By Venkat Srinivasan
We begin with helplessness: somehow, it seems, people will get killed. And when that happens, the scene shifts to other battles. In one, we play with rhetoric and meaning: guns kill people, people kill with guns, people defend with guns. In another, we figure out who is to blame: the assault rifle, the bullet, the untrained teenager who pulled the trigger, the psychopath, racial tensions, the economy. A debate on blame, intentions, and semantics rises and falls, only to be propped back up at the next shooting.
Our memories of shootings start to spill over into each other as we stare, numbed, at the latest overhead helicopter shot of children running in file across school parking lots. With time, the assumption that such incidents are inevitable gains further weight. The notion that evil people will kill with whatever they can lay their hands on begins to take hold. Against such people, the thinking continues, guns don’t kill. Guns defend. Guns save lives.
This line of argument, proposed by those who would seek to remedy the gun violence plaguing our schools and cities not with tougher gun control but with fewer regulations, leaves out a lot, mostly the facts. As researchers at Boston University have found after a study of nationwide data from over three decades, the more gun owners there are in a state, the greater the number of firearm-related homicides.
We start, perhaps, by supposing there is an evil in the world that exists independent of weapon, person, or circumstance. The idea implants as deeply as the very idea of faith in a higher power.
But we’re a long way from settling this debate with facts. The thing to grapple with first is: How did we get here? How did we get to a point where we feel guns protect more lives than they destroy? To the point where we feel safer carrying guns than removing them from our streets?
We start, perhaps, by supposing there is an evil in the world that exists independent of weapon, person, or circumstance. The idea implants as deeply as the very idea of faith in a higher power. Such a faith, said St. Paul, is the evidence of things not seen. A similar faith in evil now folds into thought as some kind of omnipresent ether. After the 2012 Newtown massacre, John Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, seemed to be reaching for this type of thinking when he said, “It’s beyond mental illness, beyond gun control. It is evil.”
Evil, of course, does exist. This year, for instance, forty-five people got killed or wounded by a gun over Easter weekend in Chicago. It prompted Ronald Holt, a commander in the city’s police department, to tell The Guardian that this was a fratricide perpetrated by young men who felt “that the only way to resolve a conflict is to get a gun and go shoot to kill.” Those guns and those deaths will now inevitably lead to more guns, more deaths, and eventually a society that justifies arming itself with machine guns. Perhaps this escalation, more than anything, is the real evil. For it enables gun shows where it’s common to see pink handguns stereotyped as the ideal firearm for women and orange T-shirts that proclaim: “As an American my right to own a firearm has more value than your entitlement to food stamps.”
Evil means many different things to many people. For some evil is the lurking danger that police can’t protect against—the burglar who breaks in, the thief who steps out of the shadows. The gun is insurance, as normal as a seat belt, a savior and protector in the tradition of penicillin, metal jackets, and Jesus.
Guns are far more harmful as a weapon than as a deterrent strapped to the waist. They lead to a whole lot more killing than saved lives.
Faced with such dangers, some people do defend themselves with guns. There are hundreds of such cases. People like twelve-year-old Kendra St. Clair, who locked herself in a closet in her home in Oklahoma and fired a gun at an intruder. Like the clerk at a hotel in Wyoming who pulled out her gun from a lunchbox when two masked robbers approached her. Like Mark Sikes, a wheelchair-bound United States army veteran who, when he heard an intruder kick the front door of his home in Georgia, reached into his night stand for his pistol and “pointed the gun at him and told him he better get the hell out.” Defending the right to defend yourself is rooted in the unshakeable belief that, in cases like these, “when seconds count, the cops are still minutes away.”
This is not a debate about just owning guns for hunting, recreational shooting, or as a collector’s item. It’s about the belief that guns protect us, that an armed society is a safe society, and that, therefore, freer access to guns frees us. And, as I also discussed in an essay for Aeon, decades of evidence has shown the obvious: that guns are far more harmful as a weapon than as a deterrent strapped to the waist. They lead to a whole lot more killing than saved lives.
