As Free as Corpses

by Alastair Su

My neighbor came by earlier this week. “I found some bullet shells on the road outside,” she said. “My husband heard some gunshots yesterday during his evening walk. We called the police but they still have no idea who it was.” My sister, who was taking a nap at the time, finally discovered the source of the racket that wakened her that evening. We thanked our neighbor for her concern, and after some conversation about family and our respective Christmas menus, she resumed her walk. The culprits, we later surmised, were probably a group of teenagers from another town. By harmlessly firing a few rounds into the open sky, they celebrated their rights as American citizens, while inconveniencing my sister in the process.

The Newtown massacre, which claimed twenty-six innocent lives this month, has reopened a wound in the American psyche. Although its tragedy is unspeakable, the Newtown shooting is only the latest part of a string of gun-related crimes in America that stretches back for decades, with no telling when the next incident might occur. Its timing also felt surreal and disconnected from the ongoing congressional saga over the “fiscal cliff,” yet the two issues are much more connected than they appear. Both reveal the caustic, binary nature of public dialogue today and the paralysis that inevitably creates. More fundamentally, both issues deal with the question of liberty. Advocates of gun ownership celebrate guns as one of the hallmarks of being free, proud Americans, to which I pose the question: how free is a dead child, or twenty dead children, for that matter?

The justification that gun ownership should be defended because it is part of the American heritage should be rejected prima facie. The fact that something exists in one’s history does not automatically provide a moral justification for its continuance, no more than slavery should be celebrated today since it is also part of the American heritage. Critics might accuse me of falsely equating slavery with gun ownership here, which is somewhat true, but the basic premise still holds. A heritage can be a good or nasty thing, and not everything in one’s history should be celebrated because it was already there.

Of course, the primary argument for gun ownership concerns liberty, not patriotism or heritage. The NRA, for instance, proclaims itself as the “foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.” There is no doubt that the right to own firearms is a right that, like any other right, enhances liberty. The more important question is how, and to what degree.

Consider the example of traffic laws. If we suddenly annulled all traffic laws tomorrow, so that drivers would have the freedom to drive in any manner they wished without fear of punishment, it is true that everyone’s liberty would increase. But it would also be true that the number of accidents would increase inordinately, to an extent that people might avoid the roads completely for fear of losing their lives. This, paradoxically, is the consequence of more liberty – less freedom. By annulling all traffic laws so that anyone can drive like a scene from Grand Theft Auto, no one uses the roads. Conversely, by adhering to traffic laws, we are free to use the roads without too much fear that the person next to me will swerve into my path, or speed at an intersection. I constrain myself to the law so that I am free to pursue my goals elsewhere. The consequence of sound laws, therefore, is not even a trade-off between one’s freedom and other goals; it is forfeiting lesser liberties to attain greater freedoms.

I admit this is an argument by analogy, so its translation to the issue of gun ownership is imperfect. However, the same principle applies. Because of the Second Amendment, Americans are freer everywhere because they have the right to purchase firearms. At the same time, they are also less free because they must now fear for the lives of their children.* In the context of the Newtown massacre, it would seem that freedom was gained as Adam Lanza, along with the thousands of Americans who purchased Bushmaster .223 rifles, but freedom was also lost as twenty-seven Americans died on 14 December. This was even more so for the children who were killed, whose dreams were fettered to their tiny corpses.

But perhaps my arguments are misplaced. The Second Amendment exists not as a right that enhances freedom in itself, but as a right to self-defense against those who also have guns. Americans should never belittle the possibility of a Soviet or North Korean invasion, or the occasional marauding horde from Canada. However, realistically speaking, this will probably refer to the right to defend ourselves against none other than ourselves. Of course, in the history of the United States, the sacrifice of lives in order to gain freedom, such as the American Revolution, has always been celebrated as a noteworthy thing. Yet dying for the right to possibly get shot at a shopping mall or kindergarten – there is something deeply perverse about this logic, a circularity that resembles madness.

Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond the realm of abstraction into our fallen existence. Although I reject gun ownership on philosophical grounds, I am inclined to concede on practical terms. As things currently stand, forty-seven percent of American households have firearms. This means that banning the sale of firearms will do nothing because of massive number of weapons already in circulation. Any kind of gun regulation only makes sense if the existing pool of guns are confiscated, which will happen as soon as the world ends. This leaves us with two Nash equilibriums: either everyone has guns (or would be a fool to do so otherwise), or everyone has no guns, and the NRA are actually a legitimate organization.

The second confounding problem is the inane level of public dialogue and a seeming inability to think outside of binary categories, particularly on the Internet. “It’s not the guns,” someone writes, “But the loss of old-fashioned values.” Cue thunderous applause (or thousands of Facebook likes) from the right. “It’s not really the guns, it’s mental health.” Cue similar applause from the center.** “It’s not any of the above, but the NRA and the gun culture it perpetuates.” Cue applause from the left.  But a question remains unasked: if guns and mental health are both problems for America, can’t both be addressed simultaneously? Why are we being forced to choose? Is this the triumph of American freedom: the freedom to choose one of several options, even when all are true and needed?

A final note concerning those who argue that guns have no causal relation to death and violence. Even if I cannot prove, causally, that a lack of gun control leads to greater murder rates, there is no doubt that the two are heavily correlated. More critically, a high correlation in this case should provide a sufficient basis for regulation because it would reduce the loss of lives. Imagine if Lanza lived in a gun-free America. To accomplish the massacre, Lanza would either have to obtain firearms illegally, or conduct his mass killings in a different way, such as constructing a home-made bomb. Both are certainly possible in a counterfactual world, but they would also be a lot harder. This may not seem like a great deal when it concerns a single case, but given that more than ten-thousand Americans are murdered by guns every year, making homicide much harder will inevitably lead to its reduction.***

I don’t want to fall into the trap of offering a magic bullet solution, because it does not exist.**** We are inexorably being pulled into the first Nash equilibrium of widespread gun ownership, a black hole of an outcome that gives Americans more liberty but less freedom.

Meanwhile, in the event that those teenagers come by again, I might make that trip to Wal-Mart to purchase a rifle of my own. Along with the festive glow of Christmas lights everywhere, I will drive home, feeling free and secure with gun-in-hand, thankful for the liberties of this land.

*Even if we take the NRA’s proposal seriously, employing hundreds and thousands of armed officers will not be a costless expense. The last thing municipal authorities want is another form of expenditure, which through increased taxes will reduce people’s freedoms. Buy why am I taking the NRA seriously again?

**I am not sure if people who take this position are assigned to the correct political map here, but I needed this to fit in my sentence pattern so there.

***To disprove this argument, you will need to prove that in the 11,101 cases of homicide  committed in 2011, for example, all these murders would have been accomplished anyway without the use of firearms. A counterfactual comparison with other countries shows this is a ludicrous claim. Guns make killing a lot easier, and even if removing them might not reduce the murderous intent in a country, it will lower the murder rate.

****You can, however, purchase real bullets at your nearest Wal-Mart.