At various times over the last few years, Nicholas Kristof has published essays at The New York Times on what to do about the scourge of guns. One recent example, from January 2023, was updated and re-published a few weeks later to incorporate more information about a recent spate of shootings across the country. A previous one was published in May 2017 and re-published in May of 222, augmented by another one a day or two later, between the end of his unsuccessful run for Governor of Oregon and his recent resumption of columnist duties.
The following was a response I wrote to him after reading his May 2022 essays. My focus was not specifically to defend the right to own guns (though that is not completely absent). My focus was, rather, on how to have a reasonable and productive conversation between those who value gun rights and those who, quite properly, want to rein in the carnage created by people who use guns irresponsibly or, worse, maliciously. Much of it is aimed at those who favor stricter gun regulation and deals with how they might direct their efforts in ways that could solicit cooperation from their adversaries, rather than immediate and unequivocal hostility. But there is also a lot aimed at those who value gun rights, and deals with ways in which they really do need to step up and accept some responsibility for making things better.
Now — in the light of what appears to be a recent upsurge in gun violence (at least as publicized in the press — and, yes, horrible on its face, regardless of what the statistics may tell us once we’ve had a chance to analyze them) — would seem to be a good time to post it for public consumption in hopes of influencing the inevitable debate over what policies to put in place to deal with the problem…
20 June 2022
In four parts:
- A Policy Proposal
- A Bonus policy suggestion (only half tongue-in-cheek…)
To Nicholas Kristof: Some thoughts on your recent columns on Guns:
PART 1: Re-framing?
Your recent column on Guns was focused on how we might have an actual and reasonable conversation, between those on the anti-gun left and those on the pro-gun right, about how we might approach reducing the gun violence that is plaguing us. As a lead-in to that, you wrote:
The left sometimes focuses on “gun control,” which scares off gun owners and leads to more gun sales. A better framing is “gun safety” or “reducing gun violence,” and using auto safety as a model - constant efforts to make the products safer and to limit access by people who are most likely to misuse them.
That the left “sometimes” focuses on gun control is, I would assert, an understatement: it seems to be their default prescription. In fact, the general perception among those on the right (both the Trumpist and the increasingly rare sane versions) is that the reflexive prescription from “the left”, and especially from the “progressive” left, for pretty much any issue that concerns them is some kind of coercive program of “issue control”.
Fair or not, that perception is strong enough that most people on the right will automatically read such a prescription into any proposal that comes from the left, even when it is not actually there.
Alas, that perception will almost certainly interfere with any attempts to find common ground on “gun safety”; and, therefore, any attempt to engage with the right on the issue will need to be carefully crafted (and suitably explicit about what the proposals are not) to overcome that hurdle.
But, even if that were not the case, I would argue that what is required as an alternative to a focus on “gun control” is more than merely a matter of “framing”.
People who value free speech object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to censor anything. Why? Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to censor things are not actually reasonable. They fear that talk of “reasonable” limits on speech is disingenuous and offered in bad faith. They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” limits on speech actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban speech outright (or, at least, to ban outright any speech they disagree with, which is effectively the same thing).
People who value access to abortion object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances. Why? Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on abortion are not actually reasonable. They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion is disingenuous and offered in bad faith. They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban abortion outright.
And, yes. People who value access to guns object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances. Why? Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on gun access are not actually reasonable. They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns is disingenuous and offered in bad faith. They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban guns outright.
If you want to bring along the sensible, practical people who lament the current state of affairs and, yet, who value their right to have access to guns for self-protection and/or sport, you need to do more than “re-frame” the language and the argument. You need to convince them that you are both sincere and trustworthy.
You are asking them to rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in their coalition. In the same way, you need to convince them that you can effectively rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in your coalition. You need to convince them that the “reasonable” proposals you have in mind really are — truly — your ends, and not merely a means to initiate a march toward something more extreme.
