Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Reprise: "Freedom isn't free" — Gun Deaths (19 Sept. 2013)

            For forty years of my life I taught just about every year at least two classes in Rhetoric and Composition. To a great extent, I taught argument, and with that sort of background even sampling most current debates in US politics can be very frustrating, rarely more frustrating than the fights over guns.

            The biggest group for gun deaths in the USA is my people: old fart White guys killing ourselves. If you want a direct and effective way to reduce gun deaths in America, make it easier for old folks to off ourselves in ways more elegant than blowing out our brains. Providing alternatives to getting intimate with a Smith & Wesson .38 Special could also provide compassionate and objective counseling along with cyanide (or whatever) and help limit suicide to cases where it's a rational (secular) choice.

            There are also gun deaths through sheer accidents and carelessness, and gun deaths where it's just as well that the person shot dead was shot dead (e.g., someone shooting children who can only be stopped with a bullet, or a number of bullets); but for analysis let's throw together for the moment (figuratively) all the bodies and say that widespread gun ownership results in 30,000 avoidable deaths in America each year.

            Even in such a biased context, gun advocates could still argue that "Freedom isn't free" and that the right to keep and bear arms is the ultimate guarantor of all the other rights Americans possess. Humankind may have been endowed at the Creation, individual humans may be endowed at birth, with "certain unalienable rights," but those rights are made real against tyranny by the ultimate Right of Revolution; and the Right of Revolution is made a real threat to potential tyrants by an armed citizenry.

            And in a country the size of the USA, thirty thousand deaths a year would be a steep price to pay for freedom, but, obviously, affordable.

            Now Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young reformulated "Freedom isn't free" for themselves and for my generation and sang "Find the cost of freedom," and one can take that injunction more literally than Neil Young and Stephen Stills intended — and come up with one's own calculations and dicker over freedom's sensible price. One should do that calculating, but the immediate counter-argument to a pro-gun argument in terms of the Bill of Rights must first be about rights.

            So on the subject of rights and making rights real and not just theoretical — on the subject of rights, the claimed right of gun owners to all the armaments they might want has contributed to a culture with a whole lot of guns and ammo and armor and an arms race among the somewhat overlapping groups of cops, criminals, "civilians," and (to a lesser extent) the National Guard and Federal forces who'd take on as necessary the task of putting down insurrections. All of these citizens — and noncitizens among us benefiting from the Second Amendment in arming themselves — all of these folk have ramped up their fire-power, and we now have police militarized beyond anything I grew up with in the violent big city of Chicago, and kids subjected to privacy invasions rare when I was growing up and a young adult in the youth-fearing eras of the 1950s and 1960s.

            As a practical matter, the over-insistence on Second Amendment rights has led to a diminution of other rights as citizens have come to be viewed by cops as those "civilians" and treated as potential threats. So we get "Stop and Frisk" laws and metal detectors and locker searches in schools and increases of State power epitomized by SWAT teams with automatic weapons.

            The Right of Revolution and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms are indeed rights, but they must be recognized as rights in the real world in competition with other rights, starting with such things as ordinary citizens' arrested for crimes having the right to expect to be asked to "Come along quietly" and not routinely handcuffed. I do blame the cops for not being as courageous and courteous as they ought to be, but it makes perverse sense to treat just about everyone as potentially armed and dangerous when just about everyone a cop arrests is potentially armed and dangerous.


            "[T]he right of the people" as individuals "to keep and bear arms" is an important right — but if the subject is rights, there needs to be balance, and it can and should be argued the right to buy a 30-cartridge magazine if one takes a mind to is trumped by the right of kids not to go to schools increasingly managed like prisons, complete with "lock downs."

            That necessity for balancing of rights having been established, we can get down to facts, details, and dickering. For one thing, there are historical issues to be resolved over just what sort of citizen armaments are useful for resisting tyranny — hint: the State always starts out with overwhelming fire power; the turning point in revolutions is when ordinary soldiers refuse to fire on the people and join them. Perhaps "The People, united, / Will never be defeated"; but even with assault rifles they won't be taking out a tank platoon.

            After arguing out the history, we can dicker over hunting weapons and what is reasonable for home defense (where I've lived, home defense meant a serious knife or two and a baseball bat).

            Or we could dicker if the politics allowed it. But they don't, so for now about the best we can do is improve the statistics by getting old folks to kill ourselves without firearms — and we unarmed or lightly-armed Americans can embark on a long-term project of making our over-armed fellow Americans a little less fearful. Long term, we need to give all Americans a little more confidence in the "collective security" of government and a whole lot less confidence in the effectiveness of self-help justice.

            It also would help to go back to the idea that guns are "equalizers"; the conviction that real men, and real women, can get by with words or, when things get violent, fists or knives or a baseball bat. Conflict is inevitable and violence may be; but you don't have drive-by knifings or a dozen people killed in a few minutes by a guy with a ball bat.

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