in the aftermath of the latest shooting incident in brooklyn, it may be time to think yet again about gun violence and what should be done about it. i will begin this by admitting that i am not a gentle-solution proponent to any problem. i believe in extreme measures to eliminate difficulties in society and many of those methods are not welcomed by those in the west. that doesn’t mean they won’t work. it just means they won’t be popular, which is why they tend not to be implemented in north-american or european cities. but let’s take a look at the issue anyway.
there is a frequently-quoted statement — “guns don’t kill people — people do” — which is far more revealing than it appears at first glance. it seems to take the responsibility away from the weapon and put it in the hands of the person using it. and that appears very sensible. so let’s apply that to other concepts of public safety. heroin doesn’t kill people — people taking it kill themselves. so, of course, we should eliminate controls on drugs. cars don’t kill people — people kill each other with them. so there should be no automotive safety or traffic regulations, either. holes don’t kill people — people stepping into them are committing suicide. so there’s no need for such problematic regulations that make sidewalks safe because it’s people’s own fault if they hurt themselves by stepping into open access holes or trip and fall into the road in front of busses and taxis.
while this may sound rather extreme — or to some like a free and fair utopian society, especially if you have been indulging in those aforementioned drugs — it is the same argument.
guns have a single purpose. to kill (or at least to seriously injure but i think we can think of this as the same purpose rather than two different ones, right?). i am well-aware there is a tradition of shooting and owning weapons, especially guns, in some countries. and i am even more thoroughly aware there are other ways to cause injury and death.
but we have accepted restrictions all over the world on many of these far-less-deadly items, even those with other, potentially-positive purposes.
many drugs are dangerous so our governments have regulated their sale and distribution, banning many of the most potentially-lethal like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. while some people believe their criminalization is a problem (including me in many instances), what is far more universally-accepted is that the are a scourge on human society and should be eliminated. what many people on the right or in the uneducated critical group tend to ignore is that there is little disagreement about the idea that these drugs should be eradicated from our streets and towns — the disagreement is about how to do it most effectively while causing the least harm to people in general, not about the desired result of as few drugs as possible being used recreationally. one of the most significant advances in chinese history was the general elimination of opium, something that took millennia of ineffectual regulation followed by drastic measures after the people’s republic was proclaimed that were finally successful, paving the way for a modern and successful society — while this isn’t the only example in history, it provides an excellent case study in the shift possible when dominant street drugs are eliminated from common usage.
many chemicals are dangerous so these are also regulated. try to buy the ingredients for a bomb in large quantities, even when those ingredients have non-explosive uses, and you will quickly see there is significant control in most parts of the world. high-nitrate fertilizer is necessary for modern agriculture but even something as benign as that, as it is a component in many fuel-triggered bombs, is not just a simple matter of driving your truck to a dealer and picking it up. there are regulations and controls and tracking. but we all still manage to get our corn and potatoes while avoiding our libraries and schools randomly exploding.
cars are extremely dangerous weapons — in fact, there are many cases where they have been classified as deadly weapons used in terrorist attacks, especially in recent decades. whether through neglect in construction (how many brake-failure scandals have there been in the last thirty years?) or bad driving, which i am certain you have witnessed many times causing near-miss fatal accidents, or intentional misuse, cars, with all their incredible positive impacts on a more mobile and connected society, are some of the most possibly-deadly things out there. and we use them every day all over the world. but this is where the connection is so important to make. they are useful.
so is fertilizer. as are many other industrial chemicals like high-concentration solvents and even in certain cases explosives and toxic compounds. and drugs are vital for modern medicine, often the same drugs people use for recreational, self-damaging purposes inducing addition and destroying bodies, lives, families and our society — morphine, percocet, valium, to name only a few.
so we may not be able to eliminate the drug problem by banning all addictive substances, though we have certainly tried to eliminate the most dangerous of them — heroin, for example, is an extremely-effective painkiller but its use even in hospitals is more dangerous than its benefits outweigh. and there are very, very few people who oppose their elimination, even given the disagreements on how to accomplish it. ask a hundred people on the street if they think it would be good if everyone could easily acquire heroin or meth and i don’t think you’ll get many who say it is wherever you happen to be. and i think we have some nasty names for those who do.