The issue of “trust” – or its lack – is not, of course, limited to conversations about guns and abortion and free speech. It is at the root of a great deal (perhaps most) of our current political and cultural crisis. As I have written elsewhere:
The entire concept of a ‘liberal’ order – of governance by negotiation and agreement, rather than by edict, of a focus on a fair process as much as on a desirable result – is under assault and losing ground daily. Once upon a time we, as a society, believed that the best way to manage the risks associated with government was to bound its authority to coerce us. We seem, now, to have abandoned that approach in favor of a new one: ensure, at all costs and by any means, it is your own tribe, not someone else’s, that controls that authority; and then, safe in the comfort of that control, unbind it. That is, of course, a terrifying prospect for the losers. And, so, the losers are all for eviscerating that authority entirely – until, that is, they find themselves, once again, on the winning side of the ledger.
Why am I afraid of individuals? Because they are selfish and beyond my control! Why am I afraid of the mob or of the Mob? Because it is selfish and beyond my control! Why am I afraid? Because I cannot trust!
And that, of course, is at the bottom of it all. We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith. Why are we intolerant of risk? Because we feel a lack of control. Why do we feel a lack of control? Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity. In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.
We need to re-learn the ability to trust.
But, to do that, we first need to re-learn the virtue of being trustworthy.
But the issue of “trust” does go, in particular, directly to the difficulty we would encounter in implementing the last part of your proposal to adopt an “auto-safety”-like approach to minimizing the harm done by guns:
“…to limit access by people who are most likely to misuse them.”
Because, identifying with any certainty the “people who are most likely to misuse them” is exactly the most challenging and fraught part of the equation.
Things like licensing requirements accompanied by mandatory safety training can, of course, help prevent accidents – that is, they can limit access to people who are most likely to misuse guns inadvertently, by teaching them what not to do.
And safety features and safety-related accessories – particularly things like gun safes and trigger locks that are both secure and easy/reliable enough to use that they will, indeed, be used – can inhibit the small fraction of malicious or careless gun users (including children) who steal (or borrow) their guns from a friend or a relative.
But, I don’t think anyone who has looked at the data believes either of those represent the bulk of problem we are trying to solve. The hard part is trying to figure out who should not be allowed to get those licenses and purchase those “safer” guns because they will end up using their guns irresponsibly and with malice. Increasing age limits slightly is probably useful because they may help with that at the margin – but only at the margin.
Yogi Berra (or maybe it was Niels Bohr) is reported to have lamented, “Prediction is hard! Especially about the future!” In the realm of auto safety, we make such predictions (excluding reasonable a priori age limits) based exclusively on observable past behavior with driving. We do not try to make such predictions based on assumptions and interpretations of indirect “indicators” like “red flags” from acquaintances or Internet bravado or lifestyle choices. In my 2016 book, “American Conservative: Reclaiming Conservatism From the Right”, I wrote:
It is true we take driving licenses away from people who are caught driving drunk, or who are caught driving particularly or repeatedly in a reckless manner. We do not, however, deny driving licenses to people generally because of those few malefactors; and we do not preemptively deny driver’s licenses to people with subscriptions to Hot Rod magazine, or who shop at liquor stores, or who own smart phones simply because we suspect they might, some day, speed or drive drunk or send a text from their car.
Yet, that is exactly what is often proposed for guns: restrictions that would apply not merely to those who have proven themselves irresponsible but to everyone, across the board, or to broad categories of people whose lifestyles or personalities make them, for some reason, “suspect”.
I am not opposed to keeping guns out of the hands of people who can’t be trusted with them. I just don’t know how to identify those people with any assurance. Neither do you. Neither does anyone else.
Declaring that as a policy goal is easy. Implementing it as a policy is going to be hard – unless the real intention is to do what gun rights advocates have always feared: err on the side of caution by simply presuming that nearly everyone can’t be trusted with guns.
I understand that – as is the case with drunk drivers – a purely retrospective judgement about who can and cannot be trusted with guns often amounts to “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted”: the harm has been done, not prevented. So, I am not opposed, in principle, to a search for some “reasonable” and defensible ways of making those proactive assessments. I am not opposed, in principle, to a search for some plausible algorithm that can make reliable predictions about who those untrustworthy people might be. The age of “big data” may make things possible that used to be unthinkable.
But, that requires research that is likely to take a while. Moreover, as many headlines have attested in recent years, algorithms commonly encode the biases of their creators; and “Artificial Intelligence” is quite often as fallible as the genuine kind. Hence, I find myself skeptical that we will ever find a magic predictor of individual human behavior.
