27 December 2012

A Sane Exchange on Guns, Violence & Self-Defense

First Jeffrey Goldberg published this essay at The Atlantic entitled "The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)." (The piece was written post-Aurora and prior to the Newtown massacre.) Then he and Ta-Nehisi Coates engaged in this calm and sensible conversation - "More Guns, Less Crime: A Dialogue" - about guns, violence, self-defense and related matters that takes off from Goldberg's essay. I find myself agreeing with the position Coates advocates. Here are some of the good bits, in which he is replying to this query from Goldberg: "I could go on, but let me ask you a question: If you were confronted with an "active shooter," do you think, in that moment, you might wish you had a gun?"
. . . it is not clear to me that human beings, with all of their foibles, always understand where defense ends and aggression begins. George Zimmerman, by his own telling, was defending himself. And given the marks on this head, in some sense he was. But I wonder, if he had been unarmed, whether he would have ever gotten out his car. Michael Dunn, who sprayed a teenager's SUV, claims he was defending himself. But I wonder if he ever would have said anything to those kids if he had not been armed. This has particular meaning in the realm of race, where the mere fact of being black means that an uncomfortably large portion of American society is more likely to perceive your everyday actions as aggressive, and thus justify "defense." There seems to be no sense that the very presence of a gun -- like all forms of power -- alters its bearer, that the possession of a tool of lethal violence might change how we interact with the world [. . .]

If I had a gun, there is a good chance I would shoot myself, thus doing the active shooter's work for him (it's usually "him.") But the deeper question is, "If I were confronted with an active shooter, would I wish to have a gun and be trained in its use?" It's funny, but I still don't know that I would. I'm pretty clear that I am going to die one day. That moment will not be of my choosing, and it almost certainly will not be too my liking. But death happens. Life -- and living -- on the other hand are more under my control. And the fact is that I would actually rather die by shooting than live armed.

This is not mere cant. It is not enough to have a gun, anymore than it's enough to have a baby. It's a responsibility. I would have to orient myself to that fact. I'd have to be trained and I would have to, with some regularity, keep up my shooting skills. I would have to think about the weight I carried on my hip and think about how people might respond to me should they happen to notice. I would have to think about the cops and how I would interact with them, should we come into contact. I'd have to think about my own anger issues and remember that I can never be an position where I have a rage black-out. What I am saying is, if I were gun-owner, I would feel it to be really important that I be a responsible gun-owner, just like, when our kids were born, we both felt the need to be responsible parents. The difference is I like "living" as a parent. I accept the responsibility and rewards of parenting. I don't really want the responsibilities and rewards of gun-ownership. I guess I'd rather work on my swimming. And I think, given the concentration of guns in a smaller and smaller number of hands, there's some evidence that society agrees.

Which is not to say those of us who don't own guns don't want to live. We do. But it's not clear that this particular way of living [ a world in which gun owning/carrying has proliferated] will even be effective. [. . .]

In other words, if I have "have a gun" in that situation, other things are then also true of my life. In other words, there is no "me" as I am right now that would have a gun. That "me" would spend a good amount time being responsible for his weapon. It's not so much a situation that, if I were with you and we were facing down a crazy dude, I wouldn't want to have a gun. It's that I've already made choices that guarantee that I couldn't have one. It just isn't possible, given my life choices. I'd much rather work toward a world where the psychotic shooter is actually a psychotic knifer, or a psychotic clubber. [. . .]

I guess my point is, I have a hard time with a construction of violence that begins and ends in the moment of violent confrontation. My belief is that an intelligent self-defense begins long before that dude with the AR-15 in hand appears. If we're down to me licking off shots, then we are truly lost. And I say that as a dude with a huge poster of Malcolm X on his wall."
In a sense, Coates is advocating a sort of pre-figurative stance. Act as though the world were the way you hope it can be. And work to bring the world into line with those hopes. This risks being self-deceiving or naive. But it is no less so, I suspect, than the Rambo-esque fantasies of gun fundamentalists in which the gun-toting hero shoots up the bad guys - whether those be rogue law enforcement officials or just plain old criminals.

