Ah, guns. As far as conversations starters go, they’re right up there with religion, politics and immigration as ways of starting a really, really loud argument, really, really fast. The tragic fact is that the topic of gun control doesn’t come up until someone gets shot, and afterwards emotion runs too high to have a coherent or reasonable debate about the issue, as the recent Sandy Hook shooting so predictably demonstrated; gun control advocates point at the slaughter as proof guns must be banned immediately, while gun rights advocates decide that the best defense is a good offense, claiming the shooting would never have happened if the victims had been able to defend themselves. More rational voices on both sides are drowned out and the rest of the world sits back in horrified, yet terribly unsurprised bemusement.
Both sides have their facts and figures, but it’s an unfortunately reality that we are thoroughly happy to ignore facts that conflict with our beliefs. A deeper analysis is needed, one that identifies the beliefs underlying the arguments surrounding gun ownership. Why do people want to own high powered weapons? And do they have a point?
This is the primary line when it comes to gun ownership – criminals exist, ergo I must protect myself. Regardless of the best efforts of law enforcement, mental health and education services, violence will always exist and neither prevention nor enforcement will ever be 100% effective. So should law-abiding people just accept this grim fact and desperately hope violence never happens to them? Or should they be able to defend themselves and their belongings against trespass?
This is the underlying argument behind the NRA’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting; that dozens of lives could have been saved if more law-abiding people had been armed and taken the shooter down quickly. Indeed it might never have happened at all if the shooter had know it was likely he would meet such a defence.
While the suggestion that the solution to shootings is more guns sounds insane, there is truth to this idea. The vast majority of crime is not, as we often like to imagine, the result of madness or some sort of ‘evil‘, but rather (poorly) calculated decisions for (perceived) personal gain. Criminals pick weaker targets because they are easier and safer – this is why there are more house burglaries than bank robberies. Arming more law-abiding citizens means there are no weaker targets anymore – how can you tell if the old lady in the park is defenceless or carrying a lethal weapon she knows how to use? This greatly increases the risk to criminals and making crime too dangerous to consider. Every house burglary becomes a potential broad daylight bank robbery.
This heavily undermines the simplistic argument that “Guns are bad and must be banned outright” that tends to crop up for gun control. Regardless of whether we like it or not, many people have guns that cannot be trusted with them, and most of them were not obtained legally. No ban on guns will undo this reality, nor the more fundamental reality that violence will always be an option for those who think they can get away with it, or those who don’t think at all. And whether we like it or not, only violence can effectively stop violence when it’s happening.
But in order for the argument of self defence to hold up, it must show that gun owning citizens are in fact safer than those who rely on the state alone. Sadly, and quite counter-intuitively, they are not. Not only are gun owners 4.5 times more likely to get shot compared to non-gun owners, they endanger the families they aim to protect with people living in homes with a firearm more likely to suffer both homocide and suicide in the home. While mitigating factors such as context may affect these stats, the overall trend is clear; owning a gun in itself does not make you safer and may actually make things far worse.
While most criminals are indeed acting in (poorly) calculated self-interest, not all of them are. Crimes of passion, mental instability and simple accident cannot be predicted, and while strictly speaking it is true that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, it is considerably easier with a gun than any other item found around the average home.
From a practical level, the NRA is correct that an armed teacher could have saved lives by taking out the shooter early on. But it is at least equally likely she could have hit her own students by accident, perhaps even missing the shooter completely. Had the shooter shot the teacher first, he gains another weapon. And imagine being a policeman to respond to a school shooting where everyone is armed. Which panicked person with a gun is the one you’re looking for?
Concerns for personal safety are not as mad as those in favour of gun control often make them out to be. The more capable people are of defending themselves against attack, the less practical and sustainable crime becomes. But this preparation comes at a risk of accident and abuse; the more powerfully people are prepared, the greater the damage when this risk inevitably becomes reality. When that preparation involves automatic firearms, the damage has been shown to be catastrophic.
It is both a long time rallying cry of the gun rights lobby and an enshrined Amendment in the Constitution of the USA that the last line between a tyrannical government and the freedom of its citizens is the ability of those citizens to defend themselves. Gun advocates refer to the Nazi regime’s Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons and Chairman Mao’s quote that “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun” to illustrate the benefits of disarmament to tyrants. The likelihood of such tyranny occurring is irrelevant, for “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”; the day the people surrender their guns is the day such tyranny becomes possible.
