As levelheaded as we portend, with all our effort for rationality, we have all found ourselves on the wrong side of many issues, most commonly for one simple reason.
We are slaves to our emotions. This seething hurricane of emotions clears the field for nasty overreactions to highly charged issues. My latest overreaction occurred over guns. One of this nation’s most ironic subjects, guns have shattered both the imperial yoke with which our forefathers felt burdened as well as, some would say, the pursuit of happiness those forefathers promised us over 200 years ago. Loved and hated, these weapons have shaped human culture, particularly American culture. However, when we hear the word “gun” in the media, they consistently fail to analyze its status as a “weapon,” no matter how many times they call it a “weapon.” This word “weapon” holds the key to the question of “gun violence,” a term that means so very little. Unfortunately, the news media long ago abandoned the search for truth. Truth doesn’t sell pharmaceuticals and cars. Emotions sell pharmaceuticals and cars. Emotions sell everything.
Now that I’ve blamed the media for their disrespect for words, I’m going to blame myself for the very same thing. When the Newport shooting occurred, I didn’t need the media to push my buttons. I don’t watch television and the state of television news is closely related to my distaste for it but I didn’t need an endless carnival of photos and video of grinning, frolicking deceased children to fall victim to my emotions. I have no problem admitting fault here. After simply imagining the chaos and fear those children and the adults entrusted with their well-being must have experienced, I failed to wrangle my less rational side and instead spent my cognitive capital railing on guns and gun owners. Not to say most arguments in favor of guns aren’t just as shackled to emotion as the arguments for control. Neither side of the issue has addressed the real problem. It took me a few days to scrub off the emotion and truly examine the dilemma.
Weapons. You have to call a gun a weapon. Now define “weapon.” Not very difficult is it? Now I can ask you to tally every weapon in your memory (not only weapons you’ve physically seen held or touched but those you remember from television, history books, museums, comic books, literature, etc.) and you will never come close to the total variety of weapons humans have concocted or engineered or simply improvised in a moment of terror or rage. One of the re-occurring themes in weaponry is efficiency, efficiency not only in effectiveness but also in also emotional detachment from a weapon’s target. A pilot in a bomber 30,000 feet in the atmosphere fears not the nightmares a warrior defending himself with a sword certainly experienced a thousand years ago. Handguns are cheap in this country and relatively efficient for the price in both respects of efficiency. No need to argue why cheap handguns continue to dominate the kill count in the US. In fact, one of the most damning statistics on guns is unlike owners of steak knives or baseball bats, gun owners are far more likely to be killed with a gun than people who don’t own guns. It’s quite tempting to argue for control but does controlling “gun violence” