Saturday, January 16, 2016


People do kill people, just like guns-rights advocates like to say, but they wouldn’t always be able to without guns.
Adrienne LaFrance. "Is There Such a Thing as a Safe Gun?"
"Guns" means different things to different people, and to the degree that there is a segment of the "pro-gun Right" for whom "guns" means safety, independence and liberty, there is a segment of the "anti-gun Left" for whom "guns" means the ability of people to engage in illegitimate violence and murder. And while these are perfectly legitimate understandings of guns, I don't know that they rise to the level of journalistic Truth.

It is accurate to note that people wouldn't always be able to kill other people without guns. But that's because, under certain conditions, you more or less require a firearm to do the job. But those conditions are a lot more specific than you might be lead to believe. Guns are tools, and therefore they share many of the traits that are common to tools. One of those traits is that they are opimized for specific tasks, but another of those traits is that they are not the only tool capable of carrying out those same tasks. (While we're on the topic, it's also worthwhile to point out that people aren't always able to kill other people with guns. "Guns" aren't a sort of remote control for human beings the comes with an "off" switch for disrupting human homeostasis. People regularly survive gunshot wounds.)

There are no "guns" in my apartment. But there is no shortage of other items in it that can be used to kill or injure another human being. True, I can't decide on a whim to go downtown and riddle a number of people with bullets - that specific sort of rapid mass assault is outside of the ability of the things that I keep in my home. But if I got it into my head that I wanted to kill a number of people, and I didn't need to have it done before going to bed this evening, the assorted bric-à-brac that I can gather up without leaving my four walls has me covered. And if I did feel the need to murder multiple people before turning in this evening, I could access that capability - I would just have to leave my apartment first.

Given this, the danger of too-tightly linking our capacity for murder with the ability to access firearms is that we act, and then don't see the drop in homicides that we'd be expecting. While I expect that we would see an immediate drop in the murder rate, to keep it down will require more. It's tempting to see the average American criminal as such an uncreative sort that they wouldn't know what to do if they didn't have guns at their disposal, but human history has shown us that where there is murderous intent, there is a way.

This isn't meant to be a defense of the status quo. The uproar that ensues when people talk about something as simple as background checks before purchases never ceases to amaze me. And the idea that if only more people carried guns with them, mass shootings would be less one-sided is laughable. But the problem that we have in the United States with homicide isn't simply one of access to a specific category of lethal weapon. The are social, economic and public health issues that we've been doing our best to ignore for some time now - I'm skeptical of the idea that we'd suddenly decide to tackle them once the National Rifle Association is out of the way.

When it comes to the issue of murder in the United States, "guns" are not a "Why." They're a "How." And although they're the "How" that most immediately comes to the mind of most people - most people aren't murderers. Seeking to cast "access to firearms" into the "Why" column, and then make it the dominant entry there because that's what occurs to us risks blinding us to the real reasons - and that's not what journalism, or even accurate advocacy, is designed to do.

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