Friday, September 5, 2008

Guns, And The People Who Own Them

A group of friends and I sat in an Afghan restaurant today, and a rather awkward and usually upsetting thing happened: we started talking about politics. Not the usual sort of college talking-about-politics, where everyone has the same opinion and basically makes jokes at the other side's expense. I mean the kind of discussion where two people express opposing sides, and express them.

It was not an argument. As a matter of fact, when I said "rather awkward," I only mean to say that it was rather tricky to negotiate: because a polite, informed discussion is difficult to maintain, and it requires everyone involved be very careful about their words. But everyone was, and Thank God I learned a great amount about guns and gunowners.

There were six of us--five "liberals" (whatever that means in this context; we're not liberal when it comes to gun laws) and one "conservative" (see previous). And when the tides were so imbalanced, we wanted to proceed carefully so as not to trample him with the collective might of our passions.

A note about why the conversation worked before I get into the subject: everyone was actually very careful to stay within their own experience. Most people would love to throw out statistics or news articles or declarations about how the other half should live.

Instead, I got to hear the story of a young man who lives in an affluent neighborhood outside of Boston who has a gun license, and carries with him at all times (when he's in Massachusetts, where it's legal) a concealed weapon. He is my age, and in a lot of other ways not that different from me.

I'll try and introduce the issues that came up.

  • Why guns: The first, obvious question is, why carry a gun at all? There are, in general, two arguments as to why you would want a gun. One is hunting, the other is self-defense. Now, those are two very different kind of weapons (most people don't shoot elk or ducks with a handgun, nor do they defend themselves with a shotgun or a scoped rifle). We focused, in this discussion, on the latter, because that's the reason our case study focused on.
  • Legality: We agreed, immediately, that the two extreme positions are not plausible. There is nothing wrong with the occasional duck-hunt, so guns should not be completely banned. Nor should assault weapons or anti-tank weapons be free to any bloke off the street.
  • Regulation: The young gentleman bristled a little at the amount of regulation that he had to go through. He had to apply, separately, with the local police, the state office, and the Federal government. Each one had the capacity to say no. This is in addition to a safety exam and a background check, neither of which he objects to. But even then, that license that he is granted only applies to about seven states: in others (New York for instance) this is not legal. And what he suggested, and we immediately agreed, is that a single weapons regulatory body would be more effective: it would create less unnecessary hurdles, but strengthen the government's ability to track those who have weapons. Ironically, we could agree on this regulation, because it seemed to make gun ownership easier for those that should have weapons while making it easier to track those who don't have weapons.
  • Enforcement: He noted, quite rightly, that the people who do the worst things with guns typically get them illegally, and that many of those issues are not addressed by banning guns. How to address that issue is a completely different matter, but banning does not increase safety. Nor does relaxing regulation. Ironically, in our bipolar universe, the idea that neither increasing nor decreasing regulation makes the country safer is a little bit surprising.
He discussed with us, candidly, about how freely he moves around with a gun, and then he finally reached the sticking point: the point at which people on one side of the issue are distinguished from people on the other.

Sticking points are present in our most controversial issues. They're the points which are so important they cannot be compromised and very difficult to resolve. Unfortunately, sometimes the sticking point becomes the entire issue. For instance, if you make "pro-gun" or "anti-gun" the sticking point, it has much worse consequences (in terms of ruining bipartisanship) than if you make a more specific issue a sticking point. Those who cling to the 2nd Amendment in whole, allowing no regulation of gun ownership at all, are taking that sticking point to an extreme. These people should be reminded that the 2nd Amendment was provided to allow the people of the United States the right to overthrow their government by force.

The sticking point here was: should a human being be trusted to judge the situation in which a life must be taken?

This is a major issue.

Interestingly, you'll notice this framing is more wide-ranging than just this gun issue. This is because sticking points are philosophical-emotional, not political.

Issues that this sticking point intersects:
  • War: When we go to War, we judge ourselves right in taking lives, and in ordering people to die.
  • The Death Penalty: The death penalty states that we have the right to condemn people to death.
  • Abortion: if you consider an unborn child to be alive, then the right to abortion means you judge yourself worthy of killing that unborn child.
  • Gun Ownership: people who carry weapons in self-defense are preparing themselves, if need be, to kill.
Obviously, this doesn't mean that people who are in favor of any of the above are necessarily murderers. Almost everyone will concede that these issues are never actually black and white.

Some will look at those and say man cannot decide whether or not to take a life. But the truth is, man does have to decide. On the other hand, saying that man does have to decide does not mean that individuals have to decide. Society (or culture), may have to make that choice. Sometimes we decide it is necessary to take the right to choose death out of the hands of the individual. On the right, it is removing the right to choose abortion: on the left it is removing the right to choose war.

And people may rightly say that in such-and-such a case it is better to take a life (it never is right, but it might be better). But the question is, do you know.

The reason that I opposed the Iraq War was not necessarily because I was against war (World War II was a war that, on the whole, made things better in the world; Vietnam made things worse; Korea was merely a huge waste of life... etc.). But when the President embarked on a campaign of misinformation, he took away our right to make an informed choice.

That right is crucial. One of my favorite quotations about morality, which I use as my own moral compass when everything else fails, is Albert Camus' The Plague.

The narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to the praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy and the general rule. The narrator does not share this view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

What Camus is saying is that in order to judge the morality of an action, you need to have an accurate understanding of its effects. We tend to judge actions based on their impact. For instance, it is common knowledge that if this Iraq War ends in a stable, democratic Iraq, George Bush's legacy will be rehabilitated in the same way that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are forgiven their various crimes because of their successes. One quality of leadership is having to make those difficult decisions, based not on the here-and-now but on the long-term impact.

This is very difficult. Many people who mean well will make bad decisions because they are missing facts. And people will be unable to see their transgressions for the same reasons that they make them in the first place: a lack of understanding of the situation.

Now, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army (read: the President) will have to make that decision, whether he likes it or not. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have proven that. The question will remain: who will be able to see the picture more accurately?

That's not the question I set out to answer. The opinion I wished to express was merely that I don't carry a gun for self-defense because I have significant doubts in my own ability to judge a life-or-death instantaneous situation. I have doubts that I will, in the less than half a minute I will have to respond, make the right choice concerning the person whose life is my responsibility, if I take a gun into my life, whether that be the people who might come to be hurt in an accident or the person I might have to decide whether or not to kill.

This was a very fruitful discussion. The Afghan food was also very good. I recommend both to you heartily.

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