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My friend John C. Wright…

My friend John C. Wright… February 15, 2013

co-founder of the extremely exclusive Wright/Shea Mutual Admiration Society raises some objections to my somewhat cheekily titled post “Americans Suddenly Favor Limiting Right to Keep and Bear Arms“.  Quoting me saying “So what’s the basic difference between this and our own domestic debates? As near as I can tell, it boils down to acceptable losses.”, he offers a thoughtful reply:

2013/02/13 at 8:08 am

Friend, you are letting rhetoric usurp logic here. It does not boil down to ‘acceptable losses’ and no one who argues in favor of an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment has ever said it does.

Are you honestly unaware of what the arguments are in favor of a republic maintaining an armed citizenry? I am not asking if you agree with the arguments, merely if you are aware of what they are. If you are aware of such arguments, then answer them. Answer our arguments at their strongest point, if you think your argument can carry the day. But to pretend we say something we did not say, and to answer that instead, is what is called a ‘straw-man’ argument. It is a trick of rhetoric, not something a serious man does when pondering a question seriously.

Here are the arguments you have to address: First, an armed citizenry is the best guarantee of maintaining the liberty of a free people Second, even if this first consideration is secondary to the safety concerns which require some reasonable regulation of arms, the Congress has no authority to pass any such regulation. Third, even if state and local governments (who do possess that authority) wish to pass such laws, it must be done in a fashion which has the smallest possible effect on the legitimate ownership of arms by law-abiding citizens — this is a principle of the common law extending back to the Twelfth Century, namely that no law should be overbroad. Fourth, if a proposed law or regulation is found that places a minimal burden on lawful ownership of arms, whether the law will be efficient or inefficient? Both common sense and scientific studies show that areas with the most restrictive gun laws (Chicago, DC, LA) also have the highest rates of gun violence, whereas those with the least, have the least. See, for example, John Lott’s MORE GUNS LESS CRIME. Finally, the analogy between me, a law-abiding and honest citizen of a free country who has both the right and the duty to defend myself and my family from crime, assault, and tyranny, and the mad dictator who is himself one of the tyrants the whole point of civil society is meant to fight, and, with God’s help, abolish, is an analogy that looks at the shallowest possible surface phenomena and ignores the substance. Please resist the temptation to indulge in merely rhetorical scoring of points. Our current public discourse already suffers from far too much of this nonsense, and it generates emotion without addressing the logic.

Fair enough.  I often get the sense in these discussions that broadcast and reception happen on different wavelengths, so let me try to make clear here that I really do hear what is being said by folks like John and Dale Price and others.  I get the fear of the state and the conviction that an armed citizenry is harder for Caesar to push around.  I get that the second amendment, as currently read by the court makes tinkering with gun rights a dodgy legal problem.  I get that law tends to be a blunt instrument and that legislation in the states is an affair that risks harming innocents by taking away legitimate rights.  I get that there are people out there who really would like to confiscate all guns.  I get that the state gives worrying indications of morphing into a truly oppressive and potentially murderous police state.  I get the sense of frustration at being regarded as a criminal maniac by a goodly portion of the media when one is innocent of all wrongdoing or malicious intent.  I get the reality that people just want  to defend themselves and their loved ones from crime, assault and tyranny.  I want to make clear, since it seems I have failed to do so, that I hear and acknowledge and agree with all these concerns.  I want to make that clear, since so often it appears that people think I dismiss these concerns.

Where I have been unclear, it appears, is that I am not drawing any analogy between a law-abiding and honest citizen of a free country and a mad and evil dictator.  Rather, I am drawing an analogy between a mad and evil citizen of a free country and a mad and evil dictator.  I am not–at all–saying anything about the right of good people to own guns.

So–and this is crucial and must be emphasized and recalled throughout all I will say next: I am not suggesting–and in fact I oppose as unrealistic, impractical and counter-productive–the confiscation of guns.  This needs to be kept in mind because, in my experience, that seems to be what is instantly assumed when any mention is made, as I will make, of the Church’s teaching that the state has the right and obligation to regulate arms (CCC 2316).  I agree with the Church’s teaching here.

That said I am making a  few somewhat disconnected points.