That said, I think Goldberg advances a pretty nuanced and quite sincere argument.  Several things nevertheless struck me about the position he ties to stake out.

First, Goldberg says this more or less at the outset: "I'm dispositionally centrist, in that I believe, as a pretty steadfast rule, that most issues are ambiguous and contradictory, and that no one ideology provides all the answers. Hence, my belief that people (qualified people) have the right to armed self-defense, and that the government has the right (and responsibility) to regulate the sale and carrying of guns." And while that makes him the sort of person with whom one might indeed hold a conversation, it also, as he admits, sets him considerably outside the mainstream of those advocating more or less unfettered access to firearms. Witness Wayne LaPierre's self-caricaturing press conference last Friday.

Second, my view is that there should be no presumption that you (anyone) should be licensed to own/carry a firearm. One should have to demonstrate a reason and the demonstration process should be onerous. Why? because for a reasonable fellow like Goldberg everything, and I mean everything, rides on the  notion that only "qualified people" - responsible, well-trained, psychologically stable - should have access to firearms.  (He calls these folks "vetted, screened, and trained civilian gun owners" and "a law-abiding, sane, and trained person[s].") There is only one way to meet that burden - namely though an onerous vetting process such as those established in the U.K.. And, if this means drastically revising or repealing the 2nd amendment, so be it.

Third,  at one point as part of an exchange about the placement of guns into schools, Goldberg says: "Again, there's no sure thing, but when I hear people say that an armed presence in the school would definitively not have helped, I think they're being fatuous and ideological, as fatuous and ideological as I would sound if I argued that a counter-shooter definitely would have neutralized the threat. My mind keeps returning to the example of Joel Myrick, the assistant principal of a high school in Pearl, Mississippi, who captured a shooter at his school by pointing his legally-owned weapon at him." The problem here is that Goldberg is overly credulous. Actually the case he mentions, and others like it trotted out by the gun fetishists are, like most anecdotes, fairly unpersuasive once one pushes beyond the headlines and look at actual events. In the Pearl case, the "active shooter" had already stopped and wandered into the school parking lot before the assistant principle collected a hand gun and detained him.

More importantly, Goldberg appears fatalistic about all the guns already in circulation: "Canada seems like an attractively gun-free place, but the whole point of the article is to acknowledge that we can't create Canada-like conditions in the U.S. It's just too late. Even if all gun sales were banned tomorrow, there would still be 300 million guns in circulation." But there is some reasonable evidence (from Australia, for instance) that it is possible to implement gun regulations coupled with buy back provisions that take guns out of circulation. And the consequences is a decline in numbers of gun violence against others and against one's self. One can debate any case. And the fetishists will rightly point out that the Australian law has not totally eliminated gun violence or other violent crime. So what? Who would claim that total elimination is even possible. We should aspire to the rates of gun violence that Australia and the UK for instance have. Zero is unattainable. But we can do substantially better than we now do at preventing gun homicides and suicides. Fatalism, talk about this or that "half measure" (as thought half as many gun deaths in a year would not be an immense accomplishment in the US), are I suspect reflections of the libertarianism to which Goldberg subsequently admits. That said, even libertarians should not be complacent or fatalistic on this matter - look at this proposal. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

I agree that living armed is a lifestyle and a responsibility that I do not personally want to burden myself with. And liability insurance should be mandatory.

There are always individual cases that can be argued pro or con, but there's no question that guns have cost more civilian lives than they have saved. And it's truly scary that you have many a gun owner out there today, who think themselves responsible, and who will argue ad infinitum that had the audience been armed at Aurora, the carnage could have been avoided. Dozens of armed civilians firing blindly at a black clad figure in a filled and darkened theater, and they seriously champion that they would have been the one to take him out!

I don't even want to think about the dead girlfriend revenge shootings that would have followed. And no, a coward like Zimmerman would have never put himself in harm's way without a gun. Guns do alter your mindset, and they're far worse than any liquid courage, they supply super power retaliation with all to human repercussions.

28 December, 2012 19:00  

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