Gun Rights, ‘Positive Good’ and the Evolution of Mutually Assured Massacre

on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Scott Olson/Getty Images North America

Should we see how other countries have done when they decided to arm teachers and principals as a way to prevent school massacres? Does that make this sound stupid since no other country has ever considered something so completely inane? Yesterday when President Trump was talking to survivors of last week’s and other school massacres and proposed arming educators, I clipped the video and posted it on Twitter.

Almost everyone who responded was aghast. That’s not terribly surprising since people who follow me are not a cross-section of the population at large. But let’s be honest: this is an insane idea that no country has ever considered. Of course no country – not in the midst of endemic civil violence or civil war – has ever tried having totally unrestricted access to any number of firearms and any amount of ammunition either. We’re already in uncharted territory.

But what I noticed in these responses was this: Not only did most people think was a crazy idea. Some people – actually a lot of people – were positively shocked that the President even proposed it.

I wasn’t shocked. Not at all. And that’s not because I’m used to the President coming up with inane ideas. Not everyone follows the “gun rights” dialog as closely as we do at TPM. This idea of arming teachers and school administrators has become a commonplace response from “gun rights” advocates. They have a whole storyline about how making schools “gun free zones” encourages school massacres. The fact that Trump suggested this idea was entirely predictable. I would almost go as far as to say that it is the mainstream policy response from “gun rights” Republicans, which is to say almost all Republicans who are vocal on this issue.

But it goes back further still, more than a decade to a largely discredited and significantly disgraced “gun rights” economist named John Lott. Lott wrote some foundation studies that didn’t withstand serious scrutiny. He also got in trouble for creating fake online identities to praise his work. But that was beside the point, as the debate developed. This idea became gospel in the world of “gun rights” politics.

What Lott did was apply a kind of crude game theory to the gun question – call it Mutually Assured Massacre. The logic goes something like this. If most people are unarmed, the guy who’s carrying has tremendous power and can kill more or less with impunity, at least in the immediate aftermath of a shooting. No one can shoot back. But if everyone is armed or any given person might be armed, you’re going to be a lot more cautious about going for your firearm and shooting someone. Because they might be armed too. They might shoot back. Or the person next to them might be armed. If everyone is armed, everyone will be on their best behavior. Because they’re all equal in terms of lethal violence. Shootings will go down, not up.

In the abstract, where no humans actually exist, there’s actually a compelling logic to this. If I know you’re armed, I’ll be on my best behavior. You will too because you know I’m armed. Of course, in practice, almost everything is wrong with this logic. It relies on an extremely crude version of economic rational action and an even cruder form of game theory. This is particularly the case when you realize that the fraught, angry situations where people impulsively kill other people are by definition not rational. This doesn’t even get into situations like school shootings where the assailant usually intends to die in the massacre. It also doesn’t get into accidents, misunderstandings. It’s completely nuts.

But this basic concept: more guns, paradoxically, means more safety informs almost every aspect of current pro-gun politics. The concealed carry movement is a good example. Lott’s argument was more concealed carry permits would make people and society at large safer. A big driver of concealed carry is people who just want to walk around armed, either to make themselves feel more safe, more cool, more macho, whatever. But the policy arguments from gun rights advocates mostly come back to John Lott: more guns in private hands means more safety. Same with open carry and a bunch of other parts of the “gun rights” agenda. It’s pervasive. It’s gospel.

I think we can only understand this development by looking back to an earlier period of American history, particularly the last two decades before the Civil War. In the first decades of American history, there were many slaves and many slaveholders. But there were very few defenders of slavery per se. Virtually all respectable Southerners understood slavery as an evil, perhaps a necessary evil or an evil there was no simple way to end or perhaps an evil that would be done away with at some undetermined point in the future – almost always with the expulsion of freed slaves back to Africa. This began to change in the 1830s and 1840s as slavery came under more genuine and immediate threat. There was more anti-slavery agitation in the North. Great Britain had begun a process of gradual emancipation.