My first point is that, for me at least, the gun debate needs to situated first in Church teaching, and only secondarily in Constitutional law, since the former participates in divine revelation, while the latter is wise, but ultimately human tradition and prudential judgment.  Recently, I had a reader declare that the second amendment was essentially “sacred tradition” and attempt to elevate it to the level of revelation.  This is profoundly mischievous and is exactly what Paul warns against when he tells the Colossians:

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Col 2:8)

The tendency to elevate some piece of human wisdom or prudential judgment is with us always and one of the vital jobs of the Magisterium is to help us distinguish sacred from human tradition.  In the gun debates, and particularly with people like the reader who tried to claim the second amendment is equal to sacred tradition, it seems to me that what is happening is that one particular aspect of sacred tradition–the right to defend the innocent from harm–is being exaggerated in unhealthy ways at the expense of the rest of the tradition and correllative to this, assertions of the common good are taken as attacks on the right of self-defense and the gun rights that flow from it.

A number of things go unconsidered in that process.  The first is that, in the Catholic tradition, it’s not a slam dunk that *self* defense, much less self-defense with deadly force is an unalloyed good.  The Church’s long tradition of martyrs is sufficient witness to that fact.  We tend to want to imagine the martyrs have died because, despite efforts at self-defense, they were overpowered by the forces of evil and compelled to martyrdom.  But in fact, many martyrs have embraced the cross while eschewing both means of escape and self-defense–beginning with Jesus who could have called down twelve legions of angels. Augustine affirms the right to defend *others*, but is skeptical about defending ourselves.

Beyond that, of course, is the question of how defense is to happen.  The second amendment envisions guns  as the main recourse and this is certainly an obvious route.  But  we are now one step removed from the basic Church principle of the right to defend innocent life and into a prudential judgment about how best to do that.  The second amendment is therefore concerned simply with prudential judgment about a human tradition rooted in a single aspect of the Catholic tradition that can itself be debated to a degree.

Meanwhile, the question of the common good still weighs and the common good includes the problem of roughly three 9/11’s worth of murders each year, as well as woundings, cripplings, armed robberies and so forth (I leave to the side people who get shot by cops doing their duty, people legitimately defending themselves, etc.).  The point is, there’s a real problem and at least part of it has to do with people who should not have their hands on a gun having their hands on a gun.  Note, once again, that I am not talking about law-abiding people here.

As I noted before, I am, as a Catholic, committed to the truth that it is from the heart that sin and evil proceed.  I’m also fully on board with the truth that, apart from sin and evil, various pathologies can also move less culpable people to violence.  It may even be that the shooter at Sandy Hook was among these less culpable people, tormented by who knows what sort of demons and mental illnesses, not to mention a broken family.  I absolutely applaud and support the truth that sin, sickness, and evil must be addressed if we hope to curb gun violence and that that is where the lion’s share of the work of a civilization must be addressed if we hope to address the problem.

The problem is that an awful lot of rhetoric from people afraid of the state encroaching on the second amendment tends to veer toward saying things the Church does not say, such as the the suggestion that the state should have *no* role to play in regulating arms. (You clear-headedly acknowledge that states do have some role there, though what that looks like calls for caution.).  Others invoke a sort of mystical passivity and treat the matter of gun murders with nostrums about the mystery of evil, even gong so far as to repeat such canards as “You can’t outlaw evil”.  The obvious reply to this sort of antinomian worldview is that law has no other purpose than to limit evil, even if we can’t eliminate it (though, of course, sometimes law can eliminate evil, which is why there is no chattel slavery in the US anymore and the English slave trade has fallen on such hard times since an Act of Parliament in the early 19th century).

And that brings me to my point about North Korea’s acquisition of nukes.  I repeat: my point is not to draw an analogy between a mad and evil dictator and law-abiding Americans.  It is to draw an analogy between a mad and evil dictators and mad and evil domestic criminals.  When a mad and evil dictator threatens to acquire really big arms capable of taking out LA, people like Drudge and his audience clearly grasp that prudence counsels trying to figure out some way to keep maniacs from acquiring the technology of mass slaughter: in a word, regulation of arms.  We do a quick cost/benefit analysis and immediately conclude that the right to bear arms is not limitless and that the dangers of treating it as if it were so are far too great to tolerate a mad and evil dictator getting his hands on the power to nuke LA.  In short, we situate the right to bear arms in the context of the common good, just as the Church urges us to do.  It is by means of this same moral calculus that domestic gun owners likewise conclude that the risks of gun ownership by good and honest people are outweighed by the risk of suffering tyranny at the hands of Leviathan, or the death or rape of their loved ones.  I have no quarrel with any of that.

