner. It is true that my work as a writer has added to my security concerns somewhat, but my involvement with guns goes back decades. I have always wanted to be able to protect myself and my family, and I have never had any illusions about how quickly the police can respond when called. I have expressed my views on self-defense elsewhere. Suffice it to say, if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police — it is a problem of physics.

Like most gun owners, I understand the ethical importance of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them. I suspect that sentiment will shock many readers. Wouldn’t any decent person wish for a world without guns? In my view, only someone who doesn’t understand violence could wish for such a world. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. There have been cases of prison guards (who generally do not carry guns) helplessly standing by as one of their own was stabbed to death by a lone prisoner armed with an improvised blade. The hesitation of bystanders in these situations makes perfect sense—and “diffusion of responsibility” has little to do with it.

The most controversial aspect of the piece may be that Harris didn’t completely abhor everything NRA vice-president Wayne LaPierre said in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, even asking why it’s so hard to believe a “good guy with a gun” (my words) might have been helpful to have by your side during attacks:

Gun-control advocates appear unable to distinguish situations in which a gun in the hands of a good person would be useless (or worse) and those in which it would be likely to save dozens of innocent lives. They are eager to extrapolate from the Aurora shooting to every other possible scene of mass murder. However, a single gunman trying to force his way into a school, or roaming its hallways, or even standing in a classroom surrounded by dead and dying children, would be far easier to engage effectively — with a gun — than James Holmes would have been in a dark and crowded movie theater. Even in the case of the Aurora shooting, it is not ludicrous to suppose that everyone might have been better off had a well-trained person with a gun been at the scene. The liberal commentariat seems to have no awareness of what “well-trained” signifies. It happens to include an understanding of what to do and what not to do when the danger of shooting innocent bystanders exists. The fact that bystanders do occasionally get shot, even by police officers, does not prove that putting guns in the hands of good people would be a bad idea. Gun-control advocates seem always to imagine the worst possible scenario: legions of untrained, delusional vigilantes producing their weapons at a pin drop and firing indiscriminately into a crowd.

Keep in mind I’m only highlighting a few excerpts from a very lengthy piece — with many numbers/citations — so please read the whole thing before commenting.

Where Harris falls short for me is that he doesn’t properly distinguish between “good” and “bad,” “trusty” and “untrustworthy” gun owners. What happens when a good guy turns into a bad guy? There are plenty of mentally stable people I still wouldn’t feel comfortable around knowing they possessed a gun, even if they were well-trained. I don’t think I would trust their judgment when it comes to when they should use their weapon. (Hell, Harris knows perfectly well that we live in a nation where many well-educated people have absurd, illogical beliefs. Is it hard to imagine well-trained people who are still trigger happy?)

Harris would probably say I’m being paranoid and that being “well-trained” implies having the right sort of judgment in those situations, but it doesn’t make me feel much better about it.

(image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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