Brief Thoughts on Firearms in America

When I used to teach The Crucible, I would inevitably have at least one student who was aghast that John Proctor let himself be taken into custody at the end of Act 3 when he knew that he would be executed.
“I’d never let that happen to me,” the kid, who is almost always a boy, says.
“How would you stop it?” I ask, because like Socrates, I like to ask questions to make points, though unlike Socrates, I’m not good at choosing the right moments to shut up and just let the kid be wrong.
“I’d run.”
“A good choice,” I say. “John Proctor is in the center of Salem village right now and is currently wanted for a capital crime. He has no provisions and no means to acquire any. Of course, running also presumes that he can get out of the meeting house without anyone stopping him, which is not a guarantee by a long shot. It also abandons his wife and children, who he has just rededicated himself to. Running also does not seem much in his character – hiding tends to be more Proctor’s M.O.”
“Fine, so I’d fight,” the boy says.
“I see,” I say. “So you would fight your way out of the room which assumes, of course, that you could do so with your bare hands against not merely the marshal, Herrick, but the several assorted court members present.”
“Of course I could,” the boy says, because this was never really a referendum on Proctor’s penal choices but a referendum on the student’s already frozen perspective of masculinity that I’ve been trying to explode since August.
“And then once you’ve fought everyone,” I ask, “and won a great victory, and perhaps turned into the Hulk, then what do you do? Same problem as before – are you going to run? Where to? With what provisions?”
“I wouldn’t let myself get caught. I wouldn’t let them get me,” the kid says, and at this point I decide it’s better to be Baron von Shush than Socrates.

I bring up this little vignette because it reminds me why I wasn’t going to get involved in the gun debate on the Internet. I wasn’t going to talk about it, mostly because I don’t think there’s anything new I could add to the conversation, but also because I don’t have any ideas about making substantive changes. I didn’t want to just say the same things that everyone else has said, because everyone has already read those pieces. Hopefully, this will be slightly different. It has taken me a long time to get to something I can recognize as “slightly different.”

Other people have covered the Second Amendment argument, which is the traditional gun debate argument that I find most appealing; it basically states that if we’re going to be as anal about the Founding Fathers’ intent as our charmingly Freudian gun nut buddies want us to be, the Second Amendment covers militias, not individuals, and if the Constitution were as mulishly stubborn as our Oedipal shootist neighbors seem to believe it is, then we need to bring back slavery and retract the franchise for non-white men and all the women; all I would add to these talking points is that we’ve already repealed one amendment to the Constitution and it’s high time that we trash another. I would also reiterate the less-discussed but more entertaining argument that if you asked a Founding Father how to treat the flu, they would direct you to the nearest swamp to fetch some leeches for bleeding. (Feel free to swap in other predictions that the Founding Fathers didn’t make, such as “HIV/AIDS” or “evolution” or “an independent India” or “the Internet” or “indoor plumbing.”)

Other people – a rather larger number of people – have followed the route of “If I could just explain to people that they’re wrong, and provide something resembling empirical evidence  for their point of view, and showed an armed population hasn’t actually stopped mass shootings, and that other nations with stricter gun laws don’t have these problems with mass shootings that we do, and that we should work out a system for gun registration and licensure that mirrored what we do for automobiles, and if you think that citizens shouldn’t own tanks then you believe in some kind of gun control…” which takes about as long as a sermon to get through and doesn’t have any of the titillation which any digestible sermon must be seasoned with. This is not a line of thought that holds much charm for me. People are not convinced by debate these days; then again, I’m not sure that most people were ever convinced by debate, so maybe blaming it on the times is lazy. For example, the white population with cravats and tall hats back in 1860 who believed slavery should have been abolished didn’t exactly convince the white population with cravats and tall hats that slavery should be preserved and expanded. The argument of “black people are people” or “it is not justifiable to enslave a population of people” or “industrialization and railroads are coming and you’re going to be made obsolete” didn’t convince the pro-slavery types. Killing pro-slavery types by the thousands did that job until those people were too hungry and tired and sick to be pro-slavery any further. I don’t advocate killing people by the thousands to make a point – although the words of Lincoln in his second inaugural have always appealed to me because they seem to understand the value of paying for a debt with the currency you received the loan in:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It’s the sentiment that was in John Brown’s favorite Bible verse, Hebrews 9:22:

