Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

Guns again

A last couple of points on the gun threads, then I'm going to try to let this drop.

jennawaterford challenged me on Constitutional grounds, as did several other folks, essentially saying I don't get to pick and choose from among my Bill of Rights. My response:

I think there's considerable grounds for reasonable disagreement about the meaning of the Second Amendment. I don't think it obviously and inherently protects widespread private gun ownership, for one thing. It can just as easily be construed to be authorizing the National Guard, save that the current political and cultural climate makes that interpretation highly difficult to sustain.

Secondly, even if I grant for the sake of argument the Second Amendment is intended in its most extreme interpretation, there are other parts of the Constitution which have changed over time with respect to circumstances in society changing. I don't think it's unreasonable to view the changes in the very meaning of the term "arms", and the capabilities of those arms, over the past two hundred years as being significant to society to a similar degree as chattel slavery or female suffrage.

In other words, I don't think the "but it's a Constitutional right" argument is airtight from either end.

There's more interchange between me and her downthread from that comment. She's arguing (I think, not to put words in her mouth) from a progressive point of view of strict defense of the Constitution.

Ah, that marvel of American politics, where liberals are so often strict on the other nine amendments of the Bill of Rights and loose on the Second Amendment, while conservatives are so often strict on the Second Amendment and loose on the other nine.

chris_gerrib challenged me rather thoughtfully, and was gracious when I pushed back, as I asked, "Are your guns worth my dead child? Are anyone else's guns worth your dead child?."

I don't know how to answer that without sounding arrogant, blindly patriotic or otherwise stupid, but I shall try.

At the heart, I believe the gun issue is a matter of freedom. And while I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that, yes, freedom can be worth people's lives. Mine and my child's included.

I'll sound even more callous here, but I will point out that the "kids" who died today are almost certainly as old as the "kids" in Iraq and Afghanistan are. Which is to say that they are adults. Civilians, yes, and no they most certainly don't deserve to die, but they are not kids.

I do not dispute the assertion that fewer guns would mean fewer gun deaths. I would point out that since only 1 of 400 guns is ever used to kill somebody, to net any practical effect, fewer needs to be effectively zero.

But frankly, I'm not sure that waving a magic wand and making guns go away would solve the problem. As you point out, history is full of people coming up with new ways to kill each other. Absent guns, it seems entirely too easy for the few strong and ruthless men to dominate the larger but individually weaker population.

I think chris_gerrib come to a point of honest disagreement here.

First of all, I don't interpret gun ownership as an essential defense of freedom. Put it in a historical context. At the time the Bill of Rights was drafted, there was little to no distinction between military firearms and civilian firearms. Artillery was perhaps the only significant area of military technology not generally available to civilians, and its utility was limited to rather specific circumstances. You can view the Second Amendment as authorizing unfettered private gun ownership (the prevailing view today) or as authorizing militias outside of the control of the central government (a reasonable alternative reading). The distinction between the two cases was much less dramatic in the 1780s than it is today. That in turn means the "rise up against tyranny" argument was more cogent, as any reasonably tough band of farmers was not far different from a similarly-sized unit of soldiers. Our'n was as big as there'n.

Today the distinction between private weapons and military weapons is fantastically extreme. It simply isn't analogous to the intention at the time of the framing of the Bill of Rights. A .38 special on the night stand is considerably less useful today in defending essential liberty than the reasoned exercise of the voting privilege. Likewise a free press is far more important.

I'll pass on chris_gerrib's statement about the kids who died for two reasons, neither of them out of disrespect for him and his argument. One, everybody who dies is someone's child, someone's sibling, someone's parent. Two, something like 15,000 people are killed every year in the United States in firearms incidents. Take the essential liberty argument out of the emotional realm of children (where I am the culprit in casting it), and you've established the going rate for that theoretical defense of essential liberty. 15,000 deaths per year in exchange for freely available firearms. Is the public benefit from freely available firearms worth those deaths? We make a similar calculation for automobiles as a society, and agree to their use. But the public benefit from automobiles is far more clear to me than the public benefit from firearms.

As for the question of reduction of freely available firearms -- yes, there are so many out there now that any practical reduction would have little to no net effect. I understand this. At the same time, that is a shitty argument for not trying to do something. The First Rule of Holes is to stop digging. We just keep digging the gun hole, because it's too deep to fix anyway. That doesn't hold water for me as a matter of social good or emotional logic.

And no, I'm not proposing some widespread ban or confiscation. As satisfying as that might be to me personally to see that happen, it's neither reasonable nor practical. But as a society, we need to do something besides cluck about essential liberties and go out target shooting. There is no magic wand here.

But I also don't buy the strong/weak argument. The whole point of a civil society is to abstract that kind of elemental bullying from the social contract. Arming ourselves only reinforces the problem, it doesn't solve it except at the most tactical, personal level. Which is satisfying for the individual, but doesn't serve the interests of society as I see them.

What am I arguing for? A lot of things, I suppose. Acknowledgement of the dreadful human costs of widespread gun ownership. A widespread, long-term effort to de-emphasize the sexuality and emotional power of firearms. Social and financial support for unstigmatized mental health services so that disturbed and distressed people don't feel like their only outlet lies in violence. I'm arguing for a whole constellation of things, many of which I cannot name here and now. Mostly I'm arguing for a change in direction in our society. That I don't see. Not when people love their own guns more than they love the lives of those around them.
Tags: guns, politics

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