Here a Gun, There a Gun, Everywhere a Gun

As Jaime and I noted yesterday, many Democratic politicians feel the need to preface any discussion of guns with an assurance that they, too, own guns and love to shoot, as though that were the price of admission to a debate on the topic. But what you seldom hear is anyone, politician or otherwise, say, "I don't own a gun and I don't ever intend to" as a statement of identity, defining a perspective that carries moral weight equal to that of gun owners. So it was good to see Josh Marshall, in a thoughtful post, say, "Well, I want to be part of this debate too. I'm not a gun owner and, as I think as is the case for the more than half the people in the country who also aren't gun owners, that means that for me guns are alien. And I have my own set of rights not to have gun culture run roughshod over me." Let me tell you my perspective on this, and offer some thoughts on the question of what sort of a society we want to have when it comes to the question of guns. Because there are two radically different visions that are clashing here.

For the record, I, too, am not a gun owner (you're shocked to learn this, I know). I took riflery at camp as a kid, shooting a .22 at paper targets (and when you achieved each new level of marksmanship, you got a certificate from the NRA!), and I've held unloaded guns a few times. I understand the attraction of guns. They give you a feeling of power and potency, and they're fun to shoot, which is why every little boy loves playing with toy guns. But in the town where I grew up, you never saw a gun that wasn't in a cop's holster. If any of my classmates' parents had them (and I'm sure some did), they never mentioned it, and my own parents would sooner have adopted a pack of hyenas than brought a gun into our home. As far as that community was concerned, the relative absence of guns was one of the things that made it a nice place to live. It wasn't because everyone got together and took a vote on it, but that absence was nevertheless an expression of the community's collective will.

I'm sure that many gun advocates would hear that and say, "Don't you realize how vulnerable you all were? You should have been armed!" But the truth is we weren't vulnerable (crime was low; I have a vague memory of one murder that happened during my entire childhood but I could be imagining it), and although as kids we always complained that the town was boring, everyone seemed pretty happy with the security situation. And if one day, a few of the town's citizens started letting everyone know that they were now carrying firearms when they were down at the drugstore or the bank, it wouldn't have made anyone feel safer. Just the opposite, in fact. It would have changed everything for the worse.

What I'm getting at is that one of the things that makes a society work is that people have rights that are protected in the law, but they also exercise those rights with consideration for the society's other members. For instance, we have a strong commitment to freedom of expression, such that many things that would be deemed obscene and get you tossed in jail in other countries are tolerated here. So if I want do a performance art piece that involves lots of cursing and tossing about bodily fluids, I can do it. But I'm not going to do it on the sidewalk in front of your house during dinner time, not because I don't have the right, but because that would make me an asshole. In the exercising of my rights, I'd be changing the conditions of your existence, even for a brief time, in a way that you'd find unpleasant. So because I value having a society where we all live together, I'll choose to find a theater to put on my performance, and you can choose to come see it or not. In the same way, if you choose to have a gun in your home because you think it protects you, that's your right. I'm going to choose not to let my kid come play with your kid at your house, and we can all get along.

According to the Constitution, you have a right to own a gun. I'll be honest and say that I wish it weren't so; the fantasies the most extreme gun advocates notwithstanding, our liberty is protected by our laws and institutions, not by our ability to wage war on our government. Canadians and Britons and French people aren't any less free than we are because they are less able to start killing cops and soldiers when they decide the time for insurrection has come. Nevertheless, that basic right exists and it isn't going to be taken away. But the rest of us should also be able to say that there are limits to how far your exercising that right should be allowed to change the rest of our lives, and if necessary the law should enforce those limits.

As I've written before, the goal of many gun advocates, particularly those who promote concealed carry, is that we make it so as many people as possible take as many guns as possible into as many places as possible. That's been the focus of their legislative efforts in recent years, not only passing concealed carry laws nearly everywhere, but also passing laws to make you able to take guns into bars, schools, government buildings, houses of worship, and so on, and also advocating for laws that would let you take your guns to communities where it would be otherwise illegal to carry them. Which would mean that your right to carry your gun trumps the right of everyone else to say, this is a place where we've decided we don't want people bringing guns.

Is it possible that on my next visit to the local coffee place, a madman might come and shoot the place up? Yes, it's possible. And is it possible that if half the patrons were armed, one of them might be able to take him down and limit the number of people he killed? Yes, it's possible. It's also possible that I'll win the next Powerball. But if holding out that infinitesimal possibility means that every time I go down for a coffee, I'm entering a place full of guns, it's not a price I'm willing to pay. That's the decision I've made, and it's the decision that the other people in my community have made as well.

