Here we are; a blog post about guns. It has been quite some time since I have updated my blog, and that’s for several different reasons. But now, unfortunately, circumstances have converged, and I feel compelled once again to write, to add my voice to the dialogue regarding gun laws. Sometimes what holds me back from writing is the belief I have nothing particularly new or thoughtful to add to the discussion, and I definitely will not claim to have come up with anything original here. You may have seen or read all of this before, though perhaps not in one place and not laid out like this. However, I’m okay with that. This time, I’m writing because I want to, because seeing everything written out in front of me can feel cathartic and give me the illusion of control. It’s probably kinder than engaging in random arguments on social media, and probably easier on my throat than screaming into a pillow.
So, herein, I share some of my thoughts on guns. To begin, I should offer some caveats. I know very little about guns. I have never owned, fired, or even held a gun. I’ve rarely seen one in real life. I have no use and no desire for a gun. However, I don’t think that any of the points I make below rely on intimate knowledge of firearms. If I’m wrong, I invite you to let me know. Also, before you shut down, stop reading, and fire off a response about another leftist naively claiming all guns are bad or begging for big government to take all the guns away, here me loud and clear: this blog post is not that. This is not an anti-gun diatribe crafted by someone too blind to see that guns can play an important role as a tool used for different purposes. I know people who own guns for what I think are very reasonable uses, such as self-defense and hunting. I seek to be non-violent and a pacifist, but I respect someone’s choice to be able to defend themselves. I don’t hunt, but if you can feed yourself and your loved ones with a gun, more power to you. Also, I have no illusions that, given the history and culture of our nation, any attempt to take firearms away from people, no matter how well-intentioned, would result in a terrible mess that would be next to impossible to achieve and end very badly for most everyone. In short, taking guns away indiscriminately from the masses is not what I believe, and it is not what I am writing about here.
A TRAGEDY THAT DEMANDS A DISCUSSION
What I believe and what I am writing about starts with something I assume most all people can easily agree on: what happened at the school in Parkland, FL on February 14 is absolutely heart breaking. I weep for those impacted by this tragedy. Being a parent has opened my eyes to the ways in which the world can cruelly and unfairly, yet swiftly, inflict immeasurable pain on a person by harming their child. I pray for peace, for healing, and for love. Even if you don’t share my religious beliefs or think words alone are insufficient without some action, I hope that you can understand and share in my sentiment. I am naïve enough to believe there are still things that can almost universally unite us, common cause we all can make, even if it is simply in the sharing of grief and pain.
In that spirit, I also hope that most people agree that such heartache and pain should inspire in us much soul-searching and inquiry, “What, if anything, can be done to help prevent other families and friends, other communities across our country, from knowing such horror in the future?” To see a tragedy like this and shrug it off or ignore it, to not allow our hearts to break for what surely breaks God’s heart… I don’t believe that is the kind of people we want to be. Given the amount of discussion I have seen and heard on the matter, I think I am right. Whether with anger or love, thoughtfulness or impulsivity, wisdom or foolishness, people are engaging because it matters to them. Such senseless carnage begs some response.
What, precisely, that response should be is where things diverge. Some people see yet another shooting like this, and their reaction (like mine) is to suggest we need a change in our gun laws. Actually, I should say more than some, as a significant number of people want or support at least some change in our current gun regulations. Of course, this also means there are those who oppose this idea. And I just do not get it. I don’t believe they’re bad people. Human beings are complicated creatures, and when we start painting groups of people with broad strokes, characterizing them as the enemy because of one belief, assuming and saying the worst about them, we hurt us all.
THE POINT OF THIS BLOG POST
So, my intention here is not to attack anyone’s character, but to point out what I don’t understand about what I have seen offered up as arguments for why a shooting like that in Florida should not change our gun laws to make them more restrictive. I’m not a big fan of strawman arguments, and a blog post like this is definitely vulnerable to that, so if I err or misrepresent any of the arguments I discuss below, please let me know. As strongly as I feel, I hope I’m capable of engaging in a civil discourse, and I believe others can participate with me. I want to see people coming together on this, working towards a consensus, or at least a compromise. To seek that, I know I have to be willing to come to the table with an honest accounting of my views if I’m going to ask the same from others.
What follows, then, is a piece by piece series of common arguments against stricter gun laws that I have seen or heard, and my response to them. Certainly, this is not intended to exhaustive; these simple are some of the main points that appear to keep coming up.
