On Talk of the Nation yesterday (16 February 2011), Stephen Hunter–novelist, film critic, and firearms enthusiast–was a guest to discuss proposed regulations on handgun magazine capacities. Hunter was refreshing as he was the only voice that I’ve heard on NPR who actually knew the vocabulary and thinking of gun rights supporters. I participated in the comments and got into an argument with someone identified as Bob Potter, who kept trying to get me to say that I supported private ownership of things like land mines, weaponized anthrax, and nuclear bombs.
The conversation reminded me of a song that I remember from my childhood, “That’s About the Size of It,” from Seasame Street. If you don’t recall it, go have a listen here:
The point of the song and the problem with Potter’s responses to me is the matter of perspective.
Since I do encounter the question of why I don’t support allowing private citizens to have nukes from time to time in the arguments of gun ownership opponents, it seems that this kind of reasoning needs a response.
My answer is that size matters, as does legitimate usage. Let’s dispose of the easiest one first: nuclear weapons. We are well acquainted with these bombs, whether we lived during the Cold War or are aware of the dangers of nuclear terrorism. They produce tremendous explosions and deposit poisonous by-products over huge areas. It’s obvious that they present a unique order of danger that goes far beyond any other device created by human beings. But danger is not the magic quality that makes something worthy of being banned, even while it is a factor. Why ought nukes be illegal for me to own? There is no legitimate use that I have for one. I can’t use one in any safe manner, and I can’t use one without harming innocent people.
How about conventional explosives? Here, the answer isn’t obvious. A stick of dynamite could be exactly the right tool for removing stumps or rocks from a field. Fireworks, used with some caution, are a joy during holiday celebrations. Fertilizer and diesel fuel have legal uses that have nothing to do with blasting. There is a danger in the mass and indiscriminate effect of explosives, and for that reason, I do see the need for regulation in this case–regulation, but not an outright ban.
Take another dangerous item in modern society: tobacco. There is no safe dosage in any form, and smoking in the presence of others creates poisonous secondhand smoke. Should we ban tobacco? Absolutely not. A smoker can use the substance in privacy without harming anyone else or can use it in enough open air to disperse the harmful gases. We each have to make our own assessments as to how much life we owe to others and how much we can rightly use for ourselves. The State of Arkansas recently passed a smoking ban on government properties, including state college campuses, and I see that as excessive. Someone who smokes in a car or in a designated area–a properly ventilated room or an outdoor pavillion away from the entrances, for example–does me no harm.
The questions here are how much danger does the object pose and how many legitimate uses are there for it. The more of the former and the fewer of the latter that exist, the more regulation makes sense and meets the needs of the individual in a society.
So what about small arms, in other words, weapons used by one person without the support of others? There is some play in the definition of the term, but we can explain what it means by examples: handguns, carbines, rifles, shotguns, knives, swords, and bows and arrows. (I don’t include grenades and missle launchers [see above].) What about them?
The danger that these weapons pose is one-on-one. They are used by one person against one other person at a time. (Yes, bullets can go through one target to another, but the point generally remains.) A firearm that is fully automatic (firing rounds until the trigger is released) can spray a lot of lead, but again, the effect is small in number. In addition to this practical limitation, the vast majority of gun owners never use rapid fire to harm innocents. Outrages such as the one that happened in Tucson are so rare as to be extraordinary. Most gun owners are responsible, and even more of them want to stay out of prison. Yes, firearms deaths every year are too high, but if you check the numbers as I did in an earlier article, you will see that they are small, compared to other common dangers, including tobacco.
There are also many legitimate uses for small arms. Even the Brady Campaign recognizes sport shooting as acceptable. Their attacks are against weapons that have “no legitimate sporting purpose.” But sporting doesn’t just mean hunting or paper target shooting. Some of us enjoy popping soda bottles on the range. Some of us just like the noise that rapid fire creates. Nothing is wrong with any of this, so long as we have a safe backstop for the bullets. Shooting is fun, and that’s a safe usage.
Some people use firearms to gather food. I do realize that most Americans get their daily sustenance from the grocery store, but there are still many who need a gun to put food on the table. On this site,
I read a claim that Indians in the American Southwest are an example of this. The writer argues that a semiautomatic carbine like the SKS is an effective deer-hunting tool and can also be used against feral dogs. Someone who belives that killing animals is always wrong can argue against this particular position, but if you eat meat or wear leather, the question that we’re actually debating is who will do the killing.
Then there’s self defense. Here again, we have to ask whether gun ownership opponents believe that it is my right to defend myself against violent attack. A pacifist can make the argument that firearms ought to be banned, although to be consistent, that person must oppose the military and police having such weapons. But if you believe that self defense is legitimate, while you oppose tools that make such defense practical, I have to wonder about your sense of realism.
Apply again the test that I named above: dangers and uses. The dangers of small arms are few, and the rightful uses are many. While I believe in the right to own, carry, and use small arms on the basis of natural human rights, what I am claiming here is that there is also a good utilitarian argument for them.
The question now is what we believe about human beings. Are we generally good and trustworthy, with a few bad actors, or are we fundamentally evil? Advocates for democracy must believe the former, and broad acceptance of rights and freedoms is necessary for a democratic society.