The Wrong Answer
What makes a person deserve to die? And why are we focusing on gun control when the answer to this question is so much more problematic?
The death penalty is a thing that has existed for a long time. All the way back to the Bible, we have stories of people being executed for their crimes. Today, in America, it doesn’t exist in most places (though I think that has less to do with any humanitarian concerns and more with the economic ones of getting through the defendant’s multiple appeals in court). It’s a contentious topic that is still being debated today.
That’s not what we’re here to talk about.
No, today we’re here to talk about the other places where the death penalty can be imposed. We are here to talk about other actions that can result in your death, actions that result in someone deciding that they are justified in ending your life. The list is, unfortunately, rather long, and in fact it’s quite likely that you reading this article are guilty of some of these actions.
What are these actions? Why, attending school, of course — elementary, high or post-graduate. Or seeing a Batman movie. Or seeing an Amy Schumer movie. Or driving your car around Washington D.C. Or going to a nightclub. Or, in Las Vegas on Sunday October 1st, 2017, enjoying country music.
In America, we live in a society where all these things are punishable by death. And we know this to be true because people have been murdered doing them.
Now, of course, the situation is a little bit more complicated than that, because in all these incidents there was one more ingredient: an active shooter. A man, typically white, typically armed with automatic weapons, decided to carve out a name for himself in history using fire and blood. And, protected by his constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms, he went on to kill dozens of his fellow citizens.
And so we arrive back at our starting question. What do you have to do in America to deserve death?
GUNS AS A TRANSMUTIVE PROPERTY
The National Rifle Association, in addition to being the religious headquarters for plenty of gun nuts throughout America, is also a successful political lobby. They give money to lawmakers in exchange for favors rendered. Inevitably, these favors include the relaxing or abolishment of any restrictions on laws that determine who can own a gun, and how to obtain one — laws commonly referred to as gun control.
The NRA describe themselves as defenders of the Constitution. They have facts on their side in this case. It’s right there in the Second Amendment: “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.” Now, individual civilian gun owners can scarcely be described as a well-regulated militia, but the NRA typically go on to describe (what they perceive to be) the spirit of the law: American citizens must always have the ability to rise up and overthrow tyranny. Given America’s (perceived) beginnings as a rebellion against a tyrannical foreign government, this allows the NRA to associate themselves with the brave patriots who founded our nation.
(Not that the Founding Fathers’ intent really matters anymore. But that’s a different article.)
If you showed the Constitution to a visiting extraterrestrial, though, or an Amazon who had only just emerged from Themyscira, they probably have a single question for you. “What is a gun? Why is it so important that your nation’s Founding Fathers literally guaranteed everyone’s right to access one in their laws? (I mean, your laws didn’t even guarantee women and non-whites the right to participate in government for a hundred years or so; but these ‘gun’ things have been accessible from the start. According to your laws, they are literally more important than voting rights. What the heck are they?)”
The answer is simple: guns are tools that cause death.
This sounds simple and almost inconsequential, but it’s actually a significant development. If you look at the weapons wielded by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you will hear that most of them — the bo staff, nunchaku (which people call “nunchucks” when they can’t be bothered to look up the spelling) and sai — are farm implements that were repurposed for self-defense. Frankly, this has been true of most weapons throughout history; typically, only the privileged warrior class, be they Spartan citizens (80% of Sparta’s population was slaves), feudal knights or Meiji-era samurai, could afford swords. A knife can be used to cut and eat your food; a staff can help you walk, or to carry heavy loads; a spear can be used in hunting; a flail has use in threshing grain (this is a hypothesized origin for nunchaku, though the weapon does not have a clear etymology). But a sword has only one purpose: to hurt people.
And here is where we continue to draw a distinction. Swords only exist to hurt people, but hurting people is not killing. A trained swordsman can avoid taking life, and indeed most duels were fought to first blood instead of death. Obviously, a sword can be used to kill, but it can also be used in a non-lethal manner.
“Okay,” I hear you saying now. “That all makes sense. But I don’t see where you’re going with this. Swords can be used to injure. So how’s that different from a gun?” And on the surface, you seem to have a point. A sword is a tool with only one purpose, and so is a gun. But the purpose of those tools is different. A sword is for hurting people. A gun is for killing people.
