Thursday, July 01, 2010

Is that a pistol in your pocket?

Guns: they're written into the Constitution from a time when a citizen militia was an essential tool of national defense, and today, enough people love the things to keep the second amendment free of any narrow-minded application (or amendment to a modern context) of that clause. Lobbying organizations dismiss gun violence with similar weasel-word qualifiers as A2. It ain't the guns, dude (they rarely discharge themselves), it's, like, the use of guns that's dangerous. I'm not a fan of the rhetorical technique, or the need for it, but I also don't quite go all the way down the hole of calling for a complete ban, in spite of everything. Maybe to shut the NRA up, we could ban people with guns, but the problem with this is that we'd still rely on other people with guns to uphold it. With this week's Supreme Court ruling to strike down a Chicago law against pistols, perhaps it's a good time to make a highly sought-after statement of my own principles on gun rights. (Readers--Smutty and that other one--might recognize this post as consisting of about 50% recycled material.)

Look, I admit I don't care about the things very much. First-hand experience leaves me agnostic. Shooting some .22 rifles in boy scout camp was fun, and playing with ersatz guns (from pea shooters to squirt guns to bows and arrows) has always been a blast. I'm not entirely sure, but I may not have even held one since I was twelve. Sometimes I tell people they make me uncomfortable, but it's not true (about the guns), I say that just so they'll leave me alone. There are a couple firearms floating around the immediate family, and when they eventually pass into my hands, they'll go out of their hidey-holes into similar ones accessible by me, as heirlooms and to have just in case the umbrella of civilization retracts. That's my model for responsible gun ownership.

Moving out a degree, my second-hand experiences with guns range from awkward to horrific. My notion of being prepared falls short of others', for example. It was one of my great-grandfather's generation who kept a loaded pistol under the pillow in case the colored folk ever had need for an uprising, which wasn't the phrasing he used. (It was another time, I tell myself, and it was a kooky scary thing even then, but my god, that's horrible. He's not from the named side of the family for whom I hold out hope of a genetic line.) I knew a good number of gun aficionados growing up, most of whom were not particularly annoying about it, not most of the time, or who just kept 'em for hunting, but I also know enthusiasts close enough to their aggression to make me discomfited to think what's under their bed. When I was a kid, two of the boys from my scout troop were playing with a parent's handgun, and I got to go to a funeral for one of my peers, one dead and half a dozen seriously fucked up. (I'll tell you, I often find it eye-opening to look at events from my past with a broader adult understanding of things.) One of my college buds tells a story of some guy who threatened him at a party by jamming a pistol in his mouth. Hilarious stuff. And do ask Cindy about the recent death of her young friend. If I'm just weighing anecdotal evidence, this ends up a lot heavier than the any number of successful counter-threats where potential harassment was thwarted, which, I'll add, I suspect are usually about as apocryphal as all those conversational triumphs people tell you about on the internets (of the 'and that shut him up' variety).

And for my carrying friends, here's the problem with the social contract you advocate: if you require me to be comfortable with your preferred habit of gun-totin', demanding that I trust your judgment and discretion with a deadly weapon you insist on carrying among people who know you, then you're the one who has a problem. Namely, that you're a dick. Not just that big slick rod you're waving around, but you are a penis, in the colloquial sense. And hunters? You're dicks too. In principle, hunting wild animals is a respectable thing: I think it makes you an honest meat-eater; it's more humane than an automated feed lot; self-sufficiency is a salutary endeavor; it's got to taste good, or at least taste real. But if the idea of hunting is okay, then hunters are still dicks, they still demand to be in the gravitational center of a universe that alleges to be mutually consenting. I have to watch out for them in other words. Hunting season has made it harder for me to enjoy the woods going on thirty-something years now. Any wild-ish sanctuary is despoiled when you have to watch out for wretched coffee- (or maybe Budweiser-) breathed chuckleheads dressed in orange raincoats. And look, if you push for a rigorous, universal course of gun safety, so that anyone with a piece takes it as seriously as you take yourself, then you're furthermore an insufferable dick, even if you're right on your own terms. (Insufferable people are often narrowly correct.) This wonderful world where a society remains polite because we're all busy threatening one another? That's one of the sorriest utopias anyone has yet imagined.

(And yes, I think drivers are basically dicks too, but we can make a better case for the unfortunate necessity of piloting a car in the modern world.)

