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.

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