Use a Gun to be Moral?
by Wendy McElroy
This I believe: people have a right to own guns as an extension of their absolute right to self-defense. This I feel: I hate the sight, touch, smell, and sound of handguns. (Undoubtedly, part of my visceral reaction comes from having been accidentally shot through the leg by a .22 caliber when I was seventeen. The bullet came within a few inches of destroying my ankle.)
At first, I assumed that my unswerving defense of 'Second Amendment rights' would automatically endear me to all other pro-gun advocates. I was wrong. Although my politics received a nod of approval, members of the 'gun culture' -- those to whom guns are a lifestyle statement -- immediately and persistently focused upon my distaste for guns themselves.
Defending gun-rights has no more made me a fellow-traveler of the gun culture than defending the rights of prostitutes has made me a 'sister' within that community. Indeed, my interaction with both communities has been strangely similar in one regard: I keep being assured that if I could get past my psychological barriers and try it, I'd become a convert.
My response to guns comes from experience, not ignorance, and I have no intention of bowing to peer pressure. My emotions are personal, and not open to political critique. But the situation has made me reflect long upon handguns and the gun culture. I say 'handguns' because I do not have a similar distaste for rifles. I was born into and, as an adult, (my husband and) I returned to a rural community where hunting rifles abound. Last winter, farmers shot dozens of wild dogs in the deep woods adjacent to our property -- and they were right to do so. The dogs were killing new-born lambs at an alarming rate. For the farmers, guns are as much a tool of agriculture as tractors. But I've never seen a farmer so much as hold a handgun.
This fact has cemented a connection in my mind: handguns are used to kill people. If the killing is required for self-defense, my political objections evaporate. My emotions do not.
Various spokesmen for the gun culture have advanced an intriguing argument that, if correct, would make my refusal to pick up a handgun immoral. Two of these people are friends for whom I have unusual respect: the SF writer L. Neil Smith and the fine theorist Sunni Maravillosa. Both of them make this claim: everyone has a responsibility to defend him/herself as effectively as possible so that others do not have to assume the undue burden of protecting to them. A corollary is 'Guns are the most efficient means of self-defense.'
In a thought-provoking essay entitled "Freedom, Feminism and Firearms," Sunni presents a compelling scenario. Namely, you are a woman at home alone with a small daughter when 'Mr. Thug' decides to drop by. Sunni asks, "What are your choices?" She answers, "You can dial 911..." but "response times...in many cities are long enough to virtually guarantee that Mr. Thug will do his worst." Or...you can cry "help!" at the top of your lungs and hope that a neighbor sprints to your rescue. Sunni's next question expresses her theme, "But honestly, if you haven't chosen to take measures to protect yourself, why should the neighbor trouble himself to help you, and put his safety at risk?" In essence, a socially responsible person will act to effectively defend herself, and nothing is more effective than a gun. (In fairness, this conclusion is more implied than stated in Sunni's essay. It has been explicitly and repeatedly stated by L. Neil.)
Much of this argument is morally compelling to me. That is, I don't believe anyone should be legally responsible for harm that befalls a good Samaritan coming to the rescue. But I would feel tremendous moral guilt if anyone were injured while attempting to rectify my irresponsibility. Yet I reject the notion that guns are the best method of defense or that the right to use a gun somehow implies the duty to do so.
Guns are merely one means of self-defense and -- for those who are psychologically unable to kill another human being, like me -- they are an utterly ineffectual means. It would be far better for me to carry Mace, which I would use in a flash to protect myself. To stretch a responsibility for self-defense into a duty to own guns is comparable to equating a responsibility to exercise free speech with a duty to exercise one particular form of speech, such as public lecturing or writing editorials. What constitutes the 'best' expression (of self-defense or speech) will be defined by a wide range of circumstances, including the personality of the individual involved.
My personal disagreement with the gun culture was an entirely cordial one until one incident chipped away at my good will. While attending a barbecue at a firing range, a 'friend' attempted to 'convert' me. One of his 'arguments' involved pointing to his small sons who had no fear of guns. When I handed the firearm back to him -- still hating the very feel of it -- he expressed disappointment in my flawed character. To wit, I am not and I never will be a member of the gun culture.
Some insiders consider this psychological response to be moral turpitude on my part. I am enough of a sympathizer with the culture, however, to wish that members-in-good-standing would not alienate fellow-travelers by demanding they share a lifestyle choice rather than merely sharing a political stand that defends that choice as valid.