The thing with guns is that there are legitimate civilian uses for them, that don't even always involve killing people. They really are fun to shoot, and as gunpowder-fueled clockworks, they're outstanding little machines. Keep 'em in your cabinet, and impress your friends; take 'em to the range. Maybe someone out there still has to protect themselves from bears and wolves, I don't know. The problem is that the politically important uses of them are all hypothetical. The militia clause got out-dated by a standing army, but individual-minded folks often take the position that a means to resist the state itself is a good thing, even though actually resisting the state is near-impossible. So let's please count among the insufferable penii the Usenet-vintage internet libertarians. We're not going to keep our overlords in check with our guns, not without enormous violent upheaval, and that hardly ever goes disastrously wrong, right Mr. Robespierre? Consent of the governed is a fine political theory, but violent withdrawal of your consent is a self-inflicted sentence of martyrdom. Keeping yourself apart from the local state-like powers--such as the cops or the mob--isn't going to do you much better (but note below), but maybe after the apocalypse, you'll be glad of the guns to keep out the roving bands of mutants, or prevent the bandit sheriffs from running over your moonshine still. It's just paradoxical in the current American context: so long as the federal power infrastructure holds up, and to the extent it effectively circumscribes the local entities under it, the federally-honored right doesn't do much for you in its potential to confront it. Their guns are bigger, and everyone loves the winner that everyone already loves.

And that's why so much advocacy revolves around fantasy crime scenarios. Not so much real crime scenarios, although there may be some anecdotal for that sort of thing (much of it of the type mentioned above; I believe the statistical evidence has been long since shot down, so to speak). To be fair, if people legally holding their tools are annoying, then illegal gunslingers are much worse. It's just that I don't voluntarily associate with them very often. People feel threatened by crime a lot more than they feel threatened by the government, and given that making the armed boogeymen magically disappear is unlikely (especially when you need them around to blame stuff on), then a natural impulse is to become intimidating enough so that you're left alone. But it's a hypothetical defense, most of the time. Guns can't be brought to bear in a timely enough way to arrest most encounters in an otherwise civil environment (ask those poor Seattle cops, or all the soldiers at Fort Hood). Not without that special American movie fantasy of a society full of hair triggers, which, as I've mentioned, is only a paradise for dicks.

It may be what the Constitution says, but it's still a shame that this Chicago ruling reminds us that state and local regulations are subordinate to the second amendment. In more rural areas, you've got more legitimate uses for firearms, and I don't know if the stats bear out fewer gun deaths per capita in the less densely populated parts of the country, but I am sure the entire number of deaths is much lower. (It's funny how where there's lots of actual crime, like in Chicago, that's where guns are more likely to be controlled.) A troubling idea though, is that more traditionally rural areas, with more local independence and a more historical love for shootin' arns, correlate with those places once supportive of justice against hypothetical crimes committed by an unarmed classes of citizens. Gun rights for the protected members, maybe, such as my great-great-uncle considered himself. (A little closer to the perfectly isolated village, and the libertarian position looks less crazy, but then I don't think that's who has, um, called the shots among conservative gun proponents from those parts.) If we bear down hard on the Constitutional position that everyone should have a gun, then we'd have to manufacture some other paradigm under which to incarcerate the dusky-hued. A war on something would be our usual style. Sounds absolutely crazy in this country, I know, but it scares me to think it could actually happen.

25 comments:

twif said...

i read the 2nd amendment thusly: "hey citizens! we don't have enough money to pay for a standing army. so we'll just draft you if we need you. but, being as we're broke and all, when we do, you'd better bring your own damn gun. cause we can't afford to buy one for you. ergo, you have the right to own one." whereas i believe many gun nut types read it as: "you can own your own tank if you want one!"

target shooting is fun, but otherwise, i am uncomfortable with them. they are weapons and only weapons. as such, i do not agree with the idea that we should all be carrying weapons around (people carrying swords around would make me just as uncomfortable). i'd like to believe we've progressed to the point where we don't feel in danger of our lives in everyday interactions with others. some might point to the fact that i always carry a knife with me as a bit of hypocrisy, but i'd counter that such people are idiots. yes, if i needed to, i could (hopefully) defend myself with a pocket knife. but i primarily use it for things like cutting up apples or opening taped up packages. it is a tool first.

turns out that CT is an open carry state. this suprised most residents. in my town, some dickhead freaked out a bunch of people because he went to pick up carryout from chilis while dressed in full camo with a pistol on his hip. someone called the cops on him and he got to make a big deal about his right to open carry. in fact, he provoked the situation and expected the cops to get called. there is no other rational explaination for such behavior, as there is no plausible reason to believe a trip to a suburban chain restaurant is a life threatening endevor. such behavior automatically designates you as a complete asshole: purposefully scaring a bunch of people to prove a point that does not need proving.

