In an article I wrote last year I explored the debate on gun control, in general, following the political groundswell that seemed to support harsher restrictions and outright second amendment violations following the Newtown school shooting. Here, I will explore the implications of the immediate politicization of similar tragedies, touching on the reactions to the Isla Vista murders, which occurred last week.

The clamor for increased restrictions or bans on firearms ownership has been reinvigorated, beginning with comments given by Richard Martinez, father of the deceased Christopher Michael-Martinez, who was shot by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California, on May 23 of this year. In Martinez’s initial press conference, he stated:

“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”

In later interviews, he went on to say:

“I don’t care about your sympathy. I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me. Get to work and do something. I’ll tell the president the same thing if he calls me. Getting a call from a politician doesn’t impress me.”

I have to say here at the beginning that any criticism I may have is not directed at Mr. Martinez directly. Anyone speaking in front of a camera days after their son was murdered has a pass to say whatever the hell they want. I’ve only been a father for seven months and I can’t imagine the devastation that would come from losing my son. He can even blame me personally, as a gun owner, for his son’s death, and I would be empathetic.

He can do it, but it doesn’t mean he’s right. The veracity of one’s claims is not dependent on the severity of their emotions.

My beef is with the journalists, pundits, and politicians who would use the inchoate lamentations of a grieving father as a framework for rational, objective policy prescriptions. Journalists like Adam Gopnik, who, in writing for the New Yorker, characterized Martinez’s words as “brave” for calling out the N.R.A. and gun-rights supporters.

It may be brave to say anything on camera the day after your son is murdered, but the content of Martinez’s statements strike me, not so much as unexpectedly courageous as entirely predictable. Anger is the second of the five Kübler-Ross stages of grief and is generally characterized by misplaced feelings of rage that seek a concrete object on which to focus the blame. The N.R.A. is an easy target to project blame unto because they are the biggest firearms lobby in Washington and everyone has heard of them. There’s a reason he didn’t go after Gun Owners of America or Knife Rights: nobody’s ever heard of them (and I’d be willing to bet, neither has he). He was playing the odds by aiming for a big target and now others are piling on because it’s the easy thing to do. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is called “scapegoating” and it’s neither brave nor difficult, it’s just reactionary.

Let’s return our focus for a moment on the Gopnik article as he makes so many mendacious claims that they just scream to be rebutted:

“They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live?.. Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”

This part is from Martinez, not Gopnik, but there are some things here that need to be addressed.

Firstly, he is conflating the concept of gun rights with some mythical right to kill people with guns at whim. Gun rights are correctly understood as an amalgam of two natural rights: the right to self-defense and the right to property. All humans have the right to utilize force to defend ourselves and others from violent persecution. Only true pacifists believe otherwise, and they are exceedingly rare. The right to property is more controversial, particularly following the rise of socialism, but I would challenge anyone who doesn’t believe in them to let me walk into your home, unsolicited, and start living there. Murray Rothbard gives a strong argument to suggest that all rights (free speech, assembly, religion) are understood as corollaries to property rights, and I am inclined to agree with him. To weaken property rights is to call all others into question.

The right to keep and bear arms, whether a gun or a knife or anything else, is the right of ownership of property which is able to be utilized in the defense of self and others. Gun rights are not in conflict with the right to life but in fact the latter is seen by many to be the whole raison d’être for the former. In a history replete with episodes of powerful, brutish men killing and subjugating the weak, well before the invention of the firelock, guns are perceived as an accessible technology that anyone can use to fight back with commensurate force. Understand that when you argue against gun advocated that the right to life is sacrosanct, they are arguing the same thing right back at you.

Secondly, “not one more”? What does this mean? We shouldn’t allow one more person to be murdered with a firearm? We shouldn’t allow one more person to be murdered period? Let us be clear. People are not murdered because we haven’t yet created the perfect barriers to stop all the murderers. They are murdered because humans are subject to evilness and sin and some consciously decide to act on their depravity. This condition is endemic to all humans and cannot be fixed by legislation.

Or perhaps he was speaking hyperbolically and a more accurate understanding would be that we should do things to decrease the likelihood of these events in the future. Well, the homicide rate in general has been declining since the late 80s to near historic lows and mass murders specifically constitute a tiny fraction of the number of murders and have shown no long-term statistical trend of being more common. Some have suggested that we may be living in one of the most peaceful times in human history (fingers crossed). Again, I wouldn’t want to try to rationalize this with Martinez in the heat of the moment, but the rest of us should at least try to look at some numbers before blindly adopting emotional, sensationalist claims.

“Christopher died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. That’s true.”

No, that’s sophistry. Christopher died because Elliot consciously decided to murder him. That is the only thing that can be shown to be true. I really can’t understand why Gopnik or anyone else would stick to claim with such an impossible burden of proof. This isn’t rational thought; it’s pure demagoguery. How embarrassing to live in a culture that so devalues dialectic and reason.

“That the killer in question was in the grip of a mad, woman-hating ideology…”

This reminded me of some things that have come up in other articles; the idea that the murder can be at least somewhat attributed to patriarchy or a prevailing culture of misogyny. Rodger was a misogynist, no doubt, but he was also an immature narcissist and possibly a sociopath. Those things fueled his decision to kill and his misogyny was simply an extension of his deep personality disorder. To suggest that “white male privilege” or a “culture of masculinity” unsurprisingly produces men who want to kill women in a rampage is an uncritical, wild generalization.

“…or that he was also capable of stabbing someone to death with a knife, are peripheral issues to the central one of a gun culture that has struck the Martinez family and ruined their lives.”

Fuck off! You cannot be serious! The fact that this individual had the presence of mind to systematically stab, shoot, and run over numerous individuals is a peripheral issue and the central issue is… “gun culture”?!

Gun culture is not a real, tangible thing. It is a socially-constructed, generalized term of convenience. Neither is it monolithic. The tens of millions of gun owners in the U.S. who neither advocate murder nor use their firearms to murder people are a highly diverse group. The one thing many of them have in common is the desire to protect themselves and the belief that a gun has significant utility for that end.

“Why did Christopher Michael-Martinez die? Because the N.R.A. and the politicians they intimidate enable people to get their hands on weapons and ammunition whose only purpose is to kill other people as quickly and as lethally as possible.”

The implication here is that if the N.R.A. didn’t get in the way, we could institute legislation that would put an end to all gun violence. He’s alluding to a complete ban on firearms ownership, based on his off-hand remark about Australia later on, without explicitly fessing up to it. Never mind that his argument is irrational, as enacting laws doesn’t magically stop crimes from happening. We have hundreds of millions of firearms in this country and excising all of them, particularly from a nation comprised of people known for their intransigence and skepticism of authority, is a practical exercise in futility. Not to mention total hypocrisy as armed agents of the state will be needed to be sent in to take the guns.

Then there’s the remark that guns have no other purpose than to murder people efficiently. He’s not condemning their lethality because he truly believes that no one, not even police officers or the National Guard or the Secret Service have legitimate reasons to carry such instruments of death; he writes it because he’s an uncritical and unimaginative prig.

“How do we know that they are the ‘because’ in this? Because every other modern country has suffered from the same kinds of killings, from the same kinds of sick kids, and every other country has changed its laws to stop them from happening again, and in every other country it hasn’t happened again. (Australia is the clearest case—a horrific gun massacre, new laws, no more gun massacres—but the same is true of Canada, Great Britain, you name it.)”

He must be so arrogant about the righteousness of his position that he just does not care that he’ll get taken to task for this. He can’t really be so obtuse to make such a claim without checking into it.

First of all, with respect to his comment on Australia, why is the focus so singularly directed at gun massacres? Do other kinds of mass murder not count? Are they not “as bad”?

He’s correct on one thing: gun massacres in Australia have not occurred since the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and subsequent gun ban. There was one mass shooting, in 2005, but only two of the injured died; not three, anyway. There have been three mass murders in the form of arson, but those don’t count because those dead people cannot be conveniently used as political props.

In the U.K. a gun ban was part of the 1997 Firearms Act. In 2010 (that’s after 1997, for the record) a gunman in Cumbria murdered, with a gun, 12 people and injured 11 more. Gopnik is just flat out wrong, on the face of it.

“The war against euphemism and cliché matters not…”

To say nothing of the war against irony…

“Every time we tell the truth about a subject that attracts a lot of lies, we advance the sanity of the nation.”

See? We can agree about something!

“’The best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’ reveals itself to be a lie on a single inspection: the best answer is to not let the bad guy have a gun.”

Except that “bad guys”, by definition, do not care about or follow laws. You really should make a habit of giving a proposition more than a single inspection as your analysis leaves a lot to be desired.

“’Guns don’t kill people, people do.’ No: obviously, people with guns kill more people than people without them.”

He is sidestepping the philosophical argument embedded in the claim by trying to shift the locus of the blame by appealing to the statistical distribution of murders by weapon used. This is called a red herring fallacy.

“Why not ban knives or cars, which can be instruments of death, too? Because these things were designed to help people do things other than kill people.”

Gopnik is being disingenuous here. He doesn’t actually want to ban guns, he wants to consolidate them into the hands of the politically powerful. Police officers can have guns, because everyone knows that they have a good reason to carry them that doesn’t involve attacking people with them. We normal citizens must not have any legitimate reasons, or at least we must lack the sufficient acumen or importance to be allowed to keep them for personal defense.

He also doesn’t really believe that guns lack practical utility beyond murdering people. He’s preying on the ignorance of people who are unaccustomed to firearms beyond their role as plot devices in action films.

“And the idea that you can be pro-life and still be pro-gun: if your primary concern is actually with the sacredness of life, then you have to stand with Richard Martinez, in memory of his son.”

As was said earlier, pro-gun people tend to be pro-life, or to use a less politicized phrase, value life and are not murderous, because they believe that life and liberty should be protected and will fight to protect from those that wish to take it.

 

Returning to Martinez’s comments:

“Today, I’m going to ask every person I can find to send a postcard to every politician they can think of with three words on it: Not one more,” he said Tuesday. “People are looking for something to do. I’m asking people to stand up for something. Enough is enough… There’s no playbook for this. We don’t know what we are doing,” he said. “I just know I have to keep fighting until something changes. The most precious thing in the world has been taken from me. What else can I do?”

Another stage of grief is bargaining. Martinez’s communication of the desire to not let this happen again (he doesn’t define “this” so I presume when he says “Not one more,” he means we should take steps to prevent people from being murdered in random mass shootings) is an extension of his desire to go back and prevent his son from being murdered. It’s entirely understandable, it’s just not realistic.

As I stated earlier, the homicide rate is already changing; it’s declining. In judging a policy that purports to lower the homicide rate even further, we must not to forget to do the most important thing that EVERYONE FORGETS TO DO. We must evaluate the tradeoffs.

No policy is purely good or purely bad, for all people. Every policy that has good intentions has unintended negative consequences. It’s not enough to like the objectives of a policy; one must judge whether or not the positive results are outweighed by the negative ones.

This brings us to the purpose of the Second Amendment. It is not to maintain arms in the standing National Guard, which is improperly conflated with the notion of the militia. It is not because Americans have a long and storied tradition of hunting and outdoorsmanship. Those reasons are ancillary. The purpose of the right to keep and bear arms is so that the general citizenry can counter the tyranny of the state, both foreign and domestic.

That so many people think that this rationale in rooted in an extreme and preposterous ideology is something I’ll never understand. The murder of citizens by their own government is clearly not without precedent. The number of people directly murdered by state agents or indirectly by state-induced famine or disease or war is estimated to be over 260 million people in the 20th century alone. To suggest that it is impossible or asinine to suggest that it could happen here is to be willfully blind to reality. The state is an exponentially more ominous looming threat than that of psychopathic mass-murderers.

There’s always someone who will then say, “But the U.S. Army and others have tanks and jets and nuclear bombs. What good are semi-automatic rifles going to be against that?” The fighting off of superior forces and firepower by weaker but intransigent groups also has historical examples: the Swiss in WWII, the Chechen against Russia in the first Chechen war, even the American Revolution. There’s a significant psychological difference between going to war with an unarmed populous and an armed one.

If the American people truly want to decrease or eliminate murder by disarming peaceful people, I should warn them to be careful what they wish for.

 

Links

In this article, J.D. Tuccille explains why attempting to institute new, better laws will be ineffective as stopping people who do not fear the consequences for breaking them.

Here Jacob Sullum shows how the example of the Isla Vista killings “exposes the false promise of policies that aim to prevent violence by limiting access to weapons.”