Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Still creepy but...

Since I wrote this post (which you should read before you continue if you haven't already), I've had a number of very interesting discussions, chiefly (and somewhat surprisingly) on Facebook of all places. They haven't changed the essence of my position in the original post, but they have caused me to want to clarify a few things and in a few cases have caused me to evolve my thinking on some of the details.

The title of the original post

In the '...and we should tell gun people we don't think they're cool' part of the title of the post, the antecedent of 'they're' is ambiguous. Is the 'they' guns or is it gun people? In fact it was guns. I was not attempting to imply that all gun people as a group are not cool, not ok or deficient as human beings


The main thrust of the post hinges on the claim that guns and various specific categories of activities, viewpoints and individuals associated with them are creepy. Though I think it's reasonably clear what I mean by that term in context, let me clarify. I use 'creepy' to denote something that I find odd, off-putting, suspicious and, as a result, probably best to avoid when possible. Some examples of things I find creepy are old abandoned mental hospitals, Ke$ha and people who would download this app.

My labeling something or someone as creepy should not be interpreted as a moral condemnation. It means that the creepy thing makes me uncomfortable and I deem it worthy of at least a moderately elevated level of attention when I'm in its presence for fear of some actual negative consequence materializing. I am not condemning all gun owners as morally or intellectually bankrupt. I am not suggesting their rights should be taken away or that they should be placed in concentration camps. I am suggesting that people with an affinity for death machines should face about the same level of baseline social sanction as a man who would download an app that simulates a pretty girl staring at him while he works.

The notion that guns are creepy in this sense is something we should recognize and should serve as the start of -- and a persistent background to -- the consideration of a number of issues around guns in our culture. From that starting point, we can discuss the fundamental right to bear arm; the legitimate roles guns have; if, when and how their use should be regulated; and whether it is a good idea for a particular person or class of person to choose to exercise their right to own one.

I can't believe that anyone -- including gun enthusiasts -- would find the notion that guns -- devices that are specifically designed to kill and maim -- are creepy to be controversial, but there is a persistent element in the party line pro-gun rhetoric that the mere notion that guns are creepy in this sense is not only preposterous but that articulating it represents both gross ignorance and an assault on gun ownership. A good example of this is the comment by a gun enthusiast in this article by my friend Louis Hochman that guns, when properly handled, are no more dangerous than socks. If you really put guns in the same class of benign objects as socks, then you're also creepy.

The main argument in the original post is that 1) we should recognize this 'creepy principle' and attach to creepy things like guns an appropriate level of social sanction; 2) there is a lack of recognition of the creepy principle in the mainstream pro-gun positons that is, itself, creepy; 3) those articulating pro-gun positions should face a burden of overcoming the 'creepy principle' and associated social sanction. I think those conditions are necessary (though by no means sufficient) to properly and responsibly frame a debate around guns. To cede to the pro-gun person that guns are fundamentally like socks (or cars, or baseball bats) does not accurately reflect the nature of guns and sets the discussion off from the wrong starting point.

Comparison to racists

In a couple of places in the original version of the post, I used the examples comparing racists and gun people. For example, in one place I said the following:
And while you have a right to do all those things [i.e. things I associate with the darker side of gun ownership] -- just as a racist has the right to write hateful garbage -- I'm going to voice my disapproval of your exercise of those rights and encourage other like-minded individuals to do the same.
I regret that comparison of the type of gun owner I was describing, which, seen in context, is a hypothetical super creepy one, to racists. Super creepy gun owners are super creepy. Not all gun owners are super creepy, nor are many even creepy at all (their guns and significant elements of their culture are). Racists are vile and evil. Creepy is not the same as evil. That's an unfair and unjust comparison.

Also, upon reflection, it's not really supportive of my overall position, which is about creating an appropriate level of social stigma around creepy gun culture in the hopes of marginalizing it and pushing the more reasonable gun owners at the margins away from the creepy positions. My hope is that this will reduce the overall presence of creepy and poorly considered gun ownership and lionization in this country, both of which I believe contribute to mass shootings.

I have removed the statements in question from the post, with apologies.

