The Problem with "the Wrong Hands"

The other day, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly (or as he is for some reason always referred to as, "Astronaut Mark Kelly"; I guess if you're an astronaut you get that) announced that they have started a new initiative, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to push for new laws to limit gun violence. I have great admiration for both of them and I hope they succeed, but there was something I heard Kelly say in an interview that was worthy of note, and a bit unfortunate. He noted that they're not trying to take away anyone's guns, and they're gun owners themselves. They just want to make sure guns stay out of "the wrong hands." The problem with this—and I think it's something well-meaning people probably say a lot without giving it too much thought—is that it assumes that the lines are clear between the right hands and the wrong hands, and if we could just make sure no wrong hands got guns, we'd all be safe.

There are some people who should definitely not have access to guns, like convicted felons, or people with severe mental illness, or teenagers, whose ability to make clear, reasoned judgments is extraordinarily poor. But once you get beyond that, the idea that we can make an a priori distinction between people who should have guns and who shouldn't is a fantasy. There are around 30,000 gun deaths in America every year, and only a tiny percentage of those are from mass shootings committed by people who have gone completely over the edge. Many gun crimes are committed by people who got their guns illegally, and if you did that your hands are wrong by definition. But that inevitably leaves thousands of gun deaths (including suicides; because of the proliferation of guns in America, we have far higher success rates for suicides here than in other similar countries) attributable to people who would have seemed like "the right hands" until they shot somebody.

The fantasy that society is made up of clearly distinguishable "good guys" and "bad guys" is something the NRA and the gun manufacturers fervently want us all to believe. As Rick Perlstein writes, Ronald Reagan was more responsible than anyone for weaving this idea into the fabric of conservatism:

For them, it's almost as if "evildoers" glow red, like ET: everyone just knows who they are. My favorite example from studying Reagan was the time the time news came out that Vice President Spiro Agnew was being investigated for bribery. The Governor of California told David Broder, "I have known Ted Agnew to be an honest and and honorable man. He, like any other citizen of high character, should be considered innocent until proven otherwise." Citizen of high character: I don't remember that line in my Constitution. That same week, he said of an alleged cop killer, not yet tried, that he deserved the electric chair.

As long as we continue to believe that we can easily tell who the bad guys are and that every gun death isn't an argument spun out of control or an abusive husband who killed his wife or an impulsive suicide attempt that might not have ended that way, but instead they were all scenes out of a Schwarzenegger movie, we'll delude ourselves into thinking that some meaningful proportion of those 30,000 deaths can be prevented if we just take their guns—or, as the NRA would have it, make sure there's somebody around to return fire when they come for our children. And then we'll have squandered this opportunity.

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