Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guns are creepy and we should tell gun people we don't think they're cool

UPDATE: after reading this post, I recommend that you read this one, which expands upon and clarifies several parts of it based on discussions and further thought following the original post.

What happened in Newtown, Connecticut has left me deeply saddened. In the media and on my own Facebook feed, there's a heartening and moving sense that something needs to be done and a sense of shared mission and commitment in actually doing it. There's also a sense that people of good will need to do something now before the moment is lost.

A lot of the suggestions about what that something should be focus on what to do politically: banning assault weapons, closing background check loopholes, restricting the number of guns an individual can own, etc. It's not my place to tell anyone whether they should spend their time advocating for these worthy and reasonable things. What I do want to do is talk about another side of the issue, both because I think it's important to understand if you want to advocate for these policy measures and because I think it translates to a something that every single person of good will can do right now.

The history of guns in this country and our relationship to them as a people is long, complex and unique in the history of the world. The right to bear arms is tied up with the concepts of freedom, personal liberty and the role of government for a significant number of people in this country. Legislators and courts, while allowing for certain restrictions on it, have firmly established an individual right to bear arms for personal defense (not just as part of the militia, sorry guys). We can debate if that's a good thing, but it is what it is, and nothing is changing it in the short term.

In addition to the legal history, we also have a bizarre cultural history with guns, and so gun ownership is also tied up with concepts of individual, family, regional and cultural identity for lots of people. If you want a taste of this mentality, check out this New York Times article, which describes how local residents in Newtown recently opposed a measure to restrict the hours during which gun ranges could operate as a tyrannical, anti-American assault on their personal liberty.

I understand that lots of people take pleasure in gun ownership, gun collecting, "sport" hunting, target shooting and lots of similar activities. And you know what: I'm not going to talk about your right to do those things. You have the right. The Constitution says so. The Supreme Court says so. Fine.

What I am going to say is I find your culture creepy. I hope to stigmatize it so much that the more reasonable among you are shamed into abandoning it, because I don't think it has a place in our society.

We stigmatize geeks in this country for the crime of watching Battlestar Galactica. We stigmatize young women for being interested in science and young men for not being interested in sports. We even stigmatize gamers for playing videogames in which they control pretend people who use pretend guns to pretend kill other pretend people. I think it's time we expressed disapproval of people who exercise their right to -- and in many cases glorify -- the civillian ownership and use of death machines.

Guns are death machines. They exist to kill things. Kill them dead. Irreversibly. There are circumstances in which that's appropriate: for example when a criminal or foreign invader is initiating a life-threatening assault against a victim. I don't mean that to be an exhaustive list, just a clear and I hope uncontroversial example. I'm happy to discuss under what other circumstances it's appropriate. But let's not forget that the taking of any life -- even when justified -- is serious and irreversible.

There's an immense, dark power involved in ending a life, and guns exist as instruments of that power. I respect that power. I fear that power. I am deeply, deeply grateful to live in a society where we have a government and laws that constrain that power and place it under some measure of objective control.

And I guess on a psychological level -- if I am to indulge in psychologizing -- I understand why someone might embrace, fixate on, want a share of or even fetishize an object that embodies that power. But you know what: that's really creepy and those are not the kind of people I want to associate with. 

"I am a private citizen and I want to have a gun in my suburban house for protection" -- It's 2012 and you live in Connecticut, not 1883 Wyoming. We have effective police and military protection for you. Those forces have been trained and put in place to handle your protection and are governed by objective laws and procedures to insure the appropriate use of force, including deadly force, in pursuit of your protection. Frankly, I'm a little concerned about the potential for mistakes and abuses of this power by trained and authorized professionals. The idea of private individuals wielding such power outside of those objective controls and the risks your ownership entails scare the crap out of me.

"I like hunting for 'sport'" -- I find the notion of taking any life -- including the life of an animal -- for pleasure distasteful. Killing living things for fun has no place in any society I want to be a part of.

"I like target shooting" -- If you enjoy the skill of shooting, maybe try something like an Olympic air rifle or an electronic system or maybe even a video game. And if you specifically get off on the fact that you're using something that can actually kill people, you should stay as far away from other people as possible.

"I find these [objectively hateful] people hateful. I hope someone shoots them for protesting at the funeral of those poor kids." -- Dude, I find those people really objectionable, too, but please find a more constructive way to express your (justified) outrage. Suggesting that murder with a firearm is an appropriate response to hateful speech is reenforcing the notion that gun violence has a place in our societal discourse. It doesn't.

I suspect that most people of conscience feel similarly. Guns have a role to play in our society, but the fact that they're needed to play the role -- and they undeniably are -- is something to be regretted, not celebrated.

Before any law is passed, before any case is decided, before any petition is written, there is something you can do. The next time someone puts forth one of the above statements, disagree. Leave no ambiguity in removing your sanction -- whether explicitly by agreeing with them or implicitly by saying nothing -- from the idea that gun culture has any place in your culture. Let them know that you find that culture -- and by extension the people who support it -- alien, frightening and off-putting. Don't invite them into your home, don't invite yourself into their's -- especially if a gun is present.

You're not going to convince any NRA Executive Board members to change their positions any more than you could convince a card-carrying member of the KKK to change his views on race. But you might startle a few people at the margins into realizing that views they once thought were mainstream aren't and that there are interpersonal and social consequences for holding them. By working to marginalize those views, you'll also be laying the groundwork for the cultural change that will enable the political changes you support (and may even be working for). And both of those are very important first steps.

Again, please consider reading the companion post to this one, too.

EDIT 12/17: Fixed some typos and added the link to the Times article.

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