The Philosophy and Politics thereof:
Another interesting week has gone by, with various bits and pieces aggregating in my consciousness for analysis and synthesis. On Tuesday I found a Reason magazine review of cultural anthropologist Abigail Kohn’s book Shooters, with reference to her earlier Reason piece Their Aim Is True. The pertinent quote from the book review was this:
Kohn’s own research for Shooters, some of which appeared in this magazine (“Their Aim Is True,” May 2001), elicited predictable responses. One colleague said she was performing a “social service by researching ‘such disgusting people.'” Another said that unless Kohn acknowledged the “inherent pathology” of gun enthusiasm, she was disrespecting victims of gun violence.
Kohn herself admitted in her earlier piece:
Our initial attempt to meet local militia members took us to a shooting range in the Bay Area, where we assumed local militia meetings would be held. We went on a Tuesday night, fully expecting the range to be seething with radical political activity. Why else would people congregate at a shooting range, if not to meet other like-minded, potentially dangerous right-wing gun nuts?
Also I found a Feb. 1 piece in the UConn Daily Campus entitled Gun nuts’[sic] have no real excuse by one Robert Schiering that proclaimed:
At first glance, the term “gun nut” would appear to be nothing more than an ad hominem against the more enthusiastic weapon owners of this country. However, as one reads the literature espoused by gun nut organizations, the reasoning behind this term becomes startlingly clear. Gun nuts are called as such because they are incontrovertibly insane.
In not much of a stretch, Rep. Patrick Kennedy on Tuesday cosponsored a bill to ban .50 BMG caliber rifles, stating, according to CNS:
“Any policy maker who, on the one hand, says that they are for combating terrorism but, on the other hand, will not back this legislation, backed by Representative Moran, to me has a lot of explaining to do,” Kennedy said “In fact, I think it would be the definition of insanity to say that.”
It’s important to understand this: We call ourselves “gun nuts” – embracing the label thrust upon us by the ignorant, anti-gun bigots – but many of them really believe it. We’re “potentially dangerous” because we like guns.
I think that’s something most gun owners don’t really grasp. I know it initially took me a while to get my mind around the idea. Last January there was a multi-blog discussion about concealed-carry that inspired my essay TRUST. Blogger Barry of Inn of the Last Home began the discussion, saying on the subject of concealed-carry:
If I were to take a live, armed weapon and carry it on my person, in public, it would eat away at my sanity just as if it were emitting lethal radiation. To know that I carried an instrument of sure and certain death on my person, available and ready to be pulled out and used at a moment’s notice to possibly kill…a child. A homeless person. An innocent.
That stirred up quite a controversy, but he later tried to clarify:
I would feel uncomfortable carrying a loaded weapon. Very uncomfortable that I would possibly have the means to end a person’s life within arm’s reach. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do it, or would ever be tempted. Just that fact makes me uncomfortable.
I also would feel uncomfortable knowing that anyone on the street, in the theatre, at a restaurant, at the supermarket could be carrying a loaded gun on their person. And here’s why – despite training, despite temperament, despite the best of intentions: I don’t trust you. That’s simply it, I don’t trust you. I don’t trust a person who is not a licensed law enforcement officer of some kind – someone who, by virtue of their job, I would assume they have proper gun training – to carry a weapon. You may be a great person, love your kids, go to church, would never pull a gun in anger at another person – you may be supremely confident of that fact in your own mind, but I’m not. To me, you would be just as likely to be the one sticking up the fast-food clerk as the one defending him, or – in your possibly untrained and excited state – could be the one who with the best of intentions attempts to intervene but misses and hits someone else. Or you could be the one who gets pissed off at me in traffic and, instead of the flipping me the finger you pop off a few rounds at my back window.
I’m not concerned whether there are documented cases of this happening – I am afraid that they will, when more and more people are allowed to carry concealed weapons.
