Preface: I have been personally touched by gun violence. My cousin was gunned down on a Dallas freeway in front of his wife and infant child by a shooter after a road rage incident. A classmate / study partner was killed with her own gun during an attempted rape. A former high school classmate was gunned down by a shooter while simply walking down the road near his home in broad daylight. I, myself, almost had my head blown off by a family member due to irresponsible handling of a 12 gauge shotgun. I have been personally affected by guns and gun violence. I have also held a gun for the purpose of self defense at a time when I felt very threatened. I’ve been victimized and saved by guns. I have some insight into the issue of gun ownership and gun control.
I have been following the gun control debate in this country for years with a growing sense of frustration. I’m frustrated that the central issue of the debate is all too frequently ignored. The real issue has nothing to do with the type of weapons, the capacity of clips, or the type of ammunition. No, the real central issue is trust.
More specifically, the question that divides those for and against gun control legislation can be boiled down to one simple question, “How much do you trust government?”
The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not exist to protect the sacred right to go Rambo on Bambi with high powered weapons. It exists solely because our founding fathers had a profound distrust of government and shared a conviction that the second amendment was necessary to safeguard the sacred right to freedom and liberty.
Theirs was a distrust borne of experience. To them, the phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” was more than just an “old saw”. It was the practical essence of their experience.
Because of this mistrust, they included the second amendment to ensure that the government, our government, would never be able to disarm the citizens of this country. They knew, without any doubt whatsoever, that governments simply cannot be trusted and that the only means a populace has to resist oppression is the right to possess arms.
The reason for this is simple: the capacity of a government to enforce the law must, by rights, involve the authority to use force, up to and including lethal force, against citizens. In other words, “our way or the highway” is the ultimate law of the land. This is a necessary evil, otherwise, those intent on harming others could and would go unchecked.
However, the flip side of government sanctioned force is that the need to arm the government, left unchecked by an armed populace, is a formula for abuse. Governmental power tends to attract those most likely to abuse power, and since “power corrupts”, the entity that our prudent forefathers saw as the single biggest threat to individual liberty was the government itself. Consequently, the second amendment was drafted as the safegaurd to liberty and freedom.
But therein lies another problem. Liberty and freedom come with a high price: risk. When citizens are guaranteed the right to arm themselves, that, unfortunately, also guarantees that right to those that, for whatever reason, choose to harm other citizens. This in turn leads to events like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, the Washington Naval Yard, etc., etc., etc.
But they felt that the prize of liberty justifies the risk. They held that the right to liberty had to be balanced with the responsibility to defend that liberty. In other words, the liberated bear, or at the very least share, responsibility for their own safety and security.
This, in turn, requires that the citizens acknowledge a stark truth about life; a truth that is equally cogent regardless of the form of government: no one, not the government, the church, your family, your friends, or even you, can guarantee your safety. After all, the leading, and only universal, cause of death is life. No one gets out alive and no one knows how long their life will last.
Facing this truth highlights the futility and naivety of attempting to charge any other person or institution with the task of providing you with protection. The closest that can be done is reserved for the very rich and powerful in the forms of personal security squads, but even these fail as witnessed by the assassination of presidents, diplomats, and the uber-rich.
I’d like to say that this leads to a secondary reason for the second amendment: the right to protect one’s life and property from criminals. I’d like to say that, but it wouldn’t be true. The second amendment simply does not address this. But the reason it does not, is because the founding fathers never imagined it needed to.
In the context of the 18th century, the right to bear arms in self defense was so universally acknowledged, that it never occurred to anyone that it needed to be overtly stated. Remember, this was an era where killing someone for besmirching your honor was viewed as the only reasonable course of action for a true man. Consequently, I believe, this particular right was simply omitted as an amendment.
It can be argued, however, that it was strongly implied in the Declaration of Independence in the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The “right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” strongly implies the right to defend against anyone that would attempt to take life, liberty, or happiness through any means for any cause save to safeguard those rights for another.
The bearing of weapons for protection against evil doers was simply viewed as a normal, rational action.
Of course, bearing a personal weapon does not guarantee your safety. If an assailant ambushes you, nothing short of a “force field” straight out of Star Trek will save you. At best, bearing a weapon simply provides a means to possibly level the playing field in the event of an attack in which you survive the initial shots. But this pragmatic view of the personal right, and even duty, to bear arms for the purpose of self defense, was born of the inescapable truth that the ultimate responsibility for self protection lies with the self.
