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January 18th, 2013

Speaking For Myself

Josh Marshall posts a letter from, as he puts it, the Non-Gun People…

Speaking for My Tribe

I’ve been thinking of writing some version of this post since the days immediately after the Newtown shootings. It overlaps with but is distinct from the division between people who are pro-gun or anti-gun or pro-gun control or anti-gun control. Before you even get to these political positions, you start with a more basic difference of identity and experience: gun people and non-gun people.

So let me introduce myself. I’m a non-gun person. And I think I’m speaking for a lot of people.

It’s customary and very understandable that people often introduce themselves in the gun debate by saying, ‘Let me be clear: I’m a gun owner.’

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…

Go read the whole thing.  This is the kind of conversation I have been wanting this country to have about guns. Marshall recognizes there is a cultural element…a Tribal element…to it, that makes communication among the factions hard. He’s reaching in to examine how that tribalism is making it hard both for him, and for those he lumps into the Gun Culture, to talk to each other.  This is good.  Before you can fix a problem, you need to understand it.  You can’t make policy in a democracy when people can’t talk to each other.  Well…you can…but not good policy.

And here I would like to put down my first marker sign: For all the same reasons I cannot speak for Gay People, though I am a gay man myself, I cannot speak for this Gun Culture he speaks of, though I own guns, though I take pleasure in shooting them, though I believe the second amendment confers a right to the people, not just to well regulated militias.  I suspect he’s talking about a stereotype.  I actually can speak to how that works; there are gay males who outwardly seem to fit perfectly the Hollywood/FRC/NOM flaming swishy limp-wristed lisping girly boy club haunting faggot. But a stereotype like a shade of skin or a religious belief does not tell you anything about the person within, nor does knowing that a person is gay, or Asian, or Muslim, necessarily tell you anything about the person within.  People look to stereotypes for justification, not clarity.  I don’t have a gay lifestyle simply because I am gay any more than I have a gun culture because I own a gun.  I have a life.  But try to tell that to someone who can’t see the people for the homosexuals.  And if by gun culture Marshall means he doesn’t want the lunatic right running roughshod over him…hello…I don’t want them running roughshod over me either.

This is good:

More than this, I come from a culture where guns are not so much feared as alien, as I said. I don’t own one. I don’t think many people I know have one. It would scare me to have one in my home for a lot of reasons…

He goes on to say that in the current climate people seem reluctant to say they think guns are scary and they don’t want to be around them.  That’s one big part of the problem we have talking to each other about guns.  Not the guns are scary part so much though.  Guns are dangerous.  They have to be.  They’re weapons.  It is not completely irrational to be afraid of them.  Point of fact, I would say it’s irrational to be absolutely unafraid.  Some degree of fear that isn’t immobilizing is a good thing if it reminds you to pay attention.  I am afraid of my table saw, I’ve witnessed a table saw nearly slice someone’s hand off.  Every time I step up to mine to do some work I pause and reflect on what can happen if I am not careful.  Will this be the time it happens…? Same thing with my guns.  Every time I lay a hand on one of mine I pause and think.  This thing could kill someone.  And even more so than the table saw…Much more so…the gun is a weapon; it is supposed to be dangerous.  The table saw is dangerous, but that is not its purpose.  The gun’s purpose Is to be dangerous.

There is a completely logical connection between Gun and Dangerous.  They are weapons.  It is not naive to be afraid of guns.  People should not be reluctant to say so in this conversation.  It isn’t naive and it isn’t simplistic.  It’s a completely normal reflex to have about weapons.  If anything it is naive to expect people’s fears not to be a part of this conversation.  Where fear mucks it up is when it gets in the way of knowledge and understanding.  This is the sort of thing that really irritates the hell out of me, and I suppose most people who have experience with firearms:

But remember, handguns especially are designed to kill people. You may want to use it to threaten or deter. You may use it to kill people who should be killed (i.e., in self-defense). But handguns are designed to kill people. They’re not designed to hunt. You may use it to shoot at the range. But they’re designed to kill people quickly and efficiently.