 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

At any rate, if people could be convinced by facts what the truth of any matter was, or could be convinced by another person while maintaining a closed mind, then the leopards would already be lying down with the kids. That path is a very effective way of preaching to the choir, and a very ineffective way of making headway against the folks who prop up the current gun-related legislation. What it also does is create a dialogue, which is the last thing that is required in the gun debate. We Americans love to argue so, and because of the love of argument there is this strange phenomenon which lends credence to even marvelous strange points of view. “You’re entitled to your opinion,” we say, or “We have to listen to all sides of this issue.” Both of those statements are refuges for fools; this is not to say, of course, that only one set of opinions is correct. You’re allowed to sit in a coffee shop somewhere and debate whether analytic philosophy is a better mode than continental philosophy, because both of those sides have real merit to them. People who sit around and argue that, say, the government shouldn’t allow civil unions – or, gasp, marriage licenses – to consenting homosexual couples who are trying to conform to a heteronormative legal coupling system which provides them legal, economic, and personal benefits in the short and long terms are wrong. That opinion is incorrect. It is not borne out by any logical, factual truth, nor does that argument reflect a moral, charitable mindset. The people who don’t believe that gay marriage is “right” ought not to be personally engaged with on that topic; they will go extinct in time, and their ilk will be remembered as bigots on the wrong side of history. You can still talk to them about, I don’t know, the World Series or your grocery list or whatever it is that fuels your conversations, but there’s no point in having a dialogue with someone whose point of view isn’t worth the time it would take to urinate noisily all over it. Those people aren’t going to be wowed because you pointed out that their small-government philosophy directly contradicts with the belief that the government should make decisions about sex or the family for sex-havers and their families, and they’re not going to convert to your banner because you’ve made a dazzling argument about the so-called separation of church and state. They are wrong because they choose to be wrong; what you do will not change them; your argument with them will only, in their minds, legitimize their position. People argue about whether or not ketchup or mustard is the appropriate condiment for hot dogs, because both are perfectly good choices; no one sits around arguing whether the appropriate condiment for hot dogs is ketchup, mustard, or a preserved pate made from one’s accumulated feces.

Regarding gun control, there is a correct position, a position which is true in factual and moral senses. That position sounds something like, “People should be allowed to own guns, but because guns are killing a remarkable number of people with remarkable regularity, and because governments exist to protect the rights and liberties and lives of their citizens, the government ought to make it extremely difficult to purchase and/or own firearms of any kind.” From there, people can talk about the specifics – how hard should it be to buy a gun? what kind of tests should be in place? what kinds of guns should be flat-out illegal? – but the basic correct position is above.

There are two reasons, as far as I can see, why people continue to advocate for the radical freedom to own powerful firearms. The first reason is that they have no imagination and thus no empathy. The second reason is that most of the people who call for wide latitude in gun ownership are like those students of mine who think that John Proctor could get out of being arrested.

At this point, I think just about everyone on the Internet has seen the video of a guy coming to a town hall meeting in northern Virginia and saying, “Here are the plans for a mosque that we want to build here” and several folks in the audience saying “All Muslims are evil and your mosque is bad and we don’t much like the look of you either, mister.” Many Internet users are also familiar with a series of studies which, summarized quickly, state that if you know an x, you’ll have a kinder opinion of an x. Know a Muslim? You’ll feel better about Muslims as a whole than those people shouting down a blueprint of a mosque. Know a gay person? Or, almost as good, seen Will and Grace? You will probably have a better opinion of homosexuals than Fred Phelps did. This is common sense, really; people tend to be scared of what they don’t have experience with, which is why getting on a bike is frightening when you do it for the first time, or why it’s hard to fall asleep without a nightlight when you’re four. You don’t know what to expect, or your anxiety will eat you up. Conversely, if you know that riding a bike is something you’ve done before without breaking your person, you will be more willing to get on the bike again; just about everyone outside of elementary school turns the lights off to sleep. This is a nasty trend for us Americans, because I think it very clearly shows how little empathy we have for people we can’t immediately identify with because they aren’t us, the people we see in the mirror who use our brand of deodorant or subscribe to the same YouTube channels, or because they aren’t our families or friends or townspeople. It shouldn’t take much imagination to realize that a Muslim can love his children as much as a Christian can, or that a Muslim can be as aggrieved by ISIS’ policies as a Christian is; it shouldn’t take much imagination for a straight person to understand that a gay person might want to go to work and make a fair wage without trying to rape a little boy or enlist a little girl to lesbianism; it shouldn’t take much imagination to believe that a person can be both poor and hard-working. Imagination is the root of empathy; first, the belief that one is not the only person; ultimately, the understanding that the lives of others have value at least equivalent to the life of the self. I don’t pretend to be able to conceive what the life of a Muslim or a homosexual or an impoverished person is like, but I can guess that their motivations, desires, and hopes are like mine, and I can guess that others will want to act in good faith with me just as I plan on acting in good faith with them. Doubtless this sounds optimistic, and I suppose it is, vaguely, but it’s not naive. It seems to me that one who desires to live ethically cannot be prey to the belief that someone who looks, sounds, or acts differently than one does is a threat.

