Roving thoughts and provocations

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Shooting Our Way to Safety

David Hurn/Magnum Photos
Private citizens training for a volunteer police force in Sun City, Arizona, 1992

“How many Bostonians wished they had a gun two weeks ago?” Wayne LaPierre asked the rapt crowd at the NRA National Convention in Houston earlier this month. The huge audience of firearm enthusiasts, who call themselves “freedom’s biggest army, its greatest and brightest hope,” clapped in approval, their eyes having been just opened to how differently things would have turned out had the four million Bostonians and the marathon runners all been packing heat and had drawn their weapons and opened fire at the first sound of explosion. “How many other Americans now ponder that life-or-death question?” he thundered.

At whom exactly they’d have shot, in that moment and during the next three days, as the hunt for the elusive bombers went on, didn’t seem to worry them. Their spirits rose with sudden hope that the inhabitants of Boston and other American cities and towns who ordinarily cringe at the thought of long lines at gun shows and regard with suspicion people who stockpile firearms and ammunition might finally come to their senses and arm themselves to their teeth. As speaker after speaker at the convention made clear, the crowning achievement of our Founding Fathers was the right to bear arms, in comparison to which every other right guaranteed in the Constitution takes second place. This is how LaPierre describes the Second Amendment’s history and intent:

We come from that line of patriots who broke from King George to live their own lives as free people. And nowhere does freedom live more than in our Second Amendment right to own a firearm to defend ourselves, our families and our nation. Without that freedom, we aren’t really free at all.…More Americans today than ever before understand the principle of the Second Amendment, the freedom it gives us as individuals to be responsible for our own safety, protection and survival. Imagine living in a large metropolitan area where lawful firearms ownership is heavily regulated and discouraged. Imagine waking up to a phone call from the police, warning that a terrorist event is occurring outside and ordering you to stay inside your home. I’m talking, of course, about Boston. Where residents were imprisoned behind the locked doors of their homes—a terrorist with bombs and guns just outside. Frightened citizens, sheltered in place, with no means to defend themselves or their families from whatever may come crashing through the door.

In other words, it’s not our police and our military that will protect us from terrorists, intruders into our homes and whoever else intends us harm, but fellow citizens wielding their guns. Forget about calling 911. Just be sure you have a weapon with plenty of fire power that can outgun bad guys, and if you need to, cops and “jackbooted thugs,” as government agents are called in NRA circles, should they attempt to break into your home and confiscate your arsenal. No mention, of course, in his speech about who was in fact responsible for identifying the two bombers and then killing one and arresting the other.

Following on the premise that the more guns a person owns, the safer he and his family are going to be, the nation LaPierre and his supporters envision is one in which law enforcement would be supplanted by vigilantes in our communities. Given that there are three people killed and almost seven shot by a gun every hour in the United States, making it as easy to buy a gun as chewing gum or candy would not only make us less safe but would accelerate the end of any semblance of civil society and return us to barbarism.

All the specious arguments we hear about our Second Amendment rights to arm ourselves—with not only hunting rifles but also military-style murder weapons and even hollow-point rounds that are banned in warfare under the Geneva Convention and even the Hague Convention of 1899 before it—were debunked more than twenty years ago by former Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative Republican who called them “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” Nevertheless, the gun-rights arguments are taken seriously by millions of Americans and our media, who either believe or pretend to believe that these are principled and sincere efforts by men and women of integrity to safeguard the freedoms given to us by the Founders of this nation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Any discussion about the influence of the NRA and other gun lobbies ought to make it clear that their chief mission is to drum up business for the 1,200 gun makers in this country. Guns, as even half-wits ought to realize, are manufactured not by freedom-loving patriots, but by people for whom private profit outweighs public good. That is why they are against the background checks that 90 percent of Americans say they want. Preventing criminals and mentally ill people from buying guns would cut into their earnings. Knowing that sales of guns go up and their coffers fill up after every mass shooting in the news, the manufactures hire mountebanks like LaPierre to appeal to the fears, hatreds, and ignorance of gullible Americans and make certain that no restrictions are in place. And some in Congress go a good deal further even than he: Senator Rand Paul recently warned his constituents that “Obama and his anti-gun pals” are conniving with the United Nations in a secret “plot against the Constitution.” As the recent defeat of a modest proposal for background checks in the Senate reminded us, in the United States today the wishes of gun manufacturers take precedence over the wishes of the people.

The only hindrance that I can see to their dream of unlimited proliferation of weapons in private hands is our growing surveillance state. Since snooping on our phone calls, emails and movements no longer presents any legal or technological obstacle for the government, will it someday be able to monitor the 310 million firearms already in circulation and the many more to come?

One doesn’t need to be a prophet to predict that sooner or later some of these guns will be used to settle political differences in our already extraordinarily polarized country. As someone who by the age of six was used to hearing gun shots, explosions, and screams and to seeing dead and wounded people during World War II, the German occupation, and the civil war in Yugoslavia, I learned early that the primary purpose of a weapon is to kill people. Anyone who tells you that having a lot of them around will make us safer is either out to make money out of dead children or living in a fool’s paradise.

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