This is the slippery slope of meeting evil with force. The specter of evil produces a sense of insecurity, and this insecurity then warrants using “force, including deadly force” with “no duty to retreat.” Protective words like Stand Your Ground are crafted, lobbied for, and signed into law. Research by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Mother Jones has shown that after Newtown, seventy-five laws were passed in twenty-nine states weakening gun regulations. We have fought and voted for the right to buy a gun with minimal wait time, to buy it without needing a permit or background checks, to openly carry it, and to not have restrictions on how many guns or how much ammunition one can carry. Every state in the United States allows people to carry a concealed weapon. Forty-four states allow people to openly carry handguns, thirteen of those without a permit. Since 2005, over half of U.S. states have adopted some form of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. One step at a time, language that might otherwise be associated with anarchy finds legal standing, further blurring the line between vigilance and vigilantism. A man can assess a teenager as a threat, pursue him, get tangled in a fight with him, shoot and kill the teenager in self-defense, get acquitted, discover painting as therapy, and sell a painting of the American flag with the words, “God, one nation, with liberty and justice for all,” on eBay for just over $100,000.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is refused any public funding that could be used for research that advocates gun control as a way to stem the gun violence epidemic. In researching gun violence, there is one untouchable topic and that is whether unregulated access to guns may be part of the problem.
Following their independence from the British, Americans worried that tyrannical government might one day return to the U.S. So when the country adopted a Bill of Rights in 1791, the second amendment declared: “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Up until the 1960s, the National Rifle Association’s motto was “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” Then, in the late 1960s, in a climate of fear, indignation, and strict gun laws, a faction within the NRA started to assert individual gun rights. And in the late 1970s, a new NRA leadership focused on gun rights as a requirement for proper self-defense. They chopped the Second Amendment in half, and became the champions of a more generic cause, one meant to broadly ensure that the “right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Evil can be a consolation, but its also an abdication, of responsibility and of our obligations.
Evils change once rights are reinterpreted for convenience. First, we fear the tyrant state. Then the gun-toting burglar and anyone who inspires our suspicion. Then the person who takes away our constitutional—and increasingly, God-given—right to own a gun and threatens our freedom.
Evil can be a consolation, but its also an abdication, of responsibility and of our obligations. It’s what Geoff Nunberg, a linguist and adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, called a counsel of helplessness in an interview on Moyers and Company. “It kicks the whole problem upstairs to an insoluble theological mystery,” Nunberg said.
It’s still a matter of debate whether a gun, a bullet, policy, a spirit, or a person should be held responsible for the killing.
On April 16, 2007, a Virginia Tech student went on a rampage and killed thirty-two people before killing himself. It was the worst mass shooting in this country’s history. Over the last decade, the rate of such incidents has been on the rise, according to a report released by the FBI this year. But gun violence is an everyday tragedy, made up not just of mass shootings, but also individual killings and suicides. About 60 percent of all firearm deaths are suicides, and about half of all suicides are firearm-aided suicides, from the teenager who feels cornered in society and takes his own life in his home, to the gun-toting person who goes on a rampage before killing himself. We are quick to situate evil in the person committing suicide or the mass shooter. But in the search for the wellspring of evil, we probably don’t need to look beyond ourselves, the collective that creates an environment for such tragedy, that enables easy access to a gun for a person to shoot others and take their own life.
On July 4, 2013, the 238th anniversary of American Independence, more than fifty-two people were killed by a gun. Some in self-defense, some accidentally, some in brazen crimes, others after being pushed to the edge.
Virginia Tech has a memorial on campus and a holds a day of remembrance every year on April 16. It maintains a website to remember the “32 students and faculty members who were tragically taken from their loved ones and our community.” The passive voice is regretted but it’s still a matter of debate whether a gun, a bullet, policy, a spirit, or a person should be held responsible for the killing.
Venkat Srinivasan’s work has appeared in The Caravan, Wired, and Aeon among others. He tweets @vns2.