Between a Gun and a Hard Place

Guns freak me out.

I’ve never handled an actual firearm.  I found it uncomfortable to even use a BB gun at a target-shooting booth at the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition. The closest I’ve ever been to a real gun was when my grandfather retrieved the old wooden box where he keeps a 40+-year-old revolver and showed it to us on the front porch.  I don’t know why he retrieved the box that day, but the show did not involve removing the unloaded gun from it, and I don’t remember even seeing ammunition.  I and my siblings were intrigued, as we weren’t familiar with the design, but the rest of the family seemed to regard the whole spectacle as uncouth and unhealthy and wanted the ancient device returned to hiding as soon as possible.

I play video games that involve guns regularly.  There’s a soft spot in my heart for the N64 generation of first-person shooters, with their brilliant use of environments, maintenance of a stealth-game-like atmosphere that rewards skill more than speed, and graphics that only nostalgia could love.  I’ve also gotten hours upon hours of joy out of strategy games like M.A.X.and StarCraft that involve transmuting hundreds of enemies into piles of varicolored blood and rubble en masse.  In particularly foul moods, I might break out my old Xbox and play the cartoonishly gory sci-fi gun gladiator game Unreal Championship with improbably soft music playing behind me.  I’m kind of a weird guy.

But real guns freak me out.  Looking at the guards at my parents’ bank, who carry 9mm police-style pistols in peculiarly appropriate juxtaposition to the small Virgen de la caridad shrine behind the mortgage broker, makes me nervous.  I look at them and I realize, these are people who are prepared to shatter someone’s bones in one second if they make enough of a scene.  And that freaks me out.  And that’s just a bank guard, someone much less likely to pointlessly end an innocent person’s life than, say, a police officer.

So the idea of intentionally surrounding oneself with firearms for recreation—of taking up the firing of guns at any kind of target whatsoever as a hobby—that just doesn’t compute in my mind.  The sort of person who would actively want to be around devices whose every evolution has been premised on more effectively splattering the internal organs of whatever metazoan had the misfortune of being where it was pointed…it’s hard for me to imagine anything good about them.  But I try, because hunting, target shooting, and gun collecting aren’t the only hobbies that carry a risk of injury for other people, and my finding the middle one in particular off-putting isn’t a good reason for thinking badly of people or restricting their activities.

But these hobbies do have a number of uncomfortable implications, implications which highlight a need to think deeply about what we do and how we do it.

Like it or not, people who buy guns for fun are why Wal-Mart sells guns.  Like it or not, the incredible, open, available presence of guns in American society in particular owes everything to the existence of gun hobbyists who don’t operate within professional organizations like police departments, national armies, or private security firms.  Like it or not, if it were only professionals buying guns, the way private purchase of, say, aircraft carriers is decidedly rare, retail outlets for guns would not have buyers to serve.  Like it or not, people who buy guns for fun are why Cho Seung-Hui and Adam Lanza had a place where they could openly go and buy guns, instead of having to venture into a dangerous underground market full of career criminals and gang members who might have deterred them.

That means that gun hobbyists are distally but directly responsible for a great deal of gun crime.  That means that gun hobbyists are partially responsible for how easy it is for disturbed individuals to acquire and utilize guns.  That means that gun hobbyists have a moral imperative to make sure that it is hard.  That means that gun hobbyists have to be the loudest and most passionate advocates for measures that keep guns out of dangerous hands even of those measures make life a little more difficult for them.  And to their credit, a large subset of gun hobbyists actively support common-sense, scientifically verified measures like waiting periods, psychological evaluations, and background checks for gun buyers that permit responsible hobbyists to enjoy their hobby (after a little annoyance) while preventing many would-be criminals from acquiring the tools of easy death.

This is where the gun partisans usually chime in with dunderheaded comments about how a skilled hacker could hypothetically walk up and down hospital hallways shutting off life-support equipment with a laptop keypress and achieve a kill count easily on par with the average gun rampage, so if it makes sense to impose X control measure on consumer guns for their lethality, it makes sense to impose similar controls on consumer electronics.  The fact that someone who has never seen a gun before could kill someone with it, whereas the level of expertise that would render a laptop into a similarly lethal weapon would render the average can of peas into an implement of genocide, is generally lost on these people, as is the fact that no one buys laptops for that.  Also, I’m reasonably certain this example (which I’ve personally encountered) isn’t actually possible.

Foolish analogies aside, there is a deeper point here, one that resonates with a great deal of sociology that social-justice-minded thinkers have already explored in detail.  Each of us participates in systems and dynamics in whose establishment we had no part, but whose consequences we can try to mitigate.  Our society stacks the deck against black people, so we recognize that fact and set up programs to try to bandage that wound.  (Or we can be bastards and act like it’s a personal failing when someone who spent high school getting arrested for being out late in the “wrong” neighborhood has trouble finding gainful employment.)  Our society systematically takes women less seriously than men, so we recognize that fact and set up programs to try to bandage that wound.

And—and this is the important one for today—gun hobbyists live in a world where the same commercial enterprises that enable their hobby are the reason Liviu Librescu survived the Holocaust but not the year 2007.  So we recognize that fact and set up programs to try to remedy it.  We screen prospective gun owners to keep dangerous people from getting guns.  We require gun owners to store their guns safely so that THIS doesn’t happen.

Which makes the gun fetishists who think the world would be a better place if everyone were prepared to shoot someone at a moment’s provocation little different from the people who think that getting rid of affirmative action would “solve” racism.  Especially since they’re so often the same people.
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