In the meanwhile, and in the absence of an objective, validated, and (ideally) automated algorithm, we are left with subjective human judgement and the predictably over-precautious prejudices of the unfailingly anxious.
It has been a bedrock principle of liberal American justice that people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty; and it has often been said (typically by those on the “left”) that it is better that ten murderers go free than that one innocent man be unjustly condemned and punished as a murderer. We are exquisitely sensitive to injustice and unfairness. It has, arguably, both instigated and consumed much of our political discourse in recent years.
If we want to pursue policies that try to predict who should not be trusted with exercising legitimate individual prerogatives (like owning guns – or, say, owning cars), we had best design such policies with multiple and nimble levels of appeal and review, with ample opportunities for error correction, and with the onus of the major effort resting on those who would curtail such prerogatives rather than on those who would retain them.
And we had best design them to minimize, as much as possible, false positives.
Alas, much of the evidence to date is (with the notable exception of Florida) that the people who propose and design and implement such policies as they apply to guns have very little concern about false positives, or about correcting errors, and would, as a result and by preference, bias those policies to allow an arbitrarily large number of false positives in their quest to avoid even a single false negative. And it is not hard to predict that, over time, every false negative that did manage to sneak through the constraints would increase the social and political pressure to crank up that bias.
That is: people who are concerned about gun rights don’t trust the designers of those policies to take their needs and concerns into account. If we want to enlist their cooperation in enacting such policies, we must change that perception. And, to do that, we must, in fact, take their needs and concerns into account rather than dismissing them – and not merely now but on an ongoing basis as the policy plays out.
To be clear: we all need to acknowledge that it is unreasonable and implausible to expect we can define a system that generates no false positives at all. Gun rights enthusiasts just need to come to grips with that fact: any system that is effective enough to be useful in reducing the carnage is going to sweep a few innocents into its net.
But, the alternative is what we have now: far too many other innocents being swept into the net of gun mayhem. That is unacceptable.
Yes, there is a price to be paid for freedom. But, news flash for the gun crowd: not being shot in your classroom or at the supermarket or while playing on your front stoop is also a kind of freedom, and arguably more fundamental than a right to own a gun. We need to be willing to pay the price to protect that freedom, as well.
That said, people who want to enact various gun-related policies (and many other “progressive” policies) also need to acknowledge something: that restrictions on liberty, of any kind and no matter how “reasonable”, do, indeed, come with costs as well as benefits – yes, immediate human costs but, also, through legislative/legal precedent and an induced cultural complacency about such restrictions in principle, long-term systemic costs as well. The fact that the short-term, human costs are not ones that you, yourself, care about or will pay, or that the long-term systemic costs seem distant and abstract or are not ones you can imagine or lament, does not mean they don’t exist or are unimportant.
If you want cooperation from people who will bear those costs, you need at least to acknowledge them, and to acknowledge that building in safeguards to minimize those costs is a reasonable and beneficial part of any such policy. Insisting – as many on the “left” do – that concern about those costs is irrational or illegitimate – or, worse, is depraved and malevolent – is guaranteed to make cooperation impossible.
PART 2: “Research”
As for research on gun violence, my objection to that is and has always been that it proposes too narrow a focus. We need research. But, what we need to research is violence, in general.
Because, let’s face it: American society is prone to violence in ways that most other “civilized” societies aren’t. Guns are a particularly effective tool for applying violence (and do, therefore, make things worse), but they don’t cause it. In the chapter on “Guns” in my book, I wrote:
Yes, gun violence is a problem in America. Set aside the statistics: any murder, by gun or otherwise, is a tragedy and an outrage. Whether or not you think the solution to that problem is more gun control, you should certainly be able to agree that there is an urgent need to find some solution.
But it would be as accurate to make that statement more broadly: violence is a problem in America. Advocates for gun control frequently contrast the murder rate in the United States with that in Europe and other places to make the case it is our obsession with guns that makes the difference. And the contrast is real: the American murder rate was nearly 6 times higher than that of Europe in 2013. But, consider that only about 2/3 of murders in the United States are generally committed with guns. If we were to assume – implausibly – that none of those murders would have occurred but for the availability of guns, that would still leave the murder rate in America nearly twice as high as that of Europe. An obsession with guns cannot explain that difference.
