Guns for self-defense: What are we afraid of?

Gun rights advocates tell us the Second Amendment is the people’s guarantee that their freedoms cannot be taken away, whether by criminals or a tyrannical government.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It is the possibility of an criminal entering one’s home or otherwise assaulting one’s rights that motivates many to keep assault weapons that can inflict massive causalities. They also argue that their ownership of these weapons is a check on government tyranny. Never mind the fact that an AR-15 will do little to stop tanks and helicopter gunships.

But the fact remains that millions of us don’t own guns and we get on just fine without them. We don’t live in fear of someone breaking into our homes. We know its a possibility, but we also know that the police for the most part keep our streets safe. Many of us distrust our government, even despise our government, but we don’t feel the need to keep an AK-47 in the closet just in case.

So why do some of us need these guns and others don’t? I can’t pretend to know the answer to that. But the fact that I don’t feel that need to own a gun for self-defense keeps me from fully understanding the point of view of someone who feels otherwise. It makes it very hard to debate the issue when people are divided by a feeling that is so ingrained in their very fiber.

Still, of all the wealthiest, industrialized democracies in the world, gun ownership — and gun-related deaths — are far too high in the United States. Western and Central Europe are mostly free of gun violence. The United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Australia.

Our country has always been a special case with gun ownership, I suppose. We rose up, after all. We drove out the British. We formed militias, distributed muskets. And when the war was over and the British were gone, we held onto those muskets. We expanded West.  Guns were essential for self-defense and hunting and the occasional murder. Guns became a sport, too. They became a family tradition. Many fathers passed down guns from one generation to the next.

But assault weapons are something new. Semi-automatic High capacity magazines. Capable of firing off hundreds of rounds in a in a few minutes. Capable of wiping out a school or a movie theater or a church. These aren’t muskets. These aren’t hunting rifles. These aren’t for sport, even if some have adopted them as such.

When gun control advocates push back against the pervasiveness of guns that aren’t built for sport, gun rights advocates go back to the Second Amendment. They talk about self -defense and tyranny. The very act of restricting the size of a clip on an AR-15 is construed as tyranny. It will prevent someone from defending their home, they say.

Again, a lot of people tell me the right to bear arms should not be abridged because people need to be able to defend themselves. Why? Nathan Hegedus, a Stockholm-based writer who once lived in the U.S. recently wrote:

Buying a gun in our times, especially for self-defense, seems to me an aggressive or defensive act—a statement by the purchaser about how he feels about his community, his neighbors and his country. It means he doesn’t feel safe in his bed at night, that he doesn’t trust the police to stop the criminals, and he doesn’t trust his fellow citizens not to attack. You can mask it with talk of freedom or the Constitution but underneath it all is fear. Firearms have become a manifestation of a massive distrust of both government and the wider society, a physical manifestation of a deepening societal and political divide.

Hegedus points out that our country is going through tremendous change. It has been for much over the last fifteen years. We face globalization and post-industiralization. We’re on our way toward being a majority-minority society. Feminists and gay rights advocates are changing family structures. We have a black president! This country has changed so much. And yet, there are a lot of people who are not a part of this change because the United States is a very big place. There are communities and individuals in this country who feel like they’re being marginalized. Where they once felt mainstream, now they feel like they’re being pushed to the fringes. If you’re not connected to these changes and not sympathetic to them, how can you feel safe in such a place?

A gun advocate commenter on my blog recently wrote that in this world there are sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. He says he took this from the writings of retired army Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a scholar of violence, particularly the effects of training soldiers to kill. Most of us are live-and-let-live sheep, the commenter claims. But there are wolves among us who hunt and kill, steal and rape. Finally there are the sheepdogs, who keep watch over the sheep with their shotguns and their AR-15s. This is what this gun advocate would have me believe.

This commenter would have me believe that I am the sheep and he is the sheepdog. I disagree. I’m not afraid to defend myself. I’m not afraid to let out a little bit of the wolf if I need to. I just don’t feel the need to own a gun.

I think it comes down to faith. I have faith in my neighbors and my community. I have faith in the institutions of law and order. I have faith that many of the changes our country is seeing are good.

