Friday, February 16, 2018

(Yet Another) Cri de Coeur

Occam's Razor is usually stated as "when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Facts, as President Reagan once told us, are stubborn things. They don't go away when you stop believing in them, as I think Robert Heinlein wrote. Or maybe it was Arthur C Clarke. It couldn't matter less.

There has been another mass shooting in America (a phrase which is itself an obscenity) , and the nightly news and public conversation and social media has exploded with vitriol, and counter vitriol, and counter counter vitriol, and cruel jokes, and funny jokes, and memes, and misinterpreted or misappropriated quotations from this or that Founding Father, this or that public figure. (Just as an aside, our Founding Fathers were brilliant, far reaching thinkers, but they weren't demigods. They were creatures of their times and their upbringing, like all of us are. There were people born at the same time they were, raised the same way they were, who had no problem with the idea that slavery was a moral atrocity and that women were just as capable as men to do just about anything at all. The fact that most of them couldn't, or wouldn't, grasp this self evident truth puts a serious ding in my evaluation of their intelligence.)

Nobody needs yet another take on this issue, least of all the take of a fat guy who lives in the suburbs, hasn't touched a gun since Boy Scout camp, and has cats that may be smarter than he is. But I feel like my head is going to explode if I don't say this, so here goes. I plan to explore the arguments, as I understand them, to opposing stringent gun control, eliminating the flaws, and revealing, I hope, the truth. Feel free to disagree, or share, or do whatever it is you do. But I do ask one thing: if you think I'm full of it, and I have no doubt someone will, tell me why. Enlighten me. Tell me what fact I have misstated. Don't just namecall.

The arguments for gun control are, to me, self evident. If you wonder what they may be, let's just start with the stacks of dead children, and proceed from there.

The arguments against gun control seem to me to be the following, in no particular order.

1)"It's In The Constitution, You Stupid Libtard Moran!" Yes, indeed it is. The Second Amendment to the Constitution states, approximately, "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." (I may not have that exactly right, but it's close enough, and I'm working from memory.) Gun people pay a lot of attention to the second half of that sentence, and it is, truly, a fairly black and white statement. "Shall not" is a phrase that doesn't allow for a lot of interpretation. But one of the big problems I have with literalists of any description is that, in my experience, they are literalists when it suits them, and they show a shocking willingness to allow for interpretation and nuance when it does not suit them. To be intellectually honest, in my opinion, you need to be a literalist all the time, or you need to allow for interpretation all the time. You can't do both.

So let's be literalist. The late Kurt Vonnegut memorably argued that a heavily armed man, woman, or child, given no aims, goals or instructions by any official, does not constitute a well regulated anything. I have since learned from people smarter than me that the Founders meant "regulated" to mean, roughly, "equipped". I don't know if I believe that, because regulated also meant, then and now, "subject to rule of law." But let's say these smart people are correct, and the Founders did mean that the selfsame militia should be well equipped. OK, what's a militia? Well, it's citizen soldiers, which is what we in America call the National Guard. I'd be much happier if, to own and operate a gun, a prospective owner had to join the National Guard.

But that seems like a lot to ask. So let's ask again, what was a militia at the founders' time? Well, it was, as I said, citizen soldiers. They weren't very good soldiers, but they lined up, and they had flags, and officers, and instructions from higher ups to take that hill or stand here and guard this gunpowder. They were a unit, subject to discipline and rules and instructions. To what extent is a citizen keeping a gun in his or her home a militia? I would also be much happier if, to own a gun, you needed to join the Frost Street Volunteer Militia, and one day a month, you had to come to the park and have your weapon checked and test fired and your general sanity looked over by other people.

So again, being literalist, the Second Amendment does not support an absolute right to own a gun, if you pay attention to every one of the pesky words, not just the ones you like. But let's go even further: what did "arms" mean to the Founders? Well, they meant muskets, didn't they? They certainly didn't have a vision of high schoolers carrying AR 15s. I'd be much happier if we took a literal view of this amendment in this way: let's be generous and say anything that a soldier in Napoleon's Grande Armee could carry on his person- those are "arms", and Congress cannot limit your right to own that. Anything more recent, or more lethal than that? You get regulation or a total ban. If you're going to be literal about the Constitution, I insist that you be literal all the way.