Quite aside, then, from the arguments about liberty and autonomy, or the legal arguments over the 2nd Amendment, fixing the problem of violence by prohibiting access to guns merely treats the symptom without treating the disease. It may give us some relief, and it may be a convenient and humane short-term palliative, but it doesn’t solve the problem; and, to the extent it makes us feel better, it may actually allow us to ignore the underlying cancer rather than do something about it.
That observation was reiterated a few months ago by Cathy Young, at “The Bulwark” (https://morningshots.thebulwark.com/p/can-we-stop-mass-shootings?), citing more recent data from 2020.
Elsewhere, I have written:
What most mass murderers and, for that matter, ordinary murderers share is a form of solipsism, a mental landscape in which other people have no innate value but exist, rather, merely as props to facilitate the action in the murderer’s own self-scripted and self-focused drama.
That would appear to be the result of a moral disease, not a psychological one.
And (again from my book):
Ultimately we must confront how we got here, what we have done to ourselves, to our culture, to our children, that inculcates – that permits – a vanity and selfishness of such depth and force that it disconnects its bearer from every vestige of humanity. It is our mistake and our hubris to think that we create bad people. We don’t need to: they create themselves. But it is within our power to create a society that either guides more people out of that path or does not. If our current society does not, then we must understand why and strive to turn it around. That is our only hope in the long-term.
In addition to overly narrowing the focus to guns specifically, rather than encompassing violence generally, declaring that you want to do research on “gun violence” is also an automatic red-flag for those who value gun rights. You noted that “…the N.R.A. is extremely hostile to such research”, implying that they are, in that regard, acting wholly irrationally.
But, being averse to research on “gun violence” is not irrational, for the reasons of trust cited above: the people calling for and performing such research are, in far too many cases, doing so in bad faith. Calling for research on “gun violence” is a nearly certain sign that the proposed “research” is not actually about science: it isn’t aimed at investigating and understanding root causes; and it isn’t aimed at testing a variety of hypotheses. Rather, it is aimed narrowly at proving a specific hypothesis: that “Guns cause violence (and should, therefore, be banned).”
That is poor science because it presumes the result it is purported to be researching.
More importantly, that is poor science because it is overtly political – it implies that the “research” is not as much intended to expand the boundaries of knowledge as it is to manufacture justifications for pasting a “scientific” patina onto a pre-determined policy preference. It is, all too often, advocacy disguised as science. It would be like proposing research narrowly focused on “Black criminality” or on “The cognitive bases for gender disparities”. There may be real-world observational evidence that those things exist. But, we can and would probably safely assume that anyone proposing such narrowly-defined “research” had some agenda in mind beyond the simple advancement of human wisdom.
Yes, by all means, let us research the nature and sources of violence and what might be done about it. But, don’t limit our focus to one specific tool. Ask, rather: what is it about our culture (including, but not limited to, “gun culture”) that breeds such solipsism and lack of empathy? Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that fails to discourage people from acting out that solipsism, from inflicting it on others? Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that so consistently fails to instill in its citizenry a respect for other people and a reverence for the Golden Rule? And what can we do about that?
And ask it broadly, because it is not merely an artifact of the political right or of a “libertarian” focus on individuality:
There is, indeed, an undercurrent of ego running through our culture, but it is endemic across the political spectrum, not monopolized by one side or the other. On the Right, it manifests mostly as economic solipsism with a side helping of cultural self-sufficiency: hands off my money and my guns. On the Left, it manifests mostly as cultural solipsism with a side helping of economic entitlement: hands off my lifestyle except to subsidize it. And, in our solipsism, we on both sides conclude that neither culture nor politics are communal activities but personal instruments of our vainglorious ends, that whatever we want is Good and that whatever gets us what we want is, therefore, self-justified.
Most assuredly, President Trump is loathsome and exacerbates that disease. His rhetoric about “infestation” and “invasion” serves to dehumanize his targets in the eyes of his supporters. The most recent assaults on immigrants and minorities are certainly, to some large degree, properly laid at his feet.
