some facts about guns, episode 1

I’d prefer to live in a country that essentially doesn’t have guns — someplace like Japan, let’s say, where gun ownership is tightly controlled and quite uncommon. But I don’t live in such a country; I live in America, where the Second Amendment has recently evolved from a functional “dead letter” to an unassailable cornerstone of democracy, apparently. I say “apparently” because in fact I am not sure that guns really help democracy. My guess is that the easy availability, the very commonness, of guns in America is part of what has aided the rise of the warrior cop: if practically anybody could be armed, the police must be armed, too — and heavily so! Police must adopt a posture of TOTAL DOMINATION or risk being shot dead in the street. I’m not personally convinced that that’s healthy for a free society. Nor am I convinced that a diffuse, disorganized mass of armed citizens is a bulwark against tyranny. (Not even our deluded Framers thought that — hence the supposedly non-determinative “prefatory clause” of the Second Amendment.) No… all things considered, I’d rather guns be rare and not have one myself and not let the average beat cop have one, either.

But wait! Wait, gun lovers whose fingers are already itching to argue with me! THERE IS NO NEED. You do not have to take to the comments at all, because I lost this one. The Supreme Court has spoken, declaring that the Second Amendment does indeed allow a diffuse, disorganized mass of citizens to keep and bear handguns in their home. (Ironically, we perhaps do not have the right to keep and bear the kinds of arms a “well-regulated militia” would tend to use in the modern age — the majority opinion noted as much, but dismissed the problem as one which could not “change our interpretation of the right.”) So. You won! Take a moment to feel good about that.

And, you know, I have a lot of friends on the libertarian and idiosyncratic spectra who really like their guns. Some of them might not even be completely nuts. And anyway, I have a love-hate thing with guns myself. I’ve been trained to use them by the U.S. government, I like shooting, and when I’m scared or threatened, I long for a gun like a kid cryin’ for his Woobie.

So anyway, this is the world I live in, and I don’t know what to do. I support gun control, but I also think that if we’re being candid, non-total gun control is extremely limited in its effectiveness — or at the very least, that we don’t yet know how to craft effective gun legislation that isn’t an outright ban.

So, because I don’t know what to do, I’m thinking about trying to do a semi-regular thing where I just collect anecdotal, but hopefully illuminating, information about guns, gun culture, and gun control. Mostly I’m thinking this will just be news stories with little commentary, because, again, I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. I don’t know what to do, but I also can’t stop thinking about it. So maybe wisdom comes later, and for now the best thing I can do is try to be a witness. To wit,

Gawker has nice summary of 2013’s “mass shootings,” acknowledging the problems inherent in defining such a thing. Gawker‘s definition tends to be inclusive, and it reminds us that most multiple shootings are not the work of Newtown-style crazies, but the fairly ordinary results of poverty, stress, and human relationships. E.g., “Tulsa, Oklahoma: Four people were killed in a suspected meth house. No suspects have been arrested.” And, “Erwin, Tennessee: A man with a record of domestic unrest killed his wife, son, and daughter before committing suicide.”

Depressingly, as has been demonstrated before, guns do not protect you from somebody who pulls the trigger first.

Authorities in Georgia are asking for the public’s help in the investigation of the shooting death of Keith Ratliff, a gun-enthusiast and manager of a popular gun channel that is the 10th-most subscribed channel on YouTube . . . . Ratliff, 32, was found Jan. 3 shot once in the head his office in Carnesville, Ga., where he tested and developed firearms . . . .

Somewhat more cheeringly, here is an interesting story about an all-black gun club in Maryland:

[Member Ken] Brown says the club proudly focuses on teaching people about what he calls the deep history of blacks and firearms . . . . Brown thinks knowledge about this history will help steer kids away from drugs and gangs: ‘We have something that will give them a stake in this country.’ Club member Courtney White-Brown owns a firearms and security training academy. She believes young people thinking of heading into the drug trade or joining gangs could be dissuaded by learning that there is honor and responsibility in the association of African-Americans and guns.

I assume Cottrol and Diamond would approve.

Salon‘s Matt Valentine thinks that aggressive open carry in suburban and urban spaces could make us all kind of freaked out and constantly on high alert for danger, and he’s got some interesting research on cognition and threat perception to back up his point. Charles Cooke, writing for the National Review, thinks Valentine is full of hot air, but acknowledges that

there really is a line at which “carrying” a firearm becomes more: “intimidation,” perhaps, or “breaching the peace” . . . . [I]n the case of firearm-carrying there is a line, and it is to the credit of almost every state that they have allowed law enforcement some discretion in this area.

