‘Good Guys With Guns’ Will Not Stop Gun Massacres

My Monday column begins like so:

On HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher this weekend there was an extended and heated debate about gun control. The participants included Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker and author Sam Harris, who, in case you don’t recognize the name, happens to be an insufferable marketeer of the both sides meme. The battle lines were mostly Cory Booker arguing for a massive effort to seize illegally-obtained firearms, with Maher and Harris telling him he’s crazy to try. Toward the end of the exchange, Maher paraphrased a question that Harris raised on his blog and presented his panel with a scenario in which they’re all in a public place and “a mad man has a gun.”

Then Maher asked the question, “Are you really happy that he’s the only one there with a gun? Really?” He continued, “Is what’s going through your mind: thank God he’s the only one with a gun, because I wouldn’t want to be caught in a crossfire?” Maher pointed to Booker and asked him, “Is that really what you would want in that situation?” It’s easy to see where Maher was leading the panel with this line of questioning. Shockingly, yes, Maher was invoking Wayne LaPierre’s classic NRA bumper-sticker myth: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Ugh. [continue reading here]

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  • GrafZeppelin127

    Over the weekend I took one of the main points from my most recent gun-related thing on Daily Kos over to HuffPo, just to see what the response would be. Basically I stipulated to the gun fetishists’ argument that Guns Prevent Tyranny™ and asked readers to consider, how does the law account for both the societal and public-safety risks derived from guns and gun ownership, and the Tyranny™ risk that guns and gun ownership are supposed to mitigate, at the same time?

    The responses, needless to say, were predictable. Two were particularly interesting. One person went off on a well-rehearsed rant about “getting rid of all guns,” railing against every liberal strawman he could conjure, and basically said that laws meant to protect the public safety don’t work anyway, and have never worked, so there’s no point in having them let alone trying new ones. Another said that my whole argument was based on a “false premise,” viz., that the existence and proliferation of firearms as personal weapons creates risks to society and to public safety.

    It’s obvious where both of these people are coming from, and the rebuttals to these well-rehearsed screeds are equally obvious. The first is just too lazy, dumb and blinded by ideology (not to mention angry, frightened, paranoid and narcissistic) to give any thought to how We the People might deal with the problem of gun safety and gun violence. The second just denies that the problem exists at all; there’s no point in addressing gun-related risks because there simply are none, as guns are not the least bit dangerous.

    I didn’t bother to point out the irony of this second person’s comment characterizing the risks associated with guns and saying that they are lesser than they were 20-25 years ago, in order to demonstrate that they don’t exist at all. His point was that I had supposedly claimed the risks are [X], when in fact they are [Y]. But my premise was not that the risks are [X]; I didn’t characterize the risks in any way. I only noted that they exist (“…we have societal and public-safety risks derived from the proliferation of all manner of personal weapons…”).

    I’ve written before that we’re never going to successfully address gun-related risks as long as people keep accusing each other of saying things they’re not saying, and validating their own positions based on the imaginary positions of others. Each “side” has to at least recognize what the other is actually saying. But two things are inescapably and indisputably true: (1) laws cannot guarantee that bad things will never happen, but they can and do increase the risk of prohibited behaviors, which makes them less likely; and (2) guns are dangerous, and the existence and proliferation of firearms in private hands creates risks.

    If you’re a pro-gun advocate, neither of those facts defeats your position. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to make an argument that acknowledges those facts. What I’m reading instead is either of the above, viz., (1) nothing will work so there’s no point in trying, or (2) guns are not dangerous to begin with.

    Everyone I know who has been around guns — I went to a military academy for high school, and my father was a gun collector who took a number of shooting courses given by ex-Special Forces guys, including one rather famous one I won’t name here — will tell you that guns are dangerous, that they must be regarded, treated and handled as such at all times or else you put yourself and everyone around you at risk. [Nic Cage again: “The second you don’t respect this, it kills you.”] If gun fans can’t make an argument against gun control without denying that guns are dangerous and represent risk, then as far as I’m concerned they have no case.

    This is what’s so depressing about this “debate.” The whole thing is built on fantasy and illogic.

    • 1933john

      Excellent comment as usual.
      I would add to the last sentence,
      …and too many John Wayne movies.

    • JimmyAbra

      “aws cannot guarantee that bad things will never happen, but they can and do increase the risk of prohibited behaviors, which makes them less likely;”

      Another thing about laws (I guess the punishments too)…they do kind of show certain values we share as a united people. Even if laws are poorly enforce or broken often the fact we have a law against something bad says more than not having a law against something bad. If the main reason we need guns is so “not only the ‘bad guys’ have [certain styles of] guns then we are not doing the right thing. We don’t take or even decrease enforcement standards of drunk driving laws because people continue doing it and/or people are still being killed. We actually try to find better ways to stop it!

    • bphoon

      I love your framing here and agree with pretty much everything you say.

      Bob makes it clear by the examples he uses that just having a “good guy”–even a highly trained “good guy”–on the scene doesn’t guarantee that a “bad guy” with a gun and the will to use it will be stopped. By the same token, however, if an armed civilian is on the scene, that doesn’t automatically mean he’ll start recklessly winging bullets around, catching innocents in the cross fire. A good example of that is the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. There was a civilian with a concealed carry permit and a semi-automatic .45 caliber handgun on the scene. He didn’t use his weapon because he didn’t believe he had a clear enough shot at Jared Laughner; there were too many others in the vicinity who may have been injured by his fire.