But that kind of rhetoric has never been unique to the political right. Antifa “protesters” who club people in the streets that they deem to be “enemies” respond to the same ugly impulse. Baader-Meinhof and the Weather Underground were both products of the radical left, not of the radical right, and both blew up innocent bystanders along with their targets without any seeming regret. The vitriol with which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren revile “the rich” and “the 1%” and their calls to “take America back” from them are different only in intensity, not in kind, from the vitriol with which Trump reviles immigrants.
PART 3: A policy proposal
Finally, I have a concrete proposal for public policy that could (?) help – it might, at the least, prevent the ‘straw purchases’ that you lament and give us a better handle on flagging potential bad actors. It is predicated on the notion that people who value the freedom to have guns should – and must – take some significant responsibility for “making all gun use responsible gun use.” Again, from the chapter on “Guns” in my book:
Let’s face it. Gun rights are under assault because a few gun owners behave irresponsibly and because the consequences of that irresponsibility are disastrous. It’s that simple. Some people use guns to kill other people. And any rational assessment of a hierarchy of rights would say those other people have more right to their lives than anyone has to their guns.
Historically, we have expected and demanded that communities police their own. Whenever some self-identified Christian zealot bombs an abortion clinic, mainstream Christian churches see it as their duty to denounce the act, not because they had anything to do with it but because the claim that it was done in the name of their God implies a connection that requires a response. Many people have a similar reaction when terrorism is committed in the name of Islam: fairly or not, a silence from the mainstream Muslim community appears as a tacit acceptance of the terrorists’ claims to piety. Whenever a candidate for a political party – and, particularly, whenever a Republican candidate – utters something outrageous or merely stupid, we demand that other candidates from the same party weigh in to denounce them. Why? Because the party tie is presumed to be more than a mere label; it is presumed to imply a community of interest and, so, the community as a whole is tarnished by the action of the one.
Whether we like it or not, the same is true of those who misuse guns to cause misery for others. The NRA likes to distinguish between “law-abiding gun owners” and “criminals”, but that is not the way most people see things. If you want to defend the proposition that anyone should be able to acquire a gun, then you have claimed anyone who does so as part of your community. And, so, we expect you to take responsibility for them. If responsible gun owners want to preserve their gun rights, it falls on them to propose practical and concrete ways to minimize the irresponsible use of guns and to minimize the ill-effects of such irresponsible use on the rest of us. If they fear the gun control proposals that are pushed by their opponents, they should propose and support realistic alternatives to achieve the same ends.
This, then, is my (im)modest policy proposal: A ‘quasi-anonymous’ national gun registry. Again, from my book:
The basic premise of the quasi-anonymous registry is that it be operated not by the government but by a private entity whose charter is to protect the rights of gun owners. Just as the government chartered an independent operating agent – ICANN – to manage the assignment of URLs on the Internet, so we might charter an independent agent to manage the registration and tracking of guns. The registration agent would serve as a firewall between the government and gun owners.
The ’quasi-anonymity’ comes from the fact that the registry is operated by a private entity that stands between gun owners and a government that they simply don’t trust. If information about guns and gun owners is held and protected by the private registry, and the government can’t get access to the information except through individual, detailed, and specific warrants, then the government can’t be tempted to use that information broadly and in more threatening ways.
In my scheme, anyone (including a gun dealer) who wants to own a gun must register with the registry, pass a background check, and be assigned a registry identifier. The registrar has the responsibility to keep that background check up-to-date; and the registrar must have a continuous connection to data sources that might provide updated background check information.
Consistent with whatever “red flag” laws have been created, the registry may also be required to assist in that process by “red flagging” problems that it detects during its routine data reviews.
To purchase a gun, you must provide your registry identifier, because responsibility for the gun you purchase must be transferred from the previous owner’s identifier to yours; and, once that happens, you are fully responsible for any use of that gun, including use by someone else (because we acknowledge that guns are dangerous and you have a duty to protect everyone else from that danger).
Every gun manufactured must be assigned to a valid identifier in the registry (that is, someone must be assigned formal responsibility for it) before it can leave the factory; and penalties for possessing an unassigned gun (e.g. a “ghost gun”) or for trying to bypass the registry in transferring a gun to someone else should be severe. People on both ends of the transfer – previous and new owner – must acknowledge the transfer; and, if that doesn’t happen, serious people with authority to make arrests get set into motion to investigate why.