According to who? Why, according to the NRA! They have very specific rules about gun safety and (in their favor) spend a fair bit of money and effort promoting the safe and intentional handling of firearms. In their training, they are very specific that a gun is for killing, and that it is unsafe to shoot something unless you specifically intend to kill or destroy it. Gun handlers, they mention specifically, should not attempt to inflict “flesh wounds,” because a gun cannot reliably accomplish this. Additionally, even if you do inflict a flesh wound, this leaves the assailant in a state you probably won’t like: still alive, even if only temporarily, and raring for revenge. For your own safety, you should shoot to kill. A gun’s only purpose is killing, and the NRA do not advise you to use them for any other purpose.
Therefore, whatever the original intent of the Second Amendment, it has a rather chilling side effect today: it makes it very, very easy for Americans to kill each other. “The right to murder your neighbor shall not be infringed upon.”
AMERICA: BORN IN BLOOD
I’ve quoted Robert Heinlein, particularly Starship Troopers, before. It’s jingoistic military propaganda, pure and simple, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some valid points to make. Here some students receive instruction from the teacher of their “History and Moral Philosophy” class.
One girl told him bluntly: “My mother said violence never solves anything.”
“So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”
They had tangled before — since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”
“You seemed to be unaware of it,” he said grimly. “Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue and thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never settles anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”
(Good lord, did Heinlein ever meet an adverb he didn’t like?)
Because Starship Troopers is jingoistic military propaganda, Dubois does not go on to make the point that violence is rarely the best way to solve anything, merely the easiest way. Fortunately, we have J. K. Rowling and Albus Dumbledore to make that point for us; even more fortunately, that’s not the point I want to talk about, so I don’t need textual support for it.
The point I want to talk about is that America, as a nation, has used violence to solve an awful lot of problems.
It started with Cristoforo Columbo, who enslaved and exploited the natives of Hispaniola; American settlers would continue to take advantage of indigenous tribes for centuries afterwards (Trail of Tears anyone?). The American Revolution started with “the shot heard ‘round the world” and ended with an upstart colony defeating the largest empire on the planet — not necessarily because the Americans were better soldiers (though they were certainly able to hold their own), but because it wasn’t worth the expense for Britain to keep hold of the place, especially not with other colonies like the Caribbean (three times wealthier than the Thirteen Colonies combined, and substantially smaller and thus easier to tax) still in its grasp. The violence of the American Civil War can be described in one statistic: more American soldiers died during it than in every other war in American history, combined. After that, we gained a reputation for saving the day through military intervention, first in The Great War and then during its sequel. We took this to heart during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and two wars in Iraq (leaving us with a success rate of about 25%). And even today we are known for having the largest military budget in the world— basically equal to that of the entire rest of the planet combined. America is here, and America is here to kill.
Now, the idea of America having, or needing, a military — or, indeed, the idea of America engaging in military action — does not make it unique. True, we fought in the Seven Years’ War, but Britain and France engaged in a Hundred Years’ War, a duration equal to 40% of America’s existence as a country. “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” as Carl von Clausewitz put it, and one could make an argument that a state isn’t really a state if it can’t declare war. Our business of displacing natives is also scarcely unique; our (spiritual) ancestor, Britain, itself had to bear the Anglo-Saxon migration that made it the nation it is today, during which Germanic peoples settled on the island, either absorbing or displacing those who were already there. And that’s just one example; others (off the top of my head) include the Mongolian influence over China and all the barbarians that besieged Rome during the 5th century. America’s use of violence to solve its problems does not make it unique among the nations.
America’s celebration of violence does.
Part of it is rooted in our rebellious roots; we fought our way out from under the biggest empire on the planet and lived to tell the tale. (The fact that we were, at the time, allied with France, the Netherlands and Spain — three of the four next-biggest empires — typically gets glossed over.) After that, we had to tame our own hinterlands, expand from east coast to west. A gun was central to this experience, both as a tool of hunting and of self-defense. We all know the image of the white-hatted cowboy, imposing law and order with bullets. And of course, he always wins, because might makes right. And then we exploded onto the world stage during the 20th century with our military leading the way. Our entire history has been wedded to the gun, in a way most other nations have not. Yes, Britain and France and Japan and China and India and (what little remains of) South American cultures have all had to fight their way out from under violent oppressors… but most of them did it using swords. In American history, firearms have been omnipresent.
(Actually, the Revolutionary War left us with a number of other problematic artifacts. For instance, there is a subtle but distinct belief in America that the lawbreaker almost always has the moral high ground; the underdog rebel is standing up for rights and freedoms, and governments are always oppressive. Thus, in our culture, casting yourself as the disadvantaged outsider is a very effective way of garnering sympathy. Another is a willingness to abnegate consequences, to take power without accepting responsibility. This is scarcely unique to American culture, but we seem to have elevated it to an art form, as the endless lawsuits about hot coffee indicate. And it plays into that whole rule-flaunting-rebel thing, since — at least in a fair world — one should not have to suffer the consequences of breaking laws that are unjust. But I digress.)
