On guns and a lack of faith
There’s this scene with Vinnie Jones in one of my favorite movies, Snatch. He’s just stepped out of a messy accident and is recovering with an ale at a nearby pub when he’s accosted by three amateurs who demand he give up a diamond (long, complicated story. not important). The scene is hilarious because of Vinnie’s response, centered around the fact that the robbers are carrying replica guns and he, on the other hand, has a “Desert Eagle, point five oh” stamped down the side of his. The camera rapidly flashes across the weapon and its name. It’s impressive. I’m impressed. A few moments later, there’s a shootout and Vinnie cocks his gun as he prepares to enter the fray. The sound it makes is very impressive. He then shoots and the bullet goes through a wall. Goddamn, that’s super impressive. Even the muzzle flash is very impressive.
What I’m trying to say is, at that point I wanted to own a Desert Eagle .50. I tried to rationalize that feeling. “It’s a great gun to protect myself with.” Yes, that sounded more reasonable. I’d keep one at home. Carefully, of course. Use it only when I *had* to; to defend myself or my family. Right? I wasn’t so sure.
(I must admit that the movie itself, the tonality with which the weapon was presented, made me predisposed to it. I don’t mean it glamorized the act of killing someone, but it did open my mind to possessing weapons. Before this devolves into a debate about the role of video-games and movies in encouraging violence, I’ll just say that I’m probably the gullible sort and so I was influenced. I’m probably an outlier.)
I watched my son and thought about explaining a gun to him. I imagined a conversation in which he’d quiz me relentlessly, burying me under a barrage of whats, whys and hows.
This is a gun.
What does it do?
It shoots bullets
How? I’d explain.
Why? Why does it shoot bullets?
This is the question I dread.
It is to…..(what do I say?)…..stop bad people
By killing them (he knows what kill/die mean)
Because they were probably going to harm us. So we can’t let them do that. So we harm them instead.
Perhaps that last bit would satisfy him. But it made me think more. Here’s what I thought, stripped back to basics and in my bumbling, fumbling awkwardness (please bear with me).
1. We need to survive, and our survival is under threat due to factors natural or man-made.
2. We organize ourselves to tackle natural threats. There is strength in numbers.
3. To tackle man-made threats, we either defend ourselves or rely on others to do so. The latter is a very tenuous possibility so it’s more likely we’ll be left to our own devices.
4. However, if we constantly distrust and view one another with suspicion, it defeats the purpose of coming together as society. It lowers our ability to survive. So we mutually agree upon a set of tenets that constitute acceptable behavior toward your fellow man. These are laws. We task a sub-group of people to enforce those laws. These individuals are vetted, trained and indoctrinated in three responsibilities – to enforce, serve and protect. We call them the Police. Note that this body called the Police tackles the issue of defense by others I brought up in point 3.
5. As a society, our first responsibility is to obey the tenets put forth for our survival. If a member of society does not do so, the police detain him/her.
6. There is a possibility that the police will not be present when such a violation occurs. In such a case, and per point 3, we either rely on others to help, or we do so ourselves
Further, there are two aspects to point 6
a. what if – What if I’m harmed and there’s no one to help me?
b. with what? – With what will I defend myself?
An eye for an eye, say the scriptures. But it’s impractical to assume I’ll be able to throw a punch as effectively as my attacker. It’s impractical to use the mother of all deterrents and roam around with a nuclear weapon (apart from a minor side-effect that I will also destroy myself). So I hit upon a compromise. I can deter people by defending myself from a distance. With a gun. That way, it doesn’t matter what my attacker is packing, I have a fair chance . It’s also the perfect balance of cost and portability. It’s practical. So we make weapons available to everyone by making their possession lawful (for example, the US). This should work, right? Wrong.
The logic above assumes that the threat of harm to our selves is the only possibility, the only what-if we should really care about. First, it violates point 4, by creating an atmosphere of distrust, not mutual respect. Second, and more importantly, it never specifies WHAT the threat to defend against may be.(Presumably, when the Constitution was drafted, the founding fathers were referring to the possibility of protecting oneself against predators or invaders.)
One of the theories (or more correctly, hypotheses) around why the Columbine massacre happened is that it was a response to bullying. Can we not consider that an act of self-defense? If so, how was their response exacerbated to an extent that they murdered twelve students and then shot themselves? Because they had easy access to weapons. Simple explanation. Of course, one can argue the possibility of other forms of redressal rendered ineffective due to incompetence (say, the school counseler couldn’t help) or non-existent (there was no school counseler). Let’s just tackle this what-if. What if someone felt so threatened, they resorted to the use of weapons to “defend” themselves?
And why is this what-if, that of a perceived threat culminating in homicide, less likely than a burglar robbing you at gunpoint? There’s no way to say conclusively.
Third, it undermines the need for law enforcement. There is a very thin line between supplementing law enforcement and
threatening it with vigilantism. Encouraging a free supply of arms and ammunition makes that line even thinner. (Check out this stat on the number of assault deaths in the US, where a free supply of arms is available. Stunning. If you’re not convinced, here are a few more points to ponder.)
In some countries, this isn’t the case. Sometimes law enforcement breaks down completely, you end up living in a totalitarian and oppressive environment. Yes, we need weapons then, but the circumstances are dire, EVERYONE’S survival is at stake. A militia is necessary. Speaking of militias, do read this excellent piece by Jason Alexander. He asks the same question. What are militias meant to protect us FROM? Especially in a civilized country like the US where law enforcement is largely effective, there is respect for laws and the probability that a large swathe of the civilian population may come under threat from a dictator or from terrorists is very low. Not to mention, you use the Constitution to enable idiots to own weapons, then use it as a justification to own weapons yourself because you want to protect yourself against the POSSIBILITY of idiots who own weapons. Wow.
If we should assume everyone is law-abiding, why must cops have weapons? I’ve been asked this question. Heck, if everyone were law-abiding you wouldn’t even need cops. I’ve explained why we need cops above. This group of people HAVE to be prepared for EVERY possibility. So they need all deterrents available to them. Simple.
There is a possibility we could be attacked by a nuclear weapon. Should we all stock nuclear weapons “just in case”? The wrong answer to this question led to the Cold War. I hope the futility of arguing possibilities is clearer now.
When possibilities scatter in front of you separated by a criss-cross of thin lines, distinguishable only through tenuous and difficult moral judgments, it’s just BETTER to stick to the basics. The six points I mentioned above. I’d rather accept the possibility that law enforcement will help – sooner or later – than assume there’s a madman round the corner who wants to rob or kill me.
I know I’ve rambled on but one last thing. It also occurs to me that I’ve evolved since my stance on the death penalty. An eye for an eye, I concurred. Until a comment on the post wiped all my arguments away. Our response as a society is a reflection of society. Similarly, our response as individuals is a reflection of our development and sophistication. A freely available gun is a reflection of our own insecurity, our lack of faith in the systems and order we created and tasked others to uphold. It’s a reflection of our distrust, and distrust tears us apart.
A gun is just a cop-out.