If you’re the biblically minded sort, then the trouble began when a jealous Cain clubbed Abel to death, but if you’re evolutionary minded, then it’s a ‘chicken and egg’ question. Violence had no beginning, except perhaps in the Big Bang, it was always here, coded into the DNA. If people are just grown-up animals, more articulate versions of the creatures who eat each other’s young, and sometimes their own young, there is as much use in wondering about the nature of evil as there is in trying to understand why a killer whale kills.
But debating how many devils can dance on the head of a pinhead is largely useless. We are not a particularly violent society. We are a society sheltered from violence. No one in Rwanda spends a great deal of time wondering what kind of man would murder children. They probably live next door to him. For that matter, if your neighborhood is diverse enough, you might be unfortunate enough to live next door to any number of war criminals, all the way from Eastern Europe to Asia to Africa.
The issue isn’t really guns. Guns are how we misspell evil. Guns are how we avoid talking about the ugly realities of human nature while building sandcastles on the shores of utopia.
The obsession with guns, rather than machetes, stone clubs, crossbows or that impressive weapon of mass death, the longbow (just ask anyone on the French side of the Battle of Agincourt) is really the obsession with human agency. It’s not about the fear of what one motivated maniac can do in a crowded place, but about the precariousness of social control that the killing sprees imply.
Mass death isn’t the issue. After September 11, the same righteous folks calling for the immediate necessity of gun control were not talking about banning planes or Saudis, they were quoting statistics about how many more people die of car accidents each year than are killed by terrorists. As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy; three thousand deaths can always be minimized by comparing them to some even larger statistic.
The gun issue is the narrative. It’s not about death or children; it’s about control. It’s about confusing object and subject. It’s about guns that shoot people and people that are irrevocably tugged into pulling the trigger because society failed them, corporations programmed them and not enough kindly souls told them that they loved them.
Mostly it’s about people who are sheltered from the realities of human nature trying to build a shelter big enough for everyone. A Gun Free Zone where everyone is a target and tries to live under the illusion that they aren’t. A society where everyone is drawing unicorns on colored notepaper while waiting under their desks for the bomb to fall.
After every shooting there are more zero tolerance policies in schools that crack down on everything from eight-year olds making POW POW gestures with their fingers to honor students bringing Tylenol and pocket knives to school. And then another shooting happens and then another one and they wouldn’t happen if we just had more zero tolerance policies for everyone and everything.
But evil just can’t be controlled. Not with the sort of zero tolerance policies that confuse object with subject, which ban pocket knives and finger shootings to prevent real shootings. That brand of control isn’t authority, it’s authority in panic mode believing that if it imposes total zero tolerance control then there will be no more school shootings. And every time the dumb paradigm is blown to bits with another shotgun, then the rush is on to reinforce it with more total zero control tolerance.
Zero tolerance for the Second Amendment makes sense. If you ban all guns, except for those in the hands of the 708,000 police officers, the 1.5 million members of the armed forces, the countless numbers of security guards, including those who protect banks and armored cars, the bodyguards of celebrities who call for gun control, not to mention park rangers, ambulance drivers in the ghetto and any of the other people who need a gun to do their job, then you’re sure to stop all shootings.
So long as none of those millions of people, or their tens of millions of kids, spouses, parents, grandchildren, girlfriends, boyfriends, roommates and anyone else who has access to them and their living spaces, carries out one of those shootings.
But this isn’t really about stopping shootings; it’s about controlling when they happen. It’s about making sure that everyone who has a gun is in some kind of chain of command. It’s about the belief that the problem isn’t evil, but agency, that if we make sure that everyone who has guns is following orders, then control will be asserted and the problem will stop. Or if it doesn’t stop, then at least there will be someone higher up in the chain of command to blame. Either way authority is sanctified, control or the illusion of it, maintained.
We’ll never know the full number of people who were killed by Fast and Furious. We’ll never know how many were killed by Obama’s regime change operation in Libya, with repercussions in Mali and Syria. But everyone involved in that was following orders. There was no individual agency, just agencies. No lone gunman who just decided to go up to a school and shoot kids. There were orders to run guns to Mexico and the cartel gunmen who killed people with those guns had orders to shoot. There was nothing random or unpredictable about it. Or as the Joker put it, “Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying.”
Gun control is the assertion that the problem is not the guns; it’s the lack of a controlling authority for all those guns. It’s the individual. A few million people with little sleep, taut nerves and PTSD are not a problem so long as there is someone to give them orders. A hundred million people with guns and no orders is a major problem. Historically though it’s millions of people with guns who follow orders who have been more of a problem than millions of people with guns who do not.