and we may not be able to eliminate the problems of explosives, terrorism and toxic contamination of the environment by simply making all dangerous chemicals illegal, as much as many environmentalists and pacifists (yes, i am both of those) believe that would be a good step — i am not one of those fools who thinks this is either possible or feasible. but we have tight controls on them and these should certainly be strengthened in the service of keeping our children and communities safe from both intentional harm and environmental damage.
perhaps even more strikingly, we can’t eliminate all road death. but we have incredibly-stringent regulations about car design and construction — if you think designing a car that will conform to the literal millions of pages of litigation about safety is easy, talk to someone working in the automotive industry and i guarantee you they will tell you the hardest part of producing a car has nothing to do with materials or engineering or construction but making sure the thing is allowed to be driven legally on public roads. we make people get driving licenses and take them away if people are driving dangerously. we have more and more aggressive regulations about speed, distraction and safety equipment usage in vehicles and are getting closer and closer with every passing year to automated, self-controlled vehicles to eliminate human failure in the driving world.
yet given all these things we still allow guns, which have only one purpose and no potential positive secondary impacts on society, to circulate freely. and i’m not speaking specifically as an american (which i’m not) or criticizing the united states (which, again, i am not). this is a global problem and anyone looking at the united states from elsewhere saying “this is a problem in america because america has a gun culture and we don’t” has obviously not thought very carefully about the problem or travelled very widely. there are significant quantities of firearms-related deaths and injuries in many countries. it may be easy to look at a comparison between the united states and the netherlands or japan and say the difference is cultural and to a certain degree it may be. but there are gun deaths all across europe. there are vastly more throughout africa and south america. gun availability in asia is far more limited, not just because of regulation but simple logistics and asian cultures tend to be far less gun-friendly and that helps. but this is a significant planet-wide problem, not a result of rampant american freedom-obsession, though that is a problem here and in many other issues.
i believe in the abolition of the military everywhere but that is not the argument here. if we keep military forces and criminal services like the police, the most practical way to mitigate (no, not eliminate but significantly reduce) gun violence is to restrict gun possession (not purchasing, possession) to those currently engaged in those enterprises. i am not saying you must be in the police or military to own a weapon. i am saying no private individual should be permitted to own or possess a gun at any point. that they should be owned only by governments and distributed at the beginning of service times and shifts to those who are authorized to use them and immediately returned. no off-duty police carrying weapons. no army personnel on leave with sidearms. yes, guns have purposes in military and law-enforcement settings. but these purposes do not extend beyond them.
declaring guns completely illegal but without criminalizing their presence would allow their elimination on the streets without filling prisons. if someone has a gun, it would be taken by the police or military immediately. those who resist would certainly face criminal charges but if they simply gave them up it would get the weapons off the streets without creating nearly the backlash from the community incarceration would. the other thing about this is that criminalization of possession would have an outsized impact on marginalized communities, something it is important to do whatever is possible to avoid while not compromising public safety.
guns don’t kill people. but people use them for that purpose. we don’t allow people to wander the streets providing heroin and coke. we don’t allow distribution of dangerous chemicals to those who wish to do harm with them. we don’t allow people to drive without restrictions in vehicles without safety equipment and certifications. we must start treating guns like what they are — enablers of death and nothing more. we don’t just need to get them out of the hands of those who wish to do harm with them. we need to eliminate them from our streets completely because their presence makes possible things that their absence would, in the overwhelming majority of cases, prevent. yes, people will still be killed. and yes people will still be killed by guns. but if we could save just one innocent child in a school or one baby in a stroller on the subway — even just one — is that not worth the extreme effort to try to solve the problem?
no solution is perfect. we can’t fix the world like this. but we can do our best. hiding our heads in the sand and pretending tradition is more important than public safety or freedom is more important than keeping innocent children alive and safe in schools is a declaration of war against the most basic human values of preservation of life and progress, making the next generation’s experience of the world better than ours.
i have no illusions about the way the world works. every day i see more examples of people willing to fight and die and hurt because of their emotions and desires, greed and lust. but perhaps we can all get behind an idea that will keep our children, our infants, our families and all those we love safe. perhaps not. but i invite you to try. thanks for taking the time to explore this issue with me.