On Living Armed

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Yesterday in the conversation between me and Jeff, the follow quote appeared from me:


And the fact is that I would actually rather die by shooting than live armed.

One thing that happens in writing is sometimes you say something that its "catchy" and it gets repeated outside of the context in which it was actually said. To get clear, I think it's important to understand that I was responding to a question, and the question was not "What is your position on gun control? or  "Do you think guns should be banned?" The question was:

If you were confronted with an "active shooter," do you think, in that moment, you might wish you had a gun?

And my response was:

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."

I can't really make people not pick a phrase out and deploy it. But I want to ask that people consider the argument as a whole, and consider what, exactly, the comment is a response to.

For some time now, this blog has spent a good deal of time discussing the morality of violence. For the most part this is about blackness. That's what leads me to ask whether Nat Turner was right and whether its the death of 600,000 people in the Civil War was actually tragic. That's what leads me to look at the violence which African-Americans regularly contend with -- whether its the intimate violence of spanking our kids, the intra-community violence of crime, the extra-community violence of the police. And from all thought I've sought to understand what violence does to the actual individual -- how black people (black males, specifically) alter their behaviors to cope, and how that alteration fairs out in the larger world.


My working conclusion has basically been that violence is sometimes not only necessary, but essential. In those moments (like the Civil War), I tend to dislike the tragic-mournful pose, not because I love violence but because I have found that the "tragic-mournful pose" is almost always selectively applied. This is not just a matter of the Civil War. It's pretty routine to  condemn the violent street pose of young black men, without granting that the pose is the product of an intelligent assessment of one's surroundings. (I've written on all of those. It's all linked.) 

But I also believe that one does not simply do violence -- or live prepared for violence -- and remain the same. I carry all of West Baltimore with me, and I am in constant conversation over the fact that that part of me is wholly inappropriate for this world. That part -- the part that is analyzing every person who walks up on me, who is trying to figure out every angle, who sees a crowd and walks the other way -- is fit for a world of violence. That pose is totally draining. (It has no time to go off and learn French.)

So if you ask me if I wished to have a gun when an active shooter is present, then I will tell you that guns don't magically appear in the holster, that the capacity to do lethal violence requires an expense of time, energy, and responsibility, which I I would rather not make. I would tell you that I have, already, spent too much of my life preparing for violence. I would say that the person who should wish to have a gun in that situation, should be a person capable of shooting a gun, and a person comfortable with the responsibility of carrying a gun during the 99.9 percent of the time when violence -- much less lethal violence -- is wholly inappropriate.

A gun is power. And power demands responsibility. I don't want to spend my time that way. I am tired of assessing the angle of random dudes. I'm more interested in the angle on this Augustine fellow.
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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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