Dear Mr. Grammaticus;

    In your recent first person essay you mentioned anecdotally that you are for gun control and do not believe people should be allowed to carry firearms around 24/7.  I would like to request further clarification of your views on this, as so far I find myself in opposition to them.  This is the first thing you've said I've found myself disagreeing with.  I would be very interested in your reasons for this view, if anything else to help me close up holes in my argument for the opposite.

                        Thank you for your time;

    Dear Sinphanius:

    Thanks for writing.  Before anything else, I’d like to commend you for having a refreshingly original assortment of political beliefs.  If it is really the case that you agree with our other positions, but oppose gun control, then this is truly an unusual combination of stances on the major issues, and it demonstrates that you are in the habit of thinking for yourself, one issue at a time.  Even if nothing I say on this particular topic cuts any ice with you, I still wish there were more people out there like you.

    As far as your question is concerned, the first thing I should do is point out that neither of us has clarified his position to any great extent.  In a recent essay, briefly and by way of making a point about something else, I made an admittedly dismissively hyperbolic statement to the effect that people “shouldn’t be allowed to walk around packing heat 24/7.”  On the face of it, this only means that I favor anti-conceal-and-carry laws, which is pretty lightweight as gun-control measures go, but you took the quip in the generalizing spirit in which it was intended, and intuited that I am more-or-less “for” gun control.  And yeah, that’s true, I am.  And apparently, you are “against” gun control.  Okay so far.

    Now, the reason I’m putting “for” and “against” in quotation marks here is because it’s crucial for anyone who wants to argue about guns to understand that it’s one of those issues where there are way more than two “sides.”  Unlike, say, abortion, where even though there are sub-arguments about late-term procedures, rape exemptions, etc., you still basically have two sides (“it should be legal” vs. “it shouldn’t be legal”), gun control is an issue involving so many possible positions about so many fine points that it is very nearly senseless to talk about its having “sides” at all.  Because of this complexity (and because we are a two-party culture that loves our “sides”), the issue often seems to get reduced to a personality game about liking guns vs. not liking guns, and this is problematic for all concerned, because issues of Constitutional Law should not be reduced to high-school cliqueyness about what types of people one does or doesn’t feel like hanging out with.  I hope you’re with me so far, and I think you probably are.

    Here’s what I mean, in brief: being all the way to one “side” would mean believing that all people should be able to own all types of guns and carry them everywhere, and being all the way to the other “side” would mean believing that no-one should be allowed to have any guns ever.  Now, since there are hardly any people who believe either of those things, that means most people are somewhere in the middle, and middles tend to require a lot of explanation.  Yes, it makes a fair amount of sense to begin by saying that I am basically “for” gun control and you are basically “against” it—but this is only a beginning, and so on we go.

    Now, your e-mail didn’t specify why you are against gun control.  As far as I understand it, there are two main schools of thought there: the people who think gun control is unconstitutional, and the people who think it’s a bad idea societally speaking (i.e., would have bad results).  I’ll give my counterarguments to both schools in turn.

    First, the constitutional argument.  Let me begin by stating very plainly that I am not someone who takes at all lightly the idea of messing with the Constitution.  Even if there are some parts in it that I wish were different, I am aware that disrespect for the Constitution can cut both ways.  When Bush & Co. wanted to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage a few years back, the push failed not because there were enough people in favor of gay marriage, but because there were enough people who hesitated to drag the Constitution into things, even though they were against it.  If, a few decades from now, the Christian Fundamentalists have enough power to suggest banning books that contradict their scriptures, all that saves us in that hour may well be reverence for the First Amendment, much of it possibly lodged even in the hearts of many of those same Fundamentalists.

    So, where the Second Amendment is concerned, it is not that I favor repealing or “ignoring” it, but rather that I do not consider common-sense gun-control measures to be necessarily in opposition to it.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the wording of the Second Amendment, but for those readers who are not, here it is:

“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State,
the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”*

    *(and yes, I know about the thing where sometimes there’s a comma after “militia” and sometimes there’s not, and sometimes “People” is capitalized and sometimes it’s not, but commas and capitalization were for shit then and it doesn’t make it mean something different.  I know it’s fun to act like it does, but it doesn’t.  If they wanted to specify something, they wouldn’t have done so via subtleties of punctuation—they were the Founding Fathers, not the Riddler.)**

    **(That being said, it would appear I’ve still gone and used the version where there’s no comma after “militia” and “People” is capitalized.)

