13 August 2013

The problem of the gun

Okay, I did the feminist post I’ve been dreading doing for years – now it’s time to get the dreaded gun post out of the way. It is indeed puzzling to me how both sides of the political spectrum seem to get gun politics somewhat backwards or inside-out, though the good and proper and charitable place to start, here, would be to detail what each side of the debate over gun politics in the United States gets right.

On the one hand, I feel that the ‘conservatives’ on the gun issue (who in reality generally tend to be confused liberals) are right when they say that guns, considered in themselves, are not the problem. Guns are only as good as the people who carry them: a gun in the hands of a person not already inclined to do harm with it will do none, and a person inclined to do harm will still find ways of doing it without the gun. Guns are tools, they argue, and rightly so.

However, those in favour of gun control also have a valid point to make. It is a common sense position to conclude that guns are a contributing factor to our society’s problems. Guns being tools for use by people, they necessarily have a multiplier effect on whatever violence, perverseness and pathology in our society (made up of people) are already there. Gang violence is made worse by guns. The illegal drug trade is made worse by guns. Undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems are made more dangerous by guns. The breakdown of the family (loath though the American liberal-left is to mention such a thing) is made more dangerous by guns. As you can see, the argument that guns are tools shoots (sorry) both ways.

But let’s look at this argument in a more productive, philosophical fashion. Guns are tools – very well. All tools have a purpose, a correct end to further human flourishing and excellence: whether that is transportation, protection, gathering and preparing food, learning, communicating. And a gun’s express purpose by virtue of its design is to kill, whether animals for food or enemies in war. I assign no normative value to this function – killing animals is good and right and necessary for certain ways of living in certain environments, and killing enemies in war or in the defence of the community may be necessary, though it may never be good and right. But it is the height of sophistry to suggest that a gun’s function is other than what it is.

As a lethal tool, something designed to end the life of some other animal (humans included), the right and proper use of it is something which has to be considered with painstaking care. Now, this goes well beyond basic training, gun safety and storage. These are all things to prevent harm to the body from the use of a gun. But what I am talking about here is also harm to the intellectual, emotional and spiritual life of the user. Allow me to offer as an analogy, the sword: a more elegant weapon for a more civilised age. Every culture which has had a martial culture surrounding swords has had some ethic to make the mind and soul behind it as keen and bright as the blade – whether the martial codes of ancient Greek city-states (particularly Sparta), the Frankish code of chivalry, the heathen Teutonic ideal of drengskapr, the dharma of the Indian warrior caste, the Arabic concept of furûsiyya or the Japanese bushidô, which in turn derives from the Chinese tradition of xia. To a one, these warrior-ethics – or more properly, sword-ethics – emphasised steadfastness, courage, discipline, service to a lord or to a higher ideal, and defence of the weak.

It is reasonable to imagine, since these very similar ethics arose in these very different cultures, that they arose in some measure out of the function and right use of the tool they governed. Speaking as a one-time fencer, there is a very particular mindset, a way of being, which accompanies the sword. A sword places you within arm’s reach of your enemy, and forces you to read their eyes and body. It places you bodily in harm’s way, face to face with your foe. There is something of a dancer’s skill needed in swordplay – you don’t merely ‘stand your ground’, you mind it. There is an existential terror in playing with blades: pain and disfigurement and death are so close to you, that it makes sense to see them regulated, internally, with a set of habits and virtues that govern how you use them. Warrior codes are not merely, as some historians like to claim, mere fantasies invented by Romantics to idealise an age of barbarism. They were healthy ways – realistic ways, really – to deal with the brutalities that the men put in harm’s way were faced with.

Allies of the gun lobby here like to claim that guns are a great ‘equaliser’: presumably, they remove from mortal conflict any differences of physical strength. But this is no boast – we cannot pretend that the habitual use of a tool does not have an effect on the character of the one using it. And if the gun lobby were truly conservative, they would make such a claim only with very grave concern. (As Aristotle said, the worst sort of inequality is to try to make things equal which are not!) What the gun does is that it removes the existential terror from killing. As the psychology of the sword propitiates the vice of wrath by its ill use, that of the gun propitiates pride – a much subtler and yet much more dangerous vice. It severs you and puts you at a distance from your opponent, such that you need no longer look him in the eye before you kill him. There is nothing of the dance in the firing of a gun; there is merely the feeling of control. It reduces the opponent from the state of being another human being to being merely prey. Granted, this is a Platonic characterisation – what I have described is a sniper in an unassailable perch, not a frightened soldier behind a barricade facing enemies who also have assault rifles. But most non-military gun owners will never be in the latter situation; as like as not, their experience will largely be only with dummies and animals, and that only at long range.

The problem is that the removal of that physical excellence trained when fighting with simple weapons portends also the removal of the moral excellence of the warrior code. If you remove from mortal conflict any consideration of physical strength – that is, if you take away that existential terror, the possibility of pain and maiming and death, that comes from engaging another human being with a simpler weapon – you remove up front also any need for the internal regulation, the discipline and the piety, which makes itself felt when any simpler weapon is used. The gun does make it so that a shorter, weaker and slower person may bring down a taller, stronger, faster person. But by that same token, it also makes a far more tempting weapon for the coward, the blackguard, the man who would prey on the weak to begin with. The most distressing thing to me about American gun culture is that there is no ethic of the gun, no organised code of discipline for gun-owners.

Gun owners will claim they have such, of course, and with some justification. But even the most responsible and nuanced gun advocates I’ve read generally don’t go beyond ‘don’t commit crimes’, exhortations to common-sense training, safety and storage, and usually something about the virtues attaining to family and home defence. All of which are very well and good, but much, much more than that is needed. For example, given that a sword and a gun are equally lethal when used properly, the ethics which applied to sword-owners in antiquity – subjection to the teachings and authority of the Church; defence of the weak; love of one’s home; hostility to heresy; observance of duties and oaths; truthfulness; generosity; love of justice – should apply equally to gun-owners. More than that, there needs to be some duty of propinquity, some deliberate ethic of constructive engagement with one’s neighbours, to counter the distancing and depersonalising effect that use of the gun has upon its habitual user.

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