More Guns, Less Crime: A Dialogue

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Sam Hodgson/Reuters

My label-mate Jeffrey Goldberg was kind enough to take some time to talk with me about his most recent story in the magazine -- "The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)". Both Fallows and I have some disagreements with Jeff on this. Here, Jeff and I try to talk it out. We do not agree. But we also avoided challenging each other to a duel.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Do you own a gun? Are you a gun person, at all?

Jeffrey Goldberg: It doesn't make much sense to tell people that you are unarmed. Many businesses and institutions around the country advertise themselves as "gun-free zones." This is a ridiculous policy -- not to be gun-free, but to tell people you are. It's akin to posting a sign on your front door stating, "No burglar alarm here." Our colleague Jonathan Rauch, who, as you know, inspired the "Pink Pistols" movement of gays and lesbians who arm themselves against bullying and assault, told me last week he thinks that universities should post signs on their campuses that state, "Be warned: Many of our students and faculty members are armed."

The theory, obviously, is that violent criminals, or the dangerously mentally ill, are not generally stopped by signage declaring their target to be a gun-free zone, and indeed they could be encouraged by such signs. All that said, I will remind you that I live in Washington, D.C., and Washington has very tough gun laws, and as you know, I'm a very law-abiding person.

To your second question, am I gun person? -- the answer is no. I respect guns and I know how to fire guns (and indeed, target practice is quite fun in the same way that darts are fun, though I haven't done it very much), but I'm not very interested in them and I don't quite understand the desire of some people to collect them. I'm certainly no hunter -- I know we're all supposed to pay fealty to hunters -- at least, presidential candidates are expected to extol them -- but I never understood the impulse to gun down defenseless herbivores, especially if you're not going to eat them afterward.

TNC: Here's something I've been thinking about: In African-American history, guns have a particular meaning. After the Civil War, the first thing the Klan, the White Liners, the Red Shirts and other terrorists did was attempt to strip black people (many of them Civil War veterans) of their guns. One of my commenters was pointing to a historian who argues that the rate of lynchings was affected by the return of black veterans who were trained in the use of firearms. The most popular image of Malcolm X features him peering out of a window with a rifle. My own father came out of Vietnam and joined the Black Panther Party. Self-defense was religion in my house, and it was very much tied to our history.

I feel like whenever I'm writing about race and/or violence, that history is in the back of my head -- it was there even when I was disagreeing with your posts. You raised the point of the "Pink Pistols," whose logic sounds very familiar to me. Does your history, and your identity, affect how you approach the question of self-defense? To be clear, the question isn't "Did you write this article because you are Jewish?" But, in my own experience, those of us who've lived outside of the state's protections against mob violence tend to be more open to individual solutions.

Jeff: So just to be clear, the question isn't, "Did you write this article because you're Jewish"? But I'll answer it anyway. First, though, on your point about African-Americans and guns. It's an amazing history: Ronald Reagan was pro-gun control because he feared the Black Panthers. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in order to seize guns from free blacks. I don't generally buy the narrative of Second Amendment absolutists, that individually-owned guns are the best defense against the imposition of tyrannical rule in America (I think we're pretty safe from tyrannical rule.) But if you were an African-American in 1870s, or 1950s, you might have felt a lot safer with a gun. Martin Luther King, Jr., (unsuccessfully) applied for a concealed-carry permit in 1956 because he was so afraid of violent attack. Anyway, a fascinating history, and you're right: marginalized groups have found comfort, and safety, in arms.

But to your question: No, not really. I've thought through this issue, of course, and it is true that guns, at different points in Jewish history, would have been quite useful to my ancestors (and obviously Israel was founded because Jews gave up trusting non-Jews to defend them; and, obviously, I've been personally interested in this angle for some time, knowing now, as I didn't know in my 20s, about the downside of armed militancy), but in the American context especially I don't look at this issue through a particularly Jewish lens.

I came to this issue in part because, as I wrote in the article, I had a revelation about armed self-defense after the LIRR massacre 20 years ago, and also because I'm always attracted to polarizing issues. I'm dispositionally centrist, in that I believe, as a pretty steadfast rule, that most issues are ambiguous and contradictory, and that no one ideology provides all the answers. Hence, my belief that people (qualified people) have the right to armed self-defense, and that the government has the right (and responsibility) to regulate the sale and carrying of guns. This issue divides red America from blue America like no other, and, since I'm a uniter, not a divider, I'm trying to figure out if there's common ground here. One more note, so we're clear: I have a blue-stater's belief that government should be engaged in public safety questions like this one, and I have a red-stater's belief that individuals should not rely on the government overly much to provide them with security, both because the government cannot, in fact, protect some people; and because it feels undignified to sub-contract out your personal defense, if you're at all capable of taking care of yourself.

TNC: So I want to pick up on that last point, because I think it's the one that's attracting a good deal of the push-back -- particularly this idea of government as a personal defense sub-contractor. I actually like that phrasing quite bit, and will gladly plead to my willingness to hoping my tax-dollars go to the sub-contracting of my defense. Here's the reason why: it is not clear to me that human beings, with all of their foibles, always understand where defense ends and aggression begins. George Zimmerman, by his own telling, was defending himself. And given the marks on this head, in some sense he was. But I wonder, if he had been unarmed, whether he would have ever gotten out his car. Michael Dunn, who sprayed a teenager's SUV, claims he was defending himself. But I wonder if he ever would have said anything to those kids if he had not been armed. This has particular meaning in the realm of race, where the mere fact of being black means that an uncomfortably large portion of American society is more likely to perceive your everyday actions as aggressive, and thus justify "defense." There seems to be no sense that the very presence of a gun -- like all forms of power -- alters its bearer, that the possession of a tool of lethal violence might change how we interact with the world.

