“There is no delusional idea held by the mentally ill which cannot be exceeded in its absurdity by the conviction of fanatics either individually or en masse.”–Lazare Hoche.
Have I been angry about guns for too long? Is it time to put aside those feelings and work together with responsible gun owners for sensible gun reform? Isn’t it just too much to call firearms owners inherently irresponsible? To refuse to visit the homes of loved ones who refuse to lock up their weapons?
What about David French’s recent story in The Atlantic, in which the senior writer for National Review argues that carrying a gun ties him closer to his community? French begins with a scary story: man approaches his wife while she is in the yard playing with the kids on their trampoline. He wears an empty holster. He demands to see her husband, who is not at home. The police are far away and the woman forgot her gun inside. What is she supposed to do?
Well, she defused whatever “situation” that French doesn’t explain happens by talking to him. So, talking worked.
But it might not have, French implies. She might have needed to kill someone.
French believes that his life is frequently in danger. He writes:
In just the last five years, we’ve faced multiple threats—so much so that neighbors have expressed concern for our safety, and theirs. They didn’t want an angry person to show up at their house by mistake. We’ve learned the same lesson that so many others have learned. There are evil men in this world, and sometimes they wish you harm.
French is right. There are bad people in the world. They do bad things. But Clutter-style murders, in which a random bad guys murder you in your sleep, are very rare. Murders generally happen in networks. You are far more likely to be murdered if someone you know has been murdered.
French’s wife’s violent ex-boyfriend is a danger, as men who commit domestic violence are at increased risk of becoming murderers. French gives us a description of his wife being choked by her former boyfriend, suggesting that carrying a gun would protect women from such violence. The evidence suggests otherwise. The presence of a gun in a relationship where there is domestic violence simply increases the risk of death for the victim. Women who buy guns to protect themselves from violent partners are shot by those guns.
French’s argument is meant to invoke our empathy. Here is a good guy, a reasonable person, who just wants to protect his family. He buys a gun and trains to use it; he takes this seriously. He also discovers a community–a word that liberals love, right?–of others who come together around this issue. At the end, you might be convinced that French’s effort to normalize carrying a gun while on a trampoline is as much as an act of caring for his community as is helping to build a handicap accessible playground.
It’s not. Look at his argument again.
His wife was playing with their kids on the trampoline, which, like other kinds of “attractive nuisances” (such swimming pools), requires extra insurance (which may be denied to the homeowner) and should be made inaccessible to children. Should she have had her gun on her while on the trampoline or taken it off and put it down (where?) while she played? Whose lives would have been endangered if she kept it on? Whose lives would have been endangered if she placed it on a nearby picnic table?
A stranger comes to the house, and he is carrying an empty holster.
Why does this scare French? He lives in Tennessee, he tells us, where both conceal and carry and open carry are legal. Does he think that a person with an empty holster is a danger?
His fear illustrates the point of all of us who oppose handguns feel: We can’t tell if someone is dangerous if they are open-carrying. I don’t know if the man behind me at the convenience store is going to rob the place or just always brings his gun with him when he buys Twizzlers and a gallon of milk. I long for the days where someone walking around with a gun was announcing himself as a danger. Now I just have to be scared of everyone.
Above, a political cartoon shows a sea of armed people, each pointing their guns at each other. One man says, “Okay, can we at least agree… that we all feel safer?”
French doesn’t get to invoke his fear of seeing someone who has an empty holster as a reason for him to get to carry a gun. Gun advocates like French are the ones who gave us laws that say that carrying a gun in public is a-okay. In a piece in National Review, he argues that we shouldn’t call such gun owners cowards, but what is it other than cowardice to support laws that put more guns in more hands, then say that you are afraid of the people who have guns? In another piece, French argues discusses how how deliberately states in public that his family is well-equipped with guns, even bragging on his child’s ability to use an AR15. (Reminder: Most school shooters learn to shoot their AR15s at home; it’s not video games, it’s a culture that tells kids models violence and a society that trains and arms children.) This violates one of those rules of “responsible gun ownership”–that gun owners should “fly under the radar.” Don’t put a decal on your pickup or the door of your house. That just lets criminals know that they can steal your guns when you’re not home, sending more guns into the hands of those bad guys that French fears. (That French does so should tell you he is not “well-trained” but just confident, which are too measurably different things, often in an inverse relationship.)