This argument is an extension of the observation that violence is always possible and must be defended against, and while applying this observation to a national democratic government seems extreme, there is no shortage of examples of western, liberal democratic governments using legal, state-sanctioned force to exert their political will; the forcable eviction of last year’s various Occupy protests being an excellent example. It doesn’t matter who you’re talking about, monopoly on force is a power that easily corrupts and there is little debate that politicians are vulnerable to corruption, to put it lightly.
Despite the validity of this concern, this argument hits two serious problems straight out of the gate. To put it bluntly, if any relatively modern government wanted to dominate their citizens by force, no armed citizenry would stand a chance against them. Not the slightest bit of chance. If military history proves anything, it is that superior numbers count for very little against disciplined, trained and properly provisioned forces.
But this practicality is wholly eclipsed by the second, bigger point: Why would a government, and the US government in particular, bother oppressing their populace with force when they’re already having such success via legislation? Since the September 11 attacks, the US Government has instituted arrest without charge or trial, extraordinary rendition to sidestep the Geneva Convention, summarily executed their own citizens via drone strike, and allowed a vast array of surveillance practices at the cost of civil rights. Why bother resorting to force when citizens are so willing to surrender their rights legally?
Government accountability is an extremely important issue and needs urgent attention by citizens the world over. But of all the ways you could address this issue, preparing for an armed struggle with the government is not only utterly doomed to failure, but effectively accepts a complete failure of accountability from the start. So rather than do anything proactive to bolster political accountability and prevent abuses by the powerful, you’re digging in and waiting for the worst to happen; ironically quite a cowardly and unpatriotic attitude to take.
The great granddaddy of them all, ultimately most debates on gun ownership revolve around freedom. I own a gun because I want to, end of story. In a liberal democracy, I should not have to justify that; if people want to take away any of my rights, including the right to own what weapons I wish, the burden of proof lies completely on those wanting a ban and that burden better be a serious one.
That the government ban something because a minority abuses it sets a dangerous precedent. Why not ban cars to prevent the road toll? Or alcohol? Or bad parents? All three are proven to cause far worse damage than gun ownership, in fact they’re often the catalysts of gun violence. So why not ban those as well?
While a comparison between cars and guns is riddled with logical fallacies, such arguments make a strong point that those in favour of gun control often willfully ignore; the rights of the people should not be easily dismissed, regardless of whether we agree with those rights or not. It was the decision to weaken and surrender our rights in order to preserve our safety that has lead to the abuses of government power discussed above, and once such rights are surrendered they are extremely difficult to get back.
Something the horrified masses of Australia often forget when hearing about shootings overseas is the outrage and backlash in our own country when semi-automatic rifles were outlawed in 1996. Despite the Port Arthur Massacre fresh in our minds, lobby groups across the country campaigned for the protection of their rifles. Only the fact that the conservative Howard Government was in power made such a ban possible, leaving gun ownership advocates with no major party to turn to.
Did farmers, hunters and those concerned with self-defence need semi-automatic rifles? Time has shown they do not; indeed gun violence has dropped significantly since the ban and massacres have ceased entirely.
Has this ban set a precedent for government abuses of power in the name of safety? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Were gun owners right to be concerned that the government could interfere in their lives so bluntly, without consultation of any kind? Absolutely.
But while our rights should be jealously guarded, there is no denying that they have their limits, especially when one freedom infringes on others. In light of the statistics discussed above, can the freedom to own a weapon, especially a high-powered weapon, be justified when such suffering is the price we must pay for it? In the words of Oliver Holmes, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”. Despite the best efforts of prevention and enforcement, this rule will inevitably be abused from time to time, and when it is abused with a gun the consequences are a lot worse than a broken nose.
On analysis, the arguments underlying the gun debate are considerably more nuanced than the debate itself. Issues of self-defence, government accountability and especially personal liberty are serious ones that deserve serious attention and should not be simply ignored in the name of safety. Nonetheless the ownership of weapons poses a serious risk to our safety, a risk which increases proportionate to the power of those weapons. The question must be asked; at what point do the power of these weapons create a risk too large to justify in the name of liberty? Australia drew the line at semi-automatic rifles and machetes; the USA is yet to make this decision.