Reflections on the Gun
I learned to fire a rifle when I was young. So young that it exists in the dim recesses of memory, back there with Star Wars, learning to read, elementary school, and my parents’ divorce. I own six firearms, a few were gifts and the others I purchased. When my wife and I got married, I sold the pistol I owned because I didn’t want it around small children. When our children were grown, I bought another one. I am not anti-gun, but neither am I so anti-pragmatism or pro-slavish-devotion-to-ideology that I can’t reflect on the modern world and it’s distance from when the second amendment was written. It is entirely likely that my views on firearms are going to anger both sides of the political spectrum. Good. Not only is that one of my favorite past-times, it is also the indicator I use to determine whether I’m on the right path.
America is the nation of the gun. We came of age as firearm technology advanced by leaps and bounds and rode that wave of innovation from sea to shining sea. Manifest destiny was bought with lead. Our unspoken mythology is a strange blend of enlightenment thinking and the old west. Or at least our collective misconceptions of both of those things. We are a nation of gunslingers and action heroes, at least in our own heads. This is decidedly more prevalent among men than women. Not surprising given how evolution set us up to have instincts to fight and protect. It should be noted, however, that instinct is not the same as competency. The latter takes years of effort.
We have to keep this mythos in mind. Other developed countries have different unspoken mythologies, which may be why their citizens are okay with different laws. To point out the relative lack of mass shootings in other places misses this crucial point. Those places don’t have our history, our system of law or our ethos of self-reliance at the frontier. It may be that other nations see us as barely civilized cowboys when it comes to guns. The fact that many of us revel in that perception is just the mythology at work.
Guns are a technology. A tool to accomplish an aim. The reason this becomes so charged so quickly is that it is purely a weapon. The aim of such a tool is only to inflict harm. This places us firmly in moral quandaries at the start of the discussion. Say what you will about knives, hammers or axes, they serve other useful functions. Firearms do not. And unlike other pure weapons (like bows and perhaps swords), they are able to inflict harm with ease and at speed. It often comes up in discussion that other tools can be used to kill people. Vehicles are a popular example. This ignores the fact that the amount of overhead required to own and operate a vehicle is orders of magnitude higher than a firearm (licensing, registration, insurance, etc). Do those things for guns and you’d likely see a decrease in their misuse.
Gun Control vs Gun Rights
These terms are used to describe the two sides of a political fight. It’s important to remember that there are not two sides. These are the same thing. This is about the law and overall benefit to society. The vast majority of people agree that we should not give fully automatic weapons to small children, the mentally ill or dangerous felons who are incarcerated. There are limits, the disagreement comes with where we think the lines should be. Put another way, most everyone believes in some measure of gun control, it’s just a question of the shape our laws take. Weapons such as sawed-off shotguns, fully automatic machine guns, grenades, and other weapons are already subject to more restrictions than regular firearms and thereby heavily regulated if not outright illegal.
A ban on guns is not going to happen. I do not rightly understand the fear or rhetoric in some quadrants that the government is going to take away all firearms. It borders on ideological hysteria, a sort of armageddon of that aforementioned mythology of the gun and the founding. There are more firearms than people in the US. An outright ban on them at this point would result in chaos and a temporary but untenable asymmetry between those willing to break the law to obtain or keep guns and those law-abiding citizens that would not. No law that attempts to implement such a sweeping reform of our current situation is going to go anywhere. Nor would such a law be deemed constitutional. Instead we should be looking at small, iterative changes. Preferably changes that can have the most impact. Of course, none of those small changes are going to sit well with everyone. We would do well to keep in mind that not all slopes are slippery. In fact, most of them aren’t.
It seems that many pro-gun advocates think more guns are the answer. The NRA’s refrain that bad guys with guns can only be stopped by good guys with guns is trite and simplistic. An active shooter situation is full of chaos. Give a regular citizen a firearm in a scenario characterized by mayhem, bullets, fear and adrenaline and I’m not convinced they will do anything other than add to the chaos or catch fleeing victims in a crossfire. It requires months and years of training for soldiers to operate in conditions like these. You think someone that attended a concealed carry class is going to be as calm or as effective?
And what about those who are actually tasked with responding? When they enter the area, they are looking for someone with a gun. If you are attempting an armed response yourself, then you have a gun. Congratulations, you are now a suspect, and in such a chaotic environment, suspect means target. To make matters worse, you might end up shooting a police officer. To all those who think they would do okay, you’ve bought into the mythology and wish fulfillment. Unless you’ve had the necessary military-level training, you are more likely to be a liability in an active shooter scenario where you are attempting to engage the gunman. You might do better if you take up a secure, defensive position (note, this is not a given) but in that case the shooter is still active - you having a gun is not the magical solution to the problem.
