The Gun Control Debate: Assumption, Generalization, and Emotion
by Hal Baker
A sad reality of life is that those who are hell bent on destruction will find a way to destroy. As a result, we are left sitting in the fog of confusion that always follows tragedy. Beyond the fog, there is always an uproar from the media, politicians, and a portion the general populace crying for the government to do more to protect us. Following 9/11, fear drove us to seek out and support the creation of the often under-trained, misguided TSA. Further, the PATRIOT Act was successfully sold to the public as beacon of security and hope, not as the systematic removal of some of our basic liberties. Now, the United States has been confronted with another tragedy. This was not a characteristic terrorist attack or an overt act of war, it was a manifestation of evil that took the lives of the innocent and defenseless. In this time of pain, mourning, and reflection, many are searching for a way to end this madness, they are crying for government protection in the form of gun control.
Gun control is one of the issues most people tend to steer clear of bringing up in polite conversation. On each side of the aisle one can generally find near fanatical ramblings, usually pock marked with incomplete descriptions of, or simply inaccurate statistics, incorrect use of technical terms, and anger. When this is the state of the discussion, how can anyone believe that we are moving toward a sane solution to gun violence? The reality is that the foundation of the discussion has been built on assumption, generalization, and emotion. A perfect example of this foundation may be found in Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's (D-NY) discussion of her proposed assault weapons ban which would have regulated weapons featuring a barrel shroud. When pressured to explain what a barrel shroud is, McCarthy stated "I actually don't know what a barrel shroud is, I believe it is the shoulder thing that goes up."1 For reference, a barrel shroud is a covering meant to protect the operators hand from the extreme heat of the barrel. It does not attach to the shoulder in any way and it does not go up. The fact of the matter is, not even our legislators are sure of what they are trying to legislate. The only fix I am aware of for assumption, generalization, and emotion is education.
No academic in her right mind would wander into an intellectual discussion without first having done research on the issue at hand. Why then are people so comfortable discussing gun control without even a cursory examination of the history of the Second Amendment or the technical aspects of the guns to be regulated? If I could answer that question, it's unlikely I would be writing this essay right now. Unfortunately, because I cannot explain why people enter into an argument without the requisite knowledge, I am left to attempt to address the research deficit. The focal point of introductory research into the Second Amendment should be history. Why does the Second Amendment exist and what did the architects of our society believe about weapons?
There are two quotes which immediately come to mind when thinking of the Second Amendment. The first is the second half of the Second Amendment itself, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."2 The second comes from Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, stating that "[t]he strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."3 In concert, these two quotations need little explanation. The Second Amendment exists not only so that we may protect ourselves from those who would do personal evil against us, not so that we may hunt deer during one season each year, and not so that we may have shooting competitions. The Second Amendment exists so that we may protect ourselves against domination and oppression. To willingly give up the protection of the Second Amendment is to consent to tyranny. If one would argue that the Second Amendment is too old, they argue, by extrapolation, that the rest of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution are too old. If one would argue that the Second Amendment was simply a mistake, or was misguided, it's unlikely that even the most skillfully crafted essay will sway their opinion. The final argument may then be that the architects of America simply could not have known the destructive power that would be unleashed with modern weapons. Again, by extrapolation, this argument would apply to the First Amendment. There is no way that the founders could have foreseen our consistent use of hateful and inflammatory languagewhich is quite often used in arguments about gun controlwhich can be seen by much of the world near instantaneously.
There is no question that modern weapons can cause destruction on a massive level. The early-middle 20th century gave rise to nuclear weapons, devastating chemical weapons, and the ubiquitous Avtomat Kalashnikova, better known as the AK-47. I would hazard a guess that there was no person alive on December 15, 1791 (the date the Bill of Rights was ratified) who could have imagined anything similar to those weapons. That being said, it is important to note that our founders placed no limitations on the weapons of the day. Cannons, early grenades, and grape shot were never unsuccessful weapons. Each was used masterfully to engineer death, much the same as the weapons of today. In the hands of a person who could operate such weaponry, scores of men and women could be killed. Yet, even with the knowledge of the existence of such destructive power, our founders did not seek to limit access to such weapons. Even though they never saw an AK-47, the founders allowed the most destructive devices of the day to be owned and operated by private citizens. It's difficult, if not impossible, to discount such a choice as short sighted or as lacking imagination. These men were brilliant, calculating, and created one of the finest legal and political systems of all time. To suggest that they did not know what they were doing by crafting such a right would be foolish. Still, there are many who would discount the foresight of the founders and who would point only to the existence of today's guns, as though no other discussion need be had.
What makes a gun deadly? It's not the firing pin striking the primer, igniting the powder, creating pressure inside the confines of the casing and then barrel, propelling the bullet forward and out of the barrel on the way to its ultimate target. No, what makes a gun deadly is the person who operates it. Human ingenuity combined with a desire to kill is what leads to massacres like that at Sandy Hook Elementary. Alone, a gun is no more than an expensive, over engineered paperweight. In order to become a destructive device, the gun must be loaded, the action cocked, and finally the trigger must be depressed in order to even begin the train of events described above. Beyond that, the sights must be properly aligned, the grip must be sufficient, the trigger pressure must be smoothly applied, and any number of additional factor must come together in near perfect harmony. In the abstract, there is no difference here between an AK-47 and a Brown Bess musket. Throughout history, the common denominator in killing has been the actor, not the tool. As philosopher Seneca said, "a sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer's hand."4
It would be negligent to end a gun control discussion without addressing the technological aspect of today's guns. To do so would leave a gaping hole in the argument, one which could be filled with anything from barrel shrouds to shoulder things that go up. Because the topic is so broad, and often difficult to understand, I will simply address some of the common elements that are criticized by the media.
