by Carl Strang
The horror of the tragedy last week in New England raises again the debate in America regarding guns. Today I am taking a step away from the usual content of this blog to register my current thoughts on this issue. My roots are in rural Indiana, and I come from a family in which hunting and fishing are important traditions. We were taught by my Dad to regard guns as tools for obtaining food. There was a recreation component to hunting: that enjoyment of an outdoor activity, that relationship to wildlife, contributed to my development as a scientist and natural historian (such is the admittedly tenuous connection to this blog).
The most important lesson from hunting, in my view, is the direct experience of the fact that our lives depend upon the death of others. I felt the visceral, poignant sense of loss of life when I considered that my decision to shoot ended the life of a free wild animal. At the same time there was something honest about it. I took that life myself, rather than indirectly through a butcher or grain harvester (as a budding biologist I had the wisdom to realize that a plant’s life is no less valuable than an animal’s; also, this is why I minimize the collecting of insects in my research).
As I said, we regarded guns as tools. Dad’s approach to guns was no different than his approach to the band saw. We were to stay away from that power saw, and from guns, until he decided we were old enough. There was instruction on safety, and respect for the danger potential in the misuse of those tools. The idea of ending a human life with our shotgun or rifle was as abhorrent and insane as would be the ending of a human life with the saw.
My central point is that if we as a society were to regard guns as tools, we would take a step forward in resolving the gun issue. We are at a point now where people on both sides of this debate are thinking of guns too abstractly and too monolithically, either with phobic hysteria or as objects of worship. In fact there are different categories of guns as tools. There are guns specialized for hunting, guns specialized for target shooting, and guns specialized for killing people.
A categorization of guns as tools would, I hope, forward the debate and defuse some of the fear and hysteria on both sides. An acknowledgement of the legitimacy of guns for hunting and for target shooting might convert mindless generic fear to conditional acceptance on the anti-gun side, potentially removing some fear of the unknown there. Acknowledgement that some guns are in fact designed to kill people might ultimately prove to the pro-gun side that guns don’t have to be regarded monolithically. I have seen pro-gun arguments that the way to avoid school gun tragedies is to convert all teachers to gun-packin’ buckaroos. I won’t honor such idiocy with further consideration.
There is no need for civilians to own assault weapons, automatic rifles or other guns designed to kill people. The pro-monolithic-gun side is fond of raising the slippery slope argument, an argument based on fear, and one I don’t buy. The “civilians” qualifier is significant. I have no quarrel with the military. I don’t pretend to be a constitutional scholar, but the point about guns in the Constitution is based on a reference to a militia. To my thinking, that means that someone needs to be a certified member of a society-sanctioned military group to be a legal owner of a specialized human-killing weapon. The ready sale and supply faucet for the things needs to be closed.
I also don’t buy the implied argument that one can defend oneself from a gun only with a gun. Popular culture has filled people’s heads with fantasies.
We need to move away from placing guns in a special category. We need to think of them as tools. Were we to get to that point, the use of a gun to kill a person might again be regarded with the same sense of inappropriateness that we now regard the use of a hammer, pillow or other mundane object in ending someone’s life.
I realize that few, perhaps none, of the readers of this blog will agree with every point I have made. I hope only to nudge the debate away from the abstract and toward the concrete, from abstract absolutist thinking to a more concrete and pragmatic approach.
Footnote: A point that needs to be considered in this debate, and which I saw no place to insert in the above argument, is the impersonal nature of a gun killing. Ending a person’s life with one’s bare hands or even a knife requires an intimacy and closeness that necessitates a certain craziness. A gun kills at a distance. One can kill, turn one’s back and walk away without having touched the victim. When we killed a duck or squirrel, we then took it and processed it for the table, so in the hunting context the intimacy was retained.