The Good Life and Gun Control
Like many of you, I’ve been horrified by the events in Newtown, and dismayed by the debate that has followed. Josh Marshall (at TPM) thinks that “this is quickly veering from the merely stupid to a pretty ugly kind of victim-blaming.” Naive realism, meet thy kettle! Contrary to what you’ll see on various liberal outlets, the NRA didn’t cause Adam Lanza to kill innocent children and adults, nor did Alan Gura or the army of academics who helped to build the case for an individual right to gun ownership. Reading discussions on the web, you might come to believe that we don’t all share the goal of a society where the moral order is preserved, and where our children can be put on the bus to school without a qualm.
But we do.
We just disagree about how to make it happen.
Dan Kahan’s post on the relationship between “the gun debate”, “gun deaths”, and Newtown is thus very timely. Dan argues that if we really wanted to decrease gun deaths, we should try legalizing drugs. (I’d argue, following Bill Stuntz, that we also/either would hire many more police while returning much more power to local control). But decreasing gun deaths overall won’t (probably) change the likelihood of events like these:
“But here’s another thing to note: these very sad incidents “represent only a sliver of America’s overall gun violence.” Those who are appropriately interested in reducing gun homicides generally and who are (also appropriately) making this tragedy the occasion to discuss how we as a society can and must do more to make our citizens safe, and who are, in the course of making their arguments invoking(appropraitely!) the overall gun homicide rate should be focusing on what we can be done most directly and feasibly to save the most lives.
Repealing drug laws would do more — much, much, much more — than banning assault rifles (a measure I would agree is quite appropriate); barring carrying of concealed handguns in public (I’d vote for that in my state, if after hearing from people who felt differently from me, I could give an account of my position that fairly meets their points and doesn’t trade on tacit hostility toward or mere incomprehension of whatever contribution owning a gun makes to their experience of a meaningful free life); closing the “gun show” loophole; extending waiting periods etc. Or at least there is evidence for believing that, and we are entitled to make policy on the best understanding we can form of how the world works so long as we are open to new evidence and aren’t otherwise interfering with liberties that we ought, in a liberal society, to respect.”
Dan’s post is trying to productively redirect our public debate, and I wanted to use this platform to bring more attention to his point. But, I think he’s missing something, and if you follow me after the jump, I’ll tell you what.
There’s a compelling scene in Batman: The Dark Knight which makes my point fairly well. The Joker is talking to Harvey Dent:
Joker: . . . Hmmm? You know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
People are upset about Newtown because violence in an elementary school, against children, just isn’t supposed to happen. It violates everything we hold sacred as a society. The gun violence that Kahan’s legalization proposal (and Stuntz’s localization hypothesis) would reduce, by contrast, is, in a sense, part of the plan. Gun violence has become tragic, but tragedies don’t motivate our Congress. You didn’t see the President call a press conference to demand immediate action for the 321 people killed this year in Philadelphia this year. People are panicked about Newtown, not least because living in a society that makes that kind of event routine is literally unthinkable. The more you consider the logic of which deaths count, the worse it gets. But it is what it is, and not addressing mass shootings like Newtown head-on sort of misses the point.
And so what solutions are on the table? What’s striking about the proposals offered by gun proponents (rush the shooter//more men//arm the teachers) is that they seem almost designed to frighten folks who aren’t of that particular cultural group, and surprisingly unaware of how they’ll be received. I didn’t grow up with guns in the house, and the idea of allowing a child of mine into a school where the teachers are armed is horrifying. Worse, I think, is the concept that we ought to militarize children – to teach them that they are all on their own, and the state is powerless before the forces of chaos in society. I know this appeals to some folks. Just not me. I’d be better off not knowing that this is something that particular communities are trying. It makes me feel like we’re less close as a society when I’m confronted with stark evidence of just how differently we see the world, at least when the proposals are framed as empirical propositions. And the same goes, conversely, for national proposals to regulate particular kinds of guns, especially when it’s pretty obvious that such regulation will have, at best, a marginal effect on rates of violence.
My intervention here is to just to point out that the problem we actually have here is one of discourse – we are forced by the Internet to nationalize problems. This makes it much, much harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order. If a community in, say, Connecticut wanted to ban assault weapon clips (because it made them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!), Glenn Reynolds would lead a charge against the liberal fascists. Indeed. Heh. Yes. If a community in Tennessee wants to arm its teachers (because it makes them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!) Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan would call them out as conservative fascists. Or loonies. Or winners of the Moore award. And we’d all get to pat ourselves on the back, but no one would actually get the benefit that law is supposed to provide, which is the helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are, and that we’re actually doing something to push back against the tide.
That is: a national conversation about guns and violence, facilitated and sped up by the internet, reduces our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminishes our capacity live together in peace.