But gun advocates want to create a society governed by fear, or at the very least, make sure that everyone feels the same fear they feel. "An armed society is a polite society," they like to say, and it's polite because we're all terrified of each other. They genuinely believe that that the price of safety is that there should be no place where guns, and the fear and violence they embody, are not present. Not your home, not your kids' school, not your supermarket, not your church, no place. But for many of us—probably for most of us—that vision of society is nothing short of horrifying.


You put how I felt inside into words. Thank you.

First of all, this is a very well written and respectful article and, for that, I commend you. However, you don't dig very deep into the execution of something like this. Currently, private business owners can choose whether to allow firearms, assuming people follow the rules. People can choose not to enter an establishment whose gun policies don't agree with their personal views on the issue. It gets a bit harder to do this for whole communities. Most communities are going to fall under state or city ordinance and should have to follow their rules. Maybe you could do something like this for gated communities but there is no simple solution. Also remember that this is a two way road. You can argue that gun carriers obstruct your freedom to live gun free but proposed firearm bans would also obstruct the freedoms of gun owners. Lastly, not everyone who supports gun rights envisions a world were everyone is armed and in constant fear. Most of us just want to know that we have the freedom to purchase a firearm should we so choose. A society where gun owners and abstainers do not interfere with each other would be great, but it is somewhat unrealistic.

Yeah, well... Look, it seems to me that we’re talking about two kinds of rights. I’d call them “active rights” and “passive rights”. Maybe legal philosophers or somebody has a better way of putting it, but I guess these will do for now. A passive right is a right that we all have that we don’t have do anything to exercise. Sitting in your house by yourself is a passive right. When you’re exercising this right, you aren’t affecting anybody else. All you’re doing is sitting there. Toting a gun around in public, though, is an active right. When you exercise this right, you are doing something, something that affects other people. I guess the classic example is, “The right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” You have the right to swing your fist around wildly, and that’s an active right. But when my nose just sits there quietly, it is exercising its own passive right, the right to sit there inoffensively and not get hit by any fists. And it’s true that by reining in your right to freely swing your fist around by saying, “Don’t hit me in the nose,” I am curtailing one of your rights. But it’s hard to argue that your right to flail your fist around where my nose happens to be trumps my right to have my nose sit here unaccosted.

So it is with gun-totig, it seems to me. When I go around out in the open, I think I have some right not to have armed people everywhere around me. My being unarmed doesn’t violate any right of yours, but your packing heat violates my right not to feel threatened by armed people, people I have no way of knowing aren’t psychopaths or criminals. Now, it’s true that there are public places where, if I go out into them, I accept that there might be armed people. I don’t like it that on a public street there might be armed people, some of whom might be nuts. But in schools, in churches, jeez, surely we as a society have some right to say, “No here. You leave your gun at the door or keep the hell out.” I would argue that even a whole town or township or city could, if a substantial majority agrees, ban people from carrying guns in public. There’s debate on what those limits should be, or how big a majority it should take to outlaw guns in public. But to equate your right to tote a gun with my right to feel safe and unthreatened while minding my own business is, it seems to me, akin to arguing that I’m indefensibly violating your rights when I ask you to keep your swinging fist away from my nose.

It takes a lot less action to carry a gun than to swing a fist and, if done responsible, concealed carry should never affect you. Take a look at crime statistics amongst holders of concealed carry permits, its very rare. Schools are already gun free zones by federal law and churches have every right to post signs forbidding firearms and law abiding CC license holders should follow those rules. In the interest of transparency, I don't carry or even own a gun. I actually reside in another gun free zone, a college campus. I can assure you that this does not make me fell any safer. A student was actually robbed at gunpoint outside the engineering complex last year. The person responsible was not a CC permit holder and had no interest in obeying the law.

And for the record, I don't have a problem with the general idea of the majority in a given place getting together and saying, we don't like the idea of concealed carry and we don't want it here. I think it would have negative or no effect on crime, but it's a choice that I am not fundamentally opposed to letting people make. This is already done for private property (including businesses) as well as select public property (such as schools). The problem is, banning concealed carry in whole cities would usurp state law in many places. It would also be hard to enforce as honest CC permit holders could wonder into neighboring cities without knowing. I see a lot of problems with execution.

It's really a good point. Do we want to be part of a society that acts good only out of fear or one that promotes good through positive communities. The gun rights activities and general conservative belief, although they are Christians, seems to be that humans are natural bad and lazy and they must be kept in check with fear and forced to work hard through fear. I'm just not sure that I agree with this world view.

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