Ta-Nehisi Coates has the experience and the courage to say something that I’d been thinking about for a while: he would rather face the risk of being killed in a mass shooting than try to live armed. Read what he says, because the full explanation is worth it.
I have never carried a concealed handgun, but there were two separate periods in my life when I spent a lot of my time with a man who was armed or was still thinking as if he was. This kind of experience is hard to communicate, so bear with me.
Being armed, being prepared to defend oneself by shooting another human being at a moment’s notice, isn’t a matter of carrying a gun. It’s a way of living, a way of looking at the world, that is so inherently different it is hard to explain to people who haven’t seen it.
Imagine being a cop and never getting to go off duty.
One of the men I mentioned was a former FBI agent. He admitted to me that it took a huge toll on him. When he was being really honest with himself, he could recognize that he still thought that way, and that it seriously affected his ability to engage in everyday social activities. He hated crowds, busy places, even enclosed places. A trip to the mall meant going to his personal Defcon-2. He wasn’t happy in a movie theater unless his back was against the wall – and that was long before Aurora. He could never, ever relax.
While that sounds extreme to most people – surely we don’t need to go that far, we can just make sure that people with concealed carry permits have a weekend training course, right? – that is actually what it takes to be able to respond quickly, effectively, and without hurting innocents. Even then, cops screw up, as we all know. That level of constant alert is at the bottom end of what it takes to be able to defend oneself at the drop of a hat – or the rack of a Glock.
When soldiers come back from war and can’t put it behind them, we call that a disease and we try to treat it. But what the NRA is advocating is that we all live this way all the time. They’re trying to make PTSD the American way of life.
Just being around somebody living that way was a bad experience for me. I might be at a concert, but he was busy imagining all the possible violent scenarios that could be going on in that same setting. It’s a lousy way to live. Worse yet, it actually creates more deaths.
Deliberately seeing the world that way changes the way you act. Viewing the world as a constant stream of people who are about to attack you – and who you may have to “take out” – makes you likely to act that way. It makes you see weapons when they aren’t there (something cops also do all the time) and it makes you shoot preemptively. That’s the point – you want to get your shot in first, that’s the way to save the day.
But when we look at the reality of the situation – and sorry, kids, that means using numbers (per xkcd) – it is vanishingly rare for you to have the opportunity to save the day. Meanwhile, you’re making a million split-second decisions every single day in your personal internal shooting gallery. You’re going to get some of them wrong. And then what happens? We know this, too: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis.
We know this is what the results are. Advocating for these policies means being willing to accept the results. People who aren’t willing to do this thinking are trying to use their violent heroic fantasies as the basis for public policy.
Ta-Nehisi was also aware enough and honest enough to examine the irrational fear of home invasion as a reason for owning a gun. When you actually look at the numbers, guns in homes don’t create safety. They do fuel accidents, suicide, domestic violence, and crime. More studies are linked to in this article. I don’t have the heart to do a point-by-point.
As for the idea of putting guns in schools, words are not enough to describe my disgust. If the guns are going to be accessible in an instant for a quick-response situation, then they’re going be accessible and available enough to play a role in accidents, bad decisions by teachers, and being used by students. (Obviously some people advocating this approach don’t remember their own high school days. Students are smart and determined enough to get their hands on teachers’ guns. Count on it.)
When guns are available in homes, they play a role in violence and deaths. If we make them more available in schools, they’ll do the same there. This isn’t an “if.” This is the reasonable conclusion of very simple projections based on available experience. Making policy as if these consequences won’t follow from the decisions is just another form of passing children through the fire.
I haven’t tried to marshal all the numbers to support this, but they are out there, along with much better writing about this:
If you only read one other thing about this issue, read the simple truth about gun control. The most important take-away is that much violence, including criminal violence, is extremely opportunistic. We already know this about suicide: the overwhelming majority of instances of suicide are impulsive, the result of something that will pass with time if people don’t have the resources available to carry through on it in short order. It turns out that much other violence is similar. Making it even a little bit harder to carry out a violent impulse makes society much, much safer. The conclusion:
On gun violence and how to end it, the facts are all in, the evidence is clear, the truth there for all who care to know it—indeed, a global consensus is in place, which, in disbelief and now in disgust, the planet waits for us to us to join. Those who fight against gun control, actively or passively, with a shrug of helplessness, are dooming more kids to horrible deaths and more parents to unspeakable grief just as surely as are those who fight against pediatric medicine or childhood vaccination. It’s really, and inarguably, just as simple as that.
And yes, Virginia, the assault weapons ban – as weak as it was – did work. We don’t know nearly enough about this because the NRA forced Congress to ban federal funding for research into gun violence, but we know enough to say that there are workable strategies.
Oh, and by the way, the conservative disgust at those “gun-free zone” stickers and signs is hypocritical to the nth degree. Those warnings are there because of the expansion of concealed carry laws. Some reasonable people wanted to be able to decide that the local hospital was not the place to pack heat, or to decide that they wanted to run their restaurant while asking customers to leave the gun in the car. So pro-gun advocates said that clear public warnings about where you’re not allowed to have your gun were necessary. When concealed carry advocates make fun of the signs, they’re mocking the very idea of an exception to a blanket “carry everywhere” law. It’s part and parcel of making us always on alert.
Finally, here’s the conservative case for an assault weapons ban:
…if we can’t find a way to draw sensible lines with guns that balance individual rights and the public interest, we may as well call the American experiment in democracy a failure.
I know I’ve been going on and on about this. Later today I’ll try to put together something else. But as we move away from the shock and towards the policy-making, we’ve got to engage both our emotions and our intellects in the process. I’m tired of seeing the NRA responding by whipping up our lizard-brain-level fear as an excuse for keeping our culture toxic. This is my way of trying to work through that.