In the wake of the Newton shooting, it seems like everyone is talking about guns, whether that be suggesting that we need better gun control laws or arguing against that idea. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having as I watch these discussions play out:
1. Yes, People Kill People, But…
I have been hearing the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument a lot lately. And you know what? I grew up hearing it too. I grew up in a very pro-gun family, then kind where the kids go to NRA “youth shoots” and the family has an AK47 in the closet. But I don’t for the life of me understand this argument anymore, because the response is so simple: Sure, people kill people, but do you know what guns do? They make it really easy for people to kill people, and lots of them.
There was an attack on a primary school last week in China that was very similar to the Newton shooting, and you know what? Because the perpetrator only had a knife, no one died. I’m not trying to be little the pain of the parents of the 22 children who were wounded in the attack, but you know what? They’re still alive. I don’t know of any parent who wouldn’t rather have their child have a knife wound than be, you know, dead.
My point is that while people, and not guns, cause violence, guns are the grease on the wheel or the ice on the road. They increase the amount of destruction a person can cause, and the amount of people a person can kill, by several orders of magnitude. So say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” all you want, but I really find nothing persuasive about that argument at all.
Am I in favor of banning guns? No. For one thing, some people use guns for things like hunting or protecting their farm animals from predators. For another thing, I am not an expert on the statistics and data regarding how gun control works and which sorts of requirements are the most effective in cutting down on the potential of violence. I do think we need to revive the assault weapons ban, and I think we ought to be able to make it so that a shooter like Adam Lanza only has the capacity to fire a limited number of shots before having to reload, a time when he would be vulnerable to being apprehended.
2. This Thing about the Second Amendment
I know, I know, I grew up hearing “second amendment this” and “second amendment that.” But here’s the thing. The second amendment is actually a lot more complex than people think it is. I am not a constitutional scholar or a historian of the second amendment. I don’t have it all figured out. I do know enough to know, however, that the idea that the founding fathers passed the second amendment so that the people would be able to rise up against a future tyrannical government is only part of the story, and is highly misleading when set on its own.
For example, the founding fathers were generally very afraid of a standing army. They believed that a standing army resulted in tyranny, and that therefore having a standing army should be, if possible, avoided. Instead of a standing army, they decided that it would be best to rely on state and local militias, which could be called up in case of foreign threat or domestic insurrection. This is why the second amendment reads as follows:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
For a time, the United States did not have a standing army, relying instead on state and local militias. When Andrew Jackson called up state and local militias during the War of 1812, he was angered that many men came to him without weapons, and thus useless in his fight against the British and their allies, thus illustrating the reason the second amendment was penned. Over the years, though, things changed.
In the end, the second amendment is complicated, and I don’t claim to be an expert on it. What I do know, though, is that the simplistic way so many people treat it today is extremely ahistorical (ironic given how much most of those who trumpet the second amendment also claim to believe in the original intent of the Constitution). Rather than trying to understand its constitutional or historical context, we would rather throw it around like some sort of argument-winning dogma. It honestly reminds me of the way fundamentalists approach the Bible.
Today we have a standing army, and the National Guard serve as the twenty-first century equivalent of the late eighteenth-century state militias. Our nation and our needs are different than they were 250 years ago, and we shouldn’t pretend as though they aren’t. Given the existence of drones and nuclear weapons, what good would guns do in the case of “government tyranny”? I think it’s time to admit that our nation has changed since 1789 and that what might have worked best then doesn’t necessarily work best now, and I think it’s time to give up our cowboy dream of gun-toting loyal Americans barricading themselves in local armories and taking on the big bad federal government with an AK47 in each hand.
3. Guns: The Great Equalizer?
Finally, I’ve heard people argue that our response to the Newton shooting should be more guns, not less. Why? Because if everyone is armed, then everyone can defend themselves and take down shooters. I found Sierra’s response on this issue thought provoking:
A question occurred to me as I proofread my last post about how my father’s violence and gun ownership gave him unnatural power in the household:
Why didn’t guns make me feel safer?
After all, I was a pretty good shot. I knew how to load, unload and clean the guns properly. I knew where they were kept. My father had even instructed me on how to defend myself: Never point a gun at someone if you aren’t going to use it, he’d said, because that gave them the opportunity to get it away from you. Aim for the abdomen and shoot to kill, he’d said, unless you knew you could reliably hit the person in the leg. Even then, he’d warned, you never knew if your attacker had a gun, so crippling him might backfire.
So why didn’t it occur to me that my father’s guns could protect me from my father? After all, the NRA propaganda that saturated my youth said that handguns were equalizing forces in society. It didn’t matter if you were a tiny, skinny person or even a child – if you had a gun, you could defend yourself.
I don’t think that’s true anymore.
When someone initiates violence, you usually don’t get to prepare. Especially not the kinds of violence I would have faced as a young woman.
If my father had decided to attack me, I can imagine two possible scenarios: in the first, he would have premeditated the attack and come after me with a gun. In that case, I wouldn’t have time to grab one myself before he appeared and shot me. Game over. In the second scenario, he would fly into a rage and attack me with his bare hands. In that case, I’d have had to already load the gun and have it ready at my side – which he would have noticed, since he knew where the guns and ammo were kept. Keeping a loaded gun on hand in case he planned to attack me would be more likely to tip him off and incite a rage episode than protect me from one. Besides, if he discovered that I was keeping a loaded gun by my side, he could use that as evidence to discredit my own mental health.
In the abstract, sure, having a gun could make me safer. Being able to shoot does even out whatever physical disadvantage I could have against an attacker. But in the real world, it doesn’t work that way. In the real world, guns don’t equalize power; they give more power to those who already have it. In the real world, there are variables. There’s a lot of guesswork to defending yourself. And frequently, those who are most in danger of violence are the least able to use guns to their advantage, because their attackers are already close to them, already familiar, already more likely to instigate gun violence and better able to rationalize using it.
Based on everything I was taught, my father’s guns should have been a source of self-defense and safety to me, even against his own violence. Instead, they were instruments of terror, reminders that he held my life in his hands. It didn’t occur to me that I could have used them to defend myself against him then; now, looking back, I still don’t think I could have. They didn’t equalize anything. Guns don’t defend the weak; they empower the powerful.
I still think the best thing I could have done for self-defense is what I eventually did: get the hell out of there.
Anyway, just a few thoughts. As always, I reserve the right to be wrong or change my mind. And of course, feel free to offer your own thoughts!