THE 2ND AMENDMENT
Let’s start at the beginning, the bedrock foundation from which almost all arguments flow – the 2nd amendment. To make sure we’re all on the same page, you can find the exact wording here: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Some people, from this, defend the right to bear arms as something almost sacred because it is part of the Constitution (or, more accurately, the first 10 amendments to it). Right out of the gate, I have to say this argument strikes me as problematic because if we start viewing the Constitution and Bill of Rights as sacrosanct, we are in for trouble. The founders of our nation got a lot of things right and were some very wise people, but they were far from perfect, and no document they crafted almost 250 years ago should be viewed as so brilliant and timeless that it is flawless and cannot be improved. These are the same people who counted Black people in slavery as three-fifths of a person and did not give women the right to vote. They lived in a much different time, in which the 7th amendment makes clear that $20 was a big enough deal for a trial by jury. As I stated above, I am no firearms expert, but I am reasonably certain that the arms they had to bear in the 18th century look and function quantitatively, if not qualitatively, differently than the range of weaponry available to private citizens today. What I am not saying is that we should ignore the law or the Constitution. What I am saying is that stopping the discussion at the right to bear arms is protected by the 2nd Amendment, so therefore the conversation is over because that is an invincible idea that should brook no questioning, seems flawed. We have questioned the wisdom of plenty else that the founders wrote, interpreting it differently over time, and sometimes even changing it. We should be able to do the same here – not necessarily change it, but not assume that is it right simply because it is a part of the Constitution.
CRIMINALS DON’T FOLLOW LAWS, WE NEED GOOD GUYS WITH GUNS
Moving beyond “because the 2nd Amendment says so,” the next common argument against more restrictive gun laws that I often encounter is that such laws will do little or nothing because: a) criminals don’t follow the law and won’t be stopped by changes in it, therefore, b) the only way to really stop them is to allow people to be armed so that they may defend themselves, also known as the catchy jingle “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” This argument has two points, each with its own flaws worth addressing separately.
First, the claim that more restrictive gun laws have no impact on gun violence is demonstrably false. Multiple studies (for examples of more scholarly sources that often serve as the reference or citation for journalism on this topic, see this study in Epidemiologic Reviews, this annotated bibliography resource page from the Harvard School of Public Health, or this study published in the American Journal of Public Health) suggest that laws that restrict firearms reduce gun deaths (including intimate partner homicides and firearm unintentional deaths in children), whereas when there are more guns, there are more gun deaths. Of course, not everyone agrees on the research and precisely how to interpret it or what exactly it means, but it is hard to argue in the face of the evidence that gun laws do nothing. Some people may want to argue on a city by city basis, and opponents of gun laws love to cite cities like Chicago and its number of gun deaths, but this article from NPR nicely lays out why it is disingenuous and inaccurate to look at cities alone, or even states alone without account for neighboring states. Additionally, it would be wonderful if we had better data to work from, but thanks to restrictions Congress has placed on federal agencies in doing firearms research, we don’t. Of the best available evidence we do have, though, gun laws have a significant, positive impact.
Second, of the claim regarding good guys and bad guys with guns, I invite you to do something with me really quick. Off the top of your head, without using the internet for assistance, name as many specific instances of a non-law enforcement good guy with a gun successfully stopping a bad guy with a gun as you can. When you’re done, next name for me as many mass shootings as you can, again without any assistance. I am willing to guess many people will be able to name more of the latter than the former. That doesn’t necessarily prove much, as we could discuss media bias and availability heuristics. But it is something worth considering. More than that, though, the available evidence (including studies I included links to above) suggest that owning a gun is associated with increased risk of death, that is, owning a gun is associated with being less safe.
It is way beyond the scope of a blog post already spinning out of control in length, but I’ll also briefly mention that to safely wield a firearm in a high pressure situation, effectively rendering a threat neutralized while minimizing the risk to innocent bystanders and victims, is an incredibly difficult thing to do. This is precisely why police and military members go through such extensive training. If we’re going to rely on good guys with guns, we better be willing to train each and every one of them extensively if we realistically hope that they’ll be more than useless (or worse yet, actually harmful) in an emergency. And if we’re going to invest that level of time and resources, it is worth considering if there aren’t more effective, more practical options.
GUNS AREN’T THE PROBLEM, ___ IS THE REAL ISSUE
After the second amendment and suggesting criminals don’t follow laws so we need more guns, the next most common argument I have seen is one suggesting that guns are not the real problem, but rather ___ (e.g., evil, sin, mental illness, culture, not respecting the sanctity of life, music, movies, video games), and until we do something about ___ (if we even can), there is nothing we can do about gun deaths, and to try and regulate guns will be ineffective because it misses the point. In light of the above, this argument already seems somewhat flawed, in that the available evidence would suggest that, actually, we can do something that will help: change our gun laws to restrict access to guns. Additionally, this type of argument seems to treat the issue falsely as an either/or – either guns are the problem, or something else, and we can only pick one to do something about. However, I think many people who would like to see gun violence decreased by changing guns laws do not magically believe that the problem is so simple and can be fixed with gun laws alone. We also believe that gun violence is a multifactorial problem that, to be adequately addressed, needs efforts in multiple domains. So, why not do both – directly address gun laws AND address other causes (to the degree the evidence suggests they actually impact gun violence)? I don’t see these as being mutually exclusive paths of action, so even if I agree with you that mankind is fallen and has a sin problem (which I do believe), that doesn’t preclude me from also believing that in addition to changing hearts for Jesus, we can also change gun laws to help reduce gun violence.
