Back to Guns: Kant vs. Saint Augustine

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If you haven't seen it yet, you certainly should look through the exchange that the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates are having about Jeff Goldberg's story on guns and gun control, which appeared just before the Newtown massacre. Their main discussion is here. TNC has follow-ups here and here, and Jeff Goldberg here and here.

An important part of their discussion turns on what Jeff Goldberg calls the "Saint Augustine question," about when and whether those who forswear violence may justly use violent means to prevent a greater evil from taking place. As he puts it in one part of the exchange:
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?
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TNC has his own comeback to the Saint Augustine issue, here. Since we're rolling out the big-time thinkers, I'll say that the reason I prefer the Coates side of the argument (more guns are not the answer), over the Goldberg side (in the right circumstances they can be), is well expressed not by Augustine but by Immanuel Kant. 

The whole concept of Kant's "categorical imperative" -- testing an idea by what its consequences would be if everyone acted that way -- seems an ideal match for the "more guns" question. In Jeff Goldberg's hypothetical, I personally would feel better if I, uniquely, had a gun in hand to use against the perpetrator. But I would not prefer a situation in which everyone was carrying guns, all the time, and ready to open fire on anyone who looked threatening. Or even if a lot more people were doing so. Thus for me, a "more guns" policy fails the categorical imperative test. It's better for me if I do it, worse for us all if everyone does it. But read the exchange and see what you think. (That's I. Kant, at right, portrait source here.)

Now let's hear from two readers. First, from a father on the west coast:
Following on your physician wiki-contributor's experience re. promoting a broader understanding of "gun safety," my personal experience as a father of a 10 year-old boy may be somewhat relevant. 

Neither I nor anyone in my family is a gun owner or has any interest in guns. Until the events of this past year, however, I had been considering learning more about guns, taking some shooting lessons, and perhaps acquiring a gun for safety reasons based on our unhappy experience with neighborhood crime. 

A few years ago, shortly after moving into our middle-class neighborhood in [a large city], we had a break-in while we were out of the house. In the aftermath have learned that our local police do not patrol our area, have greatly reduced patrols citywide generally, and will be all but useless should we suffer another break-in. 

As I say, I'm fairly agnostic on the gun issue; as with any contested social issue, I try to put aside emotionalism and take a rigorously analytical, objective, and empirical approach to the subject. 

In this case, the brinksmanship displayed by the local police union, combined with the city's depleted financial resources and our region's extremely high number of transient criminals and gang members due to our broken immigration policy have all led me to conclude that there is a not insignificant risk that my wife and two children may be victims of violent crime at some point. Hence my tentative exploration of the prospect of owning a gun.

Here's where it gets complicated. Our older child (I'll call him "Danny") is strong-willed, emotionally volatile, highly intelligent, and crazy about Nerf guns and E-rated (child-friendly) video games. There is a history of depression in my family, and Danny shows some early signs of this. Adolescence seems to come early these days, and it appears that Danny has entered that turbulent stage already.

After Newtown, and after enduring our own child's latest adolescent eruption, complete with mutterings about "getting back at" his parents for the latest intolerable imposition (such as withholding video game privileges until homework's completed), I thank my lucky stars that I put away any and all thoughts of owning a gun. The chances of our being violently attacked are minuscule - maybe one in 100,000, despite our city's incompetent police and civic authorities - but the chances of a gun in our house being used by our volatile son against someone, especially himself, would be orders of magnitude higher. 

Even if we somehow came to feel compelled to own a gun by future events - our neighborhood going to hell due to  more gang members moving into our part of town, with no increase in police presence, say - there is no way on earth that we could get this risk of self-injury, at the hand of our volatile son, down to anything approaching a comfortable level.

To be clear, our son isn't remotely close to being mentally ill. He's actually quite normal, is at the top of his class, gets along well with other kids, wins praise from teachers, neighbors, other parents. He's become known for his kindness and compassion for weaker kids and kids with disabilities. He's a good kid. 

But the fact remains that our family's chances of self-inflicted gun injury are orders of magnitude higher than our chances of being shot by an intruder. Perhaps this calculus is different for rural families and others living in remote areas who have to deal with predatory animals. Perhaps in such an environment, even a high-strung or moody adolescent can be raised to make intelligent distinctions regarding "gun safety." Maybe the rural paterfamilias can more easily separate the gun from the ammo. I don't know. 

But I do know that this nation's easy assumptions about "gun safety" are at the very heart of the problem, and that this is exactly what needs to be debated. We are not, as a nation, safer due to our extraordinary proliferation of guns. I doubt we'll be able to restrict ownership significantly. But it seems obvious to me that these are like dangerous toxins that deserved to be registered, regulated, presented and made visible to regulatory authorities with maximum transparency. 

Keep up the good fight. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," as the Irishman said.

Next, from a mother in the midwest:

When I worked at [a major news organization], we tracked every single gun death in the nation over the course of a week - almost 500, as I recall.

The thing that really hit me was the number of suicides -- something like half, if memory serves. 

I know that people try to take their lives for a number of complex reasons. But if you don't have a gun, you're less likely to "succeed." 

This really came home to me a few years ago. [A business associate] was a "gun nut," and used to rant about what would happen to anyone who tried to break into his house. He seemed tremendously fearful of home invasion.

Of course, no one ever broke into his suburban home. But one night after he had been drinking, he took his own life, using his handgun. 

I really don't think he would have been likely to hang himself. And if he had taken an overdose, I think he would have probably called for rescue. The gun made it impossible for him to change his mind.

I am tired of people blaming "mental illness" for gun deaths. The issue is what happens when anyone, of whatever mental state at the time, has easy access to ruthlessly lethal weapons. 

The NRA's greatest ally in these policy fights, greater even than its PAC contributions and single-issue campaign interventions, is that outrage fades with time. A massacre occurs; everyone says Never again; times goes on; and the news spotlight moves elsewhere. That's why it's worth keeping up attention this time.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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