Many of you have written to me about gun control in the U.S., especially since the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas. One member, David, wrote that he believes it’s time to remove the right to gun ownership from the federal constitution, perhaps making gun ownership a question for individual states. But more importantly, he wanted to know how to move forward. “How can we reach a compromise that has a realistic chance?” he asked. Today we’re launching the Masthead’s contribution to that effort: a debate among members about gun control.
In this edition, one of our members, Justin Robinson, has volunteered to start the debate. We’ll present his view, then you are invited to respond. (Details are at the bottom of this message.) We'll follow up in a few days with a selection of rebuttals, and invite you to vote on which ones you'd want Justin to answer. And we’ll check in on how far we’ve moved the conversation. Now, here’s Justin.
THE ARGUMENT FOR SELF-DEFENSE
Proponents of tighter gun regulation in America tend to argue two points that are in serious tension with one another: (1) The U.S. should implement a few “common sense” gun laws that will mostly trim around the edges of our (very real and massive) problem with gun violence. And (2) The U.S. should mimic what Australia did and take away everyone’s guns.
And one argument—let’s call it the James Fallows Video Argument—is stopping the other because it always appears. The need to mitigate gun violence is real, and gun rights advocates would like to cooperate towards a solution. But the introduction of the “JFVA” throws many gun rights advocates into a reflexive, defensive crouch.
Here’s the problem: A confiscatory argument cannot help but oppose the logic of a person who is armed purely for self-defense: “If I’m armed when violence happens, I may have some chance to exert control over it. Confiscation takes that chance away from me.” The fact that violence is a problem in the United States does not automatically override the importance of individual agency, and people who want to retain this agency are not automatically unreasonable.
To make this concrete, consider a real situation where a private citizen used a gun in self-defense. If you can stand to see violence—there is no blood, but real harm is done—watch a video linked in the author Sam Harris’s meditation on gun politics, “The Riddle of the Gun.” A robber draws a gun in a motel lobby, stands behind a mother and child, and demands cash. A clerk draws a weapon, moves everyone but the robber to the side, and fires three shots at the robber at point-blank range.
The first thing an ordinary person might experience watching the video is horror that it happened at all. The second might be, “Holy crap, that guy just shot a gun near a kid!” (The child was not injured, as far as we can see.) Judging by the reactions in the comments on the video, there are many who believe a civilian taking this risk, rather than a trained police officer, is simply unacceptable, no matter the circumstances.
But any person who has had firearms training can see the shooter has had it, too. Look again at the shooter’s hands. You’ll see he never points his firearm at anything but a wall or the floor before pointing it at the robber. He’s not in a perfect situation, but any situation with guns in it is imperfect by default.
If you would rather the police be the main defense against gun violence, try to put yourself in the shoes of that store clerk, who found himself on the business end of a criminal’s firearm. Disarming him is telling him, “Even though you’ve had training, society has decided that you can’t be trusted to defend yourself. Whatever feelings you may have that oppose this notion must bend under the cold light of statistics about the havoc people wreak with guns.” Indeed, the possible result of this expression of agency is, for many, the only necessary argument for denying it. Rights to life, liberty, and property are respected … unless using a gun is the only way to do it.
Violence, the gun control argument ultimately seems to say, must be reserved for the government official. But proponents of restrictive gun control need to remind themselves what policing looks like in the real world. To stop a shooting like the one in that motel, a cop must deploy instantaneously and behave flawlessly, distinguish friend from foe unerringly, and only fire when certain. And the thing that makes all this perfect shooting possible, when I’ve heard real people advance the cops-only position, is training.
Unfortunately, training does not create perfection. Hundreds of kneeling football players, and hours of tragic footage, can attest that training doesn’t stop cops from shooting under problematic conditions, or at fleeing targets.
Even if training worked the way we wanted it to, a cop showing up at the motel in the video is potentially shooting into a lobby he knows nothing about. Four civilians are in the room with his target, and the range from outside makes him far more likely to miss compared to the store clerk (who, again, is clearly behaving like a trained professional). But since the cop would actually be showing up about 15 minutes after the crime ended, he would be searching for an armed man in black, fleeing in the dark. To some real extent, the world itself is a problematic condition. There is no way for anyone to shoot into it without asking tough questions, and demanding case-by-case accountability from the shooter.
In the end, our hypothetical cop showing up to that motel, trained or not, would have been faced with the thing that gun-control advocates seem to fear most when the conversation turns dark: a choice. It’s easy for a pacifist to give up a choice he or she will never make. In our modern world, it’s easy to convince oneself that this choice isn’t even real. Most of the 700-odd gun murders in Chicago in 2016 took place within or just outside the redlined neighborhoods outlined in 1939. How likely are any of those murders to be a real, viscerally understood thing to the average American? Unless it’s a mass shooting at a place we’re likely to go, how likely are we to ever truly know this kind of fear, and to want to be able to do something about it?
But if we’re going to move forward, we have to try to use our moral imaginations to see why those who don’t think like us might tackle the same ethical question but arrive at a different answer. The problem affects all of us, and it can’t wait.
—Justin Robinson is a teacher in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The views expressed here are his alone.
NOW, LET’S HEAR FROM YOU
We want your rebuttals to today’s debate. We’ll review your responses to Justin and publish some in a future issue of Masthead. As you respond, keep in mind Conor Friedersdorf’s rules for persuasion. Craft an argument that genuinely hears and tries to understand the point that Justin is making—don’t rant at him.
Use this form to submit your rebuttals. (Or write back to me directly, as always.)
TODAY’S WRAP UP
Question of the Day: What’s your response to Justin?
Your Feedback: Let us know how we’re doing. Take our quick survey here.
What’s Coming: Tomorrow, Caroline talks to The Atlantic’s James Hamblin about humor writing in the Trump era.
What We’re Thinking About: How to move forward with our discussion forum. Many of you had strong feelings about the role of Facebook in journalism and democracy more broadly. We’ll check in with you on this subject again soon.
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