Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Gun, the Vase, and Me

I don't normally do political posts for the time-honored reason that no matter what you say you're bound to offend somebody. But as the debate rages over gun control, with all the predictable, cynical political posturing, I feel compelled to offer my view as an historian, a former army officer, and an American old enough to have seen a lot of changes in this country. Some of what I see rings loud alarm bells for me. So here’s my take.

First let’s establish that it is the inalienable right—nay, the responsibility—of every individual to protect himself from harm. Any species reluctant to exercise its survival instincts is doomed to extinction. How we protect ourselves depends upon the circumstances and the tools at hand. Mankind, being a big-brained sort of creature, long ago invented tools for that purpose that are far superior to sticks and stones and bare hands. Given that capability, I find it rather stupid that a good many well-meaning folk want to limit our possibilities for self-defense to the nearest vase when an intruder violates our personal space. Only in Hollywood does the vase drop the intruder unconscious on the floor; in real life he will keep coming, and now, on top of wanting to rob or rape you, he is bloody, in pain, and angry. At this point, running for the closet is not going to help you. And dithering about whether he’s just there to steal the TV could get you killed.

Basic survival has bred into the human creature greed, aggression, ambition, and an ability to use violence in offense and defense. The glory of humanity is that the majority of people use their big brains and reasoning capacity to manage those instincts for productive purposes. The shame of humanity is that some people revel in them, or are too mentally ill to overcome them and go untreated. What are we to do when confronted with these aberrant individuals? Not everyone lives next door to a police station.

For those who can't see themselves ever wielding a gun, how fast can you run? How good are your negotiating skills? Good enough to talk down a guy intent on harm? Do you have the slightest idea how to throw him off his game? Have you ever once treated yourself to a day learning how to defend yourself in an unexpected situation? Or do you trust solely and adamantly in your safe neighborhood or the designated violence-wielders of policeman and soldier to keep you safe?

If you do own a gun, can you hit the broad side of a barn with it?

As adults, we make choices every day. Some of them should involve the remote possibility of becoming involved in something unexpected and dangerous. I once had a clearly disturbed street person wander into my workplace and confront me where I happened to be at the front desk. He immediately launched into a diatribe about the people standing outside on “his” street corner (waiting for the bus). He was agitated and rambling but at least communicative, and I was fortunate in that I managed to find the right words to get him to peacefully go back outside. At which point we called the cops in case he went after the people on the corner. I remember wondering what I could do with the pen in my hand to deter him if he pulled out a knife or a gun or lunged at me with flailing fists. Not much, I’m guessing.

That was a school, by the way.

Am I advocating that every business keep a gun at the front desk or that everyone run out and buy one? Of course not. I hope that overall, our society is still one where you can expect to go about your day in peace, and that never in your life will you feel so threatened as to wish for a gun. But America has strayed a long way from the place I grew up in. My country is more violent, less civil, more volatile, and hugely divided, and our society is growing less predictable and excitable by the day. Ask anyone who has been trolled on the Internet how fearfully easy it is to collect death threats or to stir up the mob. We have pundits and politicians and professional activists who deliberately engage in setting various segments of the populace against each other, some from self-righteous ignorance, others from the calculated knowledge that the surest path to power is to make people afraid of each other. This may be political gamesmanship to them, but to ordinary folk caught in the resultant hatred and violence, it is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Does a gun in the house guarantee you’ll get a chance to use it before the intruder gets to you? No. But at least under the Second Amendment you have the option.

Does the Second Amendment Still Have Value?

Most arguments for gun control purport to limit themselves to particular weapons or circumstances surrounding gun ownership such as background checks. Gun control advocates say they are not trying to eliminate Second Amendment rights, only institute “common sense” reforms. That sounds good in theory, but history teaches us, in excruciating detail, the effect of human nature upon law. Many are the power brokers who will push the limits of law for their own purposes. For the true believers in gun control and disarmament, no state is satisfactory until only agents of the state have guns. The case study in British disarmament is here for those of you serious enough and honest enough to inform yourselves with the other side’s facts. It is also a blueprint for what the anti-gun lobby is trying to do in the U.S.

