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Boys will be Boys
On Saturday, August 26, 2022, I dropped my son and two of his friends off at the Washington County Fair in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In previous years, my wife and I had taken him to the fair and stayed with him. But he was old enough now to venture forth and have some unsupervised adventures. A friend picked the boys up and brought them home around 10:00 PM. A half hour later, a shooting erupted at the fair. Eventually, we learned that a sixteen-year old boy had shot another boy multiple times, apparently over a girl. In the ensuing panic, some people were injured by others fleeing the scene. No one died. It didn’t make the national news. A few days later, police arrested the suspected shooter.
As I read the new reports, I thought “Guns ruin everything.” And that was my comment on the local police department’s Facebook post covering the event when it appeared in my feed. I knew, before I posted, that I would be stirring up some shit with the local gun nuts. I knew the first reply would be some version of the NRA propaganda line “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But I didn’t care. It was my honest reaction–a lament, not an argument–and I wanted to share it for myself and for the benefit of like-minded people who might be reluctant to share their own thoughts for fear of repercussions.
Before I hit the post button, I decided that the first motherfucker who replied defending guns over children’s lives would get some version of “fuck you” as a reply and that any others would get the same. I stuck with my intentions.
People often say that arguments–especially online ones–change nothing. I don’t believe that. What I do believe is they rarely change the minds of the people directly involved in the argument. And they certainly don’t change anyone’s mind immediately. Change is a gradual thing. There are always a lot of people standing on the sidelines of any discussion. Over time, an idea can have its influence in the minds of these people, who are still weighing the issue in their minds. Minds are capable of change. People like to have reasons for what they believe.
I don’t owe anyone an argument. Arguments, especially properly researched and nuanced ones, take time. The Venn diagram of people who demand arguments and refuse to listen to one is, generally, two fully overlapping circles. Some people get a perverse joy from stirring things up by challenging people to a public discourse on their pet subject. If you refuse to “debate” them, they take this refusal as weakness or cowardice. They take it as a sign that you are unable to defend your position. Either of those could be true, of course. But, in my case, it’s only a sign of exhaustion and boredom. Debates–entirely too good a word for most of them–take time and energy. Trotting your ideas out to everyone who demands them, along with all the context necessary to understand them, is a labor-intensive task. I’ve only got so many days left in my life. I prefer to spend them with people I love and doing interesting things.
But, as the title of this post should have indicated, what follows are my thoughts on the subject. I’m going to trot out all the reasons which led to my lament that “guns ruin everything.” And, the next time some asshole demands my reasoning, I’ll give it to him (it’s almost always a dude). I might even attach a quiz at the end to make sure he’s read it before I answer any follow ups. That’s what I’d do with my students, back when I was teaching. Since I’m schooling them anyway, it just makes sense. It goes without saying that if you came here because we’re having an online discussion, and I shared a link to this post, you should read all the way to the end. I won’t waste any more time with you until I’m convinced that you have. Even then, I might not. Remember, I don’t owe you an argument.
A Little About Me
I am a latte-sipping, avocado toast eating, college-educated liberal. Worse, two of my degrees are in English. You know, that haven of Marxists. I don’t drive a Volvo, which is normally part of this caricature, but that’s mostly because I can’t afford one. I drive a 2007 Honda Accord with over 100K miles on it. I’m practical, when it comes to cars. But that is a foreign car, so you can add that to the list. I’m also an atheist. That’s not relevant to this particular discussion. But, if you are a right-wing asshole, it’s another reason to hate me. Go ahead and get that out of your system, because hate is an emotional response, and you probably pride yourself on the (probably mistaken) belief that your opinions on gun ownership are logical.
Now that you’ve formed an erroneous picture of me, let me disabuse you of that. I grew up in Texas and rural Arkansas. My father was a WWII veteran (and a Reagan Republican who, ironically, also held FDR in high esteem). In the Army Air Forces, as they called it back then, he earned his Expert Marksman qualification on both rifle and pistol because he had grown up in the Texas panhandle shooting rabbits, often from horseback. He was a badass when it came to stuff like that.
There were over a dozen guns in our home, all of which were kept in my dad’s bedroom closet. They weren’t locked up. They weren’t secured in any way. While I’m tempted to say they weren’t loaded, my father taught me from a young age something I’ve passed on to my own son: “A gun is always loaded. Unloaded guns kill people.”
Dad had a special affinity for shotguns. His favorite brand was Browning. He had about a dozen of them in various gauges (410, 16, 12, 10). They were mostly single-barrel, but he had three of the double-barrel variety, one over-under and two antique side-by-side models. He really liked semi-automatic 12 gauges, but his pride and joy was a highly ornamented Browning Sweet Sixteen. That’s about $2,000 worth of gun these days.