But I also face the reality that there are bad people out there and that there will always be a risk, however slight, of someone trying to do me harm. I’ve narrowly escaped bad situations before. They could come again. But I’m not going to let it dictate how I live my life. I’m not going to keep an assault weapon or even a handgun in my home. And a year from now when they run the Boston Marathon, I’ll take the day off from work and head down to Boylston Street and cheer on thousands of others who refuse to give into fear, too.


Is the best argument for unfettered gun ownership fear?

Fear is the mind killer. Frank Herbert wrote that in his novel Dune.

I don’t think he had America’s obsession with deadly firearms in mind when he wrote it, but the observation is apt. Gun rights advocates have countless arguments for keeping military-style assault weapons in the hands of civilians in this country. One that I hear most often is fear. We’d all feel safer if we were all heavily armed. Give guns to teachers and DPW workers, marathon runners and cashiers. It’s the only way we can be safe, the National Rifle Association argues.

My blog about the tasteless tweet by Arkansas politician Nate Bell has drawn some interesting counterarguments from readers. As a reminder, Bell tweeted the following while Boston was under lockdown during the search for one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?

One commenter raised a common Republican talking point – that President Obama’s decision to push for gun control after Newtown was equivalent and just as ill-timed. I shot down that false logic in a subsequent post. Another commenter wants to argue that the heart of Bell’s tweet is right: people would feel safer if they had an AR-15 to hold during the 24 hours we were trapped in our homes. Commenter Abner Clark writes:

Nate Bell made a good point. Owning a gun in that situation would have calmed at least some folks’ fears and could have made them safer. It feels like the author is trying to call foul just because he disagrees on gun policy. Someone isn’t wrong simply because they are offensive. The blogger hasn’t claimed this but has also not offered any other reason why Bell is wrong.

So we should allow unfettered access to military weapons in order to allow certain people to feel safer, the reader argues.  I would argue that sucking one’s thumb also makes some people feel more secure, but it doesn’t do them much good.  If the main argument for owning a military-style assault rifle truly is to gain some measure of feeling safe, I worry about where where that logic could take us. I suppose some people would like to mount a .50 caliber machine gun on the roof of their house to feel secure. That doesn’t mean we should let them.

The NRA would have us all armed. This logic pushes us toward a permanent cycle of escalation that has no end. The only real winners would be the gun manufacturers who bankroll the NRA. We don’t need to be heavily armed and a great many of us don’t want to be.  I would feel a lot safer if it were more difficult to own weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.

In the 24 hours that I was stuck in my house last week, I was not dreaming of owning an AR-15. In my mind, that’s an adolescent fantasy indulged by people who enjoyed Arnold Schwarzenegger movies too much in the 1980s. Its a fantasy that might make you feel safe right up until the moment that you need to point that gun at someone. And then you’ll know fear again. Patrick Blanchfield figured that out in 2008 when he tried to point a shotgun at a would-be burglar in 2008. In the dark he fumbled to load the weapon. Only the sound of him pumping the gun scared away the burglar. In the New York Daily News he wrote:

But on that night in 2008, I learned something else. I learned how guns relate to fear, and not just the fear my gun inspired in the would-be-burglar. Owning guns had given me a sense of security, but all that was a fantasy that imploded in a few terrifying seconds.

Sure, I had frightened away an intruder, defended my castle. But I could have just as easily been killed by him or accidentally shot myself or my partner. Hundreds of hours of range time didn’t mean anything in the confusion of the moment.

Blanchfield gave up his shotguns, handguns and AR-15 after that night because he realized that the fantasy of defending one’s home from a bad guy with deadly weapons is dangerous and largely unrealistic.  Too many people in this country cling to that fantasy and arm themselves accordingly. But they don’t have the training to make themselves safe. Taking lessons at a firing range doesn’t do it. Gun safety training doesn’t do it. We are not cowboys on the frontier. We are citizens of one of the most powerful, advanced democracies in the world. Crime is dropping. Terrorism is rare. We are relatively safe. We need to stop giving into fear. Fear is not a good enough reason to keep assault weapons in our homes.