Right to own a gun

As I think was abundantly clear in the original post, I am not suggesting that the right of  private citizens to own guns should be taken away. My position, which I think is consistent with that of the Supreme Court and the majority of Americans as evidenced by polling data, is that individuals should have the right to make a decision about whether or not they want to own guns within a framework that recognizes that possession of certain classes of weapons by civillians constitutes an objective threat of force and are, therefore, proper things for a government to regulate or prohibit. When making those evaluations, as I noted in a Facebook comment
I don't see anything objectionable about actually examining the safety considerations raised by [particular classes of weapons] and making a determination (through socially objective legal means) about whether such use is to be permitted. It might be reasonable for different communities to develop different standards around that at different times and that's fine.
Tactical nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, tanks and bazookas constitute examples of things that clearly fall within the class of objective threats of force if owned by civillians anytime anywhere. A handgun or bolt action hunting rifle kept in the home clearly do not. Walking through the forest carrying the hunting rifle during hunting season clearly does not. Walking through Times Square carrying the same rifle does.

The issue of whether certain classes of weapons that fall in between bazookas and hunting rifles should be subject to restriction or regulation is one that requires, among other things, specialized knowledge both of the weapons and of conditions in a particular time and place. As such, I think it is best left to local authorities to decide within the above framework. I tend to think that if a type of weapon (or weapon component or type of ammunition) is only legitimately used for offensive actions against people -- for example (I'm pretty sure) a fully automatic machine gun -- it is probably an appropriate candidate for regulating or restricting its civilian ownership (because private citizens don't have a right to engage in offensive military or police actions). But I don't claim to be an expert, nor am I particularly interested in debating or advocating for specific gun control regulations. Nor was this the focus of my argument in the original post. In fairness to gun owners, I think that many anti-gun types are insufficiently informed to meaningfully participate in this part of the debate. I think I am better informed than most and continue to take steps to become better informed but still don't think I am qualified.

So, to state it another time, I don't want to take your right to own a gun away. If the question is do you have a right to own a gun (within the above framework), the answer is an unequivocal 'yes'. If, on the other hand, your position is that the right to bear arms creates an unlimited right for you to own any kind of weapon you want anytime, anywhere provided you don't use if for criminal purposes, then I disagree with you. I also find people who hold the position that it is, in principle, a violation of individual rights for the government to prohibit you from owning an F-15 or RPG creepy.

Should you, in fact, own a gun

With that out of the way, we can ask a different question, which is should you, in fact, choose to exercise your right to own a gun given your particular circumstances. To be clear, I don't get to make that decision for you, nor does the government or any other private individual except you. But if you share your reasoning with me and I judge it to be unsound, it is legitimate for me to say so. If my verdict is 'I don't think your reasons for getting a gun are very good' or 'a fact you stated is not correct' or 'your logic is flawed', I'm allowed to render that verdict -- and you're free to disagree with it. But it seems to me that rendering a verdict on the question 'do you have a good argument for your owning a gun' is distinct from my answer to 'do you have a right to own a gun'. If I render a verdict of 'no' on the first question, that doesn't automatically entail a verdict of 'no' on the second any more than me rendering the verdict that the dress you're trying on makes you look fat is equivalent to me being some sort of weirdo who is saying you should be prohibited from buying clothing (or that your clothing should be confiscated by the government or that you should have to run around naked). More deeply, just because you can own a gun doesn't automatically mean you should own a gun. Just because you can purchase that dress doesn't mean that you necessarily should purchase it.

Seems obvious, but I have yet to engage a pro-gun person who gets these points fully and consistently. Instead, the right to own a gun is treated as an irreducible primary: that the fundamental rights to gun ownership and to individual freedom render a debate about whether your reasons for actually choosing to exercise your right to own one taboo. I disagree. We can discuss your reasoning and if it turns out it's sound, great. If it turns out it's unsound, then it's unsound. Same as the dress... well, maybe not the same, because dresses aren't specifically designed to kill people.

In general, we think people should have reasons for taking actions -- even when it is fully within their rights to engage in that kind of action -- and if they don't they are acting arbitrarily, capriciously or irrationally. I think you should have a good reason for crossing the street. For crossing the street, 'I feel like going for a stroll now' is, I think, a more than adequate reason. I think for choosing to own a killing device slightly better reasons are required. I think good reasons do, in fact, exist in many cases, and in other cases they don't. If you don't think good reasons are required for owning a gun or that it is unfair to examine the soundness of various arguments for owning guns in particular cases or in general, that's also creepy. I'd also add that your failure to navigate this relatively simple matrix of reasoning also makes me slightly suspicious of your reasoning and decision-making abilities, which would seem to be particularly relevant skills when it comes to handling firearms.

As I think more about these issues, I may choose to post further thoughts. In particular, my positions on specific cases of and arguments for gun ownership are becoming more informed and I may post on them soon.

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