I’m sure there will be cases where someone responds and gets lucky. It is in the nature of chaos that such things can happen. It’s more likely that your own sense of crushing mortality locks you in place, afraid and unmoving. Armed police officers have hesitated to enter these situations. If you are untrained you are more likely to flee or hide. Those instincts might keep you alive.
After all this, you can guess my opinion on arming teachers. They are already overworked and underpaid. Many use their own resources to purchase supplies. If we can afford to give them guns and the necessary levels of training to respond to a school shooting, I can’t help but wonder why we can’t afford to give them the resources they need for the day to day work of educating. If we can’t afford to give them the proper levels of training then this isn’t even an option. This is not the job they signed up for.
Defense of Liberty
Time to consider a bit more mythology. At the time of our founding, I’m sure the framers looked at what happened when tyrannical governments made it illegal for the people to own firearms. The way indigenous people without guns fared against colonizers with guns could have been a factor in their thinking, but it seems unlikely. Either way, they decided, “well we shouldn’t let that sort of asymmetry be possible”. There was a time when individual citizens could form militias with regular firearms and take on a government intent on overstepping it’s authority. Hence we have a second amendment that is partly intended to make the ownership of firearms a bulwark against tyranny. It’s a notion that is now mostly fiction, because the world has changed since the late eighteenth century.
Today, the technological gulf between what the military uses and what regular citizens can possess is so vast that there is no set of tactics or strategy that makes a defense of liberty argument truly feasible. It doesn’t matter the amount of firearms and bullets you have, those things won’t matter against artillery, mortars, grenades, tanks, drones, aircraft and the rest of the war machine that can be brought to bear against insurrectionists. If the government were intent on tyranny then there are only a few ways it goes for armed opposition groups.
- The government ignores you. This is not likely since armed opposition groups are likely to be branded as terrorists. Which leads us to option two.
- The military is firmly aligned with the government (which is to say that no significant number of soldiers will commit sedition to support the opposition). In which case, you should expect satellites to track you, tanks to destroy your home and predator drones to hunt you down.
- The military is not firmly aligned with the government. In this case, a number of soldiers might actually end up on your side (or at least against the government). Great, the cause of liberty gets more support. The problem is, military forces already have the weaponry. They don’t need additional guns from civilians.
A case could be made that there is a gray area between points one and two and that having firearms might be enough of a deterrent that the powers-that-be would tend more toward the first option. Enough of a deterrent to leave opposition groups alone. Fair point. But then you aren’t really defending liberty. You’re hiding and you aren’t a significant threat. The moment you become a significant threat then you’ve moved onto the radar of the most powerful war machine in the world. You might think you can engage in guerrilla tactics and maybe you can for a time (really, it’s your only option). But a government intent on tyranny is nothing like an operation with limited rules of engagement. When the gloves come off (and they likely would in this nightmare scenario) then whatever redoubts you can find will not keep you safe.
There is another reason to own a firearm. Things break down. From cars to buildings to infrastructure to nation states, things can and do fall apart. I’d rather not dwell on what might happen if there were a sudden upheaval of our established order. Said order is probably less stable than any of us would truly wish it to be. If things did go sideways and we were to somehow backslide at speed into some modern-day dark age then it will be terrible. Firearms would play a role in that for better and for worse. Those without guns will be at the mercy of those with guns. To be sure, order would emerge and life would go on but it would be much more of the Hobbesian scheme - nasty, brutish, and short. Of course, it may be that such an occurrence will not happen within the lifetime of anyone yet born. Cataclysmic cosmic events operate on million year time scales. Cataclysmic human events are a bit more frequent though still blessedly rare. Given our technological sophistication, it may be that the odds of such a thing diminish even further.
On the smaller scale, localized upheavals can also show entropic principles at work. In the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes and other such disasters, it might be that having a firearm can provide a level of security. If you know how to use it. And if you are prepared to use it. And if others aren’t more desperate and better armed. I don’t know what role, if any, firearms played in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or other recent disasters, but it seems like rescue and assistance are the primary force in play when things go bad. That’s good, it says something positive about us. Even so, I can understand why someone would want a firearm in this eventuality. If nothing else, it prevents others from having options you don’t.