2) "If Guns Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Guns!" Yes, there will always be illegal guns. Criminals, by definition, are not law abiding. But we, as a society, take measures to improve things without eliminating them entirely. Vaccination reduces disease. Contraception reduces unintended pregnancy. Seat belts reduce traffic fatalities. We don't stop using any of those things because they aren't 100% effective. If we can reduce gun crime by 30%, at the cost of a little inconvenience, why on Earth wouldn't we? (A sub argument of this is "look at Chicago! A gun free zone, and it's as violent as Baghdad! See? Gun regulations don't work!" Chicago is indeed a violent place. But if you surround a gun free zone with zones that are quite gun filled, you may as well have no gun rules at all. Gun violence is a national problem, and it needs a national solution.)

3) "But I need it to protect my self/home/family/hoard of gold bullion!" The FBI estimates that there are about 300 justifiable homicides a year. The odds are overwhelming that the gun you have now will never do anything positive like protecting something you hold dear.  

4) "But I need it to protect my freedoms from a tyrannical government!" The government has cruise missiles. If the government decides to become tyrannical, there's no amount of firepower you have that will prevent that.

5) "What about knives and baseball bats and hatchets? Those can kill people too, you know! Are you going to ban them next?" Yes. Again, we aren't looking to eliminate all forms of violent death. (Or, more accurately, we'd love to, but it's not possible.) If guns were outlawed, there would still be stabbings and drownings and beatings and chokings. (And, still, some shootings.) The goal of gun control is to reduce the frequency of one particular, specific crime- the killing of large numbers of people in a relatively short time with relatively little effort. If we can ameliorate that, then maybe we can pursue those other problems.

6) "It isn't a gun problem, it's a hate problem." Yes, loneliness and alienation and isolation, if we could outlaw them, would certainly help. But we can't. There are lonely, alienated people in England and France and Denmark too. They generally don't shoot up bowling alleys, because they can't. (And maybe because there aren't many bowling alleys.)

7) "It isn't a gun problem, it's a mental illness/school security problem." Yes, comprehensive treatment for mental illness would certainly help. And putting armed people in schools might indeed help. But the same political party that resolutely opposes any and all gun control measures also just passed a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut package. This same political party spent 8 years tearing its garments asunder at the previous president's "outrageous" spending. If they are suddenly in favor of spending our tax dollars on things like mental illness and school security, where, I ask, do they plan on getting the money? (And note carefully, please, that the school where the latest atrocity played out did have armed security personnel.)  

8) "But I'm one of the good ones. My gun has never, and will never, hurt anyone." Great. Good for you. I am not Emperor of the United States, nor am I likely to be. No one is coming for your gun. What gun control, real gun control, would mean is that your fellow citizens are going to be a little bit more up in your business, as the kids used to say, than they used to be. You will have to have a lock on whatever place you keep your gun. You will have to show a police officer how you secure your gun. You'll have to buy liability insurance for it. You'll be held legally and financially responsible if your gun is misused. You may have to undergo some mental health testing. You may have to pay to register it, and pay periodically to demonstrate you can use it safely. Your life may get less convenient than it used to be. Anyone who grew up with siblings know that life isn't fair, that sometimes you get blamed for stuff that you didn't do. That's showbiz. If these new rules are too much work for you? I'm sure your local police department will be happy to take your gun from you.

Those are all the arguments I can think of. If I missed one, please let me know in the comments.

In sum, we have had, and we continue to have, a massive problem with gun violence in this country. We refuse to deal with it, because of craven politicians, because of ignorance and folly, and the dead stack up, and we wring our hands and say "what can be done?," when we know full well what can and should be done, we simply lack the will to do it. The dead no longer care, but their living have to stumble through the rest of their lives with a hole torn in their heart, and we owe it to them to try and make it so that fewer and fewer have to go through the living hell that their existence has become.

If none of this moves you, if you don't care about my arguments, if you still think that they can have your gun when they pry it from your cold, dead fingers, if there is no amount of death and suffering that would make you think that maybe, just maybe, we should be a little more careful about to whom we give machines that spew hot metal, if you cover your vehicle in NRA stickers and celebrate your freedom to kill as more important than my freedom not to be killed, then you are part of the problem. The blood of the dead children is on your hands. I hope you are sleeping well, because I wouldn't be able to if I were you.

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