America: armed and dangerous

America's gun enthusiasm does not lead to civility

March 28, 2011|By Firmin DeBrabander

"An armed society is a polite society," guns rights advocates are fond of saying. And if they have their way, we'll all soon be very polite indeed. We'll practically be walking on eggshells.

The Arizona legislature is poised to pass a law allowing guns to be carried on college campuses by students and professors alike. Other states seem prepared to follow suit — and some voices in the gun lobby are going so far as to urge that schoolteachers be armed, too.

Feeling safer yet?

Even here in Maryland — not exactly a bastion of gun-rights extremism — a law that grants permits to carry a handgun only to those who can show a demonstrated need has been challenged in federal court, in a case that has drawn national attention.

Some people are growing squeamish about the expansion of gun rights, especially in the face of increasingly regular massacres. I have bad news for the squeamish: There is no turning back, the National Rifle Association would like you to know, so we better get used to the idea of a society where nearly everyone is armed.

The NRA reminded us of this when it recently refused the president's invitation to meet with administration officials and gun safety advocates to discuss the future of gun legislation and better enforcement of current gun laws. This meeting was prompted by the horrific shootings at a Tucson shopping center in January, which killed six and wounded 13, and by subsequent calls by a group of big-city mayors to improve gun safety.

In a statement, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said, "Why should I or the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment?"

The NRA is feeling its oats, and knows it has little to fear politically, since most in Congress are its loyal lapdogs. Judging from his op-ed published in the Tucson newspaper last week, it turns out the president doesn't even intend to push new gun control legislation and has stated that he is only interested in enforcing gun safety laws more effectively.

With its refusal to even sit at the same table with people who have doubts about broad gun ownership — combined with its push to get guns onto college campuses — the NRA has signaled that it is taking its crusade to a higher level: It aims to remove any shame, awkwardness or modesty associated with gun ownership. Sitting at the same table with gun safety advocates? Well, that might send the message that there is something still potentially abnormal or embarrassing in owning and carrying guns of any caliber.

On the one hand, who can blame the NRA? Any lobby worth its salt should fight to remove shame attached to its object of devotion. But with respect to gun ownership, I'd argue, shame and modesty are still very much in need. If the NRA succeeds in disassociating those qualities entirely from gun ownership, caution will vanish, too, I fear. And clearly, caution is already in too short supply. How is expanded gun toting supposed to reverse that trend?

The NRA would like to argue that we just need to work harder at making sure guns are in the hands of "good guys" and out of the hands of "bad guys." As Mr. LaPierre writes in his response to the president's op-ed, "Rank and file law enforcement want to arrest bad people — not harass law-abiding gun owners and retailers."

I have long noticed this kind of Manichean language emanating from the guns rights camp. The world is divided into good and evil; there are bad people in it, and we need to let the good people be armed so they can defend their families, etc.

This is fallacious thinking. The world is typically not black and white but many shades of grey. Good people sometimes do bad things, and bad people sometimes do good things. Good people will sometimes make bad decisions with guns — and the more widely guns are available, the more likely these bad decisions are to occur. This is no vain speculation, just the law of averages.

Common sense tells us this much, but it seems our society increasingly resists common sense on the gun debate. Can we imagine elementary schoolteachers with guns behind their desks? Seriously? What's wrong with us? No civil society worthy of the name should need armed teachers.

Many journalists have been awestruck by the civility of Japanese citizens following the devastating earthquake and tsunami this month. Incredibly, there has been no looting or stealing, though many lack shelter, food and water. Instead, journalists report, people form orderly lines when relief services appear.

That is the sign of a truly civil society, and it requires no wide-scale arming of the population. The gun lobby is driving us headlong into an apocalyptic society, by contrast. It is time for reason to reclaim the debate.

Firmin DeBrabander is chairman of the Humanistic Studies Department at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His e-mail is fdebrabander@mica.edu.

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