Finally, the registry is required to provide information about specific guns (identified by either serial number or ballistic signature) and about specific gun owners to the government when it requests it; but the government can obtain that information only by obtaining warrants identifying specific crimes in which the guns have been implicated and specific criminal investigations in which the gun owners have been identified as suspects.
More details could (and must), of course, be hung onto this framework to flesh it out. For example, making the registered owner of a gun “responsible” for any use of the gun should imply real and unpleasant consequences for irresponsible use, even if they were not the ones who used it. “Responsibility” is just that – full responsibility, including a responsibility to keep the gun secure from those who would misuse it. And, the penalties for trying to subvert the system – for trying to sell a gun that is not yours to someone else, or for being found in possession of a gun that is not registered within the system – should be severe. If we create such a system, we must act as if it is important; and we must treat efforts to circumvent the system as equivalently important – as important, indeed, as the crimes of violence we are trying to use the system to prevent.
Setting aside this specific policy proposal, I would venture that the “framing” I identified – that people who want to be able to use guns thereby assume a responsibility for ensuring that all gun use is responsible gun use – may be the key to engaging with those who value access to guns. Because, if we can turn the conversation from “rights” to “responsibilities” – if we can turn the conversation from “how we plan to impose our coercion upon you” to “how we expect you to step up and do the right thing” – the rest of the conversation will be immeasurably easier.
A lot of what I have thought and written about in recent years has been specifically related to that modern American pathology: we seem to have forgotten that we all have responsibilities along with rights. In my book, I noted that one of the moral foundations of traditional ‘conservatism’ was that:
Individuals have a responsibility to respect the rights of others. Rights are not an open-ended claim to self-indulgence. They are a cushion of autonomy within which an individual may act, with flexible but definite borders where they come into contact – and especially into conflict – with the rights of other individuals. Thus, rights and responsibilities are inseparable, the complementary aspects of a single moral precept.
This is, at root, what we mean when we say that rights are “inalienable”. Clearly, rights can be violated, abridged, usurped, or abrogated through coercion. They are inalienable not because they cannot be taken away by force but because they ought not be; because we all have, along with our own moral right to be free of coercion, a reciprocal and equal moral responsibility to refrain from imposing such coercion on others, whether acting as individuals or acting through the collective agencies of society or of government.
More recently, in thinking about the broad subject of our Liberal Republic (in the context of Socialism and Capitalism), I wrote:
For we are social creatures who gather ourselves together into Societies and who reap the benefits of social interaction. If we choose to live not in primal isolation but in groups, if we choose to interact with others, then we do, indeed, owe those groups a duty, not as obeisance but as reciprocity. Individuals acting within and accepting the benefits of Society thereby also assume, as a simple matter of fair recompense, some associated social responsibility.
A liberal social order that respects individual autonomy operates as a community, rather than as merely an aggregation of competing factions, only because and to the extent that it is predicated upon a social compact: we allow individuals within the community to make their own determinations about what is good for them, to act in their own interest, and to reap the benefits of social interaction as they may; in return, we expect individuals to account for the needs of society when making their choices and to accommodate those needs – to reinforce Society’s functions and to strengthen the community overall – whenever it is reasonable to do so.
We have evolved, somehow, a culture of “rights” without a corresponding culture of “responsibilities”. We have lost the distinction between what is acceptable and what is right – between what we may do, as free people, and what we should do, as citizens of a shared civilization. As a result, we have assented to a general dwindling of any cultural authority to guide us along the path toward that distinction. To the contrary, we have re-defined both “intolerance” and “coercion” downward to mean not an actual and forcible interference but merely any kind of critical social judgement or persuasion. And yet, ironically, to fill the void in moral guidance that creates, we have replaced the instruction of cultural authority with a reflexive capitulation to the fickle fulminations of the social media hordes, have traded the counsel of considered cultural norms for the tyranny of impetuous popular passion.