First, high capacity magazines. From the very beginning, one should notice that I did not use the word "clip." The majority of the time, those who seek to ban high capacity magazines refer to them as something they are not, a clip. The two terms are not interchangeable outside of video games. A magazine is a device which, at its most basic level, stores and feeds ammunition into a firearm. Magazines come in a variety of sizes depending on the specific gun they're to be used with. So called high capacity magazines seem to be attacked because they allow an operator to fire for a longer period of time before reloading. What's not addressed is that with minimal training, a person can change magazines in a negligible time. Using an arbitrary but easily attainable two second reload time, the reduction from 30 round magazines to 10 round magazines, as is often called for, simply adds four seconds to the time required to fire 30 rounds. Four seconds total is not likely to be enough time for a victim to escape or for someone to attempt to defeat the attacker. The weapons and the magazines they use already exist in the millions, and to restrict them would only serve to deny law abiding citizens the chance to match criminals in terms of capacity and reload time. There is little that an unarmed and otherwise defenseless person can do to stop an attack, regardless of the reload time.
Second, a pistol grip on semi-automatic rifles. Some of the most successful rifles of all time do not feature a pistol grip. As a point of reference, in August, 1966, Charles Whitman killed 16 people and injured 32 from his perch atop a tower at the University of Texas. In his arsenal, Whitman did not have a single rifle with a pistol grip.
Finally, assault weapons themselves. In reality, there is no such thing as an assault weapon. The closest we have come to a designated assault weapon came from Nazi Germany in 1944. The weapon was the Sturmgewehr, which roughly translates to "storm (assault) rifle." Oddly enough, this weapon is never picture in the news or discussed by the politicians. Usually, the AR-15 and AK-47 satisfy the fluid definition of "assault weapon." Typically these weapons are semi-automatic (fully automatic versions have essentially been illegal since 1986) civilian versions of military weapons. They're most often used in sporting events, hunting, and by recreational shooters. Neither of these weapons were used at Columbine (which took place during the Federal Assault Weapons Ban) or Virginia Tech. At Sandy Hook, there have been conflicting reports about the type of weapons used. In any case, as horrible as some would have you believe these weapons are, they are not generally used to assault anything. The deadliest school massacre in U.S. history didn't use guns at all, the attacker used three homemade bombs to accomplish his goals. The Columbine shooters used shotguns, a pistol, and a small caliber rifle; the Virginia Tech shooter used two pistols, purchased 30 days apart; and the Sandy Hook shooter posessed two standard semi-automatic pistols (which he was too young to legally own) and an AR-15 (which he stole from his mother after murdering her). The link between all of these is not a gun, or type of gun - it is senseless violence.
So, what are we to do with all this? No discussion of history or technology will bring back the people lost to gun violence this year, nor will this discussion fill the voids left in the hearts of the families. So you may be asking, why address this issue at all? Because a knee-jerk reaction to tragedy is never appropriate. Because a fundamental lack of understanding leaves the gun control debate lost in assumption, generalization, and emotion. Because "[t]hose who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."5 Most importantly, because strict gun control only seeks to treat a symptom of the shootings. Guns did not cause the manifestation of evil. There is something much worse, and much more deadly left under the surface. I cannot say for sure that these killings are a symptom of bullying, societal depression, or some other defect of reason or empathy. What I can say for sure is, guns did not make these people kill. In the end, the killers will find a way to kill.
Gun control may give many people a way to calm their fears. They may sleep better at night believing that bad people will no longer have easy access to the tools of their destructive trade. Unfortunately, gun control is best described as what Bruce Schneier termed "security theater," meaning that the "countermeasures provide the feeling of security instead of the reality [of security]."6 Gun control may eliminate a tool of destruction but, in the absence of guns, homemade bombs and other destructive devices will be left to fill the void. The sword, gun, bomb, etc... will always be a tool of those who wish to do harm to others. Strict gun control serves only to keep guns, or specific pieces of guns, out of the hands of those who would otherwise use them legally. These shooters all violated numerous federal firearms regulations, murder statutes, and universal moral codes; the law meant nothing to them. So I beg that we stop crucifying guns and begin searching for a way to stop the people who would so callously take a life. So much time, energy, and resources have been wasted in the mission to destroy the gun. What could we do if we refocused the time, energy, and resources into detection and prevention of the criminal act, rather than the attempted prohibition of a criminal tool.
1. Carolyn McCarthy, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ospNRk2uM3U (last visited Dec. 17, 2012)
2. U.S. Const. amend. II
3. Strongest Reason for the People to...Keep and Bear Arms...(Quotation), Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/strongest-reason-people-tokeep-... (last visited Dec. 17, 2012).
4. Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 56 (E. Phillips Barker, 1932)
5. Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin 242 (Leonard W. Labaree ed., vol. 6, 1963).
6. Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World 38 (2003).