The chief editor of TPM, Josh Marshall, has an intriguing essay out on his website about the gun debate, and how America seems to be split into two different “tribes” on guns. He uses it as a springboard to note that he feels uncomfortable around guns, and wants his “tribe”’s view to finally reach the world:
I’ve been thinking of writing some version of this post since the days immediately after the Newtown shootings. It overlaps with but is distinct from the division between people who are pro-gun or anti-gun or pro-gun control or anti-gun control. Before you even get to these political positions, you start with a more basic difference of identity and experience: gun people and non-gun people.
So let me introduce myself. I’m a non-gun person. And I think I’m speaking for a lot of people.
It’s customary and very understandable that people often introduce themselves in the gun debate by saying, ‘Let me be clear: I’m a gun owner.’
Well, I want to be part of this debate too. I’m not a gun owner and, as I think as is the case for the more than half the people in the country who also aren’t gun owners, that means that for me guns are alien. And I have my own set of rights not to have gun culture run roughshod over me.
I am as baffled as you are about having “gun culture run roughshod over me,” since it isn’t “running” over anyone; you can choose to have a gun or not. But I am, at least, open and sympathetic to his view at this point, since I myself am not really a “gun person.” I have fired guns—a handgun twice at a Virginia gun range, a .22 rifle at Boy Scout summer camp, and a shotgun (dunno what gauge it was, but it made my shoulder sore) at an assistant Scoutmaster’s farm (as well as BB guns in my backyard as a kid)—but I don’t own any guns, and I’m still undecided about buying one for self-defense. And I just don’t consider myself a “gun person” over all. I don’t have gun paraphernalia. I don’t have gun magazines (whether the ones you read or the ones you lock and load.) I don’t even play that many video games involving guns—I’m more of a science fiction guy, and fantasy violence just isn’t the same thing.
But, hey, I’m going to be open minded. At least, I try. But then Marshall loses me with an anecdote of a childhood incident where he pointed a gun at another kid, which apparently scarred him for life (although he denies it), then uses that to springboard into how he views guns as alien:
More than this, I come from a culture where guns are not so much feared as alien, as I said. I don’t own one. I don’t think many people I know have one. It would scare me to have one in my home for a lot of reasons. Not least of which because I have two wonderful beyond belief little boys and accidents happen and I know that firearms in the home are most likely to kill their owners or their families. People have accidents. They get depressed. They get angry.
In the current rhetorical climate people seem not to want to say: I think guns are kind of scary and don’t want to be around them. Yes, plenty of people have them and use them safely. And I have no problem with that. But remember, handguns especially are designed to kill people. You may want to use it to threaten or deter. You may use it to kill people who should be killed (i.e., in self-defense). But handguns are designed to kill people. They’re not designed to hunt. You may use it to shoot at the range. But they’re designed to kill people quickly and efficiently.
All things which are true. And you know what? It’s okay to be scared of guns. There’s really nothing wrong with that. In fact, you should be at least a little scared of guns—although the real word to use here would be “cautious.” Guns are dangerous, yes, and you should be cautious around them and never treat them lightly. So that’s actually a good behavior to have. He also notes further on that he doesn’t want them in his home, or at the store, or the coffee shop. Again, that’s okay—in his own home, since it is his personal property, he has the right to forbid guns, and he and other customers can certainly petition business owners to prohibit guns on their property—and if the owner fails to do so, take their business elsewhere. Nothing wrong with this.
What’s wrong is that he wants to take this to the point where the other side cannot have guns at all, and is not even tolerated or allowed to exist. That’s because, after having an exchange with one reader who is sorta-kinda on the other side of the debate from him, he writes this:
I wrote back at more length. But at this point I was already starting to see red. I don’t pretend that AA is representative. But it captured a mentality that does seem pervasive among many more determined gun rights advocates — basically that us non-gun people need to be held down as it were and made to learn that it’s okay being around people carrying loaded weapons.
Well, I don’t want to learn. That doesn’t work where I live — geographically or metaphorically.
Hmm. Let’s think about what he’s really saying here for a minute. He doesn’t want to be around gun people at all. But would he have the same sentiment if instead the message was:
But it captured a mentality that does seem pervasive among many more determined black advocates — basically that us non-black people need to be held down as it were and made to learn that it’s okay being around people with dark skin.
But it captured a mentality that does seem pervasive among many more determined Jewish rights advocates — basically that us Gentiles need to be held down as it were and made to learn that it’s okay being around people whose religious symbol is the Star of David.