    Now, regardless of what you do or don’t capitalize or put a comma after, it is a historical fact that this was written back when the States still raised their own armies, and that the intent was to enable the States to defend themselves independently of the central government in case of emergency, and to prevent Federal tyranny over the States—or, at least, over the People, who then saw themselves primarily as citizens of their respective States, and served as such in all military capacities (although article 1, section 10 explicitly says that the States couldn’t keep troops in peacetime, so apparently “a militia” meant something very different from “troops”).  Since the question of the States giving armed resistance to the Feds was pretty much settled by that whole Civil War incident, we can try skipping over the “States” middleman and saying that the point is for the People as individuals to be able to resist the Federal Government—but at this point the Federal Government has suitcase nukes, so guess what?  It’s not happening.  The People might stand a chance if we had some of those flying skateboards from Back to the Future II, but as you doubtless remember from elementary school, those were all seized and destroyed by the PTA.

    In any case, I’m not one of those people who try to argue that the Second Amendment should be taken to refer to the National Guard, or to some other version of collective gun ownership at the State level.  The Federal Government controls the state National Guards anyway (once the Guard became perpetual, the Feds had to take over, as per article 1, section 10), and as for some other permutation of a “militia,” I don’t see why some weird club that keeps their guns in a toolshed in the town square would necessarily be any better than individual ownership.

    Plus, if you read enough old-school constitutional commentary, you begin to see that, leading all the way into the 20th Century, the word “militia” didn’t appear to mean what we take it to mean now (a specific club of dudes with guns, with an ongoing existence, a cool name, etc.).  It seems usually to have been used as a collective noun meaning simply adult males, i.e., the people who would comprise the army if we suddenly needed an army.  Know why?  Because until a lot more recently than people think, the United States (along with most countries) didn’t have a standing army.  When war broke out, it was like “Okay, all adult males meet tomorrow at noon by that big tree over there, and remember to bring your own gun, because we don’t have any to give you.”  And a lot of the Second Amendment commentary through the years has interpreted it specifically as anti-standing-army insurance, written in because standing armies were associated with bellicose dictatorships. 

    Pro-gun types are fond of citing the fact that, for long periods of English history, the people were required to own guns, and this is indeed true, BUT with a couple of important points in the fine print:  A) “the people” meant the military class, i.e., knights and assorted footsoldiers—just as in the sword era knights were required to maintain their own swords, when guns were introduced knights were expected to maintain those on their own as well, and  B) this wasn’t because people a long time ago knew guns were awesome as opposed to how now people are pussies who don’t know guns are awesome; it’s because travel was a time-consuming pain in the ass back then, so a standing army localized at a base was strategically unfeasible—i.e., the point of statutes like that was always that the people concerned might have to suddenly become the army, not anything to do with a “right” to be armed in their capacities as individuals.  By the Late-19th/Early-20th Century, of course, a bunch of stuff (tanks, machine guns, etc.) had been invented that people who were going to comprise the army didn’t already know how to use (unlike regular ol’ guns, which everyone already knew how to use Back in the Day because they all hunted their own food and crap), and travel time had been dramatically improved, so societies went from standing armies being unfeasible to the absence of standing armies being unfeasible—i.e., when there’s a war now, you need to already have an army ready to go who knows how to use all the wack modern shit, as opposed to the Everybody Grab Your Guns and Meet by the Big Tree system.

