What About Guns?

Risking the folly of writing a long introduction to a short text, I’ll offer a tiny sliver of autobiography: I grew up among the moderate left, the kind who enjoyed university education in the more abstract fields–and though I still consider myself a member of that class, there are parts of our beliefs which I disagree with. All of them should be questioned, rather than letting them slowly solidify into dogma, but a few of them I am ready to reject, or at least thoroughly amend.

One of these issues, is the issue about guns. Our class, it seems, have some disdain for this tool, and this is expressed in derogatory terms for those who own or use them: we call them “gun loonies.” And we share posts on social media, news articles describing murders, some of them in our own cities, which we refer to as “gun violence.” And in the discussions of these articles, we find the plea to make them illegal, and sometimes reference to foreign countries, mostly European, where published rates for violent crime are lower and guns are strictly controlled, countries who have chosen to take the path the US left wing wishes to move into, politically: guns are tightly controlled, there, and social systems to prevent destitute poverty are firmly established.

I have to agree that unarmed people are less likely to commit fatal violence, but the level of abstraction in this thought hides the actual grisly details, the maze-like entrails of the beasts called politics and culture.

For one, growing up in the US, I never once had a gun pointed at me, as far as I know. And though I am old enough to have gone through several deaths in the family, not one of them died by gunfire. We did have a family friend who died by gunfire, but not by homicide: this death was a suicide. If we generally respect the individual’s right to control his own body, then this latter act–however sad, however unwise, however much it may feel spiritually wrong, depending on our belief–is a lawful usage of the tool we call a gun.

And if we actually have a look at the statistics, this list of my personal encounters with gun violence seems to reflect their typical presence in the lives of the educated, left-leaning middle class to which I refer at the beginning of this essay: according to the wikipedia article on the matter, about 60% of gun deaths in the US are suicides. The remaining 40% are mostly homicides (I don’t see statistics for accidents). In 2016, there were 11,004 homicides committed by firearm. Is this a large number? I guess so, in an absolute sense: every human, after-all, is a world, and most every death will cause a family great grief. It’s correct that we should feel sad, when we hear of a person who has been killed by firearm.

However, relative to other causes of death, death by gunfire is pretty darned rare: looking at the statistics, we find more than 600 thousand deaths by hear disease, almost as many by cancer. This means you’re more than a hundred times more likely to perish by these diseases, these forms of death which do not involve grisly violence, but which likely entail a greater degree of suffering than being shot to death.

Beyond the general rarity of death by firearm in the United States, there’s the question of who exactly is killing and getting killed by buns. And the answer is that, it’s mostly gang members killing other gang members. I found a statistic, which claims that about 9 out of 10 of gun homicides fall into this category, and I don’t know how correct this statistic is–I found it on a right-wing political website–but it makes perfect common sense to me, and reflects my own perception of the world.

I don’t want to underplay the importance of a gang member’s life, but, the problem is that, how the left portrays gun violence, and how we conceive of it ourselves, doesn’t mesh with the real situation: our prototypes for murder, the news media’s most popular content, are variants of the robber who breaks and enters and kills a sleeping person, or of the mugging on the street gone wrong, or of the bank robbery gone wrong, or of the school shooting. Such terrible things happen, of course, but they are pretty rare.

Beyond this very basic aspect of the mismatch between the left’s concept of gun violence and it’s reality, there is, I believe, a more sinister, and subtler psychological aspect to it. This is made visible, for one thing, in the double-think which sees nonsense in the perfectly cogent argument of the right: that we accept a little danger in exchange for a little freedom. We invoke the same argument when we, for example, are for the legalization of marijuana, or alcohol, or tobacco. But because it’s “those crazy right-wing people who love guns, vicious people, hearts filled with blood-lust….”

What I’m portraying here is the constitutive other, a philosophical term which I see as essential to understanding out inability to reasonably analyze controversial matters, to avoid dogma and remain open to views different from our own. We construct an imaginary other based on our need to establish our own (group) identities. To describe the process by which this Other is constructed, the word is made into a verb: the process of othering helps us feel like ourselves, by seeing caricatures of those who don’t pertain to our group, by ascribing to them subhuman or irrational qualities which we believe are absent in ourselves. This is, to cite the extreme and well-known example, the same psychological process which allows for atrocities like the Holocaust. It’s the real danger. We would like to feel that the tendency to violence is something others have suffered from, but which we are immune to ourselves, because we are civilized: a comforting thought, but totally hogwash.

Obama not only achieved a clever press-op, as did Michael Moore, by letting himself get photographed firing a rifle: he set a good example. Try shooting a gun. It might be a lot of fun. But, more importantly, it’s a way of overcoming our fear of being other, that hindrance to empathy to those whom we see as other. Shoot a gun in a firing range or some other safe place. Doing so can help us keep our heads cool, help us analyze political problems without letting our imaginations run wild.

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