There is nothing more welcome, when I am on the road and coping with a malfunctioning laptop, an inexplicably swollen knee and a headache, than a thoughtful, substantive, provocative, long post. Extradimensional Cephalopod provided just what I needed today, and I am awash with gratitude.
Here is his Comment of the Day on the post “Who Are You Calling A Nut?” And Other Ethics Issues In The Community College Shooting Aftermath (Continued)”:
[ Washington Post editor Fred ] Hyatt’s forthrightness [ in his op-ed here] and his dedication to societal change that he acknowledges is difficult is definitely refreshing. I would object to the comparison to Australia mostly based on the fact that Australia also has a rather extreme (for the Western world) institution of censorship. I am curious as to what people do if they need to shoot a wild animal, as I understand there are many dangerous animals in Australia.
The paper really takes a turn for the worse when Hyatt tries to tie guns to civil rights. It’s a civil rights issue because black communities are hurt? Let’s explore the logical implication of that statement: The government is oppressing black people by allowing guns to exist? Soft bigotry of low expectations, much? Either that, or he’s using a completely different definition of civil rights from what I’m used to. No, “civil rights” doesn’t mean “good for black people.” Same thing with the family angle: if it’s a family issue, let the family deal with it by having the grownups practice gun safety. The whole point of family issues is that the government doesn’t get involved, so that was a poor choice of words there. Same thing with the mental illness angle, which Jack already covered the absurdity of… thoroughly. Somehow my condolences don’t seem enough.
Now for the heavy ideas: I will address whether we should have guns in this country, because I think that it’s possible to change society if it’s actually a good idea.
Let’s not get mixed up about the big picture: Guns (handguns, at least) are tools made specifically to be able to injure humans. This ability leads to their main function: threatening humans with grievous harm or death in order to change their behavior. People who oppose guns are focused on the terrible occasions when a gun’s ability is actually used. However, the main function is what is important to those who advocate for guns, and even to most of those who misuse them. The power to modify others’ behavior through threats is a double-edged sword, and therefore so is giving up that power. Guns represent a democratization of power, an enforced accountability of the people around you. If they threaten you, you can threaten them back, and vice versa. Mutually-assured destruction existed long before nuclear weapons. The effect of this power on a population depends on the population’s character to begin with. If the majority of a population is selfish, ruthless, and vindictive, everyone else will have to follow suit in order to have a marginally greater chance of protecting themselves, though they will not be very safe anyway. If the majority of a population is caring, honorable, and even-tempered, those who aren’t will face certain repercussions if they threaten others for unacceptable reasons. We’ve seen both of these scenarios play out in the American Old West. As always, the outcome depends on the character of society, and that’s what why cultural engineering is how I will change the world.
Now that we’ve visualized a society with guns, let’s look at one without, ignoring entirely the practicality of attaining it, and ignoring the law, which is ultimately decided by the people. Physical threats and accountability are still possible, but only for criminals, who are slightly less dangerous without guns, and for the government, which has a monopoly on firearms. There is one positive effect here compared with the gun society: criminals have to get creative with their threats, and their gang wars have less collateral damage. On the other hand, people are not likely to feel much safer in a crime-ridden neighborhood simply because nobody has guns. Also, people in a relatively safer area might be less able to defend themselves against crime, especially when they are alone. I’ll admit that the right to self-defense tools seems redundant if you expect the government to defend you. However, the most important argument, I think, in favor of guns, is that at this point in Earth’s history, the government cannot be trusted to act honorably with a monopoly on physical force. It already has monopolies on laws, licensing, justice, and taxation, to name just a few. Color me unimpressed with its track record. In human culture thus far, government officials seem to be unfortunately prone to doing whatever they think can get away with, and it would be inadvisable to let them think they can get away with misusing physical force. I don’t know just how effective it is, and I’m hoping it won’t ever have to be tested, but the right to own guns is and was originally meant to be the ultimate check and balance on the government’s power. That’s why the “fundamental value of our nation” is important and why people consider guns as indispensable as cars. I’m working on giving humans something more powerful than mere weapons, but in the meantime they’ll have to do. As for why other countries don’t feel the need to defend themselves against their own governments, my best guess is that they aren’t as alienated from them. That’s another thing I’ll be working on. Perhaps when humans as a society habitually think of each others’ wellbeing, guns will be completely unnecessary, but until I succeed, they remain useful.
As for the periodic tragedies, I am wondering if I’m the only one here morbid enough to realize just how easily I could kill people around me with no firearms whatsoever, merely because they trust me not to. A pencil here, a cleaning agent there… And yes, an automobile. As Beth said, punishment after a tragedy does nothing to fix the tragedy. However, the fact that people trust each other not to become spontaneously violent (whether or not that trust comes from knowing you could shoot them) is actually what allows society to function. Then again, some of us visualize how we would defend ourselves if other people started attacking, as shown here: https://xkcd.com/337/ There are plenty of tragedies that occur without guns, and I’m betting most of them nowadays go unnoticed except by their communities because they don’t involve guns. The way to avert tragedies, guns or not, is to reach out to people around us, pay attention to them, and show them that they are valued, that they have worth and companionship and the power to make a positive difference. Those who feel trapped in a world they can’t tolerate, who feel they have no power of their own, who feel disconnected from the people around them, are those most inclined to lash out, whether it’s with a gun or with a law. My solution is to help people develop their own power, to both tolerate and change their world. Guns and laws (which are enforced with guns) can protect, but they are not constructive.