Sam Harris has really done it now. He’s stepped into the gun control debate with The Riddle of the Gun, and he’s taking the side of Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. And he’s also making a series of logic-defying assertions that have no credibility at all. I’m not even going to try to work through them all; this subject is clearly a bit of an obsession with him. But throughout, he takes a very personal and rather paranoid view of the world and makes it a justification for individual self-defense, which I think is his big mistake. For instance,
…if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police—it is a problem of physics.
Hmmm. If I’m on a crowded street, and the person behind me pulls a knife, I can’t expect the police to stop him in time, either — it is a problem of physics.
If the guy in the house across the street has a sniper rifle aimed at my bedroom window, waiting for my silhouette to cross his scope, I can’t expect the police to stop the bullet in time — it is a problem of physics.
If a disgruntled student rolls up to my front door in a tank, I can’t expect the SWAT team from Minneapolis to get all the way here in time — it is a problem of physics.
What I see over and over again in Harris and rabid defenders of gun ownership is something other than just merely seeing guns as a tool: it’s the cult of the rugged individual, the lone cowboy on his own in hostile territory, where the only recourse is to be quick on the draw. What’s the answer to any trouble? Why, you take care of it yourself, usually by killing the troublemaker. It’s a simple, quick solution that doesn’t require any thinking at all.
He takes a complicated problem — that an individual wants to do him great harm (something I have no trouble believing) — and reduces it to a simplistic scenario — the hostile bad guy is in his house, with a gun! — that can only be resolved by his personal decisiveness and training in firing right back at him.
Do I need to point out that in his scenario, he has already lost, no matter how well-trained he is with a firearm? He is having a gunfight in his home, with his family around him. Imagine yourself in your bedroom, pulling a pistol out of a bedside drawer, loading it, and calmly taking a few shots in the direction of the hallway, without the presence of an intruder to complicate and make even more dangerous the situation. This is not an action without consequences and without risk. But this is the preferred nightmare of the gun fanatics.
I prefer a multi-layered defense that relies on the cooperation of a community. I don’t want a gun put in my hands, because by the time the gun would be useful there have been multiple catastrophic failures of the whole system. An intruder should not be in my house. How about better locks, a security system, and regular police patrols in my neighborhood? An intruder should not be heavily armed. How about serious gun control that limits access to guns and monitors those who do have them? The intruder should not be vengefully gloating about the glory of shooting someone. How about changing the culture to stop worshipping gun violence, to stop thinking that killing an enemy resolves a problem rather than amplifying it?
I know already what response that will get: that it’s a starry-eyed optimistic dream. But what they won’t care about is that Harris’s dream of battling an evil-doer to the death with his well-practiced expertise in firing a gun is just as pie-in-the-sky, and that even in its most benign outcome, is still a horror and a nightmare.
This is my dismissal of the whole gun debate: that the answers the gun advocates propose all amplify the problem. The problem is the ready availability of guns and the willingness of self-righteous people (because, really, even the people gunning down school children are steadfast in their confidence that what they are doing is both right and necessary, as much so as the homeowner defending himself against a burglar) to resort to violent action to resolve conflicts. But they don’t bother to recognize that by the time deadly force is needed, it’s too late.
I promised I wouldn’t get sucked into a line-by-line dissection of Harris’s post. Fortunately, Eric MacDonald has exposed many of the logical fallacies in his argument, and Sean Faircloth has the facts and numbers that show his rationale is bogus.
I just want to emphasize that it’s a huge mistake to make the debate about the physics of the ultimate confrontation. The debate should be about how to make those gun-on-gun confrontations less likely.