Guns and Violence Part 1: Are Guns the Problem?

In the wake of the recent College shooting at Umpqua Community College in Southern Oregon, once again guns are in the news and all over facebook. I cannot open my facebook without seeing someone making a triumphant rebuttal to everything the other side says in one quick phrase or picture. It appears we no longer make arguments, we make catch phrases.

I want to share a few of thoughts on the issue, not because I believe that they will destroy everything the other side says, but because they might help to illustrate just how the catch phrase mentality dominates the debate, while being utterly inadequate to it.

Are Guns the Problem?

In the wake of any shooting in the news there are always three catch phrases that get tossed out before the bleeding even stops.

From the left we hear, “How many times does this have to happen before gun rights people will take action to prevent murder!”

From the right we hear, “If only it hadn’t been a gun free zone, someone with a gun might have stopped it immediately and saved countless lives.”

From both sides we hear, “The left/right immediately began exploiting this tragedy for their own political agendas.”

These catch phrases are powerful because they resonate strongly along tribal lines, polarizing those who already agree and getting in some jabs at the “flaming liberals” or “conservative gun nuts.” They are great rallying cries. They are not so good for compromise, working on solutions, or even just trying to understand each other.

Both sides agree that people shooting innocent people in schools (or anywhere else) is bad. However, both sides are latching onto a simplistic, childish understanding of the issue. The left sees guns as the problem. The right sees guns as the solution. Both are wrong. I want to address these two points in separate posts, and then go on to consider what the Catholic response to the gun question is.

From the way Democrats talk, it seems they think that guns are the problem. I say this because the solution they propose is essentially “Get rid of guns,” so I reason that the problem they have identified is the guns.

The response from the right is predictable. It has been plastered all over the internet that “guns don’t kill people.” Interpreted strictly, I think we can agree with that. The person firing the gun does the killing, the gun is just a tool. The gun rights crowd will go on to make the valid point that people who want to kill other people will find a way to do it. They will often point to statistics seeming to indicate that Britain, where nearly all personal ownership of guns is illegal, has a higher aggravated assault rate. The argument is that even though they have fewer murders, they have more violent crime, because violent criminals still find ways to attack people, and those people don’t have guns and so can’t defend themselves.

However, a more careful look at the data shows that because of differences in definition, the data doesn’t actually support that interpretation. Instead, it seems that Britain has only slightly higher or slightly lower rates for nearly all violent crime, except murder, in which we have nearly a four times higher rate.

Even if Britain did have a higher assault rate that would not be a ringing endorsement of gun ownership. It would mean that the overall situation in America is more lethal, meaning that more of the assaults actually kill their victim, instead of just wounding them.

Secondly, while I think we can all agree that guns do not make people mentally ill or homicidal, the fact remains that it is much easier to kill with a gun than with a knife. I don’t mean physically easier. If you know how it’s pretty simple either way, although a gun gives you more tactical options.

More to the point, it is psychologically easier to kill with a gun. It is psychologically easier to terrorize with a gun. Psychologist and Army Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Dave Grossman theorizes in his seminal work “On Killing,” about the existence of what he calls “Killing Enabling Factors.” Briefly put his theory (which has not been subjected to rigorous research) is that the average healthy human has an innate repugnance to killing. Killing enabling factors are factors which make it easier to overcome that resistance. Guns enable by:

  • Creating distance. It is much easier to kill someone outside of physical contact range. It is harder to dehumanize someone who is up close and personal.
  • Minimizing risk. It is easier to kill when you are in predator mode as opposed to fight mode, and low risk makes you the predator and everyone else the prey.
  • Making noise. The noise and flash of gunfire in an enclosed area creates panic, and panicked people are easier to dehumanize. They become prey, which makes them psychologically easier to kill.

While guns may not technically be the problem, the liberals are right to the extent that they are an enabler of the problem. Guns do not kill people. We can agree on that. However, equally indisputably, guns enable people to kill other people more efficiently, and with less psychological resistance. In a society with guns, people who are assaulted will die more often than in a society without them.

Given the society we live in, in which people are can become isolated and full of hate, and in which mass murderers achieve instant national notoriety, such a person with a gun is more dangerous than such a person with, say, a knife or a club.

Because of that, I am cautious of any knee-jerk “I’ve got a constitutional right!” response to proposed gun control legislation. I think that if we had a reasonable basis for believing that stricter gun legislation would reduce gun violence then it would be very hard for a Catholic to argue against it.

The main reason I do not support disarming America, or even really increasing our gun control legislation, is because I don’t think it really has any very great chance of working. It won’t work because there are already too many guns. Trust me on this one. we have spent a good deal of time trying to disarm both Iraq and Afghanistan, and it hasn’t worked there. I remember the frustration of realizing that no matter how many caches we seized and destroyed, there were always more guns and explosives. That is exactly what would happen if the government attempted to disarm America.

Expanding gun control legislation doesn’t seem to work either. The largest cities in America, with the heaviest anti-gun laws, also have the highest rates of gun violence in the nation and in the world. This does not indicate that “more guns equal less crime” as many gun rights activists will claim. It does, however, prove that “less guns does not equal less crime.”

So I do not support gun restriction policies because I see no reason to believe that they will in any way reduce the level of gun violence in our nation. I wish it were that simple, but it isn’t.

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