We no longer even pretend to act as a nation, rather than as a cacophony of competing, self-righteous, and self-aggrandizing tribes, crouching in our isolated silos and launching missiles at each other in the belief that we are one shot – or one election – away from some kind of final and irrevocable victory of virtue over iniquity. And we can no longer cooperate because we can no longer trust each other to deal as moral equals and in good faith, rather than as mortal enemies in pursuit of some covert tactical advantage. We act not as diplomats but, rather, as political or cultural or economic raiding parties, determined not to seek a common ground, on which we might find common purpose, but to capture a higher ground from which to launch our next missile with better accuracy and to greater effect.
Neither Capitalism nor a liberal republic can survive a solipsistic culture that disdains any commitment to the common weal. For a free society to avoid utter anarchy, the political liberty to do as you will must be tempered by the social discipline to do as you ought. Without the moral restraint of a responsibility to others and to Society, democratic government and the Free Market do, indeed, eventually and inevitably devolve back into little more than highly formalized variants of the Jungle.
Similarly, in thinking about risk (generally, but in the specific context of the Covid pandemic), I wrote:
For those who have been advocating for a quick and complete re-opening – and especially for those actively protesting the imposition of various modest public safety measures like the wearing of masks – that means accepting that we all have responsibilities commensurate with the rights we so self-righteously defend. What we do affects the community. Yes, we have the personal right to accept a risk of catching the virus in pursuit of some other reward. But, assuming risks for yourself – by exposing yourself to disease carriers – and imposing risks on others – by carrying the disease to them despite their own best precautions – are two very different acts and should fairly be judged by different criteria, the latter more stringent than the former. Whether you like it or not, in a world of pandemic you have a moral responsibility to protect others against the possibility of your own contagion. If you cannot willingly and diligently assume that responsibility, then your moral claim to a “right” to be free of restraint is little more than a hollow defense of self-indulgence.
The malicious and/or reckless use of guns arguably (though not incontrovertibly) falls into the same general realm of “public responsibility” as contagion. I ended the chapter on Guns in my book with this question:
But, imagine if those defending their rights, instead of asserting the authority of the 2nd Amendment, instead of asserting their natural right to self-protection, took the position that this was their problem to solve. What if the NRA, rather than merely obstructing any attempt to limit the use of guns, took on the responsibility for making all gun use responsible gun use? What if gun owners and would-be gun owners stood up and said, “This is on us. We want the freedom; we have to accept the responsibility that goes with it.”
How would that change the debate?
Perhaps, if we can find a way to turn our conversation about guns toward the duties of responsibility, rather than making it an argument about rights and regulation, we can not only make progress on guns but, then, extend that approach to politics and governance beyond guns into all the other subjects that currently divide us.
PART 4: A Bonus policy suggestion (only half tongue-in-cheek…)
It occurs to me that perhaps the most effective policy for controlling gun violence would actually be to require any gun that can accept an external ammunition clip — which is a reasonably good proxy for its potential high-volume/long-term rate of fire — to be colored hot pink and fitted with a grip shaped like a phallus.
It would have no effect on the gun’s performance or its availability. But, slinging a giant pink penis over your shoulder or strapping a giant pink penis to your hip to carry it around, or wrapping your hand around a giant pink penis in order to aim and shoot, would simply not look macho or cool. It would not be photogenic. It would not project an automatic aura of menace and authority. It would, to the contrary, be rather emasculating. It would indeed, make you look silly.
That would somewhat clarify exactly why it is that people think they need such firepower — it would tend to separate those who have some genuine need for a tool with that kind of performance from those whose primary need is actually for a brace to prop up their sagging self-esteem.
In the section on guns in my book, I wrote about what guns provide us:
What is a weapon? What, in particular, is a gun? It is a tool that extends an individual’s personal power over the world around him.
In a world in which size and strength and quickness and coordination determined who ate and who starved, determined who commanded and who served, determined who prevailed and who cowered, determined who lived and who died, a weapon was a leveler: an armed man is no longer smaller or weaker or slower or less coordinated than other people or than his natural predators; he is, or at least can be, their equal.
An armed man is not dependent on anyone else for his livelihood because he can hunt his own food, can keep predators from his flocks and vermin from his crops. An armed man is not dependent on anyone else to protect him from harm because he can protect himself. An armed man is not subject to the depredations of his enemies or to the mandates of his peers because his fortitude is a match for theirs. He is sovereign. He is self-determined and self-fulfilled. He is free to exercise his autonomy not only in theory but in practice, not only because justice demands it but because no one has the power to prevent it.
