Gun Problems

We have gun problems in the U.S. We’re not alone– many nations have gun problems. Ours are interesting in part because of our profoundly exuberant and resilient ‘gun culture’, as well as our constitutional protection of gun rights.

The right to bear arms has been argued to be both a private, individual protection of individuals against crime, of individuals and citizens against big government, and of course there’s the argument that it’s not about individuals so much as it’s a protection of the citizenry in general’s ability to form militias.

I don’t know which of these were meant to be protected by the U.S. constitution. Perhaps all of them are. I do believe that which of them is most valuable should also be weighed against the cost of fundamentally altering the original document by new amendments, or by radical reinterpretation (especially narrow interpretation) of the meaning of the 2nd amendment. Whatever the exact meaning of the 2nd amendment, it is embedded deeply in American culture, for good or for ill. Which means that discussions of gun safety, gun rights, and gun control are especially heated.

I have few ideas about ways in which discussion of guns in the U.S. can change for the better. There are 2 ways I know of to attempt to reconcile positions that are enormously different. The first is compromise. The second is innovation. They are not mutually exclusive. Gun rights advocates and gun control advocates need to stop ‘talking past each other.’

A stereotypical conversation about gun rights and problems might go like this:

Liberal: “We should really do something about these crazy shooters! Wouldn’t less guns and more difficult access to guns make it harder for them to be as violent?”
Conservative: “The 2nd amendment guarantees my rights to bear arms and defend myself from these shooters.”

These two haven’t really talked about the same thing– not yet. And usually the argument doesn’t get past this problem, although the particulars will vary and it may go on a long time. Liberals object to all the solutions conservatives propose, and vice versa. Part of this stems from the fact that gun violence is hard to study, and to some degree has been made more difficult by the attempts of the NRA to make gun studies harder to do, or to prevent funding for such studies. On the other hand, liberals are just as guilty as conservatives; they are notorious for ignoring or dodging the argument that says that CCWs, armed guards, and better police presence can reduce violence by making criminals think twice about what might happen if they attempt a crime. Conservatives and liberals both appeal to studies and statistics from various places in the world, but usually neither group accounts very well for the cultural differences or the contexts for many of these things. Conservatives will cite Switzerland as an example of a highly armed society where crime is minimal– but ignore the fact that the requirement for military service in Switzerland is very different than our military structure in the U.S., or they make the argument broader by claiming that Switzerland’s model of required military service would be beneficial. But that’s a different kind of claim. Simple small changes are easier to talk about than enormous shifts in military requirements, and the cultural differences between Switzerland’s historically (fairly) homogeneous people and the diversity of groups in the U.S. (and the ensuing cross-cultural internal struggles or lack thereof) are difficult to incorporate into a solid pro-gun argument.

Liberals on the other hand will cite countries in which firearms are effectively banned, like Japan or Britain. There are problems with these categorizations, too, the most obvious of which is Britain’s high violent crime rate– there is more to these pictures than liberals usually choose to portray. In addition, these arguments are not likely to even appeal to an audience that regards firearms as something fundamentally different from what liberals categorize them as.

Liberals see guns as a tool with a single function– and little nuance to that function. According to them, the gun is a device to kill with, and a handgun in particular is designed for killing people, not animals. And of course there are also liberal groups that don’t even recognize hunting as a valuable or legitimate activity, but that’s another argument entirely. But this is exactly where I think the divide becomes important– how we regard a tool, and the level of nuance which we give it.

Conservatives too, are guilty of ignoring nuance, as they portray firearms as simply protective devices for law-abiding citizens, and ignore virtually the entirety of the community and individual instances of the abuse of firearms in the name of justice, so-called ‘Manifest Destiny’, or again, ‘protection,’ that dominate the historical U.S. landscape, especially the mid-west, the west, and the south of the U.S. Here I refer to the attitudes that generate police militarization, a problematic development that in recent years has both libertarians and liberals outraged quite often. Some will want to dismiss this as unrelated to the issue of individual firearm ownership, but there is likely a deep connection between the issues, when one focuses on the psychology of guns.

Both conservatives and liberals ought to be more willing to attempt to grasp the values the other group has before they even begin to engage in an argument. Essentially, both groups approach the gun issue with a typically closed mindset about what they will or will not agree to as solutions for the problems we face.

Guns are a tool. Understanding what kind of tool they are, and the psychological implications they have for differing groups– these matter to the discussion, but they are seldom discussed (in my experience).

Previously I mentioned compromise and innovation as solutions to our bi-cultural impasse. Compromise is valuable, and I think with a better understanding of what each group values, all of us will be better able to come to compromises that we can settle for. But the superior component in this is innovation. Innovation tends to ask if there is another way entirely– some way that would allow both groups to have their way, or would redefine circumstances such that the problem disappears, or says both sides are wrong or insufficient– and sends them back to the drawing board. Innovation will help us. We must be imaginative if we want to come up with ways in which gun-rights and gun-control can be adequately addressed. I have ideas of my own, but I’d like to let them cook before I bring them to the table. In time, I’ll make a post on my own suggestions.



Filed under Law, Philosophy, Politics

4 responses to “Gun Problems

  1. Ted

    I think you are absolutely correct in identifying a lot of the factors that contribute to the “talking past each other” syndrome we see in the gun control debates.

    I think until we have massive, comprehensive, long-term and short-term studies on the effects of guns in U.S. society, we’re not going to get very far. Data is incomplete in regards to us, and, like you said, we just simply cannot compare cross-culturally results from studies on others. Our gun culture is just too unique. Until we subject all of these claims from both sides under the scrutiny of observation, logic, and critical examination, we’ll just keep holding onto our myths and fight needlessly about this very important subject. What do we have to lose? After all, if each side is actually confident that they are completely right, surely they wouldn’t mind allowing their ideas to be tested in the battlefields of empirical observation?

  2. Sharon Vasicek

    Hi, Mykle. I really enjoy reading your posts! “More concrete than real” is a phrase and context that I can (mentally) chew on. And this post on talking past each other captures the current media dialog… excellent powers of observation!

  3. Steven Law

    I really enjoyed this post and the ideas presented. Regarding Ted’s post, I don’t think that either side isn’t confident what a truly empirical study would prove. Rather, I think it’s that they don’t believe that an unbiased, empirical study could actually be done. I certainly have my doubts. Could you really get major constituents on each side to agree upon an organization and methodology to carry out such study. It’s not that it’s not a great idea–I just don’t think it’s possible.

  4. erfie

    One other interpretation of gun rights you should consider is this: guns were used throughout the US’s early history by homesteaders, settlers, mountain men, etc, so the possession and use of guns says ‘self-sufficiency’ to a lot of people. This isn’t necessary something brought up when discussing the constitutionality of gun rights, but it is a very deeply seated idea of gun rights, and the idea of limiting gun rights thus becomes an idea of limiting self-sufficiency. This is related to protection against big government but not the same at all. There may be other ideas about gun rights you’d want to mention as well.
    You’ve identified the archetypal conservative’s argument about the constitutionality of gun control but that’s only half the conservative argument. The other half is the complete ineffectiveness of gun control as a deterrent of violent crime. That must be acknowledged if you want to accurately portray the conservative mindset (which you do).
    Why are violent crime and guns are linked so closely in the US? I think it goes far, far deeper than just the availability of firearms, and that it would continue to be so even if firearms were restricted. Why is that so in the US and not other countries, whether those other countries have firearms restrictions or not?

    (Comments here added manually by the author.)

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