Here a Gun, There a Gun, Everywhere a Gun

As Jaime and I noted yesterday, many Democratic politicians feel the need to preface any discussion of guns with an assurance that they, too, own guns and love to shoot, as though that were the price of admission to a debate on the topic. But what you seldom hear is anyone, politician or otherwise, say, "I don't own a gun and I don't ever intend to" as a statement of identity, defining a perspective that carries moral weight equal to that of gun owners. So it was good to see Josh Marshall, in a thoughtful post, say, "Well, I want to be part of this debate too. I'm not a gun owner and, as I think as is the case for the more than half the people in the country who also aren't gun owners, that means that for me guns are alien. And I have my own set of rights not to have gun culture run roughshod over me." Let me tell you my perspective on this, and offer some thoughts on the question of what sort of a society we want to have when it comes to the question of guns. Because there are two radically different visions that are clashing here.

For the record, I, too, am not a gun owner (you're shocked to learn this, I know). I took riflery at camp as a kid, shooting a .22 at paper targets (and when you achieved each new level of marksmanship, you got a certificate from the NRA!), and I've held unloaded guns a few times. I understand the attraction of guns. They give you a feeling of power and potency, and they're fun to shoot, which is why every little boy loves playing with toy guns. But in the town where I grew up, you never saw a gun that wasn't in a cop's holster. If any of my classmates' parents had them (and I'm sure some did), they never mentioned it, and my own parents would sooner have adopted a pack of hyenas than brought a gun into our home. As far as that community was concerned, the relative absence of guns was one of the things that made it a nice place to live. It wasn't because everyone got together and took a vote on it, but that absence was nevertheless an expression of the community's collective will.

I'm sure that many gun advocates would hear that and say, "Don't you realize how vulnerable you all were? You should have been armed!" But the truth is we weren't vulnerable (crime was low; I have a vague memory of one murder that happened during my entire childhood but I could be imagining it), and although as kids we always complained that the town was boring, everyone seemed pretty happy with the security situation. And if one day, a few of the town's citizens started letting everyone know that they were now carrying firearms when they were down at the drugstore or the bank, it wouldn't have made anyone feel safer. Just the opposite, in fact. It would have changed everything for the worse.

What I'm getting at is that one of the things that makes a society work is that people have rights that are protected in the law, but they also exercise those rights with consideration for the society's other members. For instance, we have a strong commitment to freedom of expression, such that many things that would be deemed obscene and get you tossed in jail in other countries are tolerated here. So if I want do a performance art piece that involves lots of cursing and tossing about bodily fluids, I can do it. But I'm not going to do it on the sidewalk in front of your house during dinner time, not because I don't have the right, but because that would make me an asshole. In the exercising of my rights, I'd be changing the conditions of your existence, even for a brief time, in a way that you'd find unpleasant. So because I value having a society where we all live together, I'll choose to find a theater to put on my performance, and you can choose to come see it or not. In the same way, if you choose to have a gun in your home because you think it protects you, that's your right. I'm going to choose not to let my kid come play with your kid at your house, and we can all get along.

According to the Constitution, you have a right to own a gun. I'll be honest and say that I wish it weren't so; the fantasies the most extreme gun advocates notwithstanding, our liberty is protected by our laws and institutions, not by our ability to wage war on our government. Canadians and Britons and French people aren't any less free than we are because they are less able to start killing cops and soldiers when they decide the time for insurrection has come. Nevertheless, that basic right exists and it isn't going to be taken away. But the rest of us should also be able to say that there are limits to how far your exercising that right should be allowed to change the rest of our lives, and if necessary the law should enforce those limits.

As I've written before, the goal of many gun advocates, particularly those who promote concealed carry, is that we make it so as many people as possible take as many guns as possible into as many places as possible. That's been the focus of their legislative efforts in recent years, not only passing concealed carry laws nearly everywhere, but also passing laws to make you able to take guns into bars, schools, government buildings, houses of worship, and so on, and also advocating for laws that would let you take your guns to communities where it would be otherwise illegal to carry them. Which would mean that your right to carry your gun trumps the right of everyone else to say, this is a place where we've decided we don't want people bringing guns.

Is it possible that on my next visit to the local coffee place, a madman might come and shoot the place up? Yes, it's possible. And is it possible that if half the patrons were armed, one of them might be able to take him down and limit the number of people he killed? Yes, it's possible. It's also possible that I'll win the next Powerball. But if holding out that infinitesimal possibility means that every time I go down for a coffee, I'm entering a place full of guns, it's not a price I'm willing to pay. That's the decision I've made, and it's the decision that the other people in my community have made as well.

But gun advocates want to create a society governed by fear, or at the very least, make sure that everyone feels the same fear they feel. "An armed society is a polite society," they like to say, and it's polite because we're all terrified of each other. They genuinely believe that that the price of safety is that there should be no place where guns, and the fear and violence they embody, are not present. Not your home, not your kids' school, not your supermarket, not your church, no place. But for many of us—probably for most of us—that vision of society is nothing short of horrifying.

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