But it captured a mentality that does seem pervasive among many more determined gay rights advocates — basically that us straights need to be held down as it were and made to learn that it’s okay being around people whose sexual orientation differs from mine.
You get the picture.
Naturally, Marshall and his “tribe” would angrily respond that there’s a major difference between the color of your skin, the religious group you’re part of, sexual orientation, and gun ownership. But is there, really? When you’ve already taken the step of identifying gun owners as a “tribe”? And where there is definitely a different culture there?
The problem with Marshall’s logic is that he is not treating people as individuals, as human beings with their own dreams and desires, but rather as just statistical entries in demographic categories: gun owner, non-gun owner. If Marshall goes that route, then he rightfully opens himself up to the criticism I used above, and he can’t really whine about that, now can he?
Marshall, here, just wants to demonize and discriminate against gun owners. He doesn’t like them. Fine. He doesn’t want them in his house. Fine. He doesn’t want them at his coffee shop. Fine. He can “want” all he, er, “wants,” but that doesn’t mean he has the right or the power to shut them down, force them out, and create his own bubble using the power of the state, which is all too heavily implied throughout this essay. He writes that “a huge amount of the current gun debate, the argument for the gun-owning tribe, amounts to the gun culture invading my area, my culture, my part of the country,” but is that any different from a white man in 1960’s Alabama worrying about black people moving into his part of town?
The truth is, you’re going to be around people you don’t like every single day. You’re going to have to deal with it. I’m not going to demand total acceptance from people like Marshall—that would be silly. But at least we can have toleration. We should be able to recognize, at the very least in a place like America, that we are all different, but that we can still all live and work together. You cannot infringe their rights on movement and property just to build your own comfort zone. That’s a very childish and immature way of dealing with the world, a way that doesn’t seem all that different from neoconservative chickenhawks when they look at other nations and trying to plot where they’re going to spread democracy next, or racist lynchmobs who want to kill anyone who doesn’t look like them.
Josh Marshall is not writing the essay of a modern liberal concerned about gun violence, but instead the essay of a reactionary conservative bigot who detests another culture or group of people, ignoring members of that culture or group for who they are—human beings with natural rights. To satisfy his own personal comforts, he will roughshod all over those—just as he fears “gun culture” will run roughshod over him.
One last point before I leave, this time from noted atheist Sam Harris, who is also a gun owner:
Fifty-five million kids went to school on the day that 20 were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Even in the United States, therefore, the chances of a child’s dying in a school shooting are remote. As my friend Steven Pinker demonstrates in his monumental study of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, our perception of danger is easily distorted by rare events. Is gun violence increasing in the United States? No. But it certainly seems to be when one recalls recent atrocities in Newtown and Aurora. In fact, the overall rate of violent crime has fallen by 22 percent in the past decade (and 18 percent in the past five years).
We still have more guns and more gun violence than any other developed country, but the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward. Thirty percent of urban households have at least one firearm. This figure increases to 42 percent in the suburbs and 60 percent in the countryside. As one moves away from cities, therefore, the rate of gun ownership doubles. And yet gun violence is primarily a problem in cities. It is the people of Detroit, Oakland, Memphis, Little Rock, and Stockton who are at the greatest risk of being killed by guns.
In the weeks since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, advocates of stricter gun control have called for a new federal ban on “assault weapons” and for reductions in the number of concealed-carry permits issued to private citizens. But the murder rate has fallen precipitously since the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, and this was also a period in which millions of Americans began to carry their guns in public. Many proponents of gun control have observed that the AR 15, the gun that Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children in Newtown, is now the most popular rifle in America. But only 3 percent of murders in the U.S. are committed with rifles of any type.
Seventy mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, leaving 543 dead. These crimes were horrific, but 564,452 other homicides took place in the U.S. during the same period. Mass shootings scarcely represent 0.1 percent of all murders. When talking about the problem of guns in our society, it is easy to lose sight of the worst violence and to become fixated on symbols of violence.
Of course, it is important to think about the problem of gun violence in the context of other risks. For instance, it is estimated that 100,000 Americans die each year because doctors and nurses fail to wash their hands properly. Measured in bodies, therefore, the problem of hand washing in hospitals is worse than the problem of guns, even if we include accidents and suicides.
More people die from unwashed hands than guns. What does Marshall have to say about that?