But the culture continues. From these roots, America has created a culture in both media and real life that glorifies violence. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, put it this way: “A child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence [in media] by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18.” Of the ten most financially-successful film franchises of all time, all ten involve heavy themes of bloodshed, violence and combat. Obviously, it’s a bit of an oversimplification to say that this is indicative of American tastes, since there are foreign ticket sales to be considered, but America is still a driving force at the box office.
“But is there proof?” you might ask. “Violent video games haven’t been proven to cause an increase of violent crime; it’s silly to assume movies are different. Do Americans really have a cavalier attitude towards violence, particularly murder, as a solution to their problems?” And to that I would answer: Yes, absolutely.
- Mason County, WA: A man found that someone had broken into his place of business and was using the shower there. Rather than insist that the intruder leave, he retrieved his handgun and shot the intruder (who was still showering) four times, resulting in the intruder’s death.
- San Antonio, TX: Man #1 was walking down the hallway of an apartment complex and bumped into Man #2 and Woman #2. An argument ensued. Woman #2 drew and fired upon Man #1, who had to be hospitalized.
- Mount Dora, FL: A man walked into a barbershop and asked to have his hair cut for $2. (Average price for a man’s haircut in America is reported to be $44.) The barber refused. The man returned with a gun and shot the barber fatally.
- Burnside, IL: a son argued with his father over who was going to walk the dog. They shot each other multiple times. The son died of his injuries.
“Now Colin,” I can hear you saying in a patronizing tone, “let’s be clear with each other. Yes, those are absolutely absurd examples… but I’m sure you trolled through years and years of gun violence archives to find them. Things like that happen perhaps once a year.” And to that I would answer: No. All these incidents happened in April 2017.
I repeat: all these incidents happened in April 2017. (And I didn’t have to go far for them either; a Facebook group, Parents Against Gun Violence, were kind enough to collect them for me. They actually have more examples, if you want them.)
I bring them up to underscore my point: in America, we hand out death very casually. We believe that murder is an acceptable solution to the most mundane and ridiculous of problems. The guy who shot the intruder: he may have a legal leg to stand on, possibly, since the guy was an intruder. (The police don’t think he does; in their opinion, as recorded in the link, his response was excessive.) And the other three are even more indefensible. The third one is incredibly stupid; the barber proclaimed — completely sensibly, and with the law on his side — that he was not required to submit to what essentially amounts to robbery. And is it really necessary to kill a family member because of dog-walking? Like, seriously?
Because, in America, the answer has been proven to be Yes.
Your counter-argument, dear reader, might be something like this: “Colin, that’s a logical fallacy. Just because these people chose, in the heat of the moment, to use a gun on someone else, that doesn’t mean they intended to kill that person.” And to answer that I would refer us back to the NRA. Guns are for killing. Either the people in the above examples are irresponsible gun owners who tried to kill people who didn’t deserve it, or they are responsible gun owners who tried to kill people who did deserve it. We either live in a culture where a) death is an appropriate penalty for infractions like refusing to be robbed, or b) it was never appropriate for those people to own guns. (In other words, we either live in a culture where a) the NRA is wrong or b) the NRA is wrong. But that’s a different matter.)
Our casualness towards lethal reprisal forms a sympathetic feedback loop with America’s gun religion. Like most religions, this one has gotten dysfunctional; like most religions, this one has left its share of bodies on the ground; like most religions, its adherents won’t renounce it even after they see it leaving bodies on the ground. Sandy Hook, as one Tweeter pointed out, was the end of the gun-control debate. Despite the clear and obvious consequences of leaving regulations as they stood, regulations were left as they stood. Americans are completely fine with the slaughter of innocents — even of innocent schoolchildren. The right to indiscriminately murder shall not be infringed upon.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
Now, you may notice something, dear reader, and it’s that I haven’t been playing 100% straight with you. The article I linked to with Wayne LaPierre’s statement is actually an Esquire op-ed which is critical of LaPierre’s stance. “Everywhere else in the world consumes American culture voraciously,” Stephen Marche rebuts, “and yet they don’t have murder as a public-health problem.” And he’s absolutely right. Correlation does not imply causation, is how we psychology majors put it. Violent works of media do not cause gun violence. And gun violence does not cause violent media. Only a few works, video games mostly, have ever dared to put you in the shoes of a person executing a killing spree against unarmed civilians; they did it for the shock value, and have largely been criticized for being tasteless. Regardless of American attitudes towards gunning down multitudes of enemy combatants, they still draw the line at perpetrating mass shootings.
