I did not grow up around guns at all. As far as I remember, no one I knew in my extended network owned a gun. We did not hunt, we did not feel the need to have one for self-defense, and we didn’t go to a shooting range for recreation. I think I asked my immediate family in the last few years how many of them had even shot a gun before, and it was only about half. In a country of 300 million people, I imagine there are a lot of people that grew up just like me. And it’s in this context that so many Americans are absolutely perplexed by the support for gun rights even after events like mass shootings. I’ve tried to understand the passion for gun rights that so many Americans have that leads to a stalemate in the legislative process. In the end, one’s view of whether gun ownership is a fundamental right is probably the determinant on how one looks at the entirety of gun legislation.

Imagine a right that you consider to be very sacred. Now imagine that 1) a bunch of people are harmed by an incident and a legislative abridgment of that right is thought to be a meaningful way to reduce future harm. Or consider 2) a slight abridgment of the right – a law that imposes restrictions on your sacred right only in very exceptional circumstances, but those exceptional circumstances can also be seen as the most egregious instances of this right.

Rather than continue in the abstract, I’ll apply the thinking in the above paragraph to actual issues. If you consider the civil liberties of privacy and protection from unwarranted government surveillance to be really important, will a terrorist attack or an increase in organized crime change your value of that? Was the Patriot Act justified because of September 11th? Probably not. For people who view the 4th amendment to be particularly sacred, a terrorist attack that killed thousands of people does not change their fundamental right to protection from intrusive government surveillance. People who are a little more waffley on the 4th amendment argued that we’d need to compromise a little for the sake of security. I mean, we have to do something. This applies to point number 1 in the paragraph above.

For point #2, consider this logic in the context of abortion access, specifically partial birth abortion. Partial birth abortion is incredibly rare, and reproductive rights advocates often point to it as a distraction from the overall issue, saying that it paints a misleading picture of what typical abortions really look like. And if one is of the mindset that abortion choice is a fundamental right, a partial birth abortion ban is chipping away at that right with a slippery slope towards bigger and more meaningful restrictions.

Maybe you can see where I’m going here with the analogue to gun rights. For scenario 1, a mass shooting does not sway gun rights enthusiasts away from their sacred right to bear arms. Other peoples’ abuse of gun use does not change the right to own a gun, just as people planning a terrorist attack under the guise of privacy from FBI surveillance does not change my right to privacy either. In fact, any statistics showing how gun ownership leads to accidental deaths in the home or more suicides are totally irrelevant. The rush to “do something” in both circumstances – tighter gun control or the Patriot Act – was viewed by opponents as a knee-jerk reaction that encroached on fundamental liberties.

In scenario 2, one can see parallels between partial birth abortion and an assault weapons ban. Most gun deaths are not caused by assault weapons, even though their existence and use appear to be the least reasonable instance of self-defense or hunting. Legislation restricting ownership or even banning them is an encroachment on a fundamental right to own a gun, anyway. And it’s only time before laws keep chipping away at the guns people are allowed to own and everything falls into the category.

I think there’s also some truth to the idea that those seeking partial birth abortion bans do see it as a roadmap to outlawing abortion entirely. Similarly, those banning assault weapons would be open to the idea of outlawing gun ownership entirely – or at least they’re comfortable with getting to that point.

In these scenarios, the important difference is where your “square one” is. If your square one is that gun ownership is a fundamental right, all logic flows from that and restrictions on gun ownership are almost always dubious and a huge burden of proof is placed against legislation that restricts it. If your square one does not include a particularly passionate defense of gun ownership, then you probably see all gun control as completely reasonable.

I of course am in the latter camp, struggling to see why people are willing to tolerate a society that allows so much gun violence. But the more important thing is that I don’t see why gun ownership is held so sacred to so many people. And if the starting point for such a critical mass of Americans is holding this right so closely to their heart, is there much room for meaningful overlapping compromise? If the 2nd amendment is so important to so many in the electorate, will any significant efforts to limit ownership be seen as an unjustified violation of rights? Maybe people are less extreme than we assume they are. That the binary of “pro choice” and “pro life” is as exaggerated as the “gun rights” vs “gun restrictions” dichotomy. I hope that’s the case.