He also had rifles. Most of these were pedestrian 22-caliber semi-autos. But I found his M1 Garand fascinating. If you’re not a gun nut, or you are one but without a proper sense of history, the M1 Garand was a popular service weapon for American troops during WWII and the Korean War. It was the same sort of weapon my father used in WWII. He bought one after he got out of the service. The M1 is a 30-06. The cartridges for it are huge. And, even though the en bloc clip only holds eight rounds, I suspect no one would want to be on the business end of it. You see, kids, back in the day, even with a semi-auto, even as a soldier in an actual war, you didn’t have the convenience of high-capacity magazines. You had to know how to shoot.
Dad had a few handguns as well. I remember a .38, and .25, and a .22. But long guns were his thing.
I tell you all this to underscore that I have some familiarity with firearms. I literally grew up around them. I’ve shot them. I enjoy shooting them. I’ve owned a few. And, even though hunting is not my thing, I understand the appeal of owning weapons for hunting, target practice, self-defense, and home protection. I’ll have more to say on those last two subjects–including why I think both are, for most people, a bad idea–later. But for now, as I’m underscoring, I’d like like to draw two dark lines under this next sentence: I am not afraid of guns. I have a healthy respect for them. I’m incredibly careful when handling them. I think you should think long and hard before you decide to have one in your home, but I don’t fear them. I admire the mechanical and, in some cases, aesthetic beauty of them. They are killing machines. But they are also feats of engineering and, sometimes, art. And, while gun porn isn’t my thing, I’m quite capable of admiring the beauty of a well-made weapon.
So let’s move on. Hopefully, I’ve added some nuance to your strawman misconception of what people who favor gun regulation are like. I’m sure there are plenty of us who are closer to your initial conception than I am. But there are also plenty of us who enjoy hunting and have their own extensive collections. Gun ownership and right-wing politics often go hand-in-hand, but that isn’t always the case. The fact that it’s the case at all is the result of NRA and GOP propaganda efforts over dozens of years. But that’s a topic for another time. If you’d like to learn more about the demographics of gun ownership, this Pew article is a thorough introduction.
Some Facts about Gun Violence
We have to agree on some facts before we can argue about their significance.
According to the latest available numbers on gun deaths in the US, which you can find at the CDC’s website, 48,832 people died of firearm deaths in 2021. Those are, at of this writing, provisional numbers. But they shouldn’t change significantly in the final version. That’s a lot of people, but the US is a big place. The leading cause of death in 2021, again, per the CDC, was heart disease (696K), followed by cancer (602K) and COVID-19 (350K). “Accidents” was in 4th place, with over 200K. Some gun deaths are accidental, but many are deliberate. There are lots of ways to die accidentally that don’t involve firearms. At any rate, gun violence–as a separate entity–isn’t in the top-ten. But it wouldn’t be far behind. The tenth item on the list is “Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis” with 52.5K. Those are diseases of the kidney. I had to look it up.
In February 2022, Pew Research Center reported, also pulling on CDC data, that 2020 had been the deadliest year on record for gun-related deaths in the US (45,222). Clearly those numbers have continued to climb.
A caveat: I’ll stop right here and say that, if you don’t trust data from reputable sources like the CDC or Pew or think COVID-19 was a hoax, close the browser tab and fuck off. I have nothing more to say to you. Your mind has been poisoned, and I don’t have the antidote. You’ll have to find it on your own.
Let’s Talk About Suicide
I’d rather not talk about suicide–I’ve lost family and friends to it–but it’s relevant to the discussion because guns are a popular method. So let’s look at those numbers. In 2020, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the US. That number was down a bit from the previous year (2019), when it had been the 10th leading cause. But the trend from 2000-2020 has been upward. Far more men kill themselves than women, and guns have always been a popular suicide method for men. That trend continues to rise (12.5 per 100K in 2020). But, starting in 2020, guns have become the most popular means for women as well (1.8 per 100K), beating out suffocation and poisoning, which has been on the decline for a while now.
The Pew article, mentioned above, looking at 2020 data, is helpful in that it divides gun deaths into suicide (54%), murder (43%), and “other” (3%). Those in the “other” category include law-enforcement related firearm deaths and those where the intention could not be determined. So, the majority of people who die from firearms each year kill themselves.
Side note: I have frequently heard gun-rights advocates attempt to exclude suicides from any discussion of gun violence. But that’s just cherry picking. People dying from guns is what’s under discussion. Reducing the number of people who die from guns is–or should be–the goal.