But what if there’s a third factor, one that causes both violent media and gun violence?
On the one hand, we have the Second Amendment. On the other, we have America’s eternal love affair with bloodshed. These are not necessarily the same problem. My sister — herself a gun owner — summed it up thusly: “I think guns need regulating. I think we need to fix the roots of epidemic violence in our society. I think these are two mostly separate issues.” And, simply put, she’s got a point. Most of us can agree that the current solutions to our epidemics of violence, both gun-related and not-, are insufficient. But nobody knows what to do about it… partially because, as my sister correctly identifies, the problems are more complicated than the ease (or not) with which someone can obtain a gun.
Having said that, I actually have to disagree with my sister. I think that the two issues are separate, but I do not think they are mostly separate. In my opinion, the roots of epidemic violence in American can be traced right back to the Second Amendment — not necessarily to its intent (whatever that even was), but to its side effects.
The Declaration of Independence may claim that Americans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”… but the Declaration of Independence is not a law. The Second Amendment is a law, and it declares that an American’s inalienable rights include manslaughter. Regardless of what the Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to mean, this is what it means now. And, in my opinion, it’s this insidious side effect — the certain knowledge that Americans have legal permission to kill, albeit with additional costs to be settled later — which causes all of it.
The Second Amendment declares that “the right to bear arms” shall not be infringed upon. Somewhere along the way, this became “the right to use murder to solve all my problems.” It’s this vile mutation that we need to fix.
And that’s why “gun control” is the wrong answer. If the problem were “the right to bear arms,” then yes, controlling access to arms would be the right solution. But it’s not. The problem is “the (perceived) right to bear arms irresponsibly.” And while simply revoking the right to bear arms would, sure, nip the problem in the bud, it would leave all the irritating-but-true platitudes about “guns don’t kill people, people do” — platitudes that are, for good or ill, true, as the multiple stabbings and bombings in Europe show. You don’t need a gun to kill people. Therefore, what we need is not less guns: it’s less desire to kill.
What do we call this? We’ve talked about rape culture, a subtle cultural force that encourages men to take what they want, sexually, and not care about paying for it. (America is not the only place where rape culture exists, but — meaning no disrespect to those other nations — since I am American, I mostly give a darn about how it affects America.) This new thing: do we call it “murder culture”? The belief that killing someone is always an acceptable solution? The belief that violence really is the answer? The belief that fighting against the establishment gives you the moral high ground? Nobody talks about it. If they do, they talk about it as a symptom of toxic masculinity, another well-studied value (“value”) in Western culture. “The simplest way to describe [toxic masculinity],” Lindsay Ellis says in a video about (of all things) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II, “is men feeling the need to prove their perceived masculinity through unhealthy means, harmful to others but just as often harmful to themselves.” And, for good or ill, violence is and has always been a core value (“value”) of masculinity.
Do we even need the term “murder culture”? In the grand scheme of things, probably not. But for the purposes of this article, I’m going to say “yes,” because of the point I’m trying to make: the importance of guns — the prevalence of guns — the (perceived) need for guns — in American culture is something that feeds the violent aspects of toxic masculinity… and it’s way easier to type “murder culture” than “the violent aspects of toxic masculinity” over and over again.
For that matter, is “murder culture” even the right problem to solve? I don’t know, but I can surely tell you that “gun control” isn’t the right one. You can’t legislate morality. You can’t use laws to lead people where you want them to go; you can only use it to enforce where they’ve already gone. The Prohibition is a good example. “Alcohol is bad,” the American government announced, and Americans everywhere nodded, smiled and ignored it because the government was wrong. The Australian gun laws introduced after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre are another good example. “We need sweeping firearm law reforms,” Prime Minister John Howard announced… and Australia agreed, because the murder of 35 innocents and wounding of 23 others was something they didn’t like. Laws only work when they’re what the country wants. And America — or at least a large enough proportion of it that the distinction doesn’t matter — doesn’t want gun control. Therefore, it can’t be the answer. Changing American culture, American morals, American values, is — must be — the answer.
