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Guns, Risks, and Safety

One: I am generally in favor of stricter gun controls, but not because of what Adam Lanza did in Connecticut last Friday. Hard cases make bad law, and freakishly rare events prompt bad policies — as most Americans should be reminded every time they are forced to take off their shoes in airports. We should think about the role of guns in our society because of our day-in-and-day-out death toll, not the bizarre and horrific events in Newtown.

Human beings do this all the time: we alter our behavior in response to extremely rare events that happen elsewhere, but not in response to real problems that we face every day. Last month the faculty at Wheaton College, where I work, were all made to watch a video about what to do if we received word through our recently installed campus-wide information system that there was an intruder on campus. I’m sure that the Newtown massacre encourages our Risk Management people to believe that this was time well-spent (and that the money invested in the information system was well-spent, too). But leaving aside the question of whether in a moment of crisis anyone will remember what they saw on the video, it was still addressing something that has almost no chance of ever happening. Meanwhile, in my twenty-eight years on the faculty here I have never received any training in dealing with depressed and anxious students, something that I have to do on a weekly if not a daily basis. Such day-to-day challenges just aren’t dramatic enough to prompt a mandatory video session.

Two: This same warning against implementing policy decisions based on vivid-but-very-unlikely events applies to the people who are claiming that the answer to school massacres is arming our teachers. It’s especially ironic that this recommendation comes almost invariably from people who also believe in smaller government, because their chosen response to tragedy would be a government-mandated logistical quagmire: some government agency would have to buy the guns, train the teachers, set and enforce policies about gun storage and appropriate use, and so on and so on. And of course all this would just leave teachers with less time to confront the real and often quite serious problems they face every day.

I could write a very long blog post listing what’s wrong with the plan to arm teachers, especially the various unintended consequences that would spring from such a policy implemented nationwide. We can be absolutely sure that within a few years more people would be killed by teachers who fired their weapons accidentally or in misplaced anger or fear, or by students who stole their teachers’ guns, than have ever been killed in school massacres like those in Newtown and Columbine.

But what troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.

Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.)

Is this really the best we can do? It might be if we lived in, say, the world described by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. But we don’t. Our social order is flawed, but by no means bankrupt. Most of us live in peace and safety without the use of guns. It makes more sense to try to make that social order safer and safer, more and more genuinely peaceful, rather than descend voluntarily into a world governed by paranoia, in which one can only feel safe — or, really, “safe” — with cold steel strapped to one’s ribcage.

UPDATE: I’m going to close comments on this post now, because the discussion has ceased to be productive. Thanks to all who contributed.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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