I can hear the screams of "paranoia!" and "right-wing conspiracy theorist" from here. But have the people doing the screaming ever spoken with a woman who crammed herself onto the floorboards of a car with her sister while a neighbor tried to drive them out of East Germany? I have. The neighbor died; the woman and her sister somehow survived the hail of state-owned bullets. Have those people ever met someone who remembers a dark, cold, frightening journey through the forest as a four-year-old, fleeing the gang rapes, the beatings, and the unspeakable terror in Berlin as the Soviet army moved through the rubble, making sport of hunting disarmed German civilians? I have. Have those people ever stood at the edge of a minefield that was sown, not just to keep enemies out, but citizens in? I have.

Nonsense, says the dedicated anti-gun crowd. You’re conflating self-defense with war. Well, there are two kinds of tyranny: of the individual and of the state, and we are entitled as human beings to defend against both. But “militia” is an outdated concept, and besides, that stuff couldn't happen here. I daresay that is what the British Parliament thought before Dunkirk, when all the legal guns got left on the beach. Churchill was forced to issue a frantic call to America to ship rifles and sidearms to Britain to arm the Home Guard and the (previously disarmed by government decree) citizenry against what seemed an inevitable Nazi invasion. No doubt it is what the unarmed people of Leningrad thought before the German army showed up and 500,000 civilians starved to death in the subsequent siege. I daresay it is what the parents of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram thought, or the victims of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, or the civilians even now caught in the path of the ISIS barbarians who make sociopaths look sane. I daresay it is what any woman raped by a bigger, heavier male thinks, or the survivors of home invasions in nice neighborhoods, or what the victims of flash mobs thought before they were beaten senseless while shopping on a summer evening. Can our armies always protect us? Can the police always show up in time? Are we then supposed to rely on the vase to save ourselves?

Once upon a time, we understood at a gut level that there are nasty things in the dark that we need to defend against, and that survival is a personal as well as societal responsibility. For most modern humans, the worst thing out there in the dark is the unbridled ambitions of other members of our species. Civilization is wonderful, but in the entire history of the planet and nowhere upon it have we evolved the perfect, peaceful Utopia of wistful liberal dreams and SF visions. You cannot legislate away human nature. Some people will always try to dominate the rest. Some will do it violently, with fists, stones, clubs, knives, bombs, guns, and airplanes converted into battering rams. Eliminate guns, and criminals will simply use something else. Not so long ago in my town a WWII vet was beaten to death by two young thugs with flashlights. What then should we regulate?

One of the “reforms” continually touted by gun-control advocates is reducing the size of magazines. I agree that no civilian needs a thirty-shot mag, and if you can’t hit a deer with five rounds you shouldn’t be hunting. But any half-smart wannabe mass murderer already knows how to overcome that limitation, so what these reformers are really objecting to is any weapon that fires more than one bullet without reloading—pretty much any modern firearm. So I must ask: in relegating offenders to single shots—or clubs—should we be proud of having simply reduced their ability to do damage to one-on-one violence instead of one-on-many? Or should we instead think about how to return our culture to one of respect instead of self-indulgent rage?

We are not a third-world hellhole, many will argue. We live in a modern era, one too enlightened for civilians to need lethal weapons. Our laws, our institutions, and our common sense will protect us. Well then, welcome to the past. Every time the sun rises, we stand in the most modern era of human history. Tomorrow will be more modern than today. Next year will be more modern still. Yet in 1933, a majority of very "modern" people living in an industrialized democracy handed power, peacefully, through the ballot box, to the worst monster in human history. Twelve years later they were standing in the rubble of their country, and small children were fleeing through the dark to save themselves from the horrors coming behind.

The peaceful handover of power to Adolf Hitler led directly to my friend and her sister fleeing the bullets of East German border guards. Stalin and his minions did not believe in an armed citizenry either.

One citizen with a gun cannot withstand an army, however poorly trained. A million citizens with guns should make any government think twice about its foreign policy. Or its domestic ambitions.

For those of you now crowing that I’ve lost the argument by invoking Hitler, I commend to you a current and less clich├ęd example of poor voting choices. See once-prosperous Venezuela, History and Current Situation Of. Or Mexico, where desperate citizens are mugging corrupt cops and soldiers to obtain weapons to defend themselves against the drug cartels.