Likewise, there are important extra-legal questions. One of the more valuable precepts of our civil society is that one’s having a constitutional right to do something does not necessarily mean that one should do it. In much of the country, Second Amendment advocates are quite right when they insist that openly carrying guns is legal. But that’s not the point. Of course people are going to be upset if you walk brazenly into a coffee shop with an AR-15, and no amount of “It’s my right” will change the fact. Suffice it to say that you probably won’t do a great job of attracting people to your cause if your idea of proselytizing is to stick a gun and a copy of the Constitution in their faces.

I think that’s about right. I also think probably context is supremely important. I once spent a year openly carrying a weapon almost everywhere I went, surrounded by others doing the same. In that space, the sight of a gun wasn’t alarming at all. I imagine hunters feel the same way — and even the people who regularly provide services to hunters. In a rural diner or general store during hunting season, seeing people carrying rifles and shotguns probably doesn’t cause anyone any particular concern. But I’d still feel pretty weird if someone came into the Starbucks or Chipotle in Westwood with a pistol on display — most especially if they seemed like they had something to prove.

Finally, just because I was looking at them recently, here are some stats on states and gun violence: the five states with the worst gun violence, a comparison of murder rates by state, and a fifty-state look at violent crime overall. The stats aren’t all from the same year, but they are all from the last ten years.

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4 Responses to some facts about guns, episode 1

  1. Eric says:

    Five days a week, working in a courthouse, I’m surrounded by people carrying loaded pistols. Frankly, I’m not sure all of them ought to be trusted with loaded pistols–I’ve known more than a few law enforcement officers who probably should have been on the Deputy Fife regimen of having one bullet directly issued by their Chief, to be kept in the shirt pocket until their Chief authorizes the loading of sidearms.

    But if I saw someone toting a gun on the weekend, I’d be a little weirded out. Especially if they were bringing it into my local coffeeshop. Well–most weekends: if I happened to be visiting family up in western Maryland, and Uncle John came in from hunting (unlikely–he’d most likely spend that whole weekend in a stand), it would be no big deal. Because, like you say, context. I expect to see sidearms at the courthouse, whether or not they’re being borne by a cop I trust, while I really don’t expect to see some schlub (even if it turns out he’s Mr. Gun Safety America ten years running) packing heat while he’s getting an espresso.


    One of the things that’s eating me the most about this subject these days is the number of people–including friends–who defend firearms on the ground that they’re “fun”. Not because shooting a gun isn’t “fun” (I assume–I’ve never actually done it, but I can see the appeal), but because it divorces the tool from it’s functionality. I mean, if someone said hammers were fun, I suspect most of us would think that was kind of weird, even if we simultaneously understood that carpentry can be fun if you’re so inclined. When someone says they enjoy hunting, I completely grok that, and I don’t begrudge someone needing a particular tool to perform a task or operation or what-have-you that they enjoy. But somehow, in this country at least, it seems that firearms might be the only tools that anybody wants to use just to be using the tool, as opposed to using the tool to do something else they might have to do, or that they enjoy doing.

    It seems to me that a whole lot of irrationality on the subject of gun control originates in this abstracting of tool away from purpose. We can’t talk about what tools might be best-suited for what necessary (or at least permissible) tasks, because there’s some kind of right to have the tool (whether you need it or want to do any of the things it’s really meant to do), and because there’s a fetish for the tool itself regardless of whether it’s a fit tool for anything a particular person might or could do with it. If everyone started at the other end–what is it you want to do, and what do you need to do it?–then maybe everyone except the companies marketing paramilitary weapons to civilians could come to a mutual agreement about the tools.

    If you take gun control arguments–probably on both sides–and replace “guns” with “hammers” or “socket wrenches”, the whole conversation becomes stupid. I think that’s revealing, I think that’s because most people are talking about firearms as an end unto themselves, and not as means to particular, thought-through ends, like putting a hole in an animal or person and why you want or need to do that.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      I think that’s an interesting point. You can see, in this story, how we could easily have ended up with a codified right to self-defense (like the right to bear arms, an English common-law right at the time), rather than a right to keep and bear arms. I think that would actually be more appropriate, inasmuch as it would enable inquiries into the degree to which arms are necessary to self-defense, and what kind, and so on. As you say, the substantive goal would be the root of the right to be protected, not the tool. Instead, the tool is fetishized (accidentally — I don’t think this is what Madison had in mind), and so Scalia has to do backflips in Heller to say that handguns are protected but machine guns aren’t, because the outcome he wants (a right to reasonable self-defense) is not the one actually codified.

  2. Pingback: some facts about guns, episode 3 | The Handsome Camel

  3. Pingback: some facts about guns, episode 4 | The Handsome Camel

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