I originally posted this article on Bring It On! in July 2006, and am reposting it now with very minor revisions in response to Stuart Chisholm’s excellent piece titled “The Conversation We're NOT Having: A Dialogue About Guns, Crime, Fears and Solutions.”
One thing that would really improve political discourse, and maybe even lead to some better results, would be for all of us to stop oversimplifying issues. Our culture has fallen into a bad habit of trying to turn nearly every subject into a simple duality, with two opposite positions and no gray areas, no third or fourth or fifth possibilities, no troubling ambiguities. It makes life easier in the short run. We don’t have to think, all we have to do is try to yell louder than the obviously evil or crazy people on the other side. But it doesn’t work most of the time. There aren’t many issues that are really that simple, because if they were, they wouldn’t be issues. The only way either liberals or conservatives can turn them into such exercises in obviousness is to omit big parts of the picture, and that guarantees that we’re not seeing it accurately.
One example close to my heart is gun control. I find myself on the opposite side of this issue from a lot of liberals, and agreeing with some conservatives with whom I disagree on nearly everything else. It puts me in the position of voting for candidates I dread seeing take office, because although they stand for nearly everything else I believe in, some of them are pretty stridently advocating ending or drastically reducing a freedom that means a great deal to me. And yet I can’t vote for their opponents, because they’re equally determined to wreak havoc on a number of other freedoms I also value very highly.
As the progressive political scientist George Lakoff pointed out in his book Whose Freedom?, it’s a question of how we frame the problem. Listening to the two sides (that false dualism), it sounds as if two completely different discussions are taking place because they’re framing it so differently. So the first step would be to boil it down to what it’s really about, what’s underneath the details, what’s at a deeper level than guns or abortion or whatever else we’re upset about.
In the case of gun control, it’s a matter of the tradeoffs between freedom and security and between the rights of the individual and the community. There are people who would argue that no one should have guns, period. Why? Because they want everyone to be safe. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a noble idea. But complete safety is impossible. On the other side of the divide, some would argue that there should be no restrictions on gun ownership. Why? Because they want everyone to have as much freedom as possible. Nothing wrong with that either, and that’s also impossible.
The solution that a democracy hopes to find is a balance, a degree of safety and feeling comfortable on the one hand and a degree of freedom and feeling unfettered on the other hand that everyone can accept, even if it doesn’t satisfy the most extreme desires at either end of the spectrum. So the question is, how much control should a government be able to exert over its citizens in order to carry out its obligation to try to protect the community at large from individuals who would otherwise run amok? And how much freedom is an individual entitled to, despite the fact that it reduces the feelings or reality of safety or comfort of the neighbors? This is the same question that causes people to come to blows over whether the neighborhood association should be able to tell someone what color they can paint their house, whether a liquor license will be granted at a given address, whether a street should have speed bumps, and so on. When it comes to guns the feelings about both freedom and safety/comfort are more visceral and intense.
So what would be a reasonable compromise? Well, maybe we could look at other situations that have something in common with this one and are being handled more or less successfully and see whether we could adapt those solutions.
Guns are very dangerous. They are also very useful for self-protection and hunting for food, and for people who enjoy target shooting or other recreational gun sports, a great deal of fun. They’re deeply embedded in our culture, at least in large parts of it. Guns are a big part of what many people think of as the American way of life.
What else does this describe? Well, cars, for one thing, although there’s a key difference in that the Constitution doesn’t address freedom of travel or transportation. Cars are very dangerous; they are very useful, and for some purposes, necessary, and to a lot of people a source of great pleasure. Cars are as deeply embedded in American culture as guns. Hell, they name cars after guns (along with warships, edged weapons, and predatory animals), and you could probably find a gun named after a car although I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
So how do we handle cars? Not ideally, but we have a way that works. We don’t say, “Cars are dangerous, so we can’t let you have them because you might hurt someone else or yourself with them.” Neither do we say, “There are no restrictions on owning and operating cars, because this is a fundamental American freedom.”