Too bad Santayana was right. Those who forget the lessons of history are indeed doomed to repeat them. Corruption at the top always leads to disorder down below. Always.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Self-defense is a basic human right. Unless, of course, you live somewhere like Chicago, which boasts some of the strictest gun laws and highest gun crime rates in the country. The 2016 toll in Chicago to date is noted here and here, along with the misguided policies that are contributing to it.

There are countless studies on gun violence, most of which cherry-pick their facts to support arguments for or against. This rather fascinating little site gives you the facts (a little dated but still valid) and lets you decide. You can argue what they mean to your hearts’ content. But consider this: in all "enlightened" Western societies, gun control policies are forcing citizens to become more dependent on state agencies that cannot keep them safe even as, culturally, the old norms of respect for other people's rights (and the belief that you will receive swift and firm retribution for failing to respect them) are fading. Never mind the high-profile failures of governments from Russia to Nairobi to France to the U.S. to prevent terrorist attacks that have killed thousands. What about fads like the knock-out game, or mobs of young, bored men assaulting women in Germany, or the growing number of out-of-control, mostly youthful flash mobs swarming shops and robbing or assaulting passersby for fun and profit?

These facts of "modern" life are not spotty clouds in an otherwise clear sky, as some would have us believe; they are the lightning strikes spat out by a society wherein the normal tensions caused by technological advances, demographic changes, economic stress, and injustice are magnified by instant communication of every passing thought and impulse. Couple that with an increasing hesitation to teach or demand respect for societal values, and these incidents indicate clear warnings of what happens when “authority” cannot or will not uphold its responsibility to maintain order. Over the past 20 years we have invented a million excuses for bad behavior, and our courts and prisons are consequently overflowing with people who truly believe they were entitled to do what they did. This erosion of a simple awareness of right and wrong should disturb any intelligent person.

Nobody wants to live in a society where everyone feels they must own a gun just to get through the day. The underlying problem is not guns but the breakdown of civility, and until we seriously address what we're teaching our kids, why do we insist on making it harder to defend ourselves against the growing number of people who never got the memo that attacking people is socially unacceptable? Even the former head of Interpol states that protecting every public venue is impossible, and that yes, an armed citizenry can reduce the death toll.

Here’s the thing. When a government stops trusting the majority of its citizens to act responsibly, that government is not protecting us but itself. When we allow any group, however democratically elected, to decide that a common item that has been safely used by the majority for centuries is now too dangerous for ordinary folk, there can be no end to fussy declarations that this, that, or the other thing must be removed from the people's hands for their own good. Where does it stop?

Instead, what we can and should do is what free and responsible societies have always done: decide by calmly reasoned consensus what is "unacceptable" and how to control behavior that crosses the line. As a society, we have already decided that mass murder is unacceptable. The debate hinges on what should be done to prevent it. Do we assume all people are closet-crazy and take away guns from everyone? Do we use prohibitive taxes and a byzantine licensing process to make it so difficult to own them that reasonable people give up? Do we allow only certain people "with a need" to own or carry them?

These things have all been tried in the crucible of democracy that is our republic, with various states experimenting with their own solutions. Yet the Newtown, San Bernardino, and Orlando shooters all used guns that had been acquired under these same laws. The latter worked as a security guard for a major DHS-affiliated agency. With two FBI investigations to his name, he still managed to beat the background checks, with full intent to do harm. Perhaps we should be examining the information-sharing habits of our law enforcement agencies—and the rules that have replaced common sense with an abiding fear of never stepping on a possible perpetrator’s sensibilities—instead of shouting about how nobody has a “right” to thus-and-such.

Balancing public security needs with private rights is undeniably difficult. While better intelligence is certainly needed, I cannot discount the fears of gun rights advocates who resist a national gun registry. Neither the left nor the right can resist pushing the envelope regarding their pet causes when in power. And neither side can currently claim that paranoia is limited to the other guy. How many millions of Americans on both political fronts are afraid of the outcome of this fall’s presidential election? If that is not fear of your government, what is? The right fears that Hillary will wield her executive pen or stack the Supreme Court to gut the Second Amendment. The left fears that Trump will somehow raise himself to dictator and reduce us all to serfs (completely discounting the power of the other two branches of government to check him). What then? Shall we call in the Praetorian Guard to assassinate him?

Can you tell that I’m tired of the hysteria?