Owning guns increases your chances of killing yourself, intentionally, with one. That isn’t something the NRA puts on a bumper sticker, but it’s well known in the scientific community. Matthew Miller, Deborah Azrael and David Hemenway, in their 2002 study “Household Firearm Ownership and Suicide Rates in the United States,” published in Epidemiology, found that “a robust association exists between levels of household firearm ownership and suicide rates.”
That simply owning firearms increases your chances of killing yourself with one runs counter to the often-repeated idea that guns make you safer. In fact, gun ownership makes you less safe.
Where Are All Those “Good Guys” With Guns?
A frequently repeated talking-point among defenders of guns is that armed citizens will make the public safer because they will be able to respond to shootings before law enforcement can arrive. Unlike most pro-gun arguments, which are obviously false, I can see the logic of this one. Depending upon where you live, law enforcement can take some considerable time to respond. And when they do, they’re often the clean-up crew. Gun violence–and violence generally–is fast. Even when police do arrive quickly, they don’t always help the situation. The Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas is one horrific example of the police showing up and just standing around. Even when they do show up in time to make a difference, they have the unenviable task of assessing the situation and responding appropriately, a task only made more difficult–as law enforcement officers will tell you–by the fact that so many people are armed these days.
Here’s a curious bit, though. If gun ownership were the answer to public spectacles of violence, why is it that the “good guy with a gun” materializes so seldomly? In the recent Club Q nightclub shooting in Colorado Springs, the hero, Richard Fierro, was armed with his Army training and bravery, but he had no gun. In fact, he had no weapon of any sort. He beat the shooter into submission with his fists. Five people died in that one.
Going back a littler further, to the Waffle House shooting in Nashville, on April 18, 2018, another hero, James Shaw, Jr., disarmed the shooter and saved lives. Like Richard Fierro, he was armed only with bravery and his fists. Four people died in that one.
Anecdotes aren’t data. But I think they make clear that bravery and decisiveness are the important factors when it comes to responding to gun violence. The police in Uvalde had plenty of firepower, but they stood around while children and staff were slaughtered. Richard Fierro and James Shaw, Jr., went up against AR-15s with their fists and a clear sense of purpose. Not all heroes wear capes.
When we turn to actual data, there isn’t any to support that arming more people reduces violence. In 2022, Stanford researcher John Donohue and colleagues in “More Guns, More Unintended Consequences: The Effects of Right-to-Carry on Criminal Behavior and Policing in US Cities,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that “Any crime-inhibiting benefits from increased gun carrying are swamped by the crime-stimulating impacts.” Donohue, studying concealed cary, a once highly regulated but now increasingly popular freedom, found that areas which implemented it saw significant increases in firearm violent crime, firearm robbery, and firearm theft.
Similarly, Larry Buchanan and Lauren Leatherby, reporting for the New York Times, found in a study of 433 active shooter attacks in the US from 2000-2021 that the person who usually stops the “bad guy with a gun” is the bad guy himself. Most of the time, active shooters flee the scene before the police arrive (26.1% of the time). If they don’t flee, they often kill themselves (16.6%). When bystanders do subdue attackers, they do so more often without guns (9.7%). In only 5.1% of cases do bystanders with guns stop active shooters before police arrive (Source 1, Source 2).
The Second Amendment
I’m not a legal scholar and it’s likely that you aren’t either. But I think it’s worth exploring the often touted “2A” for a minute, from linguistic, historical, and legal perspectives. I’ll start by noting that to “amend” something is to change it. The Second Amendment to The Constitution of the United States changed the constitution, and subsequent amendments can amend–even to the point of invalidating–previous ones. This very structure implies that the Constitution is a living document, capable of change. The phrase that 2A people like to focus on, often shouting it in Twitter posts, is “shall not be infringed.” This selective quotation shows they don’t understand–or don’t care–what amendments are or how the Constitution works. It was designed from the get go as a living document. That’s a good thing, because quite a lot of what made sense in the late 1700s doesn’t make sense now.
They also tend to ignore the first part of the second amendment, rather like Christians tend to ignore the Old Testament in favor of the New Testament, come to think of it. But I digress. Let’s start by reviewing the entire text of it:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
Since the Constitution and its amendments are the founding documents of the US, the Library of Congress and the United States Copyright Office have put together a lovely website with both the text and some relevant context and legal analysis of the same. Their page explaining the Second Amendment is illuminating. As people say on TikTok, pause to read.