Charitably, this is the sort of rhetoric that comes from “…a culture where guns are not so much feared as alien.”  Uncharitably it is manipulative rhetoric, and the sort of thing that quickly destroys trust that the conversation is being held in good faith.  Handguns are not designed to kill people.  A soldier’s rifle is designed to kill people.  By nature and design a handgun is a defensive weapon.  It has not the range, the accuracy or firepower of a long gun.  It’s useful as a defensive weapon for the person holding it and that’s about it.  The only instance where a handgun can function as an aggressive weapon is where an attacker knows their victims are unarmed and unsuspecting.  But if the complaint about handguns is they’re more easily concealed, which makes it easier for an assailant to get close enough to be dangerous, I have a photograph I took back in the 1970s, a couple days after a period of unrest in Washington D.C., of a group of youths, one of whom was carrying a sawed off shotgun under a very lightweight jacket.  He was holding onto it through a hole in one pocket.  You would never have known he had it on him until he swung it up in your face.  All it takes to make a long gun easily concealable is a hacksaw, and then you have a weapon of much greater force than any handgun.  I own a 30-30 lever action rifle, the bullets it throws bear more force than the ones coming out of Dirty Harry’s 44 magnum, and it is an old cartridge design…the first meant for smokeless powder.  Long arms are aggressive weapons.  Handguns are defensive weapons.  That is their nature.

And here’s where tribalism and the stereotype of the Gun Nut and Gun Culture get in the way of communication.  Just my saying these things makes me a gun nut in some people’s regard and their eyes glaze over.  I know too much about guns to be a normal person.  I must be an NRA goon.  But no…I simply enjoy shooting.  I enjoy it enough that I have become familiar with guns.  I appreciate that some folks simply don’t want anything to do with guns, but a big part of the problem of having this conversation is people talking past each other and loosing trust.  You may not like guns, but when you say a handgun’s only purpose is killing people, those of us with experience with guns hear that as a backdoor argument for banning all guns.

We “gun people” should recognize that “non-gun people” have completely rational reasonable fears and issues with guns in the public spaces, and we should have those same issues actually.  Guns are dangerous.  “Non-gun people” need to get past their Gun Nut stereotypes.  I will admit that given the efforts of the NRA and Ted Nugent, that is very very difficult.  But we are not all of us unreachable on this issue.

I don’t hunt…did it long ago to get it out of my system, to see and understand those ancient passions within me, so they would never take me by surprise.  So…been there, done that.  I don’t shoot because I want to kill anything.  But I went to the range with my brother last month while I was visiting, and enjoyed myself thoroughly all the same.  It isn’t always about blood lust.  In fact, for a lot of us I would imagine, it’s about that eminently human joy in wielding fire.  I enjoy firecrackers and lightning storms and watching Myth Busters blow things up too.  I don’t go out to the range with those human silhouette targets you often see…I hate silhouette targets.  I am not about killing things.  I am precision hurling little slugs of lead at unreasonable velocities with the fire in my hands.  The targets my brother and I practiced on that day were round metallic bulls-eyes of various diameters, placed at various distances.  You could hear it when you hit them, and there were several sets with very small round metal dots you had to hit to flip up, and when you got them all flipped up there was one square one at the end you hit to drop them all back down again.  I was pleased to find that even with guns that were not my own but my brother’s, I was pretty good at hitting things squarely.