    In short, whatever the Second Amendment was supposed to mean in 1791, at this point either it means individual ownership for self-defense against other citizens, or it means nothing.  And if the Constitution existed in a vacuum, a good case could be made that it means nothing.  But by now there is a long history of precedent tending in the direction of “individuals should be allowed to buy guns and keep them in their homes.”  We can make cases for limiting, or not limiting, this tradition to one degree or another, but any limitation we might make is not counter to the Second Amendment—only to a history of rulings made in its shadow, during the long, slow descent into meaninglessness of the amendment itself.  There was no formal stipulation that the generalized right to bear arms was derived from an individual’s right to be armed unto himself until Last Thursday.*

    *(This isn’t the sardonic netspeak expression “Last Thursday.”  I actually mean that the Supreme Court actually didn’t say this until last Thursday, in District of Columbia v. Heller, 5-4.)

    And the current standing of the Second Amendment, to the effect that self-defense is an essential component, actually isn’t a big deal to me.  I do believe that people should be allowed to own some types of guns and keep them in their homes for protection.  I am pro-gun-control, but I am not one of those pro-gun-control people who simply makes fun of everyone who owns guns and wants all guns to be made completely illegal within the next ten minutes.  There are responsible gun owners in my family, and I have seen certain pro-gun-control arguments that annoy me.  Even though I have just made a case for why gun control is not unconstitutional, there are gun-control advocates out there who base their stance not on arguing that it isn’t unconstitutional, but on not caring whether it is.  I have seen gun-control arguments that basically amount to “guns are a silly thing that boys like, so whatever.”  I am pro-gun-control, but I hope I have established that I am not one of those people.

    So, what I would like everyone in this debate to admit is the following:  I would like the pro-gun people to admit that unfettered individual ownership of every type of gun for personal use just because guns are awesome is clearly not what the Second Amendment was supposed to mean, AND I would like the anti-gun people to admit that, at this point, suddenly making all guns illegal would be a shitty idea, because the society is just too saturated with guns by now (even though this is not what the Second Amendment was originally supposed to do) to attempt a complete 180.

    By way of wrapping up the constitutional argument, I’ll point out that, as already alluded to, there are by now lots of different types of guns—some with way, way more destructive potential than others.  And the Second Amendment only says that the People are allowed to have “arms.”  Now, “arms” doesn’t even mean “guns”—it just means “weapons.”  And even if you believe that the “arms” referred to should include some guns, there is no valid support for the idea that it must include all guns.  If you take an all-inclusive interpretation of the term “arms,” then that would have to include all weapons, not just all guns, which would mean that private citizens could own grenade launchers and that Bill Gates should be allowed to have a backyard full of missile silos if that’s what he feels like spending his money on.  Yes, no-one is really arguing this, and it seems that the line tends to be drawn by even the most ardent pro-gun types at “all guns, but nothing above guns”—but my point is that this is completely arbitrary.  There is no valid reason for someone to say “obviously, what the Second Amendment is supposed to mean is that you can’t have a rocket launcher but you can have an AK-47.”  And yet there are tons of people who explicitly argue precisely this.

    Honestly, who decided that the “arms” line should be drawn right above the biggest weapon that is technically a gun but right below the smallest weapon that is technically not a gun?  So, grenade launchers aren’t “guns” because they shoot grenades instead of bullets?  Is the presence/absence of bullets the operative detail here?  How about when someone finally invents laser guns?  Those won’t shoot bullets—will they be okay?

    Seriously.  I’m not joking.  Tell me.

    Anyway, based on this line of thinking—which, you have to admit, is pretty damn logically sound—I am secure in my assertion that automatic and many semi-automatic weapons (I am aware that the term “assault weapons” is a political one and does not draw a specific line, but that saying nosemi-automatics would mean the only legal handguns would be revolvers... although this wouldn't really be an intolerable imposition, since there are a lot of really fucking powerful revolvers) should not be available to the public, and that sale of even the guns that should be available should involve waiting periods and background checks.  I think I have successfully demonstrated my reverence for the Constitution by now, so I really must balk at any attempts to compare me to a totalitarian robot from a futuristic dystopia just because I want to “take away” people’s made-up “right” to instantaneously obtain multiple uzis at a drive-thru and then get their drink on at Six Flags with them all strapped under a pair of zebra-striped parachute pants.

