I live in Central Pennsylvania, the heart of the gun culture in the state. Guns are considered a birthright, a God-given birthright no less. The Second Amendment, of course, is interpreted literally (the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed), meaning that the Founding Fathers intended that people should have the right to arm themselves even with weapons (semi-automatic assault rifles, .50 caliber sniper rifles, and the like) one couldn’t begin to imagine in the 1700s. However, former Chief Justice Warren Burger, himself an avid hunter, privately disagreed with the popular understanding of the Second Amendment, supporting the “well regulated militia” condition of the amendment. Many other legal scholars have been in agreement with Burger, but these and similar caveats are ignored or disregarded here.
As a sociology professor, I can tell you it’s very controversial to bring up the issue of gun control in any critical sense in these rural parts. It’s tantamount to telling the male students either that they no longer have the right of self-defense or that they, figuratively speaking, could lose their genitals, i.e. be stripped of their potency. The female students, some who are themselves hunters and gun enthusiasts, also identify with their boyfriends and fathers and are nearly equally opposed to meaningful gun control measures. Students who have never raised or answered a question all semester suddenly come alive when I merely suggest there is a correlation between the homicide and suicide rates in American society and easy access to guns, and that in countries where there is almost zero tolerance for guns the homicide and gun injury rates are much lower than in the U.S.
How many cases of self-defense with guns, I try to argue, have they heard about personally? Where is the data proving that tens of thousands of Americans have saved their own lives by brandishing a firearm? I’m just being counter-intuitive, they say; I have no common sense, they claim.
Of course, my students usually react to my bringing up the issue of gun control by parroting the gun lobbies’ line: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” True, I concede. You can kill people in an infinite variety of ways, but guns sure make it easier to kill people, especially if one is carrying a concealed weapon or an assault rifle like an AR-15 or AK-47. I challenge them, would you rather confront someone who wants to kill you with a knife or a gun—if you couldn’t avoid either?
Since the Newtown shootings the rationalization for maintaining the status quo of gun availability—and hence of continuing to abide by and honor the broadest reading of the Second Amendment—is that the real problem is not guns but preventing the “mentally ill” from obtaining guns. Or, at least provide “them” with therapy before they can buy guns.
This is a flawed argument. People who might be designated as mentally ill by appropriate authorities are generally not the people that kill other people, with or without guns. If you read the case studies of people who kill other people in domestic situations, the perpetrators are “normal” people who have become impulsive (as in crimes of passion) or who have made a rational choice about whom they desire to kill.
My point is, in other words, one can’t begin to predict when normal (non-mentally ill) people will go off the deep end. However, having guns does increase their chances of killing other people or inflicting debilitating harm. Arguably, the gun is one of the most heinous inventions of mankind. Even the sport of target shooting is not a natural desire; it is an acquired taste that is the product of a gun-infused social environment. If people weren’t born into a gun culture they would never miss having guns, target shooting, or even, perhaps, hunting. (Though hunting, of course, is not the problem.)
What is to be done? The first step is to debunk the myths, even to “shoot” them, as I suggested in my title. It’s a myth that guns make us safer; it’s a myth that the Second Amendment allows gun ownership to all, with no requirement for the common welfare or for service in a militia. And it’s a myth that guns make life better. Why? Because guns are designed to take life. It’s that simple.
Guns for field sports are perfectly legitimate. A rifle for taking deer; a shotgun for shooting waterfowl; a pistol for surprise encounters with rattlesnakes. No problem.
But guns for guns’ sake? Count me out.
Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and a certified contrarian