The fate of slavery and the protection of slavery became much more real and immediate problem. This spurred a basic rethinking of the matter for a simple reason based on human nature: no one wants to go into a critical argument with the basic assumption that you’re actually wrong. This was the spur for the so-called “positive good” theory of pro-slavery politics.

Quite simply, far from being a necessary evil or a flawed and unjust institution slaveholders’ ancestors had saddled them with, slavery was not only a good thing but the only foundation of a just society. It was right that Africans should be slaves and that whites should be their masters. Full stop. This explicit abandonment of the concept of equality led many Southern intellectuals in the 1850s to rework their entire theories of politics and government – sometimes with startling outcomes that went far beyond slavery.

We can see some of this evolution in the speech Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave on the founding of the Confederacy. Speaking of the central role of slavery Stevens said this …

The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago.

In retrospect, this evolution seems inevitable. People can’t go to literal or figurative war with an ambivalent commitment. The need for a positive defense of slavery was critical.

In retrospect, I believe Lott’s work and those who built upon it played a similar role in the post-Columbine evolution of the firearms debate. (And to be clear, I’m not equating them substantively. I’m talking about the need for a ‘positive good’ version of pro-gun advocacy.) Indeed, Lott’s first article was published in 1997 and his first book More Guns Less Crime in 1998, just a year before the Columbine Massacre in 1999. Though his first work just preceded Columbine, it filled a critical, necessary role for “gun rights” advocates in the post-Columbine world. The NRA wasn’t always against all gun restrictions. In the 1980s and 1990s, it didn’t oppose some very limited restrictions. That changed over the course of the 1990s, for a variety of reasons. Paradoxically, I believe one reason was the historic crime drop of the latter half of the 1990s. As long as crime seems out of control a lot of ordinary people want a gun to protect themselves, regardless of the larger societal impact, regardless of studies that might suggest you’re more likely to be killed by your own gun than saved by it.

But I think the main reason for this change is that as long as you recognize the basic reality that guns are dangerous, fighting even the most minimal kinds of restrictions is inherently difficult. You need to change the game. You need a theory that is coherent and in line with your goal. Lott’s theory created a logic for that. The problem with massacres isn’t too many guns. It’s too few guns. Guns aren’t the problem. They’re the answer. It was the NRA’s ‘positive good’ argument, comparable to the one pro-slavery intellectuals devised in the 1850s. It’s the origin of virtually every argument the NRA makes today, from arming teachers to the “good guy with a gun”, to the need for permissive concealed carry nationwide.

Indeed, if you look at the progression of gun regulation over the last twenty years, it is entirely in this direction. We not only have a dramatically higher number of guns in circulation today. We not only lack the limited protections from the 1990s. We have a whole movement making on-demand concealed carry the norm across much of the country. We also have more open carry laws. All public policy has moved toward more guns, not fewer and more freedom to bring them anywhere you want. This was the movement Lott, with his error-riddled study, was trying to advance: maximizing the number of people carrying a concealed weapon in daily life. Indeed, something called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017 is on the verge of passage in Congress today. That would force states with tighter gun laws to honor the licenses of the most permissive ones. In other words, effectively nationalizing the right of anyone without a felony conviction or a recent mental health hospitalization to carry a loaded weapon whenever and wherever they want. Don’t want concealed carry in Massachusetts or New York? Too bad. You have to honor the licenses from Oklahoma and Idaho.

All available evidence suggests the obvious: more guns, more gun deaths. Lott’s whole thesis is almost comically flawed for anyone who understands the interaction of human nature and game theory. The empirical studies all seem flawed. Even apart from this, a big chunk of the population, probably the majority, simply doesn’t want to live in a high-fear, maximally armed society. But these are all the consequences of the NRA’s ‘positive good’ theory of guns. That’s where Trump got this inane idea. It’s not strange at all. We should expect it.

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