    Hunting rifles are fine for hunting, and shotguns and non-automatic handguns should suffice for home protection.  Someone who breaks into your place to steal your DVD player isn’t looking to get into a shootout, and will just haul ass if he hears/sees that you have any type of gun.  Yes, people will say that a shotgun won’t be enough if a bunch of people with automatic weapons break into your house looking to kill you, but you know what?  If a bunch of people with automatic weapons break into your house looking to kill you, then unless your name is Rambo you are pretty much fucked no matter what type of gun you have.  Maybe people should just try harder not to piss off Cobra Commander or whoever is in charge of this hypothetical squad of high-tech assassins.

    It is possible for a constitutional amendment, even one from the Bill of Rights, to simply die a natural death without being directly overturned or ignored.  The Seventh Amendment says that all lawsuits seeking damages in excess of twenty dollars have to be decided by a jury, and since there’s no jury on Judge Judy I guess that one’s not in play anymore.  If you want to find out, go sue somebody for twenty dollars and one cent and demand a jury, and see what happens.  Of course, twenty dollars isn’t as much money as it was in 1791… just like a muzzle-loading flintlock that only gets off three rounds a minute in the hands of an expert is no longer the most badass single-operator weapon on the planet.

    Anyway, perhaps you weren’t basing your stance on a Constitutional argument—in which case, I have just wasted a very good deal of your time.  So, on to the “guns are a good idea” argument.

    I have already conceded that keeping certain guns in private residences for protection should be allowed, so let’s get right to the whole “carrying them around” issue, which seems to be the basis for your initial question anyway.  The usual argument in support of this involves citing some violent tragedy like a school shooting and saying “this wouldn’t have happened if [the teacher / somebody / everybody] had had a gun too.”

    Okay, sure.  Yes, if you take some specific situation where someone walked into a classroom or wherever intending to shoot everybody, and someone in that room had had a gun and knew what they were doing with it, then they could have shot the assailant first, or maybe the person wouldn’t have tried it in the first place if they knew someone else would be armed.  Fine. 

    The problem with this (in addition to the fact that most people who pull shit like this apparently intend to die at the end, and so wouldn’t be deterred by the idea that someone else will shoot them—it would still be a “kill as many people as I can before someone kills me” dynamic, but just happen a lot faster, and more incidents might well be incited, since some of these nutjobs would like the prospect of things turning into a giant balls-to-the-wall shootout) is the whole “hindsight is 20/20” thing.  Since you don’t actually know where something like this is going to happen until it happens, this line of thinking would require pretty much everybody to have a gun on them everywhere they go.  You can say “it only happens at schools, so let’s just arm teachers,” but then the crazy people would know that and school shootings would turn into bus shootings.  So then you arm bus drivers, and bus shootings turn into grocery-store shootings.  So then you arm grocery clerks, and grocery-store shootings turn into just-out-in-the-fucking-street shootings, which brings us to the “everybody is carrying a gun all the time” scenario.

    And call me a pessimist, but I don’t have high hopes for the “everybody is carrying a gun all the time” scenario.  Presumably, the intent of everyone on both sides of this issue is to reduce the number of innocent gun deaths—but does anyone really think that this number would go down if everyone were armed all the time?  Really?

    Even if we assume the best of intentions 24 hours a day on the parts of everyone except society’s biggest psychos, a constantly armed populace just doesn’t seem like a recipe for success.  I don’t know how old you are, but I’m assuming you’ve been in college and had a least a few different jobs—and I’m sure in the course of those experiences you’ve been around lots of different people.  Now, even if you only take the people you liked, and considered to be basically good people, would you honestly have been more comfortable if they had all been carrying guns all the time?  Have you never been at some party or night out that got a little crazy, or even privy to an argument that got heated, upon which you can look back now and think “You know, it’s probably for the best that nobody had a gun (much less everybody)?”  Plus, regardless of where people with guns might feel like carrying them, the people who own the places would probably prefer that people not bring guns inside them.  And since the right-wing worldview that supports gun freedom is also supposed to have the utmost respect for private property, if the proprietor of an establishment says “No guns up in here,” then that should mean “No guns up in here”—and this is almost certainly what most of them would say.  Imagine you run a bar—do you want all the people getting smashed in there night after night to be packing while they do so?