Most mass shooters are mentally ill, members of a tiny subset of our population. The rest are driven by grievances or ideology that override societal values. Street thugs think themselves invincible, their actions greased by an American media that, sadly, glorifies violence and worships the gun, unashamedly teaching viewers that it’s “cool” to swagger up to your enemy and shoot him to solve your problems. And afterward people will cheer you as a hero. Yay! Is it any wonder so many unstable people dream of finding immortality in other people’s blood?

We don’t need to confiscate guns; we need to restore the respect we used to extend to each other as a matter of course. We don’t need to arrest children for pointing a finger and yelling Bang!; we need to teach them what happens when a real gun goes off. We need to teach them that guns are a last resort, not a first option. That they don’t make you cool, they make you dead, because that is their purpose. That the right of self-defense comes with personal responsibility—and that other people have the same right, and will exercise it on you if you are stupid enough to think a gun makes you God.

Most of all we need to teach them civility, a vanishing commodity in this country.

What we need, instead of blanket bans and vilification, is a return to the sober realization that trust is the root of a democratic society. Whatever laws we pass should always be aimed at deterring the aberrant, not depriving the masses, because otherwise we are just telling 300 million non-violent folk that they’re not really adults and can’t be trusted with grown-up stuff. Go stand in the corner, America, and take your beatings quietly.

How do we restore trust? Both sides need to compromise in order to reestablish that societal necessity. Stop excusing bad behavior while simultaneously punishing the law-abiding. Crack down on street thugs, but make gun ownership a responsibility as well as a right. Perhaps the necessary prerequisite is not a background check and a 3-day waiting period, or feel-good but useless restrictions on types of weapons and magazines. Perhaps it is a background check and three consecutive days of safety instruction under the eye of a licensed instructor at a certified range, where the behavior of the buyer is directly observed across a long enough period to get a feel for his mental state and intentions. The store ships the gun to the range and only after passing the course may the buyer take possession. Hunters in my state must take gun safety courses; why shouldn’t ordinary buyers?

The much-reviled NRA is happy to provide such courses and has the resources to do it. Retired police officers accustomed to assessing lies and unwarranted nervousness might jump at the chance to earn a few bucks and maybe deter a tragedy. Maybe a red flag would earn the buyer a chat with a behavioral psychologist. Yes, gun buyers would be put through an extra one-time hoop, but in so doing, they have “earned” the trust of their community and should be left alone thereafter to pursue their legal rights. And the state should not put purposefully onerous conditions on the range and instructor qualifications, or set too low a bar for a red flag.

This is a public-private partnership that could produce a win-win for the community. While it would not stop criminals buying guns on the ever-present black market, it might reduce domestic violence and guns bought legally for illegal purposes. Some cold-blooded killers could withstand three days of steely scrutiny; the depressed suicide or the angry guy brooding on his ex probably would not.

For those who have been harmed by guns, I grieve. I certainly understand your desire to "do something." For those like me who grew up with guns and have always handled them safely, yes, it is insulting to be branded as "unsafe" while the bureaucrats argue about how to prove we're not. But can we all please acknowledge that we don't live in a perfect world? That there are unique tensions in this country that preclude simple solutions? Yes, we need laws that weed out the crazies and restore trust in gun ownership. We don’t need laws so restrictive that they deprive law-abiding citizens of the basic right to self-defense.

If we are to call ourselves "free," we must be allowed to both exercise and defend our freedoms. The most basic freedom is life itself—and our right to defend it. Against a violent criminal, against a terrorist, against a stalker or abusive spouse, against foreign invaders—against, if necessary, the out-of-control government the Founders feared if power were allowed to accumulate at the federal level. Until nature or culture manages to cure the blacker side of human nature, I don't want to be reduced to throwing a vase at the bad guy while screaming into a phone for help I know can't get there until it's too late.

Do you?

3 comments:

TheDarraghMetzger said...

"One of the best essays/arguments on the gun control issue I've ever read. Thank you." (from Dameon Willich, reading this over my shoulder).

Absolutely priceless. I'm saving this and re-posting your blog. I, too, hate getting blasted for my views and called names, etc., but something has to be said and done. Thanks for saying it so well.
Darragh

S. A. Bolich said...

Thank you, Darragh (and you too, Dameon). I got tired of grinding my teeth and smiling politely. :)

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