To even more specifically address a couple of these words/phrases that fill in the blank above, though, I want to focus on two that stand out to me the most: sin/evil and mental illness. The sin/evil position usually comes across as evil has always existed and people have always killed each other, long before guns even existed, and so if people want to hurt each other, they will, whether they use a gun or any other instrument. So, why bother passing laws to stop the unstoppable, the inevitable result of evil/sin being in the world? My main beef with this position is that it would seem to me that, if we take this argument out to its logical conclusion, there would be little point in almost any law, as it seems like it would just as easily fit to say, “Why make more laws about theft? People have been stealing since the beginning of time; that’s why there is a commandment against it. People always have stolen and always will, and no law is going to stop that.” My secondary problem with this is that, yes, you can kill someone with almost any instrument if you’re determined enough; the variety of weapons manufactured in prison are a good example. However, in terms of speed and lethality, of all the things available to civilians, it is pretty hard to top a gun. Would many people who have committed mass killings at least have still injured or killed some people if they’d been forced to use a knife, or even a revolver, instead of an AR-15? Sure, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me it would be nearly as many deaths. In fact, if the world is so full of evil and sin, why would it be a good idea to give people easy access to firearms that can be wielded so quickly and impulsively with such deadly, permanent results? And finally, if the issue is sinfulness and evil, and guns aren’t truly the issue, would we expect to see a more even distribution of these deaths throughout the world? Why, then, does the USA rate so much higher in homicides, particularly gun homicides, than other economically similar nations?
As for mental health or mental illness, as a mental health professional, I am always in favor of funding more mental health treatment. But, that has very little connection with gun violence and mass killings. Looking at work in the Annals of Epidemiology and with the American Psychiatric Association, we can see that most people with mental illness are not violent, and people with mental illness account for less than 3% of all violent crime (with an even smaller percentage contributing to gun violence). People with mental illness are at an increased risk for suicide, but the issue of mental illness, suicide, and guns is a topic in and of itself worthy of its own blog post. Let’s just leave it at saying that we can and should provide better mental health care, but that alone is not going to make a big dent in gun violence. And, again, rates of mental illness in the United States versus other nations would not adequately explain alone our significantly higher number of gun homicides. Simply put, it is inaccurate to say the real problem when gun violence happens is mental illness.
WHAT ABOUT MOTOR VEHICLES
Another point I often hear people make is that motor vehicles are responsible for many more deaths per year than firearms, so they facetiously suggest that those who wish to outlaw guns, if their wish simply is to save lives, should outlaw cars as well. First, this is a false equivalency, in that many people looking for changes in gun laws don’t want guns outlawed or banned. What we do want is restricted access and tighter regulations. Second, cars already are highly regulated, and when things like seatbelt laws and speed limits are enforced, the number of traffic fatalities goes down. So, invoking motor vehicles make actually make the opposite point – we have experience taking something and passing laws and regulations to help reduce injuries and fatalities associated with it. Also, a majority of Americans NEED to use a motor vehicle in their daily lives; they have become ingrained in the fabric of our lives. They have the unfortunate by-product of fatalities, but this is not something we shrug our shoulders and accept. We DO things to help make vehicles safer, including passing laws.
We see the same thing with air travel – an unavoidable part of life for many Americans. Here, all it took was one time for people to use airplanes as weapons in 2001, and we developed a whole new world of regulations about airport and flight security. I don’t know too many people who like needing to allow 2 hours for making it through airport security, who enjoy taking off their shoes and getting body scans, but we accept it as something designed to help reduce risk. The point here I am trying to make is simply that if we accept that laws and regulations that can serve as an inconvenience but help save lives make sense for the necessities of motor vehicles and air travel, why can we not accept this for firearms?
So, there you have it, my run through of my problem with many of the arguments opposing the passage of gun legislation. I certainly do not have all the answers, and I definitely do not know what the best gun laws would look like. I am confident that passing such laws, based on the evidence we have available, would help reduce the number of gun deaths, which I believe is a worthy goal. This is the part where I think it is so important to have different people at the table, including people who know and use guns, who can provide accurate guidance on which types of guns can meet the needs of people who wish to hunt or defend themselves, and which guns might be better left out of the hands of untrained civilian. We need statisticians and epidemiologists to help us know what are the highest yield risk factors for gun violence, and how we might best utilize that information. We need mental health professionals, both to reduce the tiny number of cases of gun violence attributable to mental illness, as well as to help those who survive such tragedies. In short, we need a lot of people at the table.
The problem is complex, with no easy solution. To suggest that gun laws alone will entirely fix the problem would be inaccurate and misguided. However, to suggest they have no part whatsoever to play also seems equally inaccurate and misguided. Instead of being wrong and divided, my sincere hope and prayer is we can be united to be right together.
God bless you for taking the time to read my entire post and share in my thinking.