Tuesday, August 14, 2007

a fool’s errand.

In a recent post, Tam heaped some scorn on one Mrs. Robyn Ringler, a gun control activist and writer who blogs on gun violence. Tam rightly points out that it makes no sense to single out gun violence over, say, knife or fist violence—it's not any more deplorable when a man shoots his estranged wife than if he bludgeons her to death, or runs her over with his SUV.

There are many people like Mrs. Ringler. They mostly mean well, but their particular crusade against guns is a fool's errand. They single out the tool, and not the action. In Mrs. Ringler perfect world, nobody would have guns (except maybe the cops she'd call if someone were to break into her house), and where there are no guns, there's no gun violence.

There are some major problems with that line of thinking. First of all, people like Mrs. Ringler don't (or can't) understand that you cannot stuff the genie back into the bottle. Technology cannot be un-invented. There are over a hundred million functioning firearms in private hands in this country alone, and even if you banned the sale and manufacture of new guns tomorrow, those guns are out there. All you would accomplish is to do for gun what we did for drugs with the destructive War on Drugs: you'd create a vast black market for guns that enjoys government price control. Drugs have been illegal for a long time, and billions of dollars have been spent fighting their manufacture and distribution, and yet they are available on just about every street corner in America. Now consider that firearms are much more durable and longer-lived than manufactured pharmaceuticals (and therefore much better suited to be passed from user to user), and you'd have to suffer from a very pervasive kind of self-delusion to think that banning guns will get rid of them.

Then there's human ingenuity. When you make an item illegal, you encourage a cottage industry for it. When I was a teenager, one of the kids in my neighborhood had the ability to make guns out of damn near anything. He had an IQ of about 80, but he was skilled with tools, and he was able to make fairly sophisticated revolvers and shotguns. Now, this kid had a pretty modest workbench set up in the basement, and he was able to make functioning firearms—think about what the average American hobbyist could crank out with the tools commonly found in a suburban garage. Any dolt can mix blackpowder—the recipe has been Public Domain since the Chinese made their first rockets in the Middle Ages. See what I mean about not being able to un-invent technology? You can't erase the knowledge of metallurgy and chemistry from the minds of people, so even if you managed to wave a magic wand and make all the guns disappear, there'd be new ones in private hands within weeks.

The next problem for Mrs. Ringler, and perhaps the more complicated one, is the innate human desire for self-preservation. You see, humans naturally gravitate towards personal weapons, because they have always been a necessary tool for survival. Drop a man into an unfamiliar wilderness, and the first thing he will do is to gather something suitable for use as a weapon—a few whacks with a sharp-edged rock will turn a stick into a spear. We want to survive, and when you drop someone into a forest full of hungry and feral things, their brain circumvents all the ideology and politics, and goes straight past the bullshit to the survival basics. I have no doubt that even Mrs. Ringler's brain will work in that fashion if and when the chips are down—if she ever heard an intruder rummaging through her house, I'd bet dollars to donuts that she'd have at least a kitchen knife or some sort of improvised impact weapon in one hand while she dialed 911 with the other hand. Your instincts don't care about your stance on gun control or weapons in general—they will tell you to grab the baseball bat or the putter by the closet, and get ready to apply it to the skull of whatever wild animal comes through your bedroom door. You can suppress that instinct, of course, but it takes a rare kind of ideological fervor. (Even the "bear guy" Timothy Treadwell, who once stated that he'd consider it an honor to be eaten by a bear, told his girlfriend to hit the bear with a pan when he did, in fact, get eaten by it.) People want weapons--it's in our nature, an instinct honed by many thousands of years of evolution, clawing our way to the top of the food chain with no advantage but our large brains and our opposable thumbs. Trying to counter the urge for self-preservation is as futile as trying to counter the urge for sexual reproduction--any policy that counteracts those instincts is doomed to failure from the beginning.

Lastly, there's the problem of force parity. Before the advent of the firearm, the efficiency of a weapon was determined by the muscle power of the user. The sword, the bow, the knife, and the mace all required physical strength to wield them, and the stronger person was always at an advantage against the weaker one. It's more than a bit ironic that an intelligent and otherwise informed woman like Mrs. Ringler would want to remove the one thing from society that has given teeth to the weak (and yes, women in general are physically weaker than men.) Any 90-pound college student or octogenarian grandmother can pull the trigger on a gun and have complete force parity with a 220-pound rapist or home invader. Take the guns away from them, and we return to a society where women have to rely on men to protect them from other men.

(Interestingly enough, gun opponents like Mrs. Ringler do just that—they outsource their personal safety. When you call 911, you summon a man with a gun to use force on your behalf. The fact that you don't personally own the weapon in question doesn't make you morally superior—on the contrary, it makes you a hypocrite of the first order. You absolve yourself from having to use force by shifting that responsibility to another person, and then you congratulate yourself on your civilized attitude.)

So, why do these people spend so much time and energy tilting at windmills? I don't commit the logical fallacy of assuming that all gun control proponents are uneducated. On the contrary, many (if not most) are well-schooled. Gun control is one of the pet causes of the liberal-leaning crowd, and there are many academics and college graduates among those ranks. Could it be that the Left is just as likely as the Right to ignore evidence if it contradicts deeply held emotions?

Gun control is a fool's errand, Mrs. Ringler. It doesn't disarm the bad guys, only those who are already inclined to obey the law. I've often heard that gun owners are paranoid because they feel the need to own weapons for protections. Well, who's more paranoid: the person who owns a gun, or the person who wants to disarm everyone?

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