Law enforcement, by it’s very nature, can rarely provide a first line of defense, rather serving in a reactive capacity to punish offense in the hopes of providing a deterrent to future offenders. Of course, this doesn’t do a lot of good for the dearly departed cut down by a criminal. Worse yet, the deterrent efficacy of legal punishment has a dismal track record over the millennia of the human governmental experiment.
Unfortunately, the jarring truth is that we, as citizens of a free country, are not only never really secure, despite the best efforts of our various law enforcement agencies, but that we must personally assume the risk of providing ourselves means of self protection or be willing to suffer the consequences of failing to do so.
That poses a problem in a democracy (well, really a constitutional republic) comprised of ordinary people that very much desire to live in peace and tranquility with as little personal risk as possible. It is a problem of delusional thinking wherein the desire to feel secure leads to the delusion that we can somehow achieve this end by banning all the “bad weapons”.
Thomas Jefferson even warned us of this danger when he wrote, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” He knew that the only way the citizens of this country could remain free was to accept the personal burden to be eternally vigilant against any and all oppressors, be they governments or criminals. (All too often, the government is simply the biggest criminal of all.)
Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have forgotten, or never bothered to learn, the lessons of history. They want safety so badly, they are willing to sign away the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution for, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises”. They fail to comprehend, or even entertain the possibility, that they are unleashing a many headed hydra in the hopes of escaping threats by lions and tigers, and bears (oh my!). Granted, the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) are fearful and all too often wreck terrible havoc. But compared to the hydra, they are like mewling kittens or spitting cubs. But the fantasy is strong, and thus is borne a movement to limit gun ownership.
And who is the logical entity to turn to in order to achieve this goal? Why, the government, of course. Who else posses the legal means to enforce a ban? Who else can be trusted so?
For better or worse, most modern Americans have come to view the government as a sort of benevolent, gentle force looking out for everybody’s best interest. And, of course, those in power benefit from this perception. The more we trust them, the more power they have. Even some of our politicians genuinely believe in the goodness of government and the rightness of their cause.
But simply wishing for something to be true does not make it so. History has shown time and again that governmental power, even in a “democracy”, can be subverted by the manipulations of a few unscrupulous, power hungry individuals willing to use fear and patriotism to turn the power of government into the greatest beast of all. A beast that devours its own citizens by stripping them of their rights. This is almost always done in the name of security.
In every case where this has happened, the majority even believe that they are being made more secure and willingly support the persecution of fellow citizens accused by the government of criminal and / or seditious acts. In today’s America, it would probably be the Muslims that would be the first to be oppressed. But it wouldn’t end there. Some other group would be next, and then another. And the whole while, our freedoms would be slipping away.
Many of you reading this are probably shaking your heads and thinking, “that could never happen here.” Oh, how I wish that were true, but once again, an examination of history reveals that the majority always believes that until long past the time when it is too late to prevent despotic rule.
So the question before the house is this: would gun control result in greater or lesser security?
Let me examine one side of that question by asking a slightly more specific question: would banning certain types of weapons result in fewer mass killings? This question can actually be answered by examining real life examples. For instance, the Australian model of banning and confiscating all semi-autos and large capacity magazines has indeed practically eliminated mass killings in that nation. So in the the strictest sense, the answer to this question is yes, it can work to reduce gun violence. But ceding to the government the power to confiscate weapons raises another crucial question: at what price is this reduction purchased?
And that brings us back to the question of trust. Do we trust the government enough to give up a right explicitly guaranteed by our constitution?
That further begs the question, is our national distrust of government a good thing or a bad thing? Are the citizens of the U.K. right in their trust of government? Or is it more prudent to trust the founding fathers and maintain a healthy distrust?
As Shakespeare would say, “Ah, there’s the rub!” That is the million dollar question. Can you trust the government? Are we simply being paranoid?
Some would argue that you can have it both ways by asserting that it is reasonable to interpret the second amendment as meaning that citizens are allowed to bear the types of arms sufficient for self defense, but ill suited for mass murder?
Of course, defenders of the second amendment would argue that any attempt to curtail the right of citizens to bear any type of weapon gives the government too much power? This is the famous “slippery slope” argument employed in the debates over banning private ownership of automatic weapons.