Last Thursday, Feb. 3, Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis offended the sense and sensibilities of a good portion of the public when he proclaimed “it’s fun to shoot some people.” The reaction was predictable. Congressman Pete Stark, (D-CA) put out a press release stating:
Last week, United States Marine Corps Lieutenant General James Mattis made public comments that were unbecoming of a military officer. As quoted in numerous newspaper articles and media broadcasts, Lt. General Mattis told a San Diego, California audience of 200 civilians that “It’s fun to shoot some people.” Referencing combatants in Afghanistan he added, “You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”
Lieutenant General Mattis has no doubt served his country with courage and distinction as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. It is, nonetheless, inexcusable that, as a high-ranking officer of the US military, he would make these callous and insensitive remarks that denigrate the value of human life.
That was relatively mild. Juan Cole said:
T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” was tortured and almost driven mad when he realized he got a thrill from shooting a man dead. His sadistic pleasure in killing Ottoman troops in Syria seems to have been wrought up with his rape by an Ottoman officer who thought him a Circassian Jordanian rather than a British secret agent. At one point he writes in Seven Pillars of Wisdom about how beautiful the dead Ottoman soldiers looked in the moonlight, lined up straight, after a battle.
Just as few priests are pedophiles, few soldiers are sadists. Mattis has brought dishonor on the US Marine Corps with his words. Killing is never appropriately called “fun.” I think he should resign.
You see, enjoying the practice of violence is “sadistic” and “racist.” Insane, in other words.
There are a lot more examples, but I’m sure most of you have seen ones like this or worse. However, I’ve read some military history, and I’ve read the current military blogs by some of the guys on the front lines pulling triggers, like Armor Geddon and A Day in Iraq. They like what they do, or they wouldn’t have chosen to do it.
Apparently, they’re insane too.
Or are they?
A while back I wrote a three-piece essay on the difference between violent and predatory and violent but protective, and their antithesis, pacifism. The pacifist culture, I wrote,
…doesn’t really distinguish between violent and predatory and violent but protective – it sees only violent. Their worldview is divided between violent and non-violent, or passive. There is an exception, a logical disconnect if you will, that allows for legitimate violence – but only if that violence is committed by sanctioned officials of the State. And even there, there is ambivalence. If violence is committed by an individual there is another dichotomy: If the violence is committed by a predator, it is the fault of society in not meeting that predator’s needs. The predator is the creation of the society, and is not responsible for the violence. He merely needs to be “cured” of his ailment. If violence is committed by a defender, it is a failure of the defender to adhere to the tenets of the pacifist society. It is the defender who is at fault because he has lived by the rules and has chosen to break them, and who must therefore be punished for his transgression.
And God help you if you admit that you enjoy exercising violence, for any reason. It’s a sign of mental illness, you know.
Finally this week, the D.C. Appellate Court upheld the District Court conclusion in Seegars v. Ashcroft. This was a suit to overturn Washington D.C.’s draconian gun ban. The courts, both the District and Appellate, essentially dodged the Second Amendment question by claiming that the appellants had no standing to bring suit. (Triggerfinger has a good collection of links to blog commentary on the decision.) This is just the latest in a long, long series of decisions and denials in which the courts have dodged and avoided addressing the true meaning and implications of the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court has done a yeoman’s job of that since its 1875 Cruikshank decision, the 1886 Presser v. Illinois decision, and finally the 1939 Miller decision. Lower court misinterpretation of Miller, backed by the two previous cases has put us where we are today. Only the 5th Circuit in Emerson actually had the intestinal fortitude to buck decades of bad precedent, and then, with a clear dichotomy between the 5th and 9th Circuits, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to the appeals of both Emerson and Silveira, leaving the question in legal limbo – again.
Gun rights supporters often wonder why that is – why is it that almost no one in government is willing to do what’s (to us) obviously right?
Because they’re AFRAID.
Gun owners represent about one quarter of the adult population of the country, and if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say somewhat less than half of those are active shooters. A signifcant majority of gun owners, in fact, are in favor of many forms of gun control. Why? FEAR. Like Barry, they don’t trust their fellow citizens. “I’m OK Mack, but I don’t know about YOU.” There’s a very large portion of the population, both gun owning and not, that holds the belief Barry does:
I don’t trust a person who is not a licensed law enforcement officer of some kind – someone who, by virtue of their job, I would assume they have proper gun training – to carry a weapon.
