I don't think Adam Lanza's mother needed those guns she had in her house. If she was an avid target shooter, she could have stored the guns outside her home. If she had not had those guns, she might still be alive and perhaps all those who died in Newtown a year ago might still be with us. And Adam might have been able to get the help he most desperately needed.
Who Needs a Gun?
By GARY GUTTING
writing for The Stone
Published by the NY Times, Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
In September, Navy Yard; in November, a racially fraught shooting in Michigan and a proposed “stand-your-ground law” in Ohio; now the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre — there’s no avoiding the brutal reality of guns in America. Once again, we feel the need to say something, but we know the old arguments will get us nowhere. What’s the point of another impassioned plea or a new subtlety of constitutional law or further complex analyses of statistical data?
Even when a gun makes sense in principle as a means of self-defense, it may do more harm than good.
Our discussions typically start from the right to own a gun, go on to ask how, if at all, that right should be limited, and wind up with intractable disputes about the balance between the right and the harm that can come from exercising it. I suggest that we could make more progress if each of us asked a more direct and personal question: Should I own a gun?
A gun is a tool, and we choose tools based on their function. The primary function of a gun is to kill or injure people or animals. In the case of people, the only reason I might have to shoot them — or threaten to do so — is that they are immediately threatening serious harm. So a first question about owning a gun is whether I’m likely to be in a position to need one to protect human life. A closely related question is whether, if I were in such a position, the gun would be available and I would be able to use it effectively.
Unless you live in (or frequent) dangerous neighborhoods or have family or friends likely to threaten you, it’s very unlikely that you’ll need a gun for self-defense. Further, counterbalancing any such need is the fact that guns are dangerous. If I have one loaded and readily accessible in an emergency (and what good is it if I don’t?), then there’s a non-negligible chance that it will lead to great harm. A gun at hand can easily push a family quarrel, a wave of depression or a child’s curiosity in a fatal direction.
Even when a gun makes sense in principle as a means of self-defense, it may do more harm than good if I’m not trained to use it well. I may panic and shoot a family member coming home late, fumble around and allow an unarmed burglar to take my gun, have a cleaning or loading accident. The N.R.A. rightly sets high standards for gun safety. If those unable or unwilling to meet these standards gave up their guns, there might well be a lot fewer gun owners.
Guns do have uses other than defense against attackers. There may, for example, still be a few people who actually need to hunt to feed their families. But most hunting now is recreational and does not require keeping weapons at home. Hunters and their families would be much safer if the guns and ammunition were securely stored away from their homes and available only to those with licenses during the appropriate season. Target shooting, likewise, does not require keeping guns at home.
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Finally, there’s the idea that citizens need guns so they can, if need be, oppose the force of a repressive government. Those who think there are current (or likely future) government actions in this country that would require armed resistance are living a paranoid fantasy. The idea that armed American citizens could stand up to our military is beyond fantasy.
Once we balance the potential harms and goods, most of us — including many current gun owners — don’t have a good reason to keep guns in their homes. This conclusion follows quite apart from whether we have a right to own guns or what restrictions should be put on this right. Also, the conclusion derives from what makes sense for each of us as individuals and so doesn’t require support from contested interpretations of statistical data.
I entirely realize that this line of thought will not convince the most impassioned gun supporters, who see owning guns as fundamental to their way of life. But about 70 million Americans own guns and only about four million belong to the N.R.A., which must include a large number of the most impassioned. So there’s reason to think that many gun owners would be open to reconsidering the dangers their weapons pose. Also, almost 30 percent of gun owners don’t think that guns make a household safer, and only 48 percent cite protection (rather than hunting, target shooting, etc.) as their main reason for having a gun.
It’s one thing to be horrified at gun violence. It’s something else to see it as a meaningful threat to your own existence. Our periodic shock at mass shootings and gang wars has little effect on our gun culture because most people don’t see guns as a particular threat to them. This is why opposition to gun violence has lacked the intense personal commitment of those who see guns as essential to their safety — or even their self-identity.
I’m not suggesting that opponents of gun violence abandon political action. We need to make it harder to buy guns (through background checks, waiting periods, etc.) both for those with criminal intentions and for law-abiding citizens who have no real need. But on the most basic level, much of our deadly violence occurs because we so often have guns readily available. Their mere presence makes suicide, domestic violence and accidents more likely. The fewer people with guns at hand, the less gun violence.
It’s easier to get people to see that they don’t want something than that they don’t have a right to it. Focusing on the need rather than the right to own a gun, many may well conclude that for them a gun is more a danger than a protection. Those fewer guns will make for a safer country.