Monday, 17 December 2012

Gun Idolatry

Back in August I blogged about an argument against gun control that I thought was particularly silly. Unfortunately, I used up the title that I really wanted to use for this post, a critique of the old NRA slogan "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

It's a brilliant piece of rhetoric, because on a moral level, it's absolutely true. People are blameworthy for the good or the evil they do, and guns only do evil as instruments at the direction of people. Of course we shouldn't blame guns, but the people who point them at other people.

(That's a little loaded in itself, appealing to our sense of justice in asking us not to blame the poor innocent guns for what people do with them. But by that very same token, guns don't have any rights to justice, and we don't need to care about treating them unfairly if we do blame them for violence. Even if their availability contributes just a little bit to elevated rates of violence, we could be justified in destroying them all, and we wouldn't have to apologize to the poor innocent guns at all. Their owners might have a moral claim, but guns themselves are just inanimate objects with no right not to be scapegoated for our sins.)

From a moral perspective, placing responsibility on human beings is absolutely appropriate, so it's hard to take issue with the slogan there. Indeed, I think this is a very important point often overlooked in the wake of tragedies like last week's horrific school shooting, as we make a deliberate effort to forget the shooter and remember the victims. Well-meaning as that is, and as repugnant as it seems to "reward" the pathetic loser by paying him the attention we presume he wanted, we should remember that our moral obligation is watch out to make sure we don't do bad things, and so we should always be alert to catch in ourselves the kind of error or psychosis or whatever it is that leads people to do bad things. To that end, alas, we really ought to try to understand how the shooter went astray, so we can better avoid taking the same path. Our moral obligations have to do with our role as potential villains, not as potential victims, and so it is the potential villain inside us we must be ever vigilant to identify.

I cannot fault the slogan for reminding us of this. As people, we need to remember that it's not our guns but ourselves we must blame. Guns don't kill people; WE kill people. And if that were the whole of the slogan's meaning, I'd be fine with it. But it's not.

See, there's another reading of the slogan, one that comes out if we read it not from the perspective of a potential villain, but as a potential victim. If you read it this way, it's much more terrifying, insidious, and destructive: Guns won't kill us; people will kill us. Those people, they're dangerous, be afraid of them. Arm yourself; you may need to shoot them.

That fear-soaked message is, I think, central to the gun psychosis of American society. I don't have a problem with people owning guns because they use them for hunting or they enjoy target shooting or they collect them or study them or just think guns are cool. It doesn't bother me that guns are designed to kill people; so are swords, and I have no problem keeping a sword in my house. No, I have a problem with people owning guns because they are afraid. Fear is the problem; frightened people are dangerous.

Why are people afraid, and what are they afraid of? Well, they think they're afraid of criminals or the government or the New World Order coming and imposing its will by force. And sure, these are things against which we should be on guard, of course. But underneath it all is an excessive, irrational and almost mystical terror of violence. Nothing is quite so terrifying, it seems, as the threat of violence. Dying in car accident? Well, yeah, it could happen, but everyone still drives. Lung cancer? Meh. If you gotta go, you gotta go, but don't take away my cigarettes. But somehow, if someone puts a gun to your head, you have to do what he says?

People talk about violence being glorified, but I'm not sure that's the right word. It's mystified, and thus made somehow supernaturally powerful. And so naturally, people who are afraid want to possess this power for themselves, perhaps thinking it will make them less afraid, though it doesn't really, since they know that other people also have guns. Frightened people are dangerous, but frightened people with guns even more so.

Okay, okay, maybe we can blame the occasional (well, appallingly frequent) gun death of an innocent on the twitchy trigger fingers of paranoids, but surely the losers responsible for mass public shootings aren't acting out of fear, are they? No, of course not. But they do often seem to be people who feel powerless in their daily lives, and in a society where guns represent power, what do you expect?

So I don't think the problem is, exactly, that Americans have too many guns. It's that they think they need them, and the very unwillingness to even discuss the possibility of putting stronger regulations in place is symptomatic of that profoundly unhealthy fear. Paradoxically, if they were able to talk about gun control, they wouldn't need to talk about gun control. 


  1. I'm with you up to that last sentence. "Paradoxically, if they were able to talk about gun control, they wouldn't need to talk about gun control."

    Doesn’t that assume “they” are a single unitary body of common thought? I think that if attitudes shift in America it will be the case that a majority will become in favor of increased gun control, while a minority are still scared and opposed.

    Interestingly, it is also fear that drives pro gun-control arguments. Just a different kind of fear, I think....

  2. I certainly didn't mean to imply that U.S thought is monolithic here. Of course there are many voices saying different things. Clearly a lot of Americans want to have this conversation, but the people they need to have it with aren't interested, and complain bitterly that it's "politicizing" the tragedy to bring it up now. And so I did mean "they" inclusively; they collectively cannot talk about it (though many of them want to).

    As for fear driving gun-control, well, of course it does, and I do think a lot of the arguments are purely panicky. So many people are complaining about the AR-15 while saying that hunting rifles should be allowed, and it really seems like they're saying that just because the AR-15 LOOKS so much scarier than the nice old-fashioned wooden-stock image of grampa's hunting rifle, which is kind of silly.

    Anyway, my post really wasn't arguing for gun control or against it. I'm not interested in taking a position on that here (though I do have an opinion). Rather, I'm suggesting that it's kinda like Abraham and Isaac on the mount. Abraham had to show God that he was genuinely prepared to sacrifice Isaac before God stopped him from doing so. I think that if the gun nuts were able to say yes, they could live without their guns, there wouldn't be such a problem with gun violence in the U.S., and they wouldn't need to give them up after all.

  3. From my perspective on the other side of the 49th parallel, it looks like personal fear is at the core of almost every public policy discussion in the U.S.A. I don't understand why. Whenever I ask an American that question, they list a bunch of infinitesimal risks like "another nine-eleven attack" or "a home invasion by an armed intruder" which are so unlikely that no rational person would consider them a risk to his or her personal safety at all. I guess the real reason has something to do with religion or child-rearing practices, or some other factor that is so much a part of the culture as to be unquestioned and unexamined.

    Probably the greatest single social difference between the United States and Canada is that Americans always seem to be afraid. When I hear the phrase "home of the brave" in the U.S. national anthem, it always makes me sad for my American friends.

  4. To be sure, there are many very courageous Americans. But it is alarming how much of a voice cowardice carries, and how readily it disguises itself as tough-minded realism. As if those who oppose the use of torture don't truly appreciate what's at stake, or just don't have the guts to do what has to be done.