But this is fear born of two sources: ignorance, and sensationalism. The majority in this country are like Abigail Kohn was; ignorant, fearful, and naive when it comes to firearms as she describes herself. They are made fearful of them largely because of the media, where “if it bleeds, it leads.” I and many others have documented the monumental ignorance and anti-gun bigotry in the media (such as Ravenwood‘s recent skewering of a news report informing readers that the Bristol CT police department just up-gunned from 9mm to 40mm handguns. That’s a change in bore diameter from 0.355″ to over 1.5″. They would have apparently decided that grenade launchers are needed, if the report had been accurate.) We’ve noted the media’s fervent willingness to report criminal acts nationwide, while burying defensive gun uses on page D-24 of the local fishwrap. This is apparently because everybody knows that guns are only useful for criminal homicide.
And there’s the philosophical rub.
Our culture says that killing is wrong, and that being willing to kill is just as wrong. Yet we have that mental dichotomy that makes it OK if and only if the actor is a sanctioned official of the State. It has even lead to a linguistic dodge: States and their actors use force – individuals use violence. But either way, human beings end up dead or injured. Sure, it’s OK to kill someone in self-defense, but to prepare for that possibility is evidence of mental instability or at least criminal tendencies, unless you’re one of the anointed. That “logic” is the basis behind laws disarming citizens, brought to its (il)logical extreme in the UK where no one can legally carry anything considered an “offensive weapon,” or risk arrest. Note: there are no “defensive” weapons. If it’s a weapon, it’s “offensive.” The same illogic rests behind “proportional response” and “duty to retreat” laws.
Yet our system of government is one based on trust. I’ve quoted Bill Whittle before, I will do it here again, from Freedom:
This, to my mind, is the fundamental difference between the Europeans and the U.S.: We trust the people. We fought wars and lost untold husbands and brothers and sons because of this single most basic belief: Trust the people. Trust them with freedom. Trust them to spend their own money. Trust them to do the right thing. Trust them to defend themselves. To the degree that government can help, great – but TRUST THE PEOPLE.
Criminals, and criminal regimes ranging from The Brow-Ridged Hairy People That Live Among the Distant Mountains all the way through history to the Nazis and the Soviets, have and will conspire to take by force what they cannot produce on their own. These people must be stopped. The genius of the 2nd Amendment is that it realizes that these people could be anybody – including the U.S. Army. That is why this power, like the other powers, is vested in the people. Nowhere else in the world is this the case. You can make a solid argument that the United States is, by almost any measure, the most prosperous, successful nation in history. I’m not claiming this is because every American sleeps with a gun under the pillow – the vast majority do not. I do claim it is the result of a document that puts faith and trust in the people – trusts them with government, with freedom, and with the means of self-defense. You cannot remove that lynchpin of trust without collapsing the entire structure. Many observers of America never fully understand what we believe in our bones, namely, that the government doesn’t tell us what we can do – WE tell THOSE bastards just how far they can go.
Obviously a lot has changed over the decades and centuries. Industrialization and the growing urbanization of America has reduced the average American’s exposure to firearms, and high crime rates – especially in those urban areas – has caused much of the fear I illustrated at the beginning of this post. But since I’m quoting older bits with abandon in this essay, let me dredge up another one. I’ve referenced this letter to Kim du Toit several times on this blog, but that’s because it is so pertinent to the philosophy that I espouse. In this case, the relevant portion is this:
Being armed goes far beyond simple self-protection against thugs or even tyrants — it’s an unequivocal and unmatched lesson that you are politically and morally sovereign; that you, and not the state, are responsible for your life and your fate. This absolute personal sovereignty is the founding stone of the Republic. “A well-regulated militia” (where the militia is “the whole people”) isn’t just “necessary to the security of a free state” because it provides a backup to (and defense against) the police and the army. More importantly, keeping and bearing arms trains sovereign citizens in the art of freedom, and accustoms us to our authority and duty.
“To believe one is incompetent to bear arms is, therefore, to live in corroding and almost always needless fear of the self — in fact, to affirm oneself a moral coward. A state further from ‘the dignity of a free man’ would be rather hard to imagine. It is as a way of exorcising this demon, of reclaiming for ourselves the dignity and courage and ethical self-confidence of free (wo)men that the bearing of personal arms, is, ultimately, most important.”