Debating gun control with false equivalence

Is there a difference between callous, gutter partisanship and working hand in hand with the victims of a tragedy to make a difference? Some people would say no. But that’s because they choose to debate issues of national importance with fallacious logic and false equivalence.

This week I blogged abut the Arkansas politician who sent out the following tweet while me and the rest of my community were trapped in our homes as police hunted for the at-large suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. The politician, Nate Bell wrote:

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?

This garbage infuriated thousands of people, including me. We were not cowering. We were not dreaming of holding a gun. We were waiting for the police to do their jobs. And they did.

Some people want to defend Bell by saying liberals are just as guilty of scoring political points in the face of tragedy. Perhaps some liberals are guilty of that, but one commenter on my blog would have me believe that demanding stricter gun control in the wake of tragedies like Newtown is no less repugnant.

Commenter David D. wrote:

How is this different than Pres. Obama using small children from Newport [sic] Connecticut to further his agenda? Do you condone this type of action, so long as it coincides with your personal beliefs, but respond with righteous indignation when someone dare do or say something that hits to the right of your viewpoint?

Let’s assume that David D is referring to Newtown, and not Newport.

Never mind the fact that the parents of those Newtown children who were murdered by a lunatic with an AR-15 are demanding stricter gun control, as are the victims of the Aurora shootings, the Tuscon shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings and many, many more.

Instead, let’s look at David D’s logic. He would have me believe that Bell’s cynical statement about “Boston liberals cowering in their homes” and “wishing” for AR-15s is somehow equivalent to Obama standing up with the parents and siblings of murdered children to demand meaningful gun reform. There is no comparison.

Bell’s statement was a cheap shot at the expense of people who were under siege. Obama’s actions were a response to a demand for reform by the victims and their families.

Describing our people as “cowering” “Boston liberals” was meant as a pejorative slur, and I think Bell knows it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have deleted the tweet. A truly equivalent statement from the left side of this debate, would be something distasteful and callous. Something such as:

I bet all those police officers who are getting shot at in Watertown right now are wishing we had stricter gun control laws.

Isn’t that disgusting? If someone truly said this in earnest, I would happily condemn him. But I didn’t see such a statement. Did you?

I also expressed my frustration with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s eagerness to withhold the bombing suspect’s Constitutional rights by designating him as an enemy combatant. I asked why Republicans are so eager to defend the Second Amendment while they trample upon the rest of the Bill of Rights.

David D. disagreed with me again.

Let’s turn this around shall we, why is it that Democrats and other liberals [are] so protective of the First Amendment’s free speech, but so blithe about eroding the protections of the rest of the Bill of Rights, especially those rights afforded by the Second Amendment? Why is it that Mr. Bell can write words that so many find offensive, and you can publicly criticize a government official, and neither of you are even the least bit concerned about being yanked from your beds at night and thrown in jail?

Again, this logic crumbles under scrutiny. Liberals are not blithe about the Second Amendment. We just look at the entire text of that amendment and demand intelligent interpretation. The amendment begins:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…

Liberals do not want to infringe on the right to keep and bear arms. We just think regulation of that right is justified. And none of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are completely unfettered by reasonable controls, including the First Amendment that David D. referred to.

As we all know, I cannot stand up in a crowded theater and falsely yell “Fire!” without facing legal consequences. I cannot slander someone without facing legal consequence. I cannot invade the privacy of an individual and publish the results of that violation without facing legal consequences. The right of free expression does not allow for such abuse.

I argue that that owning weapons that are designed to inflict mass casualties, such as an AR-15 with a large-capacity magazine, is an abuse of the Second Amendment that should be curtailed. I do not say that “blithely.” I say that soberly. I say that as a reasonable person who is offering compromise. I am not asking that gun owners give up their hunting rifles and their handguns. I’m asking them to submit to background checks, national gun registries and reasonable restrictions on lethality (assault weapons bans, clip size limits).

David D. also wrote:

I also thank God each day that we don’t live in a perpetual war zone where the need to keep and bear arms is a necessity and not a right.

He is right. We don’t live in a war zone. So why are we armed to the teeth?