Way back, Carson talked about how people generally make up their minds on certain issues before even hearing the two sides of an argument. People will furthermore only hear what they want to hear – and what they want to hear is what agrees with them. I think the issue of guns, and gun control more specifically, is a great example of this. Although one court case is trying to change the image of the gun rights issue, guns carry a stigma with a lot of people that they will probably never be able to shake off.

I grew up in a neighborhood where guns were pretty much non-existent. In fact, I can’t think of anyone from my childhood who owned a gun. We lived in a safe neighborhood where self-protection wasn’t an immediate concern (though this incident in Wilmette did get national attention) and not many hunters were around. As a result, I grew up kind of thinking guns were creepy – and still kind of do. Guns are for redneck Southerners, gangbangers, animal-torturing lunatics, and/or general weirdos. Guns have no place in a society made up of educated, law-abiding citizens. Or at least, so I believed.

I think this impression of guns sticks with a lot of people. Guns are weird and unnecessary and having gun control legislation- or maybe even the complete ban on guns – makes the world a better place. But once I tried to look at gun rights and gun control objectively, I started to realize that gun control is pretty damn stupid. Gun control has a few aims, among them:

  • Stop criminals from getting guns.
  • Stop innocent children accidentally killing themselves from guns around the house.

Stop criminals from getting guns. Does gun control really do this? There are more than 10,000 laws about gun ownership and purchasing on the books. Is one more really going to stop bad guys from getting them? In fact, gun control can even help to fund organized crime. Gun control is somewhat of a Prohibition on guns. Like Prohibition of alcohol or drugs, organized crime – gangs, the mob – profit by supplying hard to get or illegal items. Criminals commit crimes, by definition. Why would they care to respect laws regarding gun control?

We often hear of horror stories involving children who wandered into their parents closet and then shot themselves by accident. But how often does this really happen? Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, is often cited for his quote that “If you own a gun and have a swimming pool in the yard, the swimming pool is almost 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is.” Basically, yeah, guns kill kids. So do bath tubs, toasters, and scissors.

Ok ok. I know gun ownership is a much more complicated subject than what I just laid out. In the end, it is essentially a cost-benefit analysis (if we are only looking at the matter on utilitarian grounds) of the good gun ownership does in crime deterrence versus the bad it does by widening access. But, I’ll just say briefly that looking at statistics and studies that compare states with right to concealed weapons and states without, I believe that gun control does more harm than good. John Lott’s book More Guns, Less Crime is a great synopsis.

For the time being, rather than get into a detailed debate on gun control, I want to focus on a specific court case going on now. Rather than being a hunter or redneck, Otis McDonald is just an old dude who lives in a bad Chicago neighborhood. For the sake of time, let’s analyze gun control as it applies to Otis’s situation. Otis lives in a neighborhood full of crime and gangs. He is often threatened outside his house in broad daylight for apparently doing nothing wrong. Otis wants a gun to protect himself.

Gun control advocates would say that rather than give Otis a gun, we should work harder to take the guns away from the people that are making Otis feel unsafe. I think that the situation at hand makes that solution impractical. Like I said before, preventing those fiends from getting guns would be impossible unless we had a police state. Like alcohol during Prohibition or drugs now, people always find a way to get their hands on stuff the want. The people who bother Otis, especially.

So what is Otis to do? Call the police whenever people threaten him? Come on. That might take 15 minutes and by that time he’s either dead or the threatening people have scattered. Giving Otis a gun – or, at least convincing the troublemakers that Otis might legally have a gun – is a deterrence in itself. Right now, only the troublemakers have guns. They know they have the upper hand. Law-abiding citizens have nothing to defend themselves but the police. The possibility of Otis owning a gun and its deterrent effects is seen by right to carry concealed weapons laws. If people are allowed to carry concealed weapons on the street, not every citizen will buy a gun; but if criminals know that some people are packing heat, it definitely will make them think twice about robbing just anybody. I think the proof is in the pudding (pictured here) for the effects of something like this when one looks at statistics.

I know gun control is a complicated issue. I don’t mean to say that Otis’s situation is the only kind of situation in the battle over guns rights and gun control. However, it does beg the question: what is someone in Otis’s position – a black, blue-collar, septuagenarian – to do to protect himself?