A Close Reading
I mentioned that I’m not a legal scholar. But I am a literary scholar, or, at least, I did the training to become one. I have a master’s in English and have taught high school and college classes. I’m also an avid reader and writer. I know how sentences work. The Second Amendment is but on sentence. In it, both “A well regulated Militia” and “being necessary to the security of a free State” form a restrictive clause. A restrictive clause is a group of words with a subject (here, “Militia”) and a verb (“being”) that modifies, contextualizes, and limits the main clause. The main clause, in this sentence, is the part the 2A people are fond of quoting: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. Back in the day, capitalization and commas were used much more liberally and much more idiosyncratically than they are today. But, even with the excessive punctuation and random capitalization, the sentence structure is clear. In the grammar of the sentence where the right is put forth, it isn’t a right without limits. In fact, it is a right granted for an express purpose: to maintain a “well regulated Militia.” And “regulated” means just what it sounds like: rules and regulations, man. Your libertarian dream is not set forth in the foundational documents of the US.
Though I enjoy characterizing 2A people as drooling fools, and though many of them are, some are quite clever. The entire “militia movement” in the US is a very clever way of attempting to subvert the intent of the Second Amendment, which was to create a temporary replacement for a standing army, not to encourage insurrection and treason. Clearly, some 2A folks who could actually read said “Oh, shit! How are we going to cope with this pesky restrictive clause?” And they came up with a solution: “we’ll create our own militias!”
Now, this is dumb, but it’s also clever. Going back to the text itself, the intent is to create “[a] well regulated Militia” not multiple, independently operated militias in every hamlet of Wyoming.
Unfortunately for reasonable people, the incredibly conservative SCOTUS of 2022, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, has chosen to ignore pretty much everything in the amendment except for a context-less definition of the word “bear.”
Summing Up The Legal and Linguistic Stuff
To the extent that this can be summed up briefly, the current state of the law holds that US citizens have a right to own firearms for lawful purposes, including home and personal protection. But that right is not unlimited. It isn’t an infringement to limit the sorts of weapons you, as a private citizen, can posses.
I don’t have a problem with gun ownership per se. But I do have a problem with the idea that there can be no practical limits on it. That brings us to our next topic.
Let’s Talk About Auto Safety
Liberals like myself often bring up auto safety when discussing gun safety because the similarities are more obvious than you might suspect and because cars used to be an absolute safety menace–as guns are today–but we, as a society, came together to make them safer. And, while driving is still the most dangerous activity in most people’s lives, it’s a good deal safer today due to advances in law, technology, and social norms.
Automobiles are dangerous, but they’re far less dangerous today than they have been in the past. The glass used in windshields, once a contributor to deaths in accidents, as it shattered into sharp pieces, has bee improved. Dashboards, once had sharp edges and protruding controls which contributed to deaths even in low-speed accidents. They’ve since been smoothed out. Steering columns, which also increased fatalities, were redesigned to absorb energy, protecting drivers.
Protecting passengers from dangers inside the cabin was an important step, so was the development of seatbelts and the eventual national legal requirement, in 1968, that all cars have them. It would take some time before drivers and passengers were required to wear them. Airbags were invented in the 1950s, but it took until 1998 for dual front airbags to be required equipment on new cars.
It took the dramatic death of Jayne Mansfield, in 1967, to motivate the adoption of “underride guards,” those odd metal bumpers on the backs of tractor trailers. Sometimes called “Mansfield bars,” they keep your car from running under the trailer in the event of a crash, as Mansfield’s 1966 Buick Electra did in 1967, killing her and two other adults.
As with any other safety improvement, there have been forces who resisted adoption of what, in hindsight, were clearly good decisions. The CDC, citing a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says seatbelts reduce “serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about half.” But selling the idea to the public here in the “land of the free, home of the brave” was an uphill battle.
In fact, it is often the case that our ideas about freedom are the biggest impediment to reasonable safety precautions. Is driving without a seatbelt proof of your bravery, or proof that you’re willing to double your chance of dying in a car crash for no good reason? I’d say the latter. When have you ever seen someone point out the bravery of a man–men are less likely to wear them–driving without a seatbelt? Taking unnecessary risks as you go about your day isn’t a sign of bravery. It’s a sign of foolishness. If you want to live dangerously, go skydiving. Don’t die on your way to the neighborhood market to buy a gallon of milk.
Steps Toward Safety
Driving is dangerous, but we, as a society, have taken steps to reduce the danger. For one, we require that drivers be licensed. Obtaining a driver’s license requires passing an exam and demonstrating basic abilities in an actual vehicle. Every state in the US requires drivers to be licensed. But only ten states currently require a permit to purchase a firearm, and only three (Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York) require a license to own one (source). None require that you demonstrate your knowledge or abilities with a firearm.
