FANTASISTS AND ZEALOTS can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. Many gun-rights advocates reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public. And proponents of stricter gun laws are often unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm. Between these two extremes, we must find grounds for a rational discussion about the problem of gun violence.
Unlike most Americans, I stand on both sides of this debate. I understand the apprehension that many people feel toward "gun culture," and I share their outrage over the political influence of the National Rifle Association. How is it that we live in a society in which one of the most compelling interests is gun ownership? Where is the science lobby? The safe food lobby? Where is the get-the-Chinese-lead-paint-out-of-our-kids'-toys lobby? When viewed from any other civilized society on earth, the primacy of guns in American life seems to be a symptom of collective psychosis.
Most of my friends do not own guns and never will. When asked to consider the possibility of keeping firearms for protection, they worry that the mere presence of them in their homes would put themselves and their families in danger. Can't a gun go off by accident? Wouldn't it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.
But, unlike my friends, I own several guns and train with them regularly. The reason for this is simple: I have always wanted to be able to protect myself and my family, and I have never had any illusions about how quickly the police can respond when called. If a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police — it is a problem of physics.
In my view, only someone who doesn't understand violence could wish for a world without guns. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of SEAL Team Six, can expect to prevail over more than one attacker at a time. A world without guns, therefore, is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive.
Of course, owning a gun is not a responsibility that everyone should assume. Most guns kept in the home will never be used for self-defense. They are, in fact, more likely to be used by an unstable person to threaten family members or to commit suicide. However, there is nothing irrational about judging oneself to be psychologically stable and fully committed to the safe handling and ethical use of firearms — if, indeed, one is.
An ethical argument against gun ownership must deal with the hard case: Where a responsible owner of a gun winds up protecting herself and her family when only a gun would avail. Such cases exist, and their importance is not canceled by the bad things that happen when the wrong people — criminals, children, and the mentally unstable — come into possession of guns. Needless to say, we should do everything we can to keep guns out of the hands of people who will use them irresponsibly, but there are already 300 million guns in the United States, and no one appears to have a plan for reducing this number. Unless we are going to institute a $150 billion buyback of existing weapons and make the penalty for possessing an illegal gun so onerous that no sane person would do it, it will remain trivially easy for career criminals to acquire guns in this country.
FIFTY-FIVE MILLION KIDS went to school on the day that 20 were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., so the chances of a child's dying in a school shooting are remote. Seventy mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, leaving 543 dead. These crimes were horrific, but 564,452 other homicides took place in the U.S. during the same period. Mass shootings scarcely represent 0.1 percent of all murders.
One problem with liberal dreams of "gun control" is that the kinds of guns used in the majority of crimes would not fall under any plausible weapons ban. Advocates of stricter gun laws who claim to respect the rights of "sportsmen" or "hunters," and to recognize a legitimate need for "home defense," simply give the game away at the outset. The very guns that law-abiding citizens use for recreation or home defense are, in fact, the problem.
In the vast majority of murders committed with firearms — even most mass killings — the weapon used is a handgun. Unless we outlaw and begin confiscating handguns, the weapons best suited for being carried undetected into a classroom, movie theater, restaurant, or shopping mall for the purpose of committing mass murder will remain readily available in the U.S. No one is seriously proposing that we address the problem on this level. In fact, the Supreme Court has recently ruled, twice (in 2008 and 2010), that banning handguns would be unconstitutional. Nor is anyone advocating that we deprive hunters of their rifles. Yet any rifle suitable for killing deer will allow even an unskilled shooter to wreak havoc upon innocent men, women, and children at a range of several hundred yards.
The problem, therefore, is that with respect to either factor that makes a gun suitable for mass murder — ease of concealment (a handgun) or range (a rifle) — the most common and least stigmatized weapons are among the most dangerous. I support all of the reforms that gun-control advocates are calling for — universal background checks, better mental health screening, a national registry, limited-capacity magazines, a ban on "assault weapons," checks against the terrorist watch list, etc. — but they will do very little to prevent the next Newtown. We could make a gun license as difficult to get as a pilot's license, requiring dozens of hours of training. I would certainly be happy to see a policy change of this kind. But I am under no illusions that such restrictions would make it difficult for the wrong people to acquire guns illegally.
I see only two options with respect to keeping our schools safe: (1) We can admit that school shootings are extraordinarily rare events, hope they remain so, and then do nothing apart from implementing the above reforms; or (2) we can decide that these events, however rare, are simply intolerable to us — and we can spend the $10 billion or so it would cost each year to put a police officer in every school. There is no guarantee, of course, that option (2) would be effective. But those who think that it is obviously a bad idea, beyond its cost, seem to suffer from many misconceptions about guns and violence.
Gun-control advocates often fail to distinguish situations in which a gun in the hands of a good person would be useless (or worse) and those in which it would be likely to save dozens of innocent lives. They are eager to extrapolate from the Aurora shooting to every other possible scene of mass murder. However, a single gunman trying to force his way into a school, or roaming its hallways, or even standing in a classroom surrounded by dead and dying children, would be far easier to engage effectively — with a gun — than James Holmes would have been in a dark and crowded movie theater. Even in the case of the Aurora shooting, it is not ludicrous to suppose that everyone might have been better off had a well-trained person with a gun been at the scene. The fact that bystanders do occasionally get shot, even by police officers, does not prove that putting guns in the hands of good people would be a bad idea.
AS THE PARENT of a daughter in preschool, I can scarcely imagine the feelings of terror, helplessness, and grief endured by the parents of Newtown. But when I contemplate atrocities of this kind, I do not think of "gun control" — because it seems extraordinarily unlikely that a deranged and/or evil person will ever find it difficult to acquire a firearm in the U.S. Rather, I think of how differently the situation might have evolved if the school had had an armed (and, I have to emphasize, well-trained) security guard on campus. I also think of how differently things might have gone if the shooter, who seems to have shown signs of mental illness for years, had been more intrusively engaged by society prior to the attack.
I do not know how we can solve the problem of gun violence. A renewed ban on "assault weapons" will do very little to make our society safer. It seems likely to be a symbolic step that delays real thinking about the problem of guns for another decade or more. By all means, let us ban these weapons. But when the next lunatic arrives at a school armed with legal pistols and a dozen 10-round magazines, we should be prepared to talk about how an assault weapons ban was a distraction from the real issue of gun violence.
I have said nothing here about what might cause a person like Adam Lanza to enter a school for the purpose of slaughtering innocent children. Clearly, we need more resources in the areas of childhood and teenage mental health, and we need protocols for parents, teachers, and fellow students to follow when a young man in their midst begins to worry them. In the majority of cases, someone planning a public assassination or a mass murder will communicate his intentions to others in advance of the crime. People need to feel personally responsible for acting on this information — and the authorities must be able to do something once the information gets passed along. But any law that allows us to commit or imprison people on the basis of a mere perception of risk would guarantee that large numbers of innocent people will be held against their will.
More than new laws, I believe we need a general shift in our attitude toward public violence — wherein everyone begins to assume some responsibility for containing it. It is worth noting that this shift has already occurred in one area of our lives, without anyone's having received special training or even agreeing that a change in attitude was necessary: Just imagine how a few men with box cutters would now be greeted by their fellow passengers at 30,000 feet.
Perhaps we can find the same resolve on the ground.
Next week: A response to this argument from Sean Faircloth, author and former state legislator.
©2013 by Sam Harris. A longer version of this article appeared originally at SamHarris.org. Reprinted with permission.