Another Round On Guns

One of the things I like about the kind of writing I do hear is that it is iterative rather than definitive. Points I was trying to make in one post, which remained fuzzy or tentative in my own mind, get sharped or reconsidered by things I read in your emails or by articles I read in other publications. On this latter front, I want to return to David Frum’s article I referenced yesterday.

I will take the uncommon step of excerpting the same passage I did yesterday. These are part of a list of rules by which we currently govern the public debate about guns.

Rule 3. The debate must always honor the “responsible gun owners” who buy weapons for reasonable self-defense. Under Rule 1, these responsible persons are presumed to constitute the great majority of gun owners. It’s out of bounds to ask for some proof of this claimed responsibility, some form of training for example. It’s far out of bounds to propose measures that might impinge on owners: the alcohol or drug tests for example that are so often recommended for food stamp recipients or teen drivers.

Rule 4. Gun ownership is always to be discussed as a rational choice motivated by reasonable concerns for personal safety. No matter how blatantly gun advocates appeal to fears and fantasies—Sean Hannity musing aloud on national TV about how he with a gun in his hands could have saved the day in Las Vegas if only he had been there—nobody other than a lefty blogger may notice that this debate is about race and sex, not personal security. It’s out of bounds to observe that “Chicago” is shorthand for “we only have gun crime because of black people” or how often “I want to protect my family” is code for “I need to prove to my girlfriend who’s really boss.”

This clarified something that was fuzzy in my own head. We can’t seriously discuss the gun issue unless we address the fantasies, paranoias and need for power that are major drivers of gun ownership, certainly mass or extreme gun ownership. Gun rights activists have spent three decades cutting off funding for research into guns and gun lethality. This keeps limited the still ample data showing that guns in your home make you less rather than more safe. Three percent of the population owns half the guns in the country. That means about 10 million people own an average of 15-18 firearms a piece.

Society has only a limited need and rationale for examining the inner lives of individual people. But why people feel the need to create small armories in their homes is very much the larger society’s business since the consequences of mass gun ownership threatens society at large. The need to balance these two interests against each other barely exists in the public discussion.

This is even more the case when it comes to regulation. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you want to own 20 firearms. Given the externalities of gun ownership which affect everyone, society may say you need to have those guns regulated in some way. Maybe you have to register them. Maybe you need a special license if you’re going to own more than ten. Maybe you need to account for any sale of those weapons to a third party. These kinds of fairly basic regulations, which are probably a bit of a hassle but no more than what we do for cars, are completely beyond the pale of current public debate. That is largely because it raises fears of confiscation and paranoid conspiracies about government roundups and the like. You come up against paranoia and fantasies of total power at every in the gun debate. If you want to be a grown man who’s obsessed with model trains and has a whole world of model trains in his basement, that’s fine. It’s your life. It doesn’t hurt anyone. Guns are different. The externalities of mass gun ownership are vast.

The entirety of the gun debate is framed around the proposition that that man with a stockpile of 30 guns in his home has almost total freedom to own 3 or 30 or 300 guns while the society at large has virtually no standing to place any limits on that freedom to protect itself. That imbalance is compounded by the fact that the advocates of extreme gun ownership are allowed to make their case for what are really special rights with arguments which are seldom challenged even though they are often based on paranoia, conspiracy theories or claims that simply have no basis in fact.