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Monday, September 1, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (4)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from me. The first, second, and third posts are here.

I agree with you overall and with most of the details. I think that background checks should be universal. There are probably other policy adjustments that ought to be made that people better informed than I am know about. But there are still some sticky points.

Your analogy here . . .
Adding more guns to a gun-saturated culture in order to reduce gun violence sounds to me like the alcoholic who wakes up with a hang-over and decides to have a stiff one to feel better rather than to consider consuming less alcohol.
. . . is powerful. That is, it’s powerful to me, but that’s because I, like you, am comfortable looking at the big picture, at the undifferentiated mass of guns floating in the undifferentiated mass of society, and I agree that things have run amok. But that argument will never work with the people who need to be persuaded.

The answer I always hear to this argument is, in essence, “But how will keeping me from getting another gun prevent someone else from committing a homicide?” You either have to give a clear and compelling explanation of how that will work, or you have to convince the person that he or she (or his or her live-in family member) is the one who is likely to commit the homicide with his or her gun. Unless you can persuasively explain how the policy adjustment will save lives on an individual, personal level, many people simply will not believe it. And that frame of mind is not going away.

You are right that sinfulness is pervasive, of course, and also that for very many—probably overwhelmingly most—Americans, “freedom” boils down to an unalienable right to gratify greed, lust, or power on a tiny scale. The freedom to bear arms is no exception.

But this principle operates on two planes. It operates at the level of the individual, self-reliant, power-drunk gun owner, and it also operates at the level of the corporate, institution-reliant, power-drunk governmental security force. The philosophical question is, where do you expect sinful power and violence to be more manifest: among armed-to-the-teeth individuals or in armed-to-the-teeth governments?

Philosophically, my answer is, neither—sin is equally likely to manifest itself at both levels. But that leads to the practical question, are each presently able to keep the other in check, or is one more liable to run away with sinful power than the other?

I really don’t know the answer to that question right now. I wish I did.

Obviously the government is not all-powerful, because it’s unable to stop or deter fully the terrible number of criminal homicides that Americans commit every year.

On the other hand, let’s think again about this analogy:
weapons that are as removed from the muskets the founding fathers had access to as iPads are to feather pen and ink.
No doubt. However, the musket that the average American farmer owned was more or less equal in power to the muskets that the most advanced armies in the world armed their infantry with. Otherwise the Revolution would never have happened. The Founders knew this.

Is there any comparison to today? Is even the most powerful weaponry on the market today anything like the firepower that our military and even the state police have at their disposal?

Don’t get me wrong—I DON’T WANT civilians to be able to arm themselves like the 82nd Airborne! I don’t know how a citizenry like that could be held accountable for their use of their weapons without free-for-all massacres. We’d be Somalia. Indeed, your observation about how we’re inadvertently arming Mexican druglords shows how poor our accountability is already.

And yet, and yet . . . I find myself increasingly doubtful that the democratic governments of a nation this large can be held accountable either. (At least at the state and federal level here; municipally here and perhaps all over in Canada they are more manageable.) I am more and more uneasy that our electoral process is a sort of mass participatory theater that yields outcomes tightly delimited by a silent few elites (and a mammoth bureaucracy) that are far more powerful than voting citizens—the legal system likewise. Does this constitutional democracy work well enough to prevent the government from abusing its lethal power? I am skeptical.

Does that mean that our military should be scaled way back, that not only the citizenry but the government should be disarmed? Certain liberals (including peace-loving Christians) strongly argue for this, and I think that they have great points. The industry and culture of violence is of a piece on both individual and governmental levels.

On the other hand, to the extent that our national government is already taking small steps in the direction of disarmament and withdrawal, we seem to be persuading Putin that the time is ripe to employ Hitler’s foreign policy strategy of the 1930s. Who knows how far he’ll take it.

So Russia, North Korea, and Iran are threats, so therefore we have a colossally powerful military to protect us (and everyone else) from those threats, and then (in the eyes of some) we have a rifle-toting populace to protect us from the threat of our powerful military. It’s madness. But I don’t know a way out of the madness until the millennium.

Meantime, we balance one threat against another. Which threat is the most threatening is not always an easy judgment to make. You may be right that our governments are less threatening and more responsible with their lethal power than private citizens are. I used to be confident of that. I don’t deny it yet, but I’m just not sure anymore.


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