We have some pretty stringent rules. Before we let someone operate a car, we require that he or she demonstrate and document the ability to do so safely and competently. We make it a serious crime to operate a car when drunk, high, or too tired. We have speed limits, traffic signals, and other controls on how and where we can drive. But we pretty much guarantee that unless someone has demonstrated that he or she can’t be trusted in a car, that person can buy and drive any car that he or she has the money to get, and can drive it anywhere and in any manner that is not against the law in order to protect the community.
Gun owners strongly resist the idea of having to register their guns, because they have the very reasonable fear that if they are registered, sooner or later someone from the government will show up to confiscate them. I say that’s a reasonable fear, because there are a fair number of politicians who advocate exactly that. You can bet that very few people would want to register their cars if they thought that might lead to their being arbitrarily taken away, either.
So – would it work to treat guns the way we treat cars? Place restrictions on their possession and use to protect the public, but guarantee that as long as they’re used responsibly, ownership will not be threatened? That might be a Constitutional amendment worth taking up. The Second Amendment is a marvel of ambiguity, and it would be good to clear it up.
Personally, I would have no problem with complying with any of the restrictions I mentioned about cars when it comes to my guns. I’ve undergone decades of training and I did go through a licensing process to get my concealed-carry permit; any time I buy a gun, I submit to an instant background check that for all intents and purposes, lets someone somewhere know I just bought another one, and what type; and I accept the fact that I can only carry or shoot them in legally sanctioned places in a carefully controlled manner. Further, due to their portability and potential for theft, I accept the fact that in order to be a responsible gun owner, I need to keep them locked in a safe when they aren’t in my direct personal control, i.e. in my hands, on my person, or within reach. I keep them unloaded except when I’m going to use them, I don’t point them at anything I don’t intend to shoot, I don’t put my finger on the trigger until I’m ready to pull said trigger, and I have to make sure of what’s behind my target so I don’t shoot through it and hit someone or something that shouldn’t be subjected to that danger. I don’t drink or use recreational drugs anyway, but if I did, I wouldn’t shoot under the influence, and I don’t go shooting if I’m not rested. Although I have a concealed carry license, it has restrictions on where I can take a gun, and I don’t take one where I shouldn’t (places that serve alcohol, schools, government buildings, anyplace posted as not allowing them, Native American reservations, national and state parks, and some other odds and ends.) If we did require liability insurance for gun owners, I’d qualify for the “little old lady from Pasadena” rate.
Within those limits, my personal opinion is that I ought to be allowed to own and shoot any gun I want and can afford, again as long as I am responsible and safe with it. George Lakoff talked about automatic weapons as a problem and as legal restrictions as a solution. That’s not valid – he was talking about gang members using them to shoot people, and those gang members don’t buy their guns legally anyway. I could legally own and shoot a machine gun if I chose to pay a hefty fee and if I passed a fairly stringent background check, and I think that’s the way it should be. That’s already too limited for me; the government banned the importation or manufacture of any new machine guns for the civilian market decades ago, so the ones that already exist are all there are, and they keep getting more and more expensive. To argue that I shouldn’t be able to own a machine gun because I don’t need it for hunting or target shooting makes no more sense than arguing that people shouldn’t be able to buy fast cars because no one really needs one to drive to work. Should we put a ban on manufacturing any more Corvettes, so that only those already on the road could be sold or resold? Actually, that would make more sense, because a Corvette is a lot worse for the environment than a machine gun.
With guns, as with cars, the freedoms they help provide are important ones. In America, we’re free to pick up and head for the other side of the country if we want, but unless we have the means to do so, that freedom is meaningless. One of the telltale signs of a totalitarian system is tightly restricted domestic travel. When I was a teenager my family went on vacation in Mexico, which was certainly not North Korea but not exactly as free as we’re used to here either. It struck me as weird and creepy that every hour or so, we’d come to a roadblock where people in uniforms and sunglasses with guns would carefully look us over and inspect our papers before letting us go on our way. I’d never seen anything like that here (I have now, courtesy of the INS, which doesn’t make me happy.) I want it to be a given that if I can afford to do so, I can get in my car and drive to Maine, Washington, or Florida without needing an internal passport or having to justify my trip to anyone.