The Freedom to Kill and Maim

Truth is that like a lot of people I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on much else since the tragic shooting in Newtown on Friday. Sadness, anger, wishing, regretting. I keep thinking about my own kids, the schools they’ve attended, the teachers they’ve had. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is haunted by imagined versions of the horrible instants when so many children and heroic adults were brutally murdered. It’s so far beyond everyday comprehension, the product of a will so foreign to any humanity I can understand — and the consequences so unbelievably devastating for the families.

These spectacular mass-shootings are but one of the costs of guns in the United States. Over 30,000 deaths per year, almost exactly the same number as car deaths (which number I try to keep in mind as a sort of risk and magnitude benchmark), result from guns. Some of these deaths, obviously, would still occur if there were no guns. But just as surely, some would not. As Atrios pointed out a couple of weeks before Newtown but after yet another incident of gun violence (everything now occurs either just before or just after some mass shooting): “It’s really easy to kill somebody with a gun. It’s pretty hard otherwise, even if you really want to.”

So what should we do? What’s amazing to watch is the recapitulation of the oldest and most fundamental of political debates in a context in which it is absurd: religious faith in markets vs. a belief that collective regulation can sometimes be efficacious. Ideological libertarianism vs. pragmatic balancing of individualism and collectivism. There are those who suggest, without evidence in support and despite evidence to the contrary, that no regulations can possibly reduce the costs of gun violence. This is compounded by other logical errors. (For example, while it’s true that guns don’t kill people on their own, it’s also true that people don’t shoot bullets from their fingertips. Nor is it particularly availing to the arm-everyone cause to argue that some violent killings would occur even without guns, that some people would still manage to acquire guns, or that we should also do more to combat mental health problems. On the last point, I’m delighted to see a national consensus apparently develop around the importance of at least some types of healthcare.)

Some are telling us that the problem is too much regulation. If everyone carried guns, no one would try this, and if they did, they’d be stopped by responsible gun owners. Teachers should carry guns, restaurant employees, churchgoers, everyone! It’s Mutual Assured Destruction for everyday life. The problem, we are told, is that well-meaning but misguided laws keep people from owning and carrying firearms, not that they permit it.

Whatever the merits of libertarian thinking in other kinds of social interaction (campaign finance, financial markets, seat belts, etc.), it strikes a dull chord in the market of death and destruction. Even if you believe, as I do not, that the solution to problems in all speech markets is more speech, or that the solution to healthcare market failures is no regulation, or that the financial markets collapsed because of too much rather than too little government oversight, it takes a special kind of Randian religiosity to think that the problem with violence in America is down to too little freedom to make, buy, sell, carry, and use guns.

I’m pretty sure I’m in the majority when I say I don’t want to live in a public in which everyone is armed, where everyone straps on an insta-kill machine before walking among their fellow citizens. A free market in violence would make me feel like a slave, not a free person. Freedom — the true freedom to develop our potential, to make and care for friends and family, and to create new things — is fostered by assumptions of trust in a community, not by individually and continuously planning to respond violently to the worst. I wonder at the psychological impact of a Mad Max kind of existence. In any event, I’m doubtful of its efficacy. You’ve surely seen the statistics being bandied about: owning and carrying a gun appears to increase your chances of a gun death and, even if assaulted, you’re more likely to be shot by a factor of over four if you’re carrying a gun.

However we decide to change after Newtown, my great hope is that it follows a rational process of sifting through evidence and committing to trying things that have a good chance of working to reduce dramatically the 30,000 gun deaths (not just those from spectacular mass shootings) and many more injuries that occur every single year. A ban for the sake of a ban isn’t that. But among other things that should be evaluated: serious limitations on guns and ammunition, not just cosmetic restrictions on scary-looking guns, better support for clinical services for the mentally ill, more funding for basic and clinical research into mental illness, and perhaps better and more numerous armed security at certain venues. (Perhaps we should more systematically provide, at least temporarily, support for some armed presence at schools, for example. It makes no sense that Al Qaeda and their sympathizers target airplanes when they could shut down cities with far less effort, like the DC snipers did. But they choose airplanes and so security resources go there. Maybe it’s the same here.) I’m even open, despite my deep reluctance to live in such a world, to being proved wrong about the desirability of arming more ordinary citizens.

To put it bluntly, to respond to the mass murder of first-grade students with unexamined ideological assumptions and without an open mind is immoral. Wrong. Wicked. For too long, ideologues have claimed the moral high ground of “family values.” No more. Morality demands you show concern and compassion in your approach to actual people, not just fealty to ancient texts, tax pledges, or partisan orthodoxy. Maybe pursuing that kind of morality is one way we can begin to change.