But how do we change them? Other people are on record with different solutions. Marc Greene, writing for the Good Men Project, pinpoints America’s paranoia and fear of otherness as a major feeding factor; for Be Yourself, Charlie Hoehn writes about toxic masculinity in general, pinpointing three other elements than I have — the insistence that men should be lonely, the insistence that men should not have fun, and the insistence that men should feel ashamed of themselves — as leading to gun violence by destroying any sense of empathy. These are also good starting points, and you may very well decide that these writers make more sense than I do. But since they’ve already made their points, I’m spared the trouble of making them again… And I still believe that both of these problems — American paranoia, and America’s peculiar brand of toxic masculinity — are caught in feedback loops with our constitutionally-guaranteed free access to the tools of manslaughter.
So what’s the solution? How do we solve murder culture? Well, I’m going to cop out and say that I don’t know. But I’m not saying it to be lazy. Cold, dead fingers time: gun ownership is a right in America. It will not be, cannot be, revoked without substantial and devastating changes to the nation, up to (and almost certainly including) civil war. I know people who do in fact want to take away people’s guns, my sister’s included. Are they morally right to want that? I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t give a flying fuck whether they are. Legally speaking, my sister is allowed to have guns, and that is that. They may want to take my sister’s guns, but the cold, dead fact is that they will not succeed, and not even God and all His angels can change that fact. America is not a nation where gun ownership will end.
I also — and this is a crucial distinction — don’t want to take my sister’s guns. Because she is a responsible gun owner. I would trust her with a loaded firearm in my presence, and the presence of basically everyone I know. Like most responsible gun owners, she does in fact believe that our current gun-control laws are insufficient. She also believes that “gun control” isn’t the correct solution to the problem we’re having, which — as you may have noticed — I agree with. The thing that we need to keep in mind is that it is possible for responsible gun owners to exist. You don’t hear much from them because are a silent majority that tend to keep to themselves… unlike the vocal majority of radical gun nuts who speak loudly about the big sticks they carry and give gun owners in general a bad name. And — though I can only speak for myself — I have no problem with a world of responsible gun owners. Regardless of whether I plan to own one myself, I don’t think civilian gun ownership is something that needs to end. What needs to end is murder culture.
But like I said in my last essay, we don’t get to live in the world we want, we only get to build it. So how do we build an America without murder culture?
What kind of re-education is necessary for our culture? How do we move away from our cowboy roots? How do we separate the constitutionally-guaranteed right of manslaughter from our cultural love of it? How do we recondition an entire culture to make a complete and total one-eighty on a belief it has held right from the start? How do we teach ourselves that shooting people is a bad thing, instead of an awesome thing worthy of celebration in film and television and video game? How do we create a culture in which people can use lethal force but choose not to? How do we create a culture where people don’t want to kill each other? How do we, in short, end murder culture?
And that’s why my answer is, “I don’t know.” Those are really freaking big questions, and if I said I did have an answer, you likely wouldn’t believe me. I certainly have ideas of my own, but two heads are better than one, and I doubt I can solve the whole thing by myself. And now we have an idea of what the questions are.
Will this result in an American culture where we can, finally, take away all the guns? Can we finally implement the “Australian solution” of mass gun confiscation? To be perfectly honest, my goal is more modest than that. I want to create a culture where we don’t need to take away the guns. The NRA have always maintained that the best form of gun control is the one where the hands holding the gun provide the control, and on this I am 100% in agreement with them. Besides, this ideal provides useful inspiration for reforms. We force automobile drivers to prove that they are capable of controlling their automobile; every American with a driver’s license is, at least in theory, an American who can avoid vehicular manslaughter. (Incidentally, my sister has some very strong opinions about how these standards need to be toughened considerably.) Why not impose a similar rule about guns? Cars aren’t meant to kill people, but they absolutely can; for this reason, we regulate access to them. Imposing similar requirements on guns would solve some problems. It would also be a step towards correcting murder culture, by passing rules that (subtly) imply that murdering is bad. It’d be a step… but only one step.
The problem is not the Second Amendment. The problem is the tacit permission given by the Second Amendment to simply slaughter your way past something that vexes you. Whether or not it’s what the Founding Fathers intended, it is what we have. Murder culture grows out of the Second Amendment like a fungus… but, like a fungus, it can be removed.
And, for good or ill, that’s the path we have to tread. It doesn’t matter if the Second Amendment is immoral; it exists, and it’s part of the bedrock of American society. We have to build around it. It’s our only option that doesn’t involve literal civil war. And so it’s the option we will take.
At least, if we want to be a nation where you can go to a country music concert without getting murdered.