We need to get our heads around the idea that, by being armed for the defense of ourselves and the State, we are feared by those around us who don’t understand that they are responsible for their own protection, and those whose own philosophies are pacifistic.
It isn’t the people willing to be violent-but-protective who are mentally unbalanced, but those who cannot and will not recognized that violence exists whether they want it to or not, and that being unprepared and unwilling to face it will not make it go away. (Read the piece by Rev. Sensing I referenced in Violence and the Social Contract for a more in-depth discussion on pacifism.)
There is one and only one way to overcome this fear, and that is familiarity. Abigail Kohn described her experience:
There was a time when I would not have wanted to touch a gun of any kind, much less spend part of an afternoon riding the back of a rocking mechanical pony and blazing away at a series of targets with revolvers, rifles, and shotguns. But that improbable picture is the culmination of a journey that took me from the ivory towers of academia to the shooting ranges of Northern California. Bluntly, I was surprised by what I found there. As a practicing anthropologist, I had set out in search of gun crazies, but what I found were regular folks — enthusiasts who relate to their guns in generally socially positive ways. These people are usually ignored by most media accounts of America’s “gun culture.”
“Refugee,” the author of that letter to Kim du Toit said:
To those of you who grew up with guns, I expect that what I’m about to say will seem painfully obvious. But I came to class late, and what I learned there is still fresh and vibrant.
I thought, all my life, that I couldn’t own a gun safely, that no one could, really. Guns were dangerous and icky. Even after I realized that the Second Amendment was not quite the shriveled, antiquated appendix I’d been taught, for a couple of years or so I still wobbled around with the training-wheel comfort of believing that while not all gun owners were necessarily gap-toothed red-necked fascist militia whackos, I myself ought not to own firearms. I was too clumsy and careless, and guns were still dangerous and icky.
Just before 9/11 I woke up to how quickly my liberty was eroding, and in a fit of anger and defiance started saving for a handgun while training with rentals. (Thanks to Harry at Texas Shooters Range here in Houston.) When I actually bought one (to the horror and confusion of my friends and family), having it around the house, carrying it in my car, talking about it, showing it off, and of course shooting and maintaining it, taught me what I could not learn from books, magazines, classes, or even Usenet:
It taught me that freedom takes practice.
A while back I did two pieces on Emily Yoffe, a Slate columnist and contributor to NPR who, as part of her continuing series “Human Guinea Pig” had taken the challenge to learn to shoot. In her Slate piece she related the following:
So anathema are guns among my friends that when one learned I was doing this piece, he opened his wallet, silently pulled out an NRA membership card, then (after I recovered from the sight) asked me not to spread it around lest his son be kicked out of nursery school. My entire experience with guns consisted of a riflery class at summer camp back when Millard Fillmore was president, and an afternoon 20 years ago shooting at tin cans with a friend.
It was not easy finding an instructor willing to take on a reporter who lived in the District. Looking for help, I called Gary Mehalik, director of communications of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, who offered to get me a setup in which a laser is inserted into a pistol, which I could then shoot into a specially equipped laptop computer that would track my accuracy. I worried that at the end of a day of typing on my computer, I would become addicted to shooting it—a journalist’s version of Elvis blasting his television when he saw performers he didn’t like. Then Mehalik realized he couldn’t send me the laser-equipped pistol: “As a D.C. resident, you of course are not allowed to use a firearm.”
She got her first exposure to anti-gun bigotry, and her first exposure to asinine gun laws – but she also exposed her own prejudice – being worried about becoming “addicted to shooting.” But her first actual shooting experience was an eye-opener:
The ammo itself made me uneasy, as if it could explode on contact, and I fumbled as I tried to load the shotgun. The first few shots didn’t go well. I could hear my blood pumping in my ears, and I realized that when you close both eyes as you pull the trigger, your clay target will fall to the ground intact. I slowed my breath, forced myself to keep one eye opened, and miraculously hit the thing. In the end I blasted 11 out of 25. Ricardo was thrilled and so was I. I felt even better about myself when, after I made Ricardo shoot a box of ammo, he hit only two more targets than I did.
