The libertarian mantra which asserts that gun ownership makes people more peaceful is more of a sick joke than ever after a rash of senseless shootings.
America is such a violent society that we tend to tune out gun violence. Like a buzz of white noise, it fades into the background.
Even so, the last few weeks have seen a rash of shootings that stood out for their sheer senselessness. There was no agenda, no grudge, no provocation—just unstable people who opened fire on strangers for the most trivial reasons.
There was the 16-year-old boy in Kansas City shot when he accidentally knocked on a stranger’s door. There was the woman in upstate New York shot when she pulled into the wrong driveway. There were the two girls in Texas shot for accidentally opening a stranger’s car door. The North Carolina parents and their six-year-old daughter shot for chasing a basketball into a neighbor’s yard. The Florida delivery workers shot at for going to the wrong address. By the time you read this, there will likely be more.
This isn’t how it was supposed to happen. For decades, libertarian writers have predicted that more guns would make society more polite and peaceful. Why didn’t that work out?
A history of (literary) violence
In 1948, Robert Heinlein wrote Beyond This Horizon, a novel about a future society based on eugenics where conflicts were resolved by dueling. In it, he coined an infamous aphorism:
“[A]n armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”
Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, expressed a similar view in his story The Tower of the Elephant:
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
Author L. Neil Smith went the furthest in his novel The Probability Broach. In the parallel-universe libertarian utopia he depicts, everyone goes armed at all times. The author is explicit that this includes children (!!!).
Whatever the local ordinances were, I saw more low-slung handguns, more dirks and daggers, than in a dozen B-westerns and swashbucklers spliced together reel to reel.
…Even more jarring were the weapons—men and women alike, little people, children. I passed one obvious kindergartener carrying a pistol almost as big as he was! Was there some danger here I wasn’t seeing?
…Yet these people seemed so full of cordiality. Could the source of their pride and dignity be nothing more than the mechanical means of dealing death they carried?
In essence, these authors were proposing a thought experiment. Their argument was that when gun-control laws disarm the populace, people can be confident that there’ll be no consequences for being a jerk. This encourages them to be rude, aggressive, and careless of others. If gun regulations were abolished and everyone had the means to defend themselves, people would take pains to be civil to each other, because they’d know that they couldn’t get away with bad behavior.
However, this prediction wrecked on the rocks of reality. Looking at the U.S., it’s apparent that when everyone is armed to the teeth, daily life gets more violent and dangerous, not less.
We’re not perfectly rational automatons
What was the flaw in this logic?
It’s the same flaw that always afflicts libertarianism: it assumes that people will always and at all times be perfectly rational. It assumes that we make every decision through a careful cost-benefit analysis.
If that were the case, it would make sense that universal gun ownership would reduce violence, since people could calculate that the downside of a confrontation was much higher than the upside. No one would choose to risk their life by provoking a stranger.
But that’s not how people are. Human beings are messy, flawed, irrational and impulsive. Instead of reflecting on our choices in a spirit of cool reason, people are often whipped back and forth by strong emotion. We make self-destructive decisions for short-term gain. We act in haste and regret our choices later. When we’re angry or afraid, we get tunnel vision and lose the ability to act rationally.
Gun ownership is a case in point. Instead of better minding their manners, many people become more aggressive when armed. They treat a weapon as a license to impose their will on others.
READ: Why I’m not a gun owner
And the more readily available a gun is, the more tempting an option it becomes. A confrontation that might—in an unarmed world—end with a raised middle finger, yelling and profanity, or at worst, a fistfight, instead escalates into an exchange of bullets. Consider the road-rage incident in Florida that ended with the two drivers shooting at each other and hitting each other’s children.
That’s not even to mention the fact that owning a deadly weapon is, itself, a danger to your life and the lives of those around you. Gun owners indulge in the macho fantasy of shooting a bad guy about to harm their family. They rarely picture the mundane tragedies: like a gun going off unintentionally and hitting an innocent bystander, or a gun owner mistaking a friend or relative for a burglar and shooting them, or a depressed person using their gun to commit suicide, or a child finding their parent’s gun and shooting themselves or a playmate by accident.
While these scenarios are sadly common, the ideal theoretical argument for gun ownership—that Hollywood scenario of a heroic bystander with a gun stopping a massacre—is so wildly unlikely as to be nigh impossible.
A moment’s reflection should convince you how implausible this is. Soldiers get extensive training and drilling on how to stay cool under fire, and even they sometimes lose their nerve in the heat of combat. If everyone were armed, it wouldn’t prevent gun massacres. It would make them worse.
Just imagine a herd of armed, panicky, untrained civilians hearing gunfire. They’d spray bullets wildly in every direction. They’d shoot at anyone whom they think is the perpetrator (no guesses needed for how they’d make that determination), including every other “good guy with a gun.” Some of those people would fire back. A single gunshot could turn into a battle. When the authorities arrive, they wouldn’t have one shooter to stop, but a whole crowd of them.
Feeling threatened all the time
In all this bloodshed, we can’t overlook the role of right-wing media. Fox News and other outlets keep their viewers immersed in a simmering bath of fear and hate. In every headline, they preach that the world is a dangerous place and there are enemies everywhere.
Almost every story they feature is about the threat of the day: scary criminals, scary Black people, scary Muslims, scary immigrants, scary gays, scary atheists, scary transgender people, scary Democrats. Each and every one is portrayed as a sinister force coming to destroy what their elderly white audience holds dear.
This is both a profitable and electorally successful strategy. Fear compels people to pay attention, which translates into sales for Fox’s advertisers. It also gets Republicans to vote like their lives depend on it.
But when you cross this mentality with gun ownership, bloodshed and death is the predictable result. People addicted to right-wing media are on a perpetual hair trigger. They’re primed to expect the beginning of race war or the arrival of jackbooted government thugs at any moment. Something as innocuous as a knock on their door, or a ball in their yard, might set them off.
Republican legislators encourage this free-for-all. In every state where they have the power, they’ve passed open-carry and “stand your ground” laws which give people a legal green light to kill someone if they say they felt threatened. Of course, the sine qua non of conservative media is to make its viewers feel threatened all the time.
The toxic influence of right-wing media on the U.S. is likely the reason why other wealthy countries with high gun ownership, like Norway and Finland, don’t experience the same levels of violence. Americans live under a low-level cloud of paranoia that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere.
It’s this poisonous ideology of fear, combined with the easy availability of lethal weapons, that’s created our predicament. This suggests that any solution will have to be twofold: first, getting guns out of angry people’s hands; second, quelling the sense of fear and threat that makes those people so prone to lash out.