More Guns, Less Crime: A Dialogue

TNC: The crucial difference is that I don't accept the premise. In other words, if I have "have a gun" in that situation, other things are then also true of my life. In other words, there is no "me" as I am right now that would have a gun. That "me" would spend a good amount time being responsible for his weapon. It's not so much a situation that, if I were with you and we were facing down a crazy dude, I wouldn't want to have a gun. It's that I've already made choices that guarantee that I couldn't have one. It just isn't possible, given my life choices. I'd much rather work toward a world where the psychotic shooter is actually a psychotic knifer, or a psychotic clubber.

There is something else here. I grew up in a situation where violence was a fact of everyday life. Violence waited for you when you walked to school. Violence waited for you in class. Violence waited for you on the way. Violence waited for you on the way to football practice. Beatdowns at the bowling alleys. Shootings at the roller skating rinks. You could not go and see your girlfriend if she lived in some other neighborhood without bringing five other dudes with you -- one of them possibly strapped. I was not a violent kid. I was, and am, a softie. But after about a year of living in that environment, I basically became acculturated. When I became a professional and an adult, I basically spent years trying to deculturate and act like I was civilized. This isn't a matter of punching people because they looked at you wrong. (Thought it kind of is.) It's a matter of understanding that what you once considered vital has no meaning in the wider -- much less violent -- world. I am the furthest thing you will meet from a street dude. And yet I still find myself in conversation with myself over how to comport myself like a civilized person. Add on to that thinking about how to comport yourself when you are a big black dude, and you see what kind of weight might be there. It's not so much that I am uninterested in defending myself. It's that I spent a good part of my younger life doing exactly that. My takeaway was that defensive violence often isn't, and even when it is, even when all your dreams of triumph come true, it still takes a toll on you.

I guess my point is, I have a hard time with a construction of violence that begins and ends in the moment of violent confrontation. My belief is that an intelligent self-defense begins long before that dude with the AR-15 in hand appears. If we're down to me licking off shots, then we are truly lost. And I say that as a dude with a huge poster of Malcolm X on his wall.

Jeff: You didn't answer the key question that Saint Augustine poses to all those who swear off violence. I really do think it's important to ask yourself this: At what point is it justifiable to meet violence with violence? At what point is it immoral not to respond to violence with violence? (We both have our touchstones on this issue, of course -- you the fight to end slavery in America, me the fight to end the Holocaust, though each of us is interested in both issues.)

Anyway, I'm not going to get you to answer, so I'm moving on. I don't doubt for a second that defending yourself takes a toll on a person -- one of the misperceptions many on the left have about the concealed-carry debate, for instance, is that advocates of concealed-carry think it's some sort of great thing. It isn't: It's a tragic response to a tragic situation.

I'm sure there are ideologically-driven Second Amendment absolutists who do think of a comprehensively armed society as a kind of ideal, but I'm far from that camp. I'm just searching for ways to limit the damage criminals and the deranged do with guns. One answer I've come up with is to defend yourself against them, whenever possible. As I wrote this week -- was it to you? I can't remember -- I came to this in good part because the whole current gun control debate is absolute bullshit, in that all of the measures being suggested wouldn't actually do much of anything to solve the problem. None of these measures will change the fact that there are 300 million guns in circulation today, and that these guns, even improperly maintained, will still be capable of firing in 100 years. (And, predictably, gun sales seem to be spiking across the country as people begin to irrationally fear President Obama once again.) Your question about how a legal gun becomes illegal is a very interesting one -- loose laws, and poor enforcement of existing laws, are two answers. Which is why I'm for stringent regulation. But again, stringent regulation going forward doesn't solve the problem of guns that have already fallen into dangerous hands.

Here's a thought I've been having lately (one, by the way, leading gun-controllers aren't having, for reasons of political expediency): Let's re-open the whole debate -- let's talk about the Second Amendment itself, and ask ourselves why, as a country, we need all these guns. Obviously, the side seeking to alter the Second Amendment will most likely lose, but I do think we should have an honest debate about the cost of having a gun-saturated society. Everything should be on the table. Whether or not Congress bans a specific type of weapon with a specific type of pistol grip is not very interesting to me, because these sorts of measures won't fix the problem. Let's have a national debate about gun ownership. (I would love to see an actual debate between, say, Mike Bloomberg and Rick Perry on the subject.)

