Forget about needing to have a conversation on gun control. We are having one. This conversation might not reach the Capitol steps, but these past few days, commentators from all sides of the aisle have weighed in on what can be done to prevent accidents like the Sandy Hook shooting from happening again. Questions about gun control raised common refrains from both sides: "It's time to ban assault weapons and extended magazines" or "if only there had been an administrator in the school carrying a gun."
I don't really want to weigh in on one side or the other. Generally, I agree with gun control advocates that an America with fewer guns would be a safer one. There are cases, like Switzerland, where more guns has not meant more murders, but the real question is not whether our gun laws work for Swiss society; they are whether or not they work for American society.
That being said, gun violence is far from the only factor that should determine our gun policy. The National Rifle Association isn't an organization that you would think would shoot itself in the foot, but that it precisely what it did by accepting gun-control advocates' premise that personal security is the main reason anyone want to own a gun.
I never considered buying a firearm for personal safety (the closest I ever came was during a brief period when I was living in a neighborhood in which muggings were routine. But, ultimately, I decided that a gun would be more likely to make things worse; if the attacker didn't back down, any scuffle would end with someone dead or permanently injured).
But there are plenty of reasons to own a gun. Personal security is low on the list. Were they not so expensive and the gun laws of New York state less bureaucratic, I would probably buy a rifle — not for safety, just to have something to fire with. Most gun owners probably agree, though for individuals who have never shot guns it is difficult to understand.
I am not a "gun nut." I don't subscribe to Guns and Ammo or pay annual dues to a marksmanship club. I don't have a deer-hunting license and haven't shot a living thing in years. Nonetheless, growing up in Idaho, firing a gun at some point was inevitable: I got my first gun — a 22 caliber lever action — just before middle school (in Idaho, that's a late start). From there I graduated to revolver and eventually learned to shoot a semi-automatic pistol. I never fired an assault rifle until I joined the Army (where they eventually taught me the more fun weapons as well).
Stephen Hunter explained it best when he said, "shooting a firearm is a sensual pleasure that is rewarding in and of itself." Why is it so pleasurable? Why is anything so pleasurable? Why climb a mountain, hit a golf ball onto the green, catch a catfish with your arm, ride a horse or sample red wine only to spit it out again? For most of those, I can't tell you, but I know that some people can. Each requires a particular set of skills and it is a set of skills that, for one reason or another, a large number of individuals value. The love of hunting and marksmanship may not be more rational, but neither is it more pathological.
People affected by the tragedy in Connecticut have a right to call this logic into question. Anyone who has had a loved one affected by gun violence has a right. As horrible as the events in Connecticut are, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of children who are killed in accidents involving firearms each year. The best argument for an all-out ban on guns was probably made by Jonathan Safran Foer who wrote:
"How many of the nearly 3,000 children who are killed by firearms in the United States each year does the good of hunting justify? All of them? A handful? How many of the students and faculty at Virginia Tech?"
It's a fair question. On December 14, a lot of children died who probably would otherwise be alive if the country followed the policies that people like Foer advocate (this is not true of every instance of gun violence. Gangs would likely be able to obtain guns illegally, but it's less likely that psychopaths in Tucson or Aurora or Newtown would.)
But even if Foer has a point, it is a point that doesn't hold up once we tease out its other implications. Close to 41,000 Americans die of alcohol-related car accidents every year. How many deaths does drinking justify? Sexually transmitted infections are a leading cause of infant mortality, but there are no powerful political lobbies calling to ban unprotected sex for unmarried couples.
Does this mean that events like the one that happened in Newtown on Friday are inevitable? No. One need not look to Switzerland to see a country where there is hardly any violence at all. Murder rates were low and flat in America between the post-War years and the 1960s, in spite of the fact that American high schools often had gun clubs and kids carrying weapons to school would have been nothing surprising (I am not advocating this today).
Tragedies like the one in Connecticut have happened before and they are likely to happen again. The recent past is a better prophet than the distant. But, while it is little comfort at moments like this, we can say that what happened in Newtown is not the inevitable price of freedom. Even the Wild West was not nearly as violent as its mythology.
The factors that drive lunatics to fire a weapon in a movie theater or a shopping mall or an elementary school are probably too complex to prevent fully. Yes, we can talk about their mental instability, but in another era, these individuals might have killed themselves, but no one else; or been institutionalized; or found a way to deal with whatever emotional derangement they were enduring.
The one thing we keep learning about all of the mentally unstable individuals who perpetuate these attacks is that they were alienated and distant, seeking attention in the most horrific way from a world that they believed they had nothing to offer. What we can say, though, is that gun violence like this is not inevitable. Prevention will not come from the Capitol but from our communities; places with names like Littleton, Colorado; Blacksburg, Virginia; and Newtown, Connecticut.