Saturday, December 22, 2012

The N.R.A. is the problem

Although I recently wrote that focusing on the N.R.A. as a "villain" is counterproductive (I suggested trying to change the minds of acquaintances who espouse its policies instead), it's undeniable that Wayne LaPierre's remarks in the wake of the Newtown, CT shooting rampage added absolutely nothing positive or helpful to the national debate.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
It's not so much the content of this statement as its tone that is so objectionable. "Good guy", "bad guy" — obviously this childish phrasing is intended to evoke "simpler" times when Good Guys Wore White Hats. The N.R.A. wants to dumb down the conversation to bumper-sticker "ideas". This simplistic framing of the problem is insulting to everyone.
“More guns, you’ll claim, are the N.R.A.’s answer to everything,” he said. “Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools. But since when did the gun automatically become a bad word?”
Maybe since the N.R.A. went batshit crazy?

Of course, we all know the N.R.A. isn't crazy, unless it's crazy like a fox. It pursues strategies that maximize its appeal to its base, just as any other advocacy group does. The trouble is that its base is batshit crazy — and armed.

Seriously, those who lustily cheer LaPierre's remarks are paranoid. Some of them see Armageddon coming. Some see civil war. Some see a tyrannical (and unprecedentedly efficient) government imposing its irresistible will on the nation. In each of these nightmarish visions, only those who have prepared themselves by stockpiling weapons will survive. (I thought Armageddon was supposed to be rather more than anyone could stave off with even a 50-caliber machine gun, but I'm no expert on the end of the world.)

Those who live in fear of the end times are dangerous. Not only do they represent a direct threat to the rest of us (at whom do you think their guns are aimed?), but to the extent these folks participate in the political system, they send equally crazy representatives to Congress to promote crazy legislation and to derail useful legislation.

I'm enough of an optimist (no, really) that I think most gun owners aren't crazy. Still, enough of them are to enable LaPierre and the N.R.A. to wreak havoc on the body politic. "More guns", indeed, is the N.R.A.'s answer to everything! You just said so, Wayne!

However, you knowingly misrepresent what the rest of us think. Contrary to your dismissive, simplistic and self-pitying followup — "Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society" — that's not what most of us believe. In fact, we've been listening to you. We've heard you say, over and over, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." And you're right. Guns don't have artificial intelligences built in; they don't shoot without a finger on the trigger. Guns aren't evil. Guns are tools.

As a society we tolerate a certain amount of injury, and even death, from the use of tools: it's the price we pay for the useful work we accomplish with them. We recognize that most tools are not designed to injure or to kill: death and injury are accidents, often the result of "operator error".

Firearms, however, aren't like most other tools. Their sole purpose is to injure and to kill.

I think it behooves us, as a society, to think long and hard about the conditions under which we want to let firearms float around among us.

Most of us would agree that you have the right to injure or to kill someone breaking into your home. That is eminently fair. It also seems unlikely that you'll hurt your neighbors by accident in the course of defending yourself, your loved ones and your property.

However, does that right to defend yourself, your loved ones and your property extend outside your home? Do you have the absolute right to shoot a pickpocket, or even an armed robber, on a crowded street?

That question, about whether you have the absolute right to defend yourself with a firearm outside your home, is worth discussing. Yet the N.R.A. and its most fanatical supporters refuse to admit that there might not exist such an absolute right. They refuse even to countenance the possibility that society has a legitimate interest in preventing essentially unrestricted gun violence in public spaces, even if the gun bearer has the best of intentions.

Instead, to counter the threat of shootings like the Newtown massacre, LaPierre and the N.R.A. want to unleash an army of "good guys" to counter the "bad guys". LaPierre and the N.R.A. do not admit, perhaps cannot even understand, that the rest of us have no way of knowing whether a guy with a gun is a "good guy" or a "bad guy".

LaPierre would rather have guns bristling everywhere. Sane "bad guys" would have to think twice before pulling their own guns out, not knowing which of those around them might be packing. Lunatics bent on a shooting spree could be taken down from unexpected quarters. Whichever category Adam Lanza fell into, LaPierre insinuates, a "good guy" could have prevented him from killing as many as he did, perhaps from killing anyone at all.

It's pretty bold to assume that untrained gun owners would respond effectively in such a crisis. (Research has suggested that in a crowd, people do not generally take the initiative in a crisis, figuring that someone else will do it. I see no reason to believe an untrained gun owner would behave differently.) Yet that's LaPierre's grand vision. That's the thin, thin premise, and promise, he holds out as the N.R.A.'s best solution to gun violence in this country.

If, as LaPierre thinks, "gun" is now a "bad word", it's not because the rest of us are stupid, as he implies. It's because the N.R.A. and its fellow gun-rights organizations have been fanatically opposed even to meaningful discussion about gun violence, much less any kind of legislation imposing the least restriction on ownership or carrying. Those organizations, in other words, have not been any goddamned help or use to society at large.

Is it any wonder that every time you open your mouth, Wayne, the rest of us don't give a shit what you have to say?

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