      Responsible gun owners recognize the risks inherent in handling firearms. They seek out opportunities for training. They understand that use of a firearm against another person carries with it great responsibility as well as civil and possible criminal liability. Like a trained, responsible martial artist, they understand that this force should only be brought to bear with great restraint and as an absolute last resort.

      Unfortunately, not all gun owners fall into the “responsible” column. That speaks for the need for effective gun control protocols.

      The point is that every situation is unique. Maybe a responsible, well trained citizen or lawman could bring down a gunman. Maybe not. Depends on the circumstances.

      For myself, I don’t view concealed carry as some license to dispense vigilante justice whenever I may see something illegal going down (some states’ concealed carry laws allow that, by the way). I view it as one method of many by which I may–again, may–be able to defend myself depending on the circumstances. My having a gun might give me an opportunity to defend myself; on the other hand, circumstances may not allow that.

      That, to me, is what the right to keep and bear arms is about and how it applies in today’s world. I believe I have a right to defend myself from the threat of imminent death or great bodily harm and a firearm is but one tool that I may be able to use in that effort should circumstances demand–and permit–it.

  • Dan_in_DE

    Sam Harris is no practitioner of the both sides meme. With all due respect, Bob, I think your both-sides spidey sense doth go off too soon. It’s only a hack-ish cop out if the equivalency you present is false. And if you look at what Harris says, he is pointing out that both sides are making some poor arguments in the gun control debate. I happen to agree with him. But even if you don’t agree, you have to admit that it’s a well-reasoned argument. To call him an “insufferable marketeer” in ‘both sides’ is to misunderstand and/or misrepresent what Harris is saying.

    Harris admits that there are areas where gun rights propaganda is “narrowly true”, but also mocks Wayne LaPierre and calls the NRA an “odious organization” that should be crushed. He says that the American “fascination with the Second Amendment just looks like masochistic stupidity.” He argues that the option of having guns for personal defense is really important in a country that’s chock full of guns, where the approach of (clearly more enlightened) European countries and others is just no longer feasible. Harris and Maher agree with Booker that we should be doing everything we can to get guns off the streets. They’re actually both for far more gun control than anyone in the mainstream is even proposing, and at the same time more realistic than the Establishment Left in the face of our current situation.

    Here’s where liberals don’t act like conservatives (and I’m really glad we don’t!): when our side is wrong about something, and the other side is right, we can be persuaded by arguments and facts. We can admit that assault weapons are a distraction. Ninety-seven percent of murders are committed with handguns, and the gruesome mass shooting-tragedies that have captured the nation’s attention would not have been significantly different if the perpetrators had only had access to handguns. And, in fact, some of those scary looking assault weapons are safer to use in home defense. We can also admit that a “good guy” with a gun is not always, or principally, a horrible idea.

    Imagine yourself stuck in the middle in Maher’s hypothetical mass shooting. The last thing you would want is some fool with a gun in his pocket to start shooting back from the other end of the crowd. But you certainly would want a police officer (or many of them) to show up and take the shooter out. And if there were someone in the crowd with military background or *well-trained* citizen with a concealed carry permit, that would naturally be far better than having to wait for police to arrive, or having to run at the gunman unarmed to try and tackle them while they’re reloading. Recall that Harris would have all gun owners undergo training and testing to maintain their permits, similar to a pilot’s license, and presumably wants even more rigorous requirements for concealed carry permits . Of course, we don’t live in that ideal world. That kind of gun control regulation is far, far left of the Overton Window now and in the foreseeable future. But I agree with Harris and Maher that that’s what we should be moving toward given the reality of life in gun-obsessed America.

    I see where you’re coming from, Bob, and you make a great argument that the key to grappling gun violence in America is to change the culture that glorifies gun-toting heroes and fetishizes guns themselves. But you shouldn’t sacrifice your intellectual honesty just to avoid conceding anything to the opposition. And you shouldn’t mischaracterize and slam Harris, with whom we are all largely in agreement.

    • GrafZeppelin127

      I think the “Left” does a better job of admitting that guns are important and necessary while still arguing for gun control, than the “Right” does of admitting that guns are dangerous while arguing for gun rights. I’ve had at least two wingnuts in the past week insist that guns are not the least bit dangerous and present no risks whatsoever to anyone. I know very few people on the left who insist that guns are completely unnecessary and ought to be eliminated.

      • Dan_in_DE

        Absolutely. It’s perhaps the most important characteristic of Conservatives that they view the world in black and white, with no room for nuanced takes on complicated subjects. But they will perform the most incredible mental gymnastics to protect their opinions from refutation.

        I just watched the “Overtime” online Q&A clip that Maher does with his panel each week, and ironically, Harris calls Booker and the rest of them out for getting into a ‘both sides’ circle jerk. In response to Booker, who was trotting out the clichéd old “neither side has a monopoly on the facts” line, Harris counters that on global warming among other issues they certainly do!