Ethan Kessler: Why are we still talking about guns?

Monday, January 14, 2019 - 8:53pm

Ethan Kessler

Ethan Kessler Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

The coming year stands to be a watershed for the raging debate over guns and gun violence in this country. Those who strongly oppose more stringent gun control measures remain shaken from a raft of prominent, though largely symbolic, policy changes enacted after last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and seem especially vulnerable in light of Democrats’ recent takeover of the House of Representatives. Gun violence is one of the most intensely political issues in the U.S. The extensive amount of media coverage (and conspiracy theories, for that matter) dedicated to the topic exemplify the polarized nature of the discussion. So, it’s prudent to ask: Why care about guns?

The emotional contours of the gun debate are a good place to start.  Much like other forms of violence, mass shootings receive what many deem a disproportionate amount of media attention in the U.S. Even though this attention partially obscures the numerical primacy of bigger killers, such as heart disease and cancer, we should not chastise ourselves too much. Tragedy is found not only in absolute conceptions of death but also in relative ones. On average, as many Americans die every couple of days from heart disease as did Americans in all of the Sept. 11 attacks, but it is the latter that we memorialize because no one reasonably expected nearly 3,000 healthy office workers and first responders to be murdered so gruesomely that day. So, beyond the unique grisliness that often define gun deaths, there is good reason to dedicate extra attention to cruel and often unpredictable incidences of gun violence.

Not only do we find gun violence intensely tragic compared to other, more natural causes of death, but as Americans, we are forced to confront this tragedy much more often than our peers. Among the world’s free, wealthy and Western societies, the U.S. stands in a league of its own with regards to gun-related crime. Countries with similar overall rates of crime pale in comparison to the U.S. when one looks at per capita firearm homicides — sometimes, with specific regards to firearm homicides, by a factor as great as nine.

Yet writing off guns as just another weapon does not do proper justice to the unique power they possess. They are often used as tools of crime, yes, just like baseball bats, lead pipes and knives. But unlike any of these implements — none of which could be as feasibly regulated as a complexly machined firearm — guns make violent crimes much more lethal. Firearms’ impressive lethality, delivered in a package so concealable and accessible, is found in no other device. To sufficiently recognize the potential the gun possesses for both creating and preventing violence is to acknowledge this unique power, as anyone who has used one in self-defense can attest to.  

It is also in this capacity of self-defense that people often envision guns most romantically. While firearms and their unique power makes them ideal choices for individuals who wish to feel more secure, widespread gun use is weakly justified in light of the attendant dangers they pose to society as whole. This disconnect with reality reflects humans’ innate desire to care for our own security to preserve oneself even when the aggregate costs or the long-term risks of doing so prove to be countervailing. If we refuse to acknowledge these hardwired, albeit flawed, instincts that drive the popular desire to possess guns, we can scarcely begin to convince others that more guns may unwittingly make us less safe.

However, we as Americans should not approach guns only in terms of the distinctive dangers they pose, but also through a historical lens. From the minutemen who made possible the American Revolution to the frontiersmen who conquered Native American lands by force as they pushed to the Pacific, American history has been largely forged by the gun. The legacies of household militias and armed pioneers, and the way they have distinguished Americans from other Westerners to the present, are a force to be reckoned with in any effective approach to gun policy. Good and bad, guns are an indelible part of America’s past and present. Logistical and legal realities ensure they will be around for the future as well.

Moreover, the current moment demands levelheaded analysis of gun policy because prominent opinions often make the easy mistake of patently demonizing guns or wholeheartedly lionizing them. Gun control, while an important part of any comprehensive public health policy, should not hog the policy spotlight at the expense of other contributors to gun violence and crime more generally, such as inadequate public education, astronomical incarceration and recidivism rates and insufficient treatment of mental health. On the other hand, loudly decrying efforts to limit the Second Amendment without consistently and persuasively justifying a need for it inherently posits that the Constitution is entirely infallible (which the deeply flawed Electoral College proves otherwise) while overlooking our constitutional right to legislatively revise outdated provisions. Addressing the gun-related costs American society bears while maintaining the spirit of liberty and set forth by the founding fathers requires that both of these considerations are paid due attention.

Gun violence in the U.S. is a national-level problem that demands national-level input. Taming this violence requires that we analyze gun policy with intense scrutiny, but vastly differing interpretations of gun rights in the U.S. reflect the significant political polarization that we must overcome to enact any meaningful change. 2019 may very well be the year that the pro-gun lobby, after facing numerous setbacks, is forced to moderate some of its more apocalyptic doctrine. Alternatively, it could be the year that large-scale action on gun violence, despite recent legislative improvements, stalls in ordinary fashion. Regardless, solutions to gun violence will require thoughtful policies that acknowledge firearms’ incredible capacity to hurt, while respecting the rich history of firearms in America, and the bearing this will have on gun control efforts down the road. There are plenty of reasons to care, and a lot of work to be done.

Ethan Kessler can be reached at ethankes@umich.edu.