In addition to licensing, we also require insurance. It’s quite likely that you’ll crash your car into something at some point. When you do, the police determine who’s at fault, the insurance companies pay, and your rates (generally) go up. You pay insurance every month in order to legally operate an automobile on the road.
Not long ago, gun fans could point to automobile accidents in order to minimize the scale of gun deaths. But, in several states, that’s no longer the case. And, as that’s increasingly no longer the case, it makes sense that people who want to own guns should be required to insure them against the accidents that we know–by the numbers–will happen. Many pro-gun people like to parrot the NRA slogan that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” The absurdity of that is clear if we substitute “cars” for “guns.” Owning guns and driving cars both increase your odds of dying. It’s a false dichotomy to play one against the other or to pretend that such is not the case.
What is to be done?
If we actually had the political will to reduce gun violence in the US, we’d do some combination of these things:
- Limit the types of weapons private citizens can own
The culprit here is semi-automatic weapons–which can shoot as quickly as you can pull the trigger. Making that sort of firepower easily available assures that violent losers with an axe to grind will continue to open fire in public places.
- Limit magazine capacity
In an online discussion, some asshole recently pointed out to me that a thirty-round magazine is not “high capacity.” I submit that it is. In fact, I believe the cutoff should be much lower. Ten seems like a good number. Maybe a dozen.
- Make training and licensing mandatory
Training is a required component for operating all manner of dangerous machinery. Here, the licensing should be the evidence that training has taken place and that the gun owner has completed it satisfactorily. That training should also encompass safe storage of weapons and the local laws which apply to it.
- Make insurance mandatory
Your choice to own a gun puts others at risk. They should have recourse for financial compensation if your weapon is used against them unnecessarily.
- Make irresponsible storage culpable
Many shooters obtain their weapons from family who refuse to store them properly. That’ll never change unless gun owners have some skin in the game. Saying “oops” when your child, nephew, or neighbor commits a crime with your improperly stored weapon shouldn’t be a legal defense.
- Make guns safer
There are existing technologies which make guns safer. We require auto manufacturers to include seatbelts, airbags, and back-up cameras. Why? Because they save lives that are unnecessarily lost without them.
A Brief Conclusion
For the suicide risk alone, I think it’s foolishly risky for most people to own guns, but I don’t have a problem with it on principle. It is a Constitutional right. While we can change the Constitution, I don’t think we ever will remove the right to own weapons in the US. It’s a deep-seated part of our culture. Even though I think we’d be far better off without it, I don’t think trying to overturn 2A is a good strategy. More importantly, I don’t think it’s fair to responsible gun owners, which is most of them. Gun ownership can be reasonably safe. And adults have the right to take risks–even risks I think are unnecessary.
It’s important to not be myopic. I am aware that I’m a fairly well-off person who is unlikely to encounter violence in my day-to-day life that might require firepower. If I spent my life working in dangerous environments or translating valuable goods, I might indeed want to own and carry a gun. If I lived in a dangerous neighborhood and couldn’t afford to live in a less dangerous one, I might want to own a gun for home protection.
If you had to sum it up in a line, what I’ve been saying here at length (4,500+ words, so far) is chiefly this: “shall not be infringed” does not mean “without limits.” If you believe that it does, you’ve been taken in by NRA + GOP propaganda. The language of the amendment itself imposes limits. Following the assassination of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and MLK, Jr., the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed to limit the types of arms that can be owned and the places in which they can be carried. More recently, bump stocks, the device used in the Las Vegas shooting of 2017 (in which 58 died and hundreds were injured), were banned in 2019, under the Trump administration, no less. There clearly are times that we can move quickly to regular arms, including these devices which turn semi-automatic weapons into machine guns.
We can, and should, impose other limits as well. Because the right to “bear arms” doesn’t mean US citizens should be victimized as they go about their daily business–like visiting a county fair–by irresponsible gun owners or irresponsible levels of firepower.
I started this post back in August 2022, but I didn’t finally publish it until February 2023. It is the sort of post I suspect I will continue to continue to revisit, as it’s a vast topic and there’s always more to say on it. The numbers and court cases, too, evolve over time and might merit revisiting once in a while. I don’t know why I write long-form things like this. I sometimes feel I just have to get them out of my system.
The hero image for this post is a photo by Martin Frey of Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd‘s 1984 sculpture “Non-Violence,” more commonly known as “The Knotted Gun.” I found it via Openverse, a great tool for finding photos and other content released under Creative Commons licenses or in the public domain.