French’s thinking has made the world more dangerous, and then he asks us to trust him that the solution is adding the very thing that makes the world more dangerous: guns wielded by overconfident people.
Recently Joel shared a post in which he noted that it is different orientations toward communities that shape our attitudes about guns. Those who prefer hierarchies and individualism like ’em. Those who prefer community and responsibility to others don’t. (This is why French’s piece in The Atlantic might make your progressive heart melt for a moment. He got a community of gun-loving friends out of it!) I think that’s a smart assessment, and it’s also why fighting against guns requires change that is both cultural and societal.
But, in the end, those orientations aren’t facts. The facts are very clear: more guns endanger us more. No reputable scientific, scholarly research from any field–criminology, mental health, sociology, psychology–argues otherwise. There is simply no evidence that handguns keep us as a community or you as an individual safer. (Arguing that gun ownership has increased while crime has fallen is not a counterargument to this because we don’t know how much more crime would have fallen if we had fewer guns out there. It’s like if you eat a diet of nothing but Oreos and exercise 8 hours a day. You will probably lose weight, but not as much as if you’d not been putting Oreos INTO the system.)
The facts are this: If you own a gun, you are more likely to die by a gun as well as by other forms of violence. You are more likely to cause the accidental death of someone else. You are more likely to commit suicide or have a suicide in the home. You are not safer.
But what about the individual? Couldn’t David French be the exception, like that guy you once heard about who died BECAUSE he was wearing his seatbelt? Couldn’t the fact that a bunch of people in the alt-right really hate French and have it out for him mean he’s safer with a gun than without?
Sure, right. The rules of actuary science aren’t like the laws of physics. There are exceptions. But even if French’s life is being protected, not risked, by his gun ownership (and his bragging about his gun ownership), he is imposing a risk on the rest of us. If David French and I are in a room together, if he is carrying a gun, I’m in more danger than if he were not. I argue that it’s not within his rights to increase this danger to me without my permission (which is why I oppose conceal and carry–because I am unable to discern the level of danger others pose to me when I can’t know if they are carrying guns).
And gun fetishists all believe they are exceptional. Sure, police officers (who train a lot more than your average or even above-average handgun owner) miss their target almost 90% of the time, but we are told to believe that Mrs. French would have hit hers. Sure, AR15s overpenetrate,* making killing your target easy but not killing the man innocently watering his yard behind your target hard, but somehow, your teenager, whose brain can’t accurately predict the stopping distance of a car on a slick road, is going to handle that weapon just fine. Sure, even the majority of kids who have been trained not to touch guns do just that, but your child, waiting his turn for the trampoline, won’t pick up that handgun your wife put by the grill.
Gun fetishists believe that they are somehow stronger, faster, smarter than guns–and their targets. But they aren’t. The evidence is in. Believing that you are safer with a gun is a delusion. Widespread belief that more guns make a safer society is the kind of “mental illness” (as Hoche says) that will kill us all.
But worse than the delusion of gun fetishists’ belief that guns make them safer is their belief, which is the heart of French’s essay, that their feelings of safety matter more than the actual bodies of other people.
What an entitled position that is.
And what cowards we all are, for letting children face lethal violence at school so that gun owners can feel better.
*Yes, I know they overpenetrate less than some pistols, but your neighbor does not really care whether your teen accidentally shoots him with pistol or a AR15. He would prefer not to die. And, no, hollowpoint bullets are not a real answer to this problem, as you will find yourself realizing as soon as your toddler puts one in his sister.