By Adam S.
One of the biggest problems with the gun control debate is the fact that it is about guns. Before anyone gets all butt-hurt about that statement, let me explain what I mean. First off, it should be noted that I support gun rights. I enjoy shooting and plinking, and I have a license to carry concealed in my state. Clearly I don’t have a problem with guns, so why do I consider guns to be the problem within the context of the debate? . . .
I think it’s fair to say that there is something of a stigma against guns amongst the general public. People tend to fear what they don’t understand; it’s human nature. So it stands to reason that the non-gun-owning public, who are likely being exposed to media with a pretty obvious bias against guns and gun ownership on a nearly constant basis, would be ambivalent at best toward the idea of gun rights.
There’s a certain level of discomfort that goes hand-in-hand with total unfamiliarity, as well as a natural and unavoidable emotional response to the idea of innocent lives being lost. It’s hard to divorce yourself from the emotional response and think about things logically, especially with major news outlets bombarding you with images of grieving families juxtaposed against ominous silhouettes of sinister-looking black rifles.
See, the disconnect in the debate over gun control is the fact that it’s about guns. Very generally speaking, the public perception of guns and gun owners trends toward the negative. I attribute this attitude to several things. First off, as I stated before, unfamiliarity and discomfort are a package deal, and many people lack a familiarity with firearms, especially those who live in urban areas and/or state and jurisdictions that are historically restrictive when it comes to guns.
Secondly, this unfamiliarity is simultaneously mirrored and exploited by the majority of news media outlets. This can be seen in the use of terms like “high-capacity magazine clips” and phrases like “the gun went off,” constructed in such a way as to make the gun itself only a noun in the sentence. The guy didn’t fire the gun, the gun went off. Get it?
Terms like “gun violence” imply an active role on the part of the gun itself, and the use of a qualifier indicates a distinction between different types of violence. The fact that “gun violence” is the only flavor of mayhem to use a qualifying attributive noun – we never hear about “knife violence” or “blunt object violence” – implies that violent actions undertaken with a gun are somehow worse than violent actions committed without one. This sort of manipulative reporting creates outrage and concern amongst those who have an unfamiliarity with, or preexisting bias against, firearms. This practice also aggravates gun owners; it pretty frustrating to see a misinformed public receiving misinformation from a misinformed source who clearly is too contemptuous of its subject matter to actually learn about it.
Finally, in any discussion that takes place on an extremely broad scale, the unfortunate reality is that the loudest voices are also usually the weirdest and most extreme. By and large, the most outspoken advocates of gun rights are also among those most likely to be branded as weird extremists by a gun-shy public; this exacerbates the already negative associations that people have with guns.
So, how do we move this debate forward? We’ve established that a lot of people are uncomfortable with guns, or indeed are reflexively hostile toward the idea of gun ownership. The question of “why does anyone need a gun” inevitably arises. And any answer, no matter how rational and well-phrased, will likely alienate the public, as it will involve acknowledging that guns are used to shoot things. The only way to transcend this impasse is to remove the guns from the gun control debate, or at the very least, deemphasize them. And that’s totally okay, because the way I see it, the debate over gun control has never really been about the guns themselves anyway. At the heart of things, the “gun” component of gun control is merely a set piece for a larger issue: the willful exchange of liberty for the illusion of safety or the public good.
Typically speaking, the perpetrators of tragic events involving guns fall into at least one of the following three categories: bad people, insane people and idiots. Most people, however, are not bad, insane or idiots (and for the most part, the ones who are idiots aren’t the type of idiot who puts lives at risk). Here’s what I’m getting at: whenever a bad, insane or idiotic person does something bad, insane or idiotic with a gun, the immediate reaction is to call for tighter restrictions on carrying and owning guns. But given that most people are good, sane, and relatively intelligent, is that really fair or effective?