I think it’s fun.  Your mileage may vary and that’s fine.  But yes, there is another aspect to all this gun play that is serious and needs to be talked about among us Americans, and that is that guns are weapons, they are dangerous, and while I recognize an obligation to my neighbor’s safety and to the common welfare, I also believe I have a right to defend myself from violent attack, and that means I must also have the right to possess the tools to do that.  I don’t ever want to be put into that position, Atrios’ comment that all gun owners have vigilante dreams is ignorant.  When I think about what I might have to do with one of my guns I think about how to prevent it from getting that far.  I have a household alarm system, we have a neighborhood watch, and this kid who was bullied all through junior high stays alert when he’s out and about because keeping my eyes open for trouble was drilled into me long, long ago.  But there it is…that irreducible bottom line.  I have a life, I’d like to hold onto it a while longer thank you.  I have a right to bear a weapon in self defense.  But I completely agree that right is not unconditional.  There is always that little matter of the common welfare.  Public spaces, convey public obligations.

Arguments about the meaning of the second amendment are not trivial, but there is a point being missed when cardboard revolutionaries yap about private ownership of guns balancing the power of the state against the individual.  No.  The ballot box is our protection, our check against the power of the state. Those who advocate the gun over the ballot box betray the American Dream.  That is the old way of kings and armies and strongmen, not the way of democracy.  But there is another argument to be made here.  If I am not allowed the means to defend myself, if I must instead rely on the state, utterly, to defend me, then I am not so much a citizen, as a subject.  I don’t think you can get many people to buy into that notion, hence the effort to convince people that owning a gun makes them less safe.  Yes, yes…and owning an automobile makes you less safe too if you don’t bother learning to drive.

If you want to argue that police are trained in the use of firearms why shouldn’t anyone who wants to own a gun also have to go through training…I would agree with you.  If you want to argue that you need a license to drive a car, why not also license gun owners…I would agree to a point.  When you take your car onto the public roads, the public has every reasonable right to require you to demonstrate you know how to drive safely before you’re allowed on the highways so that you are not a danger to others.  Public spaces convey public obligations.  No man is an island on I-95.  The same can be said for bearing a gun in the public space.  First prove you know how to handle a gun safely.  First prove you understand the relevant laws.  I could be convinced that training on gun safety, and demonstrating an understanding of it before a purchase is allowed is reasonable.  I think licensing carrying a gun in public the same way we license automobile drivers is completely reasonable.  I agree there are public spaces where guns simply should not be allowed, period.  Like…oh…courthouses…hospitals…Schools.  I get that urban crime argues for carry permits, but I also get (and I think my fellow gun-people need to get) that densely populated zones aren’t swell places for firefights to break out.  It does not greatly bother me that I can’t carry a gun on the streets of New York City.  What I don’t find reasonable is the position that since guns are dangerous nobody should be allowed to have them.  And what I don’t get is why this became a left verses right argument.  The welfare of the common man and woman is not greatly improved by rendering them defenseless.

If Marshall wants to draw a distinction here, I would suggest a more useful one than between non-gun people and gun people, is that between democrats and oligarchs, between those of us who believe in that liberty and justice for all thing and those who think the world would be a fine place if the everyone knew their place.  Yes, yes…free people own guns…but not because they own guns but because they are free.  And free people cast ballots too.  Ask some of the people busy waving their guns around since Sandy Hook if they believe in the right to vote.  Then ask them what they think of all the voter suppression that went on in the last election. There’s your problem.  I saw it driving through Texas last month, on the way to California, in literally dozens and dozens of billboards advertising military style and SWAT firearms.  This business about “assault weapons” is mostly misdirected, but contains an element of common sense: the difference between a six or seven round clip and a hundred round clip is the difference between a weapon of self defense and an weapon of aggression.  In my opinion you can draw a line between them, on the basis that self defense is a right and aggression isn’t.  But there are those who do not accept that aggression is not a right.  Not all of those are criminals in the usual sense.

There’s the problem.  This argument isn’t about guns.  The violence racking our country isn’t about guns.  It’s about “Who is my neighbor?”  It’s about the culture war.  It’s about tribe.  Guns Don’t Matter.  Some nights I fear we are working ourselves up to another civil war.  What matters is that Americans can’t look into each other’s faces, and see a neighbor whose life is precious too. Guns Don’t Matter.

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