I just realized I didn't ask a question. So yeah...

Jeff: All good points. First, I'm happy to have the police protect me. I also know that they don't -- and that, when the chips are down, they usually can't. The police did not protect those children in Connecticut. They didn't protect the moviegoers in Colorado, and so on. I'm not blaming them; there are only so many cops to go around. This is one of my problems with politicians who have armed guards but who assert that other people shouldn't have the right to armed self-defense. When I interviewed D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who opposes licensed concealed-carry, about his own armed bodyguards, he said, "(W)e have 3,800 police officers to protect people. They may not be at someone's side at every moment, but they're around."

One of the dangers with concealed-carry -- which I point out in the article -- is that some states (Florida, George Zimmerman's state, comes to mind) issue concealed-carry permits too easily, without sufficient vetting or training requirements. The regulations should be much more stringent in those states with loose standards. On your larger points, I've been thinking this issue through for months, and let me give you a very general answer to start: It's a miracle, in a country with 300 million guns, that we don't have chaos in the streets constantly. But it's explicable:

There are tens of millions of legal gun owners (and 9 million concealed-carry permit holders) in this country who secure their weapons properly and use them properly. Most people -- the vast majority of people -- with legally owned guns aren't George Zimmerman. The problem in this country, generally speaking, is not legal guns. It's illegal guns. The 400+ homicides in Chicago this year are mainly the byproduct of the illegal gun problem. (And yes, as I stated in the piece, Canada seems like an attractively gun-free place, but the whole point of the article is to acknowledge that we can't create Canada-like conditions in the U.S. It's just too late. Even if all gun sales were banned tomorrow, there would still be 300 million guns in circulation.) I could go on, but let me ask you a question: If you were confronted with an "active shooter," do you think, in that moment, you might wish you had a gun?

TNC: I think that last question gets to the heart of a difference. I actually wouldn't wish I had a gun. I've shot a rifle at camp once, but that's about it. If I had a gun, there is a good chance I would shoot myself, thus doing the active shooter's work for him (it's usually "him.") But the deeper question is, "If I were confronted with an active shooter, would I wish to have a gun and be trained in its use?" It's funny, but I still don't know that I would. I'm pretty clear that I am going to die one day. That moment will not be of my choosing, and it almost certainly will not be too my liking. But death happens. Life -- and living -- on the other hand are more under my control. And the fact is that I would actually rather die by shooting than live armed.

This is not mere cant. It is not enough to have a gun, anymore than it's enough to have a baby. It's a responsibility. I would have to orient myself to that fact. I'd have to be trained and I would have to, with some regularity, keep up my shooting skills. I would have to think about the weight I carried on my hip and think about how people might respond to me should they happen to notice. I would have to think about the cops and how I would interact with them, should we come into contact. I'd have to think about my own anger issues and remember that I can never be an position where I have a rage black-out. What I am saying is, if I were gun-owner, I would feel it to be really important that I be a responsible gun-owner, just like, when our kids were born, we both felt the need to be responsible parents. The difference is I like "living" as a parent. I accept the responsibility and rewards of parenting. I don't really want the responsibilities and rewards of gun-ownership. I guess I'd rather work on my swimming. And I think, given the concentration of guns in a smaller and smaller number of hands, there's some evidence that society agrees.

Which is not to say those of us who don't own guns don't want to live. We do. But it's not clear that this particular way of living will even be effective. I think about the shooter down at the Empire State Building a few months back. The police showed up to protect the public and ended in a shoot-out with a guy. Nine bystanders were wounded -- all at the hands of the police. It's just not clear to me that this sort of situation wouldn't repeat itself, but with citizens doing the wounding. With that kind of risk, perhaps it's better to handle "gun safety" before we get to the moment of an "active shooter."

One question, though. Do you think that we can so easily separate the questions of legal and illegal gun ownership? What is the general history for an illegal gun? Do they first start off as legal? How do they usually make their way into unregistered hands? And is this not a fairly natural result when you have a country that allows for hundred of millions (legal?) guns in circulation? This sounds more prosecutorial then it is. I actually don't know how this works. So a lot of what you're getting are my assumptions. Your job is to immediately explain why my unlettered assumptions are incontrovertibly true. Then we can be done with so-silly dialogue business.

Jeff: I know you. I know you well, in fact. You're a father. I have a hard time believing you when you say you would "rather die by shooting than live armed." Carrying a licensed handgun is worse than death? Really?

My problem here is that you are one of the most sincere people I know, and so I know you didn't write what you wrote just to score a debating point. So the question I'm asking myself is, Why would Ta-Nehisi be so uninterested in defending himself?

But instead of asking you a version of that question again, let me ask the Augustinian question: Let's say you're in the mall with me, or another friend, and a psychopathic shooter is approaching us, AR-15 in hand. In this situation, my life is at stake, as well as yours. I'll ask the question again: Would you want a gun in hand to help keep us alive, and to keep the strangers around you -- each one a human being created in the image of God (I know you lean atheist, but you get my point) -- alive as well?

We'll get to the other questions later, but this is important: In the situation I just described above, would you rather have a gun, or rather not?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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