Fueling the Fire
Mass shootings in the US seem to be occurring more frequently. This is partly because of easy access to firearms. Only partly. There is very rarely only one cause for something. In this case, it isn’t just guns or their mythology, it’s different aspects of our culture. First, we don’t elevate character and meaning. Religion has declined in importance and schools certainly don’t have programs in Aristotelian virtue theory. Gregarious personalities are elevated above the quiet man or woman of character. Absent character and meaning, life becomes a lot more difficult, resentment builds. Take enough of that and eventually some people will want revenge against the world. I’m not necessarily pro-religion (and certainly not in schools), but integrity, value systems, and hierarchies of meaning are necessary to societal integration.
The second major cultural element is exposure. Reality television, always on media, attention dominating social networks and millions of other Information Age incentives encourage people to get noticed. By doing something terrible enough, one person can get all those lenses pointed at them. Even if they aren’t around to see it afterward, they know that people are going to be thinking about them and talking about them for years. It is well on the other side of impossible, but if everyone in the media agreed to not publish the identity of a mass shooter, would the frequency decrease? If so, what does that say about us?
Finally, there is masculinity itself. Note that I did not say toxic masculinity, a term that gets tossed around frequently. Unless there is a toxic femininity, I don’t want to hear about a toxic version of manhood. Strength, aggression, competition, stoicism, drive, self-reliance, these are not toxic qualities. They are human qualities and there is still a place for all of them. They must be guided without being harmfully suppressed. What is needed is an evolved conception of manhood. One that takes vulnerability and suffering into account. Men and boys need to be able to talk about their complex inner landscapes without being called weak or feeling that they are. To be clear, men should be strong (so should women). Life isn’t kind to the weak, but strong is not the same thing as hard. It is vulnerability, loneliness and pain that can lead to resentment and so begins the path to hate. That path can take people to an inner hell, where the divine spark of other people (especially the innocent) becomes the target of rage.
Note, I did not list video games as a contributing factor. I’m not convinced that they are. If they were, I would expect orders of magnitude more killings to be taking place. Indeed, it may be that these games provide an outlet, a release valve. There is evidence that suggests that access to pornography decreases the incidence of sexual violence. That’s not a popular observation and I’m not sure how it fits in relation to character and values, but those factors don’t rule it out. It’s possible that violent video games can provide a similar sort of release valve that actually reduces the incidence of real world violence. I should point out that I am a software engineer, not a social scientist that is well versed in all the relevant research. If there is strong evidence that games contribute to the problem then I will re-evaluate my views accordingly. This is a paragraph that you should take with appropriate amounts of salt.
I’m going to admit that I have no good solutions for all this. I enjoy living in a free society and it may be that mass shootings are one of the risks that a free society has to deal with (ignoring that it happens almost nowhere else in the developed world - that brings us back to mythology). In spite of the majority of Americans being somewhat in favor of additional restrictions in the wake of a mass shooting, there is a very vocal minority that cares about the issue very passionately and 100% of the time. Until you can get the activation energy necessary to overcome the status quo, nothing will change. If that ever does happen, here’s a few ideas that might make for useful experiments.
- Significantly increase the taxes on firearms and ammunition. This is the economic solution to the problem. You tax what you want to reduce.
- Anyone wishing to obtain a permit to carry a firearm in public should be required to engage in a high degree of certified training at their own expense. On the order of hundreds of hours and in similar style to police and military training. This should be repeated every three to five years to keep the license. Special provisions can be made for veterans who have already had such training.
- All firearms sales should be done through licensed dealers and involve background checks. This includes gun shows and personal sales.
- Limit magazine sizes for rifles. Somewhere between 6 and 10 is more than sufficient for hunting or home defense. Assault rifles are not significantly different from normal rifles (they are worse in some ways, especially in terms of range and accuracy), but they hold a lot of ammunition. Smaller magazine sizes won’t stop mass shootings. But it might add enough friction to slow things down, allow more people to escape or generally inconvenience the shooter.
- Bump stocks should be illegal and silencers should continue to be classified as they are. If we aren’t willing to inconvenience the shooter, we can at least avoid actively making the process easier.
I realize all this is unlikely to happen. I’m not even sure that I’m okay with it all. Like I said, I’m pro-second amendment and not anti-gun. But it’s clear that the problems of mass shootings are not going away. You can increase security at every school in the US and those wishing to do harm can just do so elsewhere (as they have already in the Las Vegas and the Orlando nightclub shootings). Perhaps we can do something about the underlying causes of these shootings. But we should also look at some small, pragmatic adjustments to the system that offset how easy it is for evil or unbalanced people to inflict harm on their fellow citizens.