I promise to get back to writing on post-academic issues soon, but I wanted to add a few further thoughts to my most recent post on gun control. The previous post was a fairly rigorous look at the data. I think the issue deserves this level of analysis. However, it can also appear rather cold and insensitive to reduce the issue to a numbers game. In my defense, the author I criticized framed the issue in utilitarian terms; I was simply extending this approach to its logical conclusion. Nonetheless, I thought a more human treatment of this subject might be in order. As a result, this post will be more impressionistic than argumentative (although I can’t always help myself).
I’ve actually been thinking about this issue for some time. I used to be a typical nice Canadian with respect to guns. I thought Bowling for Columbine was a good documentary once upon a time. (Was I ever that young and naive?) But since then, I’ve thought deeply about the reality of violence. Ironically, much of it had to do with my theological background and thinking about the problem of evil. Talk about an unintended consequence! As a result, I became interested in self-defense strategies; not UFC style posturing, but practical self-defense. An important part of this is knowing how to defuse a potentially dangerous situation whenever possible and walk away. The use of violence, or a weapon of any kind, is a last resort, and pulling out a weapon in a touchy situation can turn ugly fast.
Nevertheless, violence is a reality in our world, and knowing how to cope with it is a potentially life-saving skill. I agree with Sam Harris that being unprepared, in practical terms, means being well-prepared to do the wrong thing. As a result of my admittedly amateur interest in this subject, I’ve changed my mind on the matter of guns. I turned my thoughts to the issue again in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting and also after two high profile shootings in my own hometown this past summer. One took place at a block party and the other inside the Eaton Centre, a large shopping center at the heart of downtown Toronto. On a more personal level, I thought long and hard about the issue after a friend’s home was invaded. He and his girlfriend were duct taped to chairs, fearing for their lives, while three thugs looted their house. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but it’s not difficult to imagine how tragically that story could have ended. It’s also not difficult to imagine how an effective deterrent, like a gun, could’ve proven useful in that situation. Suffice it to say that it’s not irrational or paranoid to entertain the idea of owning a firearm for just such an emergency.
I’m fully aware of the fact that my views are unpopular, especially in Canada, and in the academy in particular. Actually, I shouldn’t generalize about Canadians’ attitudes toward guns. Those who live in urban centers and move in intellectual circles are under the impression that we’ve achieved a largely gun-less society. We have not. There are over half a million registered firearms in the province of Ontario alone. If you scroll down the linked page, you’ll see that there are almost 300,000 unregistered (illegal) guns. Even these guns were registered at one time, so the actual number of illegal guns, including those that were never registered and aren’t in any police database, is probably much higher. Despite these facts, the urban intellectuals with whom I’m acquainted consider my views decidedly ‘American’ and, therefore, uncivilized. But again, I shouldn’t generalize. Interestingly, I’ve found that women in the academy are more realistic about the prospects of encountering violence than are men. Feminists, or just women who don’t want to be victims, are more likely to take what I have to say seriously, despite often remaining uncomfortable with the idea of guns. However, I’ve personally spoken to women (grad students, as it happens) who admitted to me that they carry mace. There are restrictive laws here even with respect to non-lethal means of self-defense like mace. Generally, to obtain a license you must be a law enforcement or security officer. When I asked them if they had a license, they confessed that they did not. But they reasoned that it was better to risk the penalty than risk their lives.
As a Canadian, then, I have a different perspective on this issue and, unlike most of my peers, I don’t think that all pro-gun Americans are benighted or foolish (some are, of course, but not all). Thus, when I hear my intellectual friends talk this way, I can’t help but think that they need a dose of reality. What’s the old saying? A conservative is a liberal who was mugged recently? So when they say, for example, that entertaining the idea of armed personnel in schools is ‘insane’ I have to ask ‘why?’ Is it unfortunate that a society would have to consider that option? Yes. Insane under the circumstances? Hardly. As Harris says, more guns are not the answer – until they are. I’m not claiming that armed personnel would prevent every shooting – they didn’t in the case of Virginia Tech – but it might make a difference in some cases. Take, for instance, this recent one, in which an armed off-duty policewoman probably prevented a mass shooting. These preventions happen regularly, but they seldom make the evening news or the front page. Sadly, lives saved don’t sell as much copy as lives lost.
I also happened to be in Europe during the media onslaught following the Newtown tragedy. It was interesting to hear the European media’s commentary on the event, although I couldn’t help but feel that the condescending mix of puzzlement and self-satisfaction was unjustified. This is not to say that all Europeans share this attitude. When my thesis supervisor and I visited his mentor, my supervisor casually brought up the story and asked if there were any comparable cases in Europe. To my surprise, our host, off the top of his head, mentioned several such cases. When I later researched the matter, I discovered that he was right. Before Sandy Hook, the worst K-12 school shootings happened in Western Europe. Of the three worst, after Newtown, two of the three happened in Germany, a country with very restrictive gun laws (the other, in Scotland in 1996, prompted a UK gun ban which, contrary to expectations, led to an increase in violent crime). If one expands the scope beyond schools to include mass shootings generally, Western Europe still has its share of incidents. The first link in this paragraph provides a partial list of mass shootings in Europe since 2001. Yes, the linked article is pro-gun and from a right-wing publication, but the facts are no less true for that. Notably, all of these incidents took place in jurisdictions in which guns are banned. Not only do these incidents suggest that mass shooting is not a uniquely American phenomenon, they also suggest that gun bans are not as effective in preventing such incidents as their proponents claim. Thus, the default statement that “European countries don’t have mass shootings because of stricter gun control” simply doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
Again, none of this is to say that I find all gun control measures unreasonable. I’ve gone as far as researching the process of legally obtaining a firearm in Canada and it’s difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, though not unreasonably so. I wouldn’t have it any other way. By all means, take reasonable precautions. I’d also encourage my American neighbors to consider any measures that are likely to work. Research whether armed personnel in schools will have a deterrent effect. Research whether mandating lower capacity magazines will make a difference. But calling for gun bans – as distinct from gun control – will do little to keep anyone safer.
Like all morally sensitive people, I would like to live in a world with less violence. However, I’m just not convinced that a world without guns would be, on balance, a morally better world. Nostalgia for a world without guns is, as Harris says, nostalgia for a world in which strength, aggression, and sheer numbers always carry the day. As I argued previously, defensive gun use cannot be dismissed as simply an NRA talking point. Acknowledging this reality is not to be cavalier about resorting to violence; it’s to recognize that we still live in a violent world and circumstances may require us to respond to it. It’s better to have the means to effectively protect yourself, and hope you never have to use them, than to find yourself without those means in a life-threatening situation.