    I mean, even back when people wore swords around, everyone knew it was bad news for certain guys to wear them into the bar:

                    Thou art like one of those fellows that, when he
enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the
table and says ‘God send me no need of thee,’ and by the
operation of the second cup, draws him on the drawer when
indeed there is no need.
                                            —Romeo and Juliet (III.i.5-9)

    I’m not saying all gun owners are like this, but they don’t all need to be like this for conceal-and-carry to be a horrible idea.  And that’s the problem with the “if only somebody with a gun had been there!” argument—for every one “somebody with a gun” who ends up stopping a crime or saving a life, there will be many “somebody with a gun”s who end up shooting a kid who, strangely as he may have been acting, was only reaching into his backpack to get a pen.  And even if no shots are fired, the simple act of drawing a gun is a big deal.  Have you ever been in a room where somebody with a loaded gun suddenly whipped it out and aimed it at someone?  I’m not saying I have, but I’ll bet it’s harder than people might think to just say “Sorry, false alarm” and resume the lesson plan afterwards. 

    I’m not saying heroic stuff wouldn’t ever happen—I’m saying that more than enough horrible accidents would happen to cancel it out (except in the minds of those people for whom the prospect of winning the right-place-right-time lottery and being a hero is more important than the many additional innocent lives that would be lost as a result of the relaxed conceal-and-carry laws necessary to enable their heroism—which, sadly, is probably a lot more people than I’d like to think).

    Pro-gun types often respond to this with “okay, don’t have everyone carry guns all over the place—just give them to the authority figures in places where trouble might break out, like teachers, pilots, cab drivers, etc., and give them training and whatnot.”  But the problem with this, “give them training” is easier said than done.  Being “trained” to use a gun is one thing—it just means learning how to shoot and how to hit what you’re shooting at—but being “trained” to carry a gun is quite another.  It involves not only knowing how to use it, but something much harder—knowing how to not use it.

    Think about how frequently police officers don’t use their guns.  They are zipping all over the place dealing with people’s bullshit every day, often finding themselves in situations where the level of danger is not immediately clear, and the overwhelming majority of the time they do not even end up drawing their weapons, much less discharging them.  Simply giving a gun to a teacher or a bus driver is not enough, even if you also train them to be an expert marksman.  The level of psychological training necessary for someone who wears a gun to refrain from whipping it out and yelling “freeze” every time someone looks at them funny is such that you would have to effectively make the teachers or bus drivers into cops before it becomes a good idea to arm them.  And most teachers, to say nothing of cabbies or supermarket checkers, are simply not emotionally equipped to also be cops (the amount of time and resources it would take to do this notwithstanding).  And if you don’t want to take my word for this (which would be an entirely reasonable reaction, since I am not trained in law enforcement) go ask a cop—someone whose life revolves around stopping bullshit from going down and presumably knows a thing or two about how best to stop it, and who has probably seen countless situations end badly even though everyone involved had the best of intentions—whether he or she thinks it is a good idea to hand guns to teachers, cabbies, bank tellers, bartenders, and the ice-cream man.  I bet the answer will be something along the lines of “Fuck no, what are you nuts?”   

    Where we end up, then, is with the conclusion that the only people who should be the cops, are the cops—at least, anywhere outside of a private residence.  If you want there to be more cops, or at least more trained armed security personnel, in various places—if you want them stationed on campuses—I would not object.  I am not one of those people who want no guns to be around; I just think it makes a big difference who’s carrying them.

    Well, Sinphanius, I hope this response answered your question to whatever extent you wanted it answered.  I didn’t get too much into specific gun-control statutes, but I’m not sure you wanted me to.  As you can see, even though I spoke very generally most of the time, the response still ended up the longest Reader Mail piece by far.  Like I said, this issue is complicated, and regardless of whether you or other readers end up agreeing with everything I said, I hope I was at least able sufficiently to demonstrate that the matter of guns in America is hardly as simple as “for” and “against,” and that we could all benefit from ceasing to see it in terms of “sides.”

        Your Well-Regulated Editor,
        —Sexo Grammaticus

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