These aren’t easy questions to answer since the second amendment is rather vague as to the meaning of bear arms. After all, carrying around hand grenades or small nukes is generally considered to be an unreasonable interpretation. So where exactly does one draw the line?
Further muddying the waters is the fact that many “assault” weapons are nothing more than standard hunting rifles repackaged with a different stock and frequently sporting a larger magazine. Either weapon will kill you just as dead. It is also true, that any individual intent on committing a mass killing, would always be able to do so with standard hunting weapons or even with a revolver. Even if you restricted weapons down to single fire weapons, a determined shooter could still do major damage in most situations where the victims were not armed.
More disturbing is the realization that some of the greatest mass murders were perpetrated using no firearms whatsoever. One only needs a quick search of the internet, or even a trip to the library, to acquire the knowledge to build a bomb like that used in Oklahoma that killed far more people, 168, than all of the recent mass shootings combined. Or, for that spur of the moment mass murder, all that is needed is a car barreling through a crowded mall walk, or a can of gasoline and a match: the Happy Land fire.
So the ugly truth is, you simply cannot stop those determined on killing no matter how many laws you pass or weapons you confiscate. The only thing that can ever be done to cut back on violent crime, including but not limited to gun violence, is to attack the underlying problems that lead people to attack others. Here is my personal lists of necessary steps that must be taken if we are ever to achieve a society where peace and prosperity have a chance to flourish.
- We must make significant investments in mental health facilities.
- We must confront the institutional racism codified in our laws, typified by such programs as the “war on drugs”. (If you want peace, fight for justice.) The government needs to get out of the business of telling us what we can and cannot put in our bodies. (I say this as someone who has never used any currently “illegal” substance. I have used the formerly illegal drug known as alcohol.) Drug laws aren’t about preventing citizens from hurting themselves by ingesting “bad” substances. They are about money and power. Money raised from the illegal drug trade (which finds its way into the hands of politicians one way or another in order to ensure that they stay illegal) and power to remove “undesirables” from our streets at the discretion of the arresting officer. So, if the officer has racist tendencies, the “undesirables” are those of the “wrong” race. So all that has to be done to eliminate a large number of “those people” from the streets, is to more vigorously look for “illegal” drugs in the possession of the target group. Bingo! Off to prison you go.
- Speaking of racism, we must open a national debate on the divisions created by racism masquerading as “culture”. Racism goes both ways. (Or, more accurately, in all directions.)
- We must find a way to unite as a single American people, regardless of race, religion, or creed. We must meld ourselves into a single, American culture, at least to the point of agreeing on a basic set of societal norms. (At a minimum, we must come to recognize the value of education and hard work.)
- We must fight against the glorification of violence in our media, not by legislation, but by what we choose to encourage by the spending of our time, attention, and money.
- We must rise up as citizens and demand reform in our government involving the influence of corporate money.
- We must address the rapidly dwindling middle class. (If you are snorting in derision at this, then you truly are deluded. Just because you have your piece of the pie, does not mean that it is available to all that work hard to earn it.) This must be done by the citizens at both ends of the income brackets realizing that we all need each other. You can not legislate this effectively. It has to be done voluntarily.
- We absolutely must eradicate any and all forms of bullying. Bullying is all too often the root cause of the emotional damage that leads to hate filled rampages involving guns. (Or axes, knives, arrows, bombs, cars, lead pipes, baseball bats, etc)
There are more things that need fixing, but if we could even make significant steps in addressing these items, we would make significant strides toward creating a society where everyone feels like they have a chance to succeed, where all citizens feel valued (or at least don’t feel so devalued), and where violence would cease to be viewed as glamorous.
My point in all this is actually a very simple one: gun control is not a simple issue. Banning weapons of any sort may buy us some short term relief, but that very same thing may well open us to a much greater danger in the long run.
Both sides are convinced of the validity of their own beliefs and, unfortunately, are usually unwilling to even concede any merit to any assertions of the “other” side. To me, that is a major problem, because that reveals that the question of distrust is not confined to feelings about our government, but extends to a feeling toward those that disagree with our views about this issue. And that is possibly a greater danger than even that posed by a government run amok, because profound division among our citizens is a formula for disaster.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
And so, we find ourselves with a lot of work to do: work to open an honest debate that honors the concerns of both sides; work to wrestle in our own souls with the questions of personal responsibility; work to racially unify our nation and heal the abuses of the past; work that must be done. But the first step is to understand the role of trust… and, perhaps, prudent distrust.