Keifus said...

Yeah, the clause provides context, but I think you could go either way with the sentence. It's what it say and all, and it's annoying how many people really care.

And yeah, sounds like we're on teh same page here. As long as the rules of civilization are basically holding up, the armed are more a problem than they are a solution. At a minimum, they're assholes. I wonder if that guy was from my home town.

And it goes for the cops too (even if resistance is futile). There's some Wiggum with a sidearm that patrols my daughter's school, and it really bothers me. There's not, so far as I know, a known threat there, and in my opinion, this guy's more likely to hurt someone than is a rogue middle schooler.

Aaron said...

I always read the second amendment as a reaction to the standard policy on weapons in any society run by a minority - the ruling minority can have them, but you can't, so we can keep you in line by threatening you with casual murder, while you have no means to fight back. And the English aristocracy had always been a minority.

But on a personal level, the idea of a blanket ban on weapons operates mainly on the idea that guns are scary. Car accidents kill more people than firearms, but they aren't as scary, so people don't get so worked up about it. And I dislike the childishness of the idea that since some people show themselves to be scary, everyone must be reined in.

switters said...

Full disclosure: My 3 undergrad required phys-ed classes were golf, frisbie, and archery.

I've never fired a gun. I suspect I'll get one up in Ohio to protect my harvest, maybe a squirrel rifle.

Michael Pollan killed a wild pig in the California woods, and then cooked it for some close friends. So I get that.

Here's a bumper sticker I've been trying to market, but I can't get any investors:

"You can have my gun when you pry it from my kid's cold dead fingers."

Schmutzie said...

Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution.

But where I live the game to play is compromise solution.

Keifus said...

Aaron: Lots of people take that stance, and certainly it was a big'un in those discussions I remember from the 1990s. Whether it was a popular view of the times, I don't remember, but I assume it was a valid take, considering what had just gone down, and the feelings about the English. But that's not the context the Constitution offers in that confounding clause. More like everyone should keep their musket ready for when we need an army.

With the guns, people are worried that the cops have 'em, or that the criminals have 'em, so why don't I have 'em? It's a fair point, I think, especially since they'll be hard to remove from group A or group B, and I agree that access to guns for all is where it ends up. I don't, however, think that 'gimme one too!' is a whole lot more mature than 'take his away!'. And I'm just not going to celebrate a world where we're all constantly empowered to make each other piss our pants in fear.

(I was being coy up there, but the best argument I can see along those lines is that people who are actually systematically oppressed by government and their peers should be armed. To an extent, this might include poorer folks, but the weirdest thing about it all--and I don't attribute this view to anyone here, not by any means--is that an armed underclass is what a lot of gun proponents are actually afraid of! I don't think the NRA, say, has brought in the Black Panthers yet.)

swit: Hmm, racketball, hockey skills (actually useful), floor hockey, don't remember what else.

As tools, I draw no large objection. Protectin' the harvest. How's your drawl?

I wouldn't buy that sticker.

Schmutz: One buy a month and 12 hrs of required training sounds pretty reasonable to me.

(I've been watching the Wire on the cable On Demand. The point where I was finally convinced that I really like the show, was when some of the gang kids got in a gunfight, and it was damned obvious not a one of 'em knew how to shoot the things.)

Keifus said...

er, "popular view of the times" meaning round about when they were drafting the amendment. Although probably in the 90s too. (No doubt the rest is just as illegible.)

Schmutzie said...

Well my friend, The Wire notwithstanding, they know how to load, aim and fire here.

They've taken it to a whole 'nuther level.

We've all heard about the recruitment of juvies, but the shit these gangs are willing to resort to is astonishing. It's the 1920s here again.

Capone.

We had 54 people shot in one fucking weekend last month Keith, in a city where handguns are illegal. More than Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Last weekend, 29.

Time to try something else.

Street Fighting Man wasn't just a wise-ass reply. Mick says " "Cuz in sleepy London town there's just no place fo, Street Fighting Mannnnn...No!"

We're long on them here. No coincidence that this SC ruling came out of here.

Keifus said...

In the show, these were the untested kids, and someone in their apartment got killed with an errant bullet, they found out later. Not overplayed when it was shown, almost in the subtext, and well done, I thought.

The 1920s seems like a good point of reference.

(Who got shot, by the way? Does the violence spread outside the drug trade much?)

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