More Guns, Less Crime: A Dialogue

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?

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.