I also transcribed her NPR interview with Alex Chadwick where Yoffe explained her reason for learning to shoot, which was similar to Abigale Kohn’s:
Well, guns are a big issue right now and I’m… I thought, I’ve gotta understand the rest of the country a little better. And, so I went to see if an absolute gun novice can learn to be a decent shot.
By the end of her experience, she’d been changed:
So, how did you take to shooting, and are you any good? Could you hit the target?
I’m darned good. What can I say? Everything has been a disaster in Human Guinea Pig, but I was hitting that thing, at.. My instructor Ricardo Royal put a paper plate out there, and I took his Sig-Sauer P226 9mm with a Crimson Trace laser grip…
…and “Paper plate, make my day” I was hitting it.
You sound like you actually know what that thing was. Is that a handgun or a bazooka?
It’s a semiautomatic pistol.
It was the conclusion of the interview, though, that I found most pleasing:
Ok, Emily. You know, you gave up being Mrs. D.C., you passed on being a street musician, you’re no longer a phone psychic. Are you actually going to be a shooter? Are you going to get a gun?
Well, I live in Washington, D.C., which kind of precludes this. Un, unless I’m a criminal, of course. But I am thinking of taking my family out and having us all have a great time blasting at targets. I’ve also become… I see movies now in a different way. I look at people shooting in movies and think “There’s no follow-through there, you’re not gonna hit that person. You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Emily Yoffe hasn’t grasped the citizenship aspect of gun ownership, I think, though both Abigale Kohn and “Refugee” have. What she has done, as they have, is lost her fear.
While the total number of guns in America climbs by two to three million annually, the number of gun owners has been declining. If we wish to retain our right to arms, we’re going to have to address that. I offer to take novices shooting on the left column of this blog. James Rummel of Hell in a Handbasket does it as a vocation. Kim du Toit’s site, A Nation of Riflemen is dedicated to inspiring new shooters, and he gets letters from them. Publicola offers a list of us and other people willing to do the same.
We need more.
The only answer to fear is information and experience, and we need to be doing a better job, because the media is a difficult force to overcome. As I write this, my wife is watching MSNBC Investigates – Dark Heart, Iron Hand, and the topic is “Rampage Killers.” According to host John Seigenthaler, a rampage killing occurs in the United States some thirty times a year. The subject right now is the 1991 Luby’s cafeteria massacre in Killeen Texas. The subject before it was the 1984 San Ysidro, California McDonald’s massacre. In both stories there is much description of people cowering defenseless as they wait to be cold-bloodedly shot to death before the police can arrive.
In the Luby’s story, there is no mention of Suzanne Gratia-Hupp. There is no mention of defensive gun useage by anyone other than a law-enforcement officer.
But the blame for these rampage killings is placed on “the proliferation of firearms” and insane white men who enjoy violence and collect guns.
UPDATE 2/14: Jed at Freedomsight has an post on pretty much the same topic, Selling Fear and the Psychology of Gun Control, and Gunner at No Quarters has another sad example of gun phobia. Posse Incitatus points out a piece from June of last year on The Fear of Responsibility that dovetails nicely into the theme of this essay. He links in that to my also related piece Americans, Gun Controllers, and the “Aggressive Edge”. Good catch. He also has a new post on the topic, advising that the “public face” of the gun-rights movement needs to be that of Gary Cooper’s “Marshal Will Kane” in High Noon, rather than DeNiro’s “Travis Bickel” in Taxi Driver. But there’s that dichotomy again – authorized, responsible agent of the State vs. slavering untrustworthy civilian gun-nut. How many media images do we have of average, everyday people as responsible gun owners, anyway?
I think he missed the point. If we want to take the “nut” out of “gun nut,” image is irrelevant. We can’t overcome decades of propaganda. Only personal experience matters.
UPDATE 2/15: Denise of The Ten Ring is not so sanguine about the “take a novice shooting” suggestion as a cure, and with personal experience as evidence. She may have a very valid point. She notes, too, that my invitation has only garnered three takers to date. I’ve been passive about it. I’m going to have to become an active recruiter, I guess.
Additional update: Posse Incitatus objects to my “Will Kane / Travis Bickel” comparison.
UPDATE 2/16: James Rummel comments.