My point is different: it’s that because the debate has been framed for so long as a fight between absolutes: between mass confiscation vs. Liberty, that nuance has, it seems to me, largely disappeared.  The sole concret proposal I have made–given that I disbelieve in the practicality or wisdom of repealing the 2nd amendment and taking everybody’s guns–is that (in addition to addressing things like sin in the heart, broken families, our mental health system, the lunacy of letting paroled murderers amass arsenals, violent media culture, and all that end of things) we have the technological wherewithal to invent gun technology that just flat won’t work in the wrong hands.  It’s the sole proposal I have made.

Can it be done? Hey, I’m an English major and you’re a science fiction writer.  We both know that just because somebody cooks up some interesting tech idea like transporters or faster than light travel that doesn’t mean The Future[TM] will deliver it up.  On the other hand, we also know that the first step toward scientific advancements has often started with somebody saying, “Why doesn’t some smart engineer try inventing one of these?”  So Jules Verne anticipates an awful lot of the American space program (not to mention submarines and a lot of other tech) long before it happens, just by deducing from what he already knows.

So, I proposed the basic idea, not of confiscating guns (which can’t be done and is counter-productive) but of building a better gun: one that can only be fired by the person or persons who are supposed to be firing it.  Is it  a panacaea?  No.  But will it help (assuming it can really be designed and function just as well as present firearms)?  Of course it will help.  It would render an entire class of guns useless to criminals if stolen.  Is it The Answer?  No.  But it is, quite obviously, part of the solution and not part of the problem to have guns which function perfectly in the right hands and not at all in the wrong ones.

So what was the response to this (admittedly tentative) suggestion?  Essentially a fusillade of “Can’t do.  Won’t work.  Give up.  Don’t Try.”  The spirit of Verne would be, “Hmmm… Interesting.  I can imagine any number of bugs, tweaks, fixes, and possible glitches, depending on what sort of security coding you might use.  But it seems like it would be worth a try.”  The spirit in my comboxes was almost entirely to declare the idea DOA, to denounce it as ‘fairy tales” and “science fiction”.  Almost every question directed to it was of the “asking questions in order to keep from finding things out and dismiss” variety not of the bold and curious, “That’s an interesting idea.  I wonder how it could be achieved” variety.

And that was my point.  I’m willing to grant that *of course* any attempt to invent such devices is bound to be fraught with complexities and difficulties and *of course* if such devices didn’t work as well as or better than current tech, they are no good.  But the sense I got from my readers was that they would oppose such devices *even if* they worked perfectly well, apparently because they would entail the nuisance of upgrading and/or expense.

So: Whereas Drudge and his audience very clearly were convinced that the death of, say, Los Angeles was an unacceptable loss that required some sort of action to limit his access to the technology of slaughter of innocents (action that typically involves both nuisance and expense for somebody), my readers were making it equally clear that the death of thousands of innocents domestically was not worth the nuisance and expense of so much as exploring the possibility of creating guns that can’t be fired by anyone but the authorized user(s). It was shouted down as “science fiction” despite the fact that at least one manufacturer is already marketing such a device.  I honestly don’t get that.  And so, I conclude that, for many Americans, the mindset is simply that their private cost-benefit analysis is that taking concrete steps to keep *big* weapons out of the wrong hands is worthy it, but taking concrete steps to keep *little* weapons out of the wrong hands is not worth it.  I don’t know what else to make of it.  If you can find some other analysis that makes sense I’m happy to entertain it.  But from where I sit, it looks an awful lot like even perfectly functional Intelligun would somehow be seen as a Bad Thing, and I can’t understand why.

Thanks for your typically intelligent, courtly, generous, and charitable spirit when you write, John.  You are a breath of fresh air.  I hope you and yours are well.

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