There are two different forces arrayed against gun control in the current debate—the forces of opposition and the forces of obfuscation. The forces of opposition are those whose allegiance to gun ownership brooks neither compromise nor debate. The forces of obfuscation are a more challenging opponent. Their stance is not a fealty to gun ownership per se, nor a mindless chanting of the fantastical slogans of opposition to government tyranny, neither are they simple supporters of easy and universal access to guns. They think gun owners should be trained, perhaps even licensed. Guns should be regulated. However, they stand on the peak of an Olympus of their own making from where they can discern that the territory is far more complicated than you know (you on the right, you on the left) and therefore none of your solutions are really helpful. Most mass killings were not carried out by people with rifles. Most of the gun violence in this country does not involve the types of weapons that the current and proposed laws would regulate or ban.
More importantly, nobody who is writing in support of gun control actually knows of what they speak. The editorial writers and pundits make rookie mistakes when speaking of weapons and ammunition. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud. Then, there is the fact that in the midst of a violent assault by a man armed with a gun it is better to be armed than unarmed; teaching people to defend themselves with furniture or their laptops is tragically absurd. Finally, those on the gun control side of the aisle need to admit that there are actually bad and violent people in this country and a person should defend themselves and their family. Ultimately, the obfuscator’s final argument (and Sam Harris has written one of the more eloquent of these) is that he has a gun, and he is trained to use it, and therefore he knows more about both the problem, and the problems with all the solutions, than you do.
The obfuscators, to their credit, point to the depth of the problem. There are about two hundred seventy million guns of various kinds in private hands already. Banning certain categories of firearms will not do anything about crimes committed with firearms that do not fit those criteria—and the gun lobbyists spend a lot of time applying pressure to massage those definitions. There are bad people, and in the middle of a violent situation many people might think that it would be better if they had a gun—if not, the odds are that the stronger bad people would always win. There is no solution, and therefore in the current situation as we find it (having created it) we should abandon all attempts at flimsy regulations and perhaps just try to train people on the weapons that they already have. With the density of gun ownership as it is, disarming is reckless. There is then no solution, so we should, reluctantly perhaps abandon the fight to control gun violence.
This approach, however, inadvertently points to the beginning of the solution—a solution that Harris, for one, does not want, nor does he think is possible.
First, taking care of business. It seems to be a necessary part of the rhetoric nowadays to have to claim knowledge of and use of guns to gain some sort of credibility. Here goes. I have carried and fired, at various points in my life, an M1, an M14, an Uzi, an M16 (both fixed stock and collapsible stock), and a 9mm Beretta pistol that I actually owned. As long as we are on the subject, I was also a tank gunner pulling the trigger on a 105mm gun. For what its worth, I was a pretty good marksman with both the M16 and the 105mm. It is, actually, not worth very much.
The problem of gun violence (which is a subset of a larger problem of violence) in our country is not dependent on knowing the arcane details of weaponry. It matters not a whit whether you know the difference between the AR15 and the M16 if you are really trying to solve the problem. It matters a lot if you are trying to keep as many guns as possible in play. If you want to evade any and all gun laws it is important to be able to argue about the number of rounds a semi-automatic gun can shoot in a minute. If you are trying to clamp down on guns, control the number of weapons that are in the hands of people this does not really matter.
The only solution, as Harris knows, is to ban all guns. This might even require the repeal of the second amendment to the constitution. And so, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I do want to take your guns away. All of them. Every last one.
At the same time, I do not think this will be accomplished this year or perhaps even this decade. We must however, start treating gun violence as the public epidemic that it is. Attacking a public health challenge on this scale is not just about laws. Fifty years ago doctors were appearing in advertisements for cigarettes. The cigarette lobby appeared to be implacable. (See Mad Men.) Now my kids think that smoking a cigarette is a sign of possessing an evil character. It is forbidden to smoke in public buildings, airports and most of the State of California. This shift was not simply a result of enacting many laws. There needed to be a multi-pronged campaign that was educational and cultural as much as it was legal.
If we are ever going to get rid of guns we will have to change the culture to the point that almost all people feel wrong owning and carrying guns. This is a cultural shift that will take a long time even if we start tomorrow. And people like Harris are telling us not to start.
So to coin a phrase we have to act in the present and think in the future. Yes, we need the tightest gun control laws that we can possibly pass right now. Registration, background checks, ten round or seven round clips, a hard ban on certain types of weapons that we can successfully demonize right now. However, we also—and perhaps more importantly—have to start shifting cultural perceptions. This is not the superficial argument that violent art causes violence. It probably doesn’t. What is incumbent upon us is to start the really hard conversation about what the gun means in American culture and whether the picture that is drawn is a picture that we are happy with. There is an urgent need to raise up or reemphasize the democratic values of this country—the values of dialogue and discourse, mutual aid, creating spaces of intellectual freedom and moral responsibility. We have to start defending the first amendment as fiercely, though perhaps somewhat less fantastically, as the gun lobby defends the second amendment. The first amendment does not only protect free speech and the right to publicly assemble for redress of grievances. The first amendment authorizes a culture of dialogue and dispute, of free and open debate. The society which prizes the ability to carry a concealed weapon or a high powered rifle is not the society which privileges the democratic practice of the free exchange of ideas. The latter is grounded in a culture of at least moderate humility, the former grounds a culture of suspicious politesse.
The way forward is neither easy nor obvious. However, if our ultimate objective is to create a society in which there is no gun violence, we will not get there by multiplying or even moderately decreasing the number of weapons in the hands of citizens. Our goal should not be the ability to stop a “bad guy with a gun” in the midst of a rampage, or even of a robbery, or a crime of passion. Our goal should be creating a society where the bad guy doesn’t have a gun, where nobody has a gun, where the gun option does not exist. This will open the possibility to other options. Options that will move us closer to the day when justice will roll down like water, righteousness like a mighty stream.