Moral agency is individual. You can’t outsource it to a government and you wouldn’t want to. The bundle of impulses, the codes of character, the concepts of right and wrong, take place at the level of the individual. Organizations do not sanctify this process. They do not lift it above its fallacies, nor do they even do a very good job of keeping sociopaths and murderers from rising high enough to give orders. Organizations are the biggest guns of all, and some men and women who make Lanza look like a man of modestly murderous ambitions have had their fingers on their triggers and still do.
Gun control will not really control guns, but it will give the illusion of controlling people, and even when it fails those in authority will be able to say that they did everything that they could short of giving people the ability to defend themselves.
We live under the rule of organizers, community and otherwise, whose great faith is that the power to control men and their environment will allow them to shape their perfect state into being, and the violent acts of lone madmen are a reminder that such control is fleeting, that utopia has its tigers, and that attempting to control a problem often makes it worse by removing the natural human crowdsourced responses that would otherwise come into play.
The clamor for gun control is the cry of sheltered utopians believing that evil is a substance as finite as guns, and that getting rid of one will also get rid of the other. But evil isn’t finite and guns are as finite as drugs or moonshine whiskey, which is to say that they are as finite as the human interest in having them is. And unlike whiskey or heroin, the only way to stop a man with a gun is with a gun.
People do kill people and the only way to stop people from killing people is by killing them first. To a utopian this is a moral paradox that invalidates everything, but to everyone else, it’s just life in a world where evil is a reality, not just a word.
Anyone who really hankers after a world without guns would do well to try the 14th Century, the 1400 years ago or the 3400 years ago variety, which was not a nicer place for lack of guns, and the same firepower that makes it possible for one homicidal maniac to kill a dozen unarmed people, also makes it that much harder to recreate a world where one man in armor can terrify hundreds of peasants in boiled leather armed with sharp sticks.
The longbow was the first weapon to truly begin to level the playing field, putting serious firepower in the hands of a single man. In the Battle of Crecy, a few thousand English and Welsh peasants with longbows slew thousands of French knights and defeated an army of 30,000. Or as the French side described it, “It is a shame that so many French noblemen fell to men of no value.” Crecy, incidentally, also saw one of the first uses of cannon.
Putting miniature cannons in the hands of every peasant made the American Revolution possible. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would have meant very little without an army of ordinary men armed with weapons that made them a match for the superior organization and numbers of a world power.
At the Battle of Bunker Hill, 2,400 American rebels faced down superior numbers and lost the hill, but inflicted over a 1,000 casualties, including 100 British commissioned officers killed or wounded, leading to General Clinton’s observation, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.”
This was done with muskets, the weapon that gun control advocates assure us was responsible for the Second Amendment because the Founders couldn’t imagine all the “truly dangerous” weapons that we have today.
And yet would Thomas Jefferson, the abiding figurehead of the Democratic Party, who famously wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”, really have shuddered at the idea of peasants with assault rifles, or would he have grinned at the playing field being leveled some more?
The question is the old elemental one about government control and individual agency. And tragedies like the one that just happened take us back to the equally old question of whether individual liberty is a better defense against human evil than the entrenched organizations of government.
Do we want a society run by the flower of chivalry, who commit atrocities according to a plan for a better society, or by peasants with machine guns? The flower of chivalry can promise us a utopian world without evil, but the peasant with a machine gun promises us that we can protect ourselves from evil when it comes calling.
It isn’t really guns that the gun controllers are afraid of, it’s a country where individual agency is still superior to organized control, where things are unpredictable because the trains don’t run on time and orders don’t mean anything. But chivalry is dead. The longbow and the cannon killed it and no charge of the light brigade can bring it back. And we’re better for it.
Evil may find heavy firepower appealing, but the firepower works both ways. A world where the peasants have assault rifles is a world where peasant no longer means a man without any rights. And while it may also mean the occasional brutal shooting spree, those sprees tend to happen in the outposts of utopia, the gun-free zones with zero tolerance for firearms. An occasional peasant may go on a killing spree, but a society where the peasants are all armed is also far more able to stop such a thing without waiting for the men-at-arms to be dispatched from the castle.
An armed society spends more time stopping evil than contemplating it. It is the disarmed society that is always contemplating it as a thing beyond its control. Helpless people must find something to think about while waiting for their lords to do something about the killing. Instead of doing something about it themselves, they blame the agency of the killer in being free to kill, rather than their own lack of agency for being unable to stop him.
Originally published at Sultan Knish.