I think it has become very easy, when the media tells us that there have been more mass shootings in the United States than there have been days in the year, to become more or less numb to the news. We’ve decided to retreat into our Facebook pages, our cable news networks, our Japanese sedans, and think that what happens to other people in Roseburg or Aurora or San Bernardino has nothing to do with what happens to us. We have made the determination that as long as it doesn’t happen to us and ours, then we have gotten off scot-free; there’s not much else for us to do but pray for the victims or the victims’ families or, if we’re really counterintuitive, for the killer(s). We fail to recognize that every atom belonging to them as good as belongs to us, and that any atom of theirs that is placed under the earth or set on fire in some chamber is an atom of ours that goes with theirs. It’s not enough to hug our children close to us on the couch when we hear that an elementary school has been shot to pieces; our children have already been murdered, and the ones on the couch were merely lucky to be in our arms rather than in a coffin. Jesus said that it was better to enter Heaven deformed than to be consigned to Hell; if that’s true, perhaps more of us should consider sacrificing our children to killers with legally obtained firearms and then, while we mourn, to surround ourselves with people who say, “It’s a right to own as many of these suckers as you can cram into your place of residence.”

I don’t know how to teach people empathy. I suppose the literature is good for that – I always cherish the emotional reactions of my students to any story or article or poem we read – but I don’t have other plans. Nor do I have much to go on when I say that Americans need to get over our belief that we, as individuals, are special. The American predilection for believing that American culture or government or even the nation itself is special is well-documented; the “it can’t happen here” fallacy has been defanged more times than I can count by writers far spicier and more convincing than me. But I don’t know that we’ve made quite as much headway in convincing American people that they aren’t special: in other words, the belief that they won’t be shot down by some clear-minded murderer in a movie theater or a school or a government building for the simple fact that it can’t happen to them. Like my students, I think all of us have some idea that we would handle a shooter differently. We wouldn’t get killed. We wouldn’t even get shot. Heck, we would have a Glock in our pockets, Wocket-style, and return fire, and be hailed a hero, and probably get onto a talk show. We would be exceptional in that situation, and through our own works we would be justified; we would end the reign of terror, or at the very least dodge it. I don’t know where we get those ideas.  I don’t know who puts them into our heads. Do we all believe that we’re heroes, or that we’re indestructible? Does it stem from the bootstraps mentality that many Americans hold onto, the one that smells like a funny bastard form of salvation, that all you have to do is take some personal responsibility and you’ll be a millionaire when Jesus sweeps you up to take you into his kingdom? I wonder, sometimes, if our belief that it can’t happen to us isn’t the result of a cocky hopelessness: we are so afraid, so certain that we could be killed by a bullet at any moment, anywhere we go, because our government won’t put together the legislation that would largely eliminate that possibility, that we’ve decided posturing is our best defense against our imminent deaths. We don’t know how we’ll escape the hail of bullets when it comes any more than my kids know how they’d get out of Salem village and last the winter without freezing to death; we just know that we’re unique; public execution is for someone else. As long as we believe that, the gun problem in our nation will only go away when you – and I really do mean you personally – become a news item to be named for a news cycle because someone shot you to death, and then forgotten because someone you love – and I really do mean someone you love – is next. We just don’t know the day or the hour, the time or place, the motive or retribution.

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