What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Guns?

“We’re going to have to have a conversation.”

We’ve all used it, the shorthand for “I want you to feel better, but I’m not interested in fixing this problem, because it is hard.” We kick the can and go along, surprised but not shocked when we’re standing in front of the can again. It’s happened long enough. We need to break up.

We need to break up with guns.

I know. We like them. Guns are fun. At times, they are even necessary. But we cannot keep ignoring the terrible things that they do just because we like them. 

For some of us, it is much easier to end the relationship. Some of us see guns as the asshole who keeps turning up to parties, who can be fun, but is often just as destructive. We want him gone. But others grew up with him, maybe even served with him, and he’s fine when they hang out one-on-one. So how do we to kick him out of the friend group without hurting anybody’s feelings?

Well, we’re not. Breakups don’t work like that. Which is why the gun “debate” usually starts with bargaining, with questions like…

Can we do other things and keep the guns? Mental health support, background checks, raising the legal buying age, that sort of thing?

Imagine you are drowning. I give you a flare, a life vest, and a day’s worth of food and water—and then leave on the boat that could have saved your life. We are being told that small amounts of help are the way forward, without even considering letting people on the boat. The boat–the thing that has the ability to solve the problem outright–“isn’t an option.”

Mental health is a real concern in the U.S. (and everywhere else), but this isn’t an either/or conversation. You can support mental health improvement as well as gun control. Background checks should certainly be mandatory in all purchasing situations (they currently are not), and raising age limits are all good ideas. But these are all ways to live with the problem, rather than solve it. The fact remains that you cannot kill people with a gun if you do not have access to a gun, no matter how mentally ill you are.

What about the 2nd Amendment?

Many gun arguments boil down into the dichotomy of for/against based on a single document: the Constitution. More specifically, the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights:

“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.” Constitution of United States of America (1789)

That’s the entire Second Amendment. Like many things that 1) are short, and 2) were written a long time ago, it’s been open to a lot of interpretation. Some people read it as “the banning of some classes of firearms would not run afoul of the law,” some read it as “I have the right to own as many guns as I want,” with a lot of people falling somewhere between those positions. Even the Heller decision, which granted individuals the right to own guns under the Second Amendment even if they were not members of a militia, doesn’t prevent the government from limiting the number of guns per individual or making laws about which kinds of guns may be legally owned.

The amendment is often invoked by people protecting what they see to be their personal rights. However, a document dated some ten years earlier outlines the fundamental rights of citizenry in the nation:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Those words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” weren’t just structured poetically: they are in order of importance. You cannot pursue lasting happiness if you are enslaved, and you must consider your own survival before you can think about anything else. These are The Rights. These are the things we protect first. If someone’s right to own a gun deprives another citizen of the right to live, the right to own the gun should be called into question.

But the Declaration of Independence isn’t an enforceable legal document, like the Constitution. So can it take precedence over the Bill of Rights? We could hire lawyers to figure it out, but we don’t have to, since T-Jeff clarifies in the next sentence:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The people who brought you America flat-out said that if America isn’t working, the people have the right to build a new one. No country can exist in perpetuity without alteration. Laws made by men can and should be changed along with the living nation.

If we take guns away, won’t that mean that only bad people will have guns?

This is a common counterpoint to the gun control argument, and on the face of it, it’s something to worry about. If someone breaks into your house and has a gun, and you don’t have a gun, you’re paying a price for being a law-abiding citizen. The problem is that research shows that guns are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes.

In 2015, the Violence Policy Center performed an Analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Crime Victimization Survey Data. The study found that not only are guns far more likely to be used for criminal activity than defense, but banning automatic rifles would not have much effect on (non-terrorist act) homicides, since the majority of these involve handguns. The chestnut of an otherwise-defenseless woman fighting off an intruder with her gun also seems to be false, as men are both more overwhelmingly more likely to commit and be killed in gun homicides.

It’s a terrifying prospect that only non-law abiding citizens would have guns. However, it’s also a terrifying prospect that a person can enter a public area and kill a room full of people in seconds. The difference is that the second one has actually happened. Many, many times. How many guns will allow a person to sleep at night to protect the fragile idea that he may one day use it for defense? One? Three? Seventy? It takes some people a lot of money before they no longer “feel” poor—and many of those in poverty could have been helped by giving some of it up.

I’m a well-trained and responsible gun owner. Why should I be asked to give up my gun?

It may seem unfair that responsible gun owners are being singled out to do something for the greater good. It helps to remember that you’re already doing things that benefit the greater good as a participant of society. Paying taxes, voting, jury duty—we agreed on these things because apportioning a burden to everyone makes that burden easier on everyone. Human beings cannot exist in a vacuum. They are social creatures, and depend upon one another to survive. If you think you don’t need to be part of a society, you are free to find an unincorporated wilderness (without healthcare, welfare, drive-thru, etc) and build a house for you and as many guns as you can handle. But unless you are typing from there, you are a member of society and subject to its rules.

Also, you have likely already made these “concessions” before. At the time of the writing of the founding documents, slavery was still fully in effect, women did not have the right to vote, gay people could not be married. We made changes to allow for the recognition and protection for a greater number of citizens, those whose marginalization placed them at undue risk and deprived them of representation. The majority may not have directly benefitted from these decisions, but that is the point of their passage. The powerful lose very little when an at-risk group benefits, but they feel as if they have been short-changed. 

That feeling is valid, but it is not equal to the feelings of those who have lost people to gun violence.

As a white lady, if I had been born in 1900 I would not have been able to vote. I would only be allowed to own property if I was married, and even then my husband would have sole ability to control property listed in my name only. In 1920, women finally achieve suffrage. Is my husband “giving up” his rights so that I can have mine? Am I giving something up 4 years later, when Native American women are granted the vote? Do we all forfeit some intangible right twenty-five years after that, when Japanese-American women get their citizenship and voting rights recognized?

This familiar talking point was also popular before the passage of gay marriage, as if granting other people the same rights we enjoy somehow cheapens ours. If we lose anything, it is our comfort and our ignorance—small prices to pay for gaining a greater understanding of who we are and what we want. We are writing these important things down to let others know that we stand together if they are challenged. And—if you, like me, just read twenty-five years and said “what the actual fuck?”—that amendment is often followed with shame that it didn’t happen sooner.

This isn’t wishful thinking anymore. Something feels different, it’s in the air: teenagers and students are calling the bluff. No more kicking the can. We’re not planning on addressing it, we’re addressing it. All humans, like America, are flawed and fierce and will fight to protect what is important. But we need to agree on what is important. We need to do better.


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