Of course, according to our founding document, the very reason for establishing a government is because that premise can never be as true in practice as we might like it to be in theory. Arms may be a leveler, but they don’t necessarily make everything level; and a society in which one is only as secure as his individual strength can guarantee is little better than the jungle. Arms are not enough, nor are they the ideal: we need a civil society that treats the weak and the strong alike with dignity; and it must be buttressed by laws and institutions that act on our behalf when the depredations of our enemies and the mandates of our peers threaten to overwhelm us.
We like to think, in modern America, that we have achieved such a paradise, that we no longer live in the jungle. We like to think that size and strength and quickness and coordination no longer determine our place either in nature or in society. We like to think that, having established an enlightened government to protect us, we no longer have the need to depend upon ourselves. We like to think that we, and all those we encounter, are civilized, that we have progressed together beyond that medieval mindset. Perhaps most of us have, at least most of the time.
But not all of us have, and not all the time. Crime may have receded since the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, but it hasn’t gone away entirely. There are still predators out there and the police can’t be everywhere. For those who live in rural areas – and there are still many of us – help may be more than mere minutes away, assuming we even have either the time or the opportunity to call for it. Inner cities are notoriously dangerous, and would be so even if their gangster classes relied on knives and clubs and fists instead of on guns. And the whole point of terrorism is to make us all feel vulnerable.
Asking people to rely solely on society to protect them from thugs and predators, asking them to rely solely on the police and the courts and the legislature, is asking people to swallow their dignity, to surrender their autonomy, to willingly risk playing the victim in the hope and faith that someone will see to it they come out whole on the far side. It is asking people to put their fates entirely and quixotically into the hands of strangers.
Some people – many people – have no desire to play the victim. Some people are not willing to be so passive. To a certain segment of the population – perhaps a large segment – a certain degree of sovereignty and self-reliance is not merely a preference but a primary psychological need.
Yet, in our modern society, in which people largely work for impersonal corporations and live by laws imposed from thousands of miles away by people someone else voted for, in which cultural ideals increasingly disparage individual striving and glorify communal action, in which people are all too often isolated from their families and ciphers to their neighbors, in which social norms are mass-produced in Hollywood and distributed over the airwaves and the internet, in which most of the daily interactions through which we manage our lives are performed anonymously and with strangers, opportunities to claim and exercise sovereignty are precious and rare.
In that environment, a gun is actually more than merely a tool. It is a symbol of self-reliance, a declaration of independence and of self-determination. To be told one cannot be trusted with a weapon is to be infantilized and denigrated. To be told one is not permitted to protect oneself from those who intend harm is to be reduced to the status of ward and supplicant, to be made wholly dependent on the state and necessarily subservient to it. The first of those is an insult; the second, a condescension.
To be denied access to a gun, then, is to be denied both dignity and agency; and “gun control” is both a practical expression of and a metaphor for the triumph of the communal over the individual, of and for the exaltation of the human hive.
Viewing a gun as a symbol of self-reliance and a declaration of self-determination may, indeed, be considered a mild form of pathology. It should not be that way. It should not need to be that way. But it has, alas, come to be that way. Modern society has become particularly adept at robbing people of their sense of autonomy, of their sense of having control over their own lives. Some people respond to that by renouncing the need for it, by seeking solace in the belief that they serve some higher purpose — spiritual or social — that transcends the self; others respond to that by capitulating to it, by conforming meekly and inevitably to the crushing social consensus; and others, for better or worse, respond to that by rebelling against it, by proclaiming their own, personal, declaration of independence.
But, if viewing a gun as a symbol of self-reliance represents a mild pathology, viewing a gun – as far too many on the “gun rights” right do – both as a measure of masculinity and as a tool of political intimidation is an extreme form of pathology that is self-destructive and socially dangerous. Anything we can do to undermine that particularly obsessive version of “gun culture” is probably well worth the effort.
 I said, “I just don’t know how to identify those people [who can’t be trusted with guns] with any assurance“. I do offer, however, the unenforceable and cynical observation that those most vehement about their right to bear arms are often among those least to be trusted with it.
© Copyright 2022, Augustus P. Lowell