There's too much to grapple with here, but I have to ask you about this -- you wrote, "My belief is that an intelligent self-defense begins long before that dude with the AR-15 in hand appears." You'll have to explain this one to me. Do you mean that you shouldn't walk down a street known to be thick with muggers? I'm with you there. But what is the intelligent defense you would have designed for Sandy Hook Elementary School? Are you talking about legislative fixes? Because there's no legislative fix I know of -- short of repealing the Second Amendment and having the military forcibly collect the country's 300 million guns, quickly -- that will guarantee the safety of unarmed innocent people like those who were murdered in Newtown.

TNC: Forgive me, I didn't understand your question. (I actually don't know who Saint Augustine is.) I think it is totally moral to use violence to protect yourself and to protect your family. I did not understand that that was ever at issue. For instance, if someone breaks into my house, it is totally moral for me to do whatever I need to do to protect my home and family. Period. That's been the law of my life, for as long as I can remember. The second part of your question --when is it immoral to not respond with violence -- is harder for me, mostly because I haven't really thought about it. I didn't really grow up around pacifism. The notion of self-defense as immoral was simply never a consideration. To my mind, a concern advocating for "less guns" or arguing against "more guns" isn't an argument against violent self-defense. It's not even an argument against self-defense via firearm. It's a recognition that not everyone is prepared to carry a handgun, and I am among that "everyone." I also don't own a car, either. I'm not ready for the responsibility.

As for the perception that conceal and carry is a "tragic response to a tragic situation," I don't want to speak for "the Left," but when I see the NRA selling a conceal and carry hoodie, I don't really think they are going into this with heavy hearts. I'm not lumping you in with that, and I know you've criticized them and don't roll with them. But I am saying that the skepticism is not conjured out of thin air.

On the point about "intelligent self-defense," I think the first thing is to recognize that there is no ubiquitous self-defense. I'm not convinced that there really is a self-defense measure -- even an assault weapons ban -- that would have prevented Sandy Hook. So I think the first thing is to understand the limits of any self-defense. The next is to not confront the problem at the moment violence happens, but to dial back and look at all the steps preceding it. How is that Jared Loughner was able to have access to firearms? How was it that Seung-Hui Cho was able to get guns? How is it that James Holmes was able to assemble a small arsenal? My point is that self-defense begins before the moment of contact. At the point that we are debating whether we charge the guy or wishing the principal had a gun, we are already too late.

I need to ask you something else -- especially given your point about opening the entire debate. How did you feel about the article when you first heard about Newtown? Is there anything at all you wish you'd done differently? And if so, did it occur to you before or after Newtown?

Jeff: Forget Augustine. Let me go to your question. Here's what I advocated for in the Atlantic article: More stringent gun control measures; a recognition that concealed-carry permit holders could have a role to play in stopping crime; and that it is the right of individuals, so long as they are properly vetted, to participate in their own defense. There are 9 million concealed-carry permit holders in the U.S. already, so obviously this isn't an unpopular thought. Let's just imagine that there was someone in that school -- a police officer (a third of American schools already have police officers in them), or an armed guard, or even an administrator who was licensed, trained and armed. There's no guarantee, of course, that an armed person would have stopped the killer, but since pretty much the worst thing that could have happened in that school did happen, I find it almost impossible to believe that the presence of an armed person in that school could have made things worse. And there's a decent chance that an armed and trained person could have shot the killer, or at the very least distracted him. Again, there's no sure thing, but when I hear people say that an armed presence in the school would definitively not have helped, I think they're being fatuous and ideological, as fatuous and ideological as I would sound if I argued that a counter-shooter definitely would have neutralized the threat. My mind keeps returning to the example of Joel Myrick, the assistant principal of a high school in Pearl, Mississippi, who captured a shooter at his school by pointing his legally-owned weapon at him.

The principal and the school psychologist at Sandy Hook, Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, had the presence of mind to hurl themselves at the killer to get him to stop. They failed, because he had a rifle. But what their actions prove is that they got close to stopping him, and that they didn't become paralyzed by fear.