It’s like enacting the PATRIOT act following 9/11. A terrible, devastatingly tragic event happened, people felt a need to do something, and in turn we enacted legislation that infringed on the rights of millions of people who had literally nothing to do with the event that inspired the legislation in the first place. Viewed through the lens of history, I think most people would agree that the PATRIOT act was an egregious misstep that pushed the boundaries of government policy further in the wrong direction than any other single piece of legislation in recent decades.
The public outcry and subsequent state-level changes in gun legislation that have followed in the wake of every recent highly publicized shooting follows a similar pattern. The heart of the issue is not guns; the true questions are 1) whether infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens in the hopes of preventing a thing that has already happened is justifiable and legally defensible, and 2) whether appointing the government as the ultimate arbiter and regulator of who can be armed is really such a good idea. The dangers of rushed, ill-conceived reactionary legislation and excessive government control apply to issues far beyond gun regulation.
To illustrate this point, I’m going to draw a comparison to a different potentially lethal item, the importation of which has been outright banned by the federal government: Kinder Surprise Eggs. Kinder Surprise Eggs, for those of you not in the know, are basically hollow chocolate eggs with a small toy inside. I think they’re from somewhere in Europe. Or somewhere dumb like Canada. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The point is that the government has prohibited the importation of Kinder Surprise Eggs into the United States on the grounds that people might choke on the toys and die.
What? I mean…I can almost see that happening with, say, kids. Like, the really, really stupid ones. You know, old enough to be given a candy egg with a toy inside in the first place, but just really, really stupid and unaware of the fact that they have to chew food. Kids who are unable to discern the difference in flavor and texture between between chocolate and a plastic toy. But we’re outright prohibiting these because a few idiots might misuse it? If you’re stupid enough to choke on a toy in a candy egg – the primary appeal of which being the loudly advertised toy inside – then I think it’s fair to say that you’re stupid enough to choke on just about anything that can fit in your mouth, so what’s the point? Just let us have our damn Kinder Surprise Eggs.
I know that the right to keep and bear Kinder Surprise Eggs isn’t Constitutionally protected, but both cases come down to the same thing: you can’t legislate decency or common sense. People do bad things sometimes. People can be stupid. And at the end of the day, no law or restriction or ban or background check can alter that. The gun control debate ultimately isn’t about keeping and bearing arms; it’s about the extent to which the government will increase its legal powers in the name of an ultimately futile crusade for “public safety,” and the latitude that people will grant the government in expanding its powers in exchange for the illusion of safety.
See, the overwhelming majority of people are in denial with regards to human mortality. By and large, this is a good thing; having the inevitability our own deaths and the deaths of those we love at the front our minds would be a constant bummer. However, the tragic but inescapable reality is that people die. Whether it is the result of a violent action, a freak accident or our own bodies saying, “screw it, I’m done” and rebelling against us, the one universal commonality between all of humanity is that our existence, at least in a corporeal sense, is temporary.
I get that a lot of people have a difficult time accepting the notion that an armed populace is one of the fundamental building blocks of a free society, but I think it’s fair to say that most people would agree that a world where the government has absolute control over every aspect of life would be terrible. For me, the debate over gun control is all about the precedent that could be set for increased government control under the guise of the public good. Let’s say that eventually the United States becomes a society where the federal government has jurisdiction over every aspect of life. I’ll even give the government the benefit of the doubt and imagine that they genuinely had the best interests of the people in mind in doing this. The purity of their motives notwithstanding, the end result would be a restrictive society with a diminished quality of life, in which people will still inevitably all die. Is that a fair trade for the illusion of safety?
When people talk about freedom in the context of gun control, it’s easy to write them off as gun nuts ranting about the freedom to own guns, but it goes deeper than that. Whether they realize it or not, those who espouse the virtues of freedom in the spotlight of the raging debate over gun regulations are talking about something that extends well beyond the arena of gun rights. The guns themselves are incidental; no matter how you may feel about them, I think we can all agree that a free society is worth fighting for. And that’s what this debate is really all about.