We're armed and unsafe; Abundant firearms give only the illusion of being protected; ISSUE: Gun control vs. the right to bear arms


I HAVE NEVER owned a gun. I haven't fired a gun since I was a boy. Having a gun in my home would terrify me.

I dislike guns, not just because of what they do to the people who get shot, but because of what they can do to the people who shoot them. At the same time, I have friends who own guns, and I can understand what motivates people to buy them. So, my views about guns and my emotions about people who own them are complicated.

I've listened to my share of Second Amendment debates and, barring a new and insightful interpretation, I think the gun control folks have the better argument. I can offer the predictable reason why I am for gun control and a ban on handguns: Reducing the number of guns in circulation will reduce the number of murders by gunfire.

Because such solutions haven't prevailed in the United States, Chicago and New Orleans have filed lawsuits against gun makers to recover the cost of gun violence. They took their cue from successful lawsuits against the tobacco industry. Perhaps other cities will follow. I support this legal strategy, even if the lawyers end up with most of the money.

But, beyond the arguments about policy options, we need to look honestly at this peculiar gun culture in which we live, and learn something about ourselves from it.

When I was a newspaper reporter in Florida years ago, I reported a story about a man who broke into a home and assaulted the couple who lived there. A neighbor heard the commotion, grabbed his handgun, went outside, and saw a man jump into a car and drive away. The neighbor, assuming the man was a criminal, fired at the car but missed.

As I interviewed the neighbor, I was horrified that he would open fire on a person who was a possible crime suspect leaving the scene and posing no apparent threat to anyone. I assumed that the sheriff's deputies would charge the neighbor with a misdemeanor. When I asked what the deputies had said to him, the neighbor replied, "They said, 'Thanks for helping out."'

I asked my editor for guidance on how to write the story. He said, "What story?" I suggested there was a story not only in the assault on the couple but in the deputies' ignoring an obvious violation that could have resulted in a killing. "It's no big deal," he said. I ended up writing a couple of paragraphs about the assault.

I have told that story often, usually with a laugh. But, deep in my gut, it scares me. One lesson from the experience is that, in a country where almost anyone can buy a gun, a lot of people with bad judgment are going to have guns. And sometimes those people are going to fire those guns, and inevitably people will die as a result.

But the main lesson of the story for me is that living in a gun culture erodes our collective humanity. My editor was not a sadist or a gun freak. He was an average guy who saw no problem with actions that I thought were irresponsible. I'm sure many people reading this agree with him, not with me.

I'm not suggesting some simplistic cause-and-effect, that guns are responsible for all the cruelty in the world. Nor am I saying that everyone who owns a gun would open fire in such a situation. I'm describing what saddens and scares me about living in a world in which guns, and the firing of them, are so routine.

I don't like living in such a world. It makes me afraid, not only for my own safety but for what my fellow citizens are becoming. And it makes me fearful of what might be happening to me, of how callous I might become as I live in that world and inevitably am affected by it.

Gun games

My second story is about masculinity and guns. I come from a family of three boys and one girl. When we were in our teens, my father, who had been an avid hunter when he was young, got a good deal on some used shotguns. Three of them, to be exact: one for each of his boys.

My shotgun sat on the rack, unused. I don't recall if I ever shot it. I remember once in my youth shooting at clay pigeons with a shotgun, but I never hunted an animal with my shotgun or anyone else's.

Like most boys of my generation, I had grown up playing gun games, and with my brothers I had shot a few times at tin cans with a .22-caliber rifle. I grew up in North Dakota, where hunting was common. While I wasn't repulsed by the notion of hunting, I never wanted to do it. And I never wanted a gun. Why?

No matter what my father's intentions were, guns are mixed up with masculinity and power in this culture. I've heard many men talk fondly of buying their sons rifles and shotguns, and teaching them to shoot and hunt. Again, this isn't necessarily a terrible thing. Lots of people I have known learned to respect the natural world through responsible hunting. But that does not derail my critique.

Guns are about power and control, the ability to use violence to achieve ends. Sometimes the use of guns can be justified. What I find disturbing is the linking of that power and control to masculinity, to becoming a man.

I never wanted to be a "man," because doing so in this culture means carrying too much of this kind of baggage. For me, guns evoke all those cultural demands, which more than ever I want to reject.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not despise people who own guns. I'm a vegetarian and a peace activist, but not an animal rights activist or a pacifist. I have respect for lots of individual gun owners. Some of my friends hunt. One of my brothers owned a 9 mm handgun and a AR-15 rifle (the semiautomatic version of an M-16). I didn't love him any less when he had that arsenal under his bed, or any more when he sold the weapons. People have lots of reasons for owning guns, and while I can find fault with most of those reasons, I think reasonable people can disagree about such matters.

No definitive answer

But I do despise the people who profit from making guns and play off our fears in marketing them. I also don't like the National Rifle Association, whose juvenile rhetoric and shortsighted politics have impeded the country in the task of coming to terms with a problem that much of the rest of the world has faced.

But the NRA is an easy target. The tougher problem is what to say to a friend who, looking for a sense of safety in an unsafe world, buys a gun for protection. What if that person lives in a part of town overrun with drug dealers carrying weapons of their own? What if he buys a gun because he wants to protect his children?

I don't have a definitive answer. But I think it's worth considering that the protection of a gun is mostly illusory. The gun is as likely to get you or a loved one killed as it is to save you. But, more than that, I would want to tell this friend: When you buy a gun, you add one more firearm to an unsafe culture. You add to the insanity of a culture awash in guns.

In such a world, who is really safe?

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

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