I wish I would have highlighted other issues -- the mental health piece, in particular. The assault weapons ban and other half-measures won't change reality, but if our legislators could figure out a way to keep guns -- any guns -- out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill (a subcategory of the mentally ill, of course), then we're getting somewhere. Also, I would talk up gun buybacks, though this, as well, is a half-measure. The mental health piece, though -- that's the vector for these mass killings: Easy access to guns by people who, though they might not have been adjudicated mentally ill, need to be kept from guns all the same. (This is a very difficult thing to do, because it requires the help of the mental health community, and it's not too interested in reporting patients to the FBI.) And I wish I had written more about the relative merits of closing the gun-show loophole versus the proposed assault weapons ban. (I think the latter is mostly symbolic; the former represents a potentially important advance in gun control.)

I come to this subject, ultimately, as the father of three school-age children. All I'm doing is looking for policies that work. If you could show me a plan that would radically reduce the number of guns in America, I'd be happy to endorse. If you tell me that the best way to protect children is to post police officers in every school, then let's do that. The cost shouldn't matter -- we're talking about our children. (I tend to think that, because these shootings are so rare, this is not the best use of money, but that's another conversation.) I also have another view that, at least in our Northeastern liberal circles, is heterodoxical: I think most Americans can be trusted with guns. The proof is that tens of millions of Americans who do own guns go through life without ever hurting anyone. Not infrequently, these law-abiding Americans use their guns to stop crimes.

This is the untold story. I'll send you links if you want, but guns are frequently used to de-escalate situations. And so I'm not frightened by vetted, screened, and trained civilian gun owners. I'm more afraid of a dangerously mentally ill person with a penknife than I am of a sane and law-abiding citizen with an arsenal of assault rifles in his garage. And so I do believe that there are moments when a civilian, so long as he is screened and trained appropriately, can stop a crime with a gun. Do I want guns in my children's schools? No, it's a repulsive idea. Do I want the principals of my kids' schools to carry weapons, or have them accessible in their offices? No, that's a terrible indictment of our society, among other things.

But: I want my children to be safe, and we know that the gun lobby has failed to protect our children; the gun-control lobby has failed to protect our children (and yes, they have failed -- they have been, so far, a singularly ineffective lobby); our legislators and leaders have failed; the police, of course, regularly fail to stop gun violence (they're good at investigating it afterward). So I think that civilians who are capable of defending themselves, and others, should consider doing so, until we come up with a better plan. In The Nation, Bryce Covert writes that, "Individually, in the face of unpredictable violence it can make sense to want to arm oneself to respond to what may come. But that means a lack of trust in our common goal of safety for all." She then goes on to write: "Agreeing to ignore the instinct to pick up more guns means trusting that the police will show up to answer your call." This kind of thinking flummoxes me (and surprises me -- who knew The Nation trusted the police so much?). Lovely thoughts, but what reality-based person trusts that the "police will show up to answer your call"? It is true that the police eventually show up at scenes of massacres: At Virginia Tech, it took the police only 10 minutes to arrive. In those 10 minutes, though, 35 people were murdered. And the police showed up at Sandy Hook Elementary shortly after 26 people were murdered.

Covert's thinking seems perverse to me, but maybe you can explain it. What also seems perverse to me is the NRA's absolutism. I just watched the group's press conference, and I just don't understand the logic behind gun extremism. As I wrote in the Atlantic piece, I'm for gun control because I don't think guns would be useful against government tyranny. (I don't know about you, but I don't fear the rise of tyrannical government in America.) I understand the roots of Second Amendment absolutism, but I reject the principles.

Here's the way I think about this, in sum: The Left's problem is that it denies the tragic reality that in gun-saturated America, a gun in the hands of a law-abiding, sane, and trained person can on occasion be effective in stopping violence, rather than escalating violence. The Right, on the other hand, denies that it has played an enormous part in creating and perpetuating the tragic reality of gun-saturated America, and denies that a sane society would regulate the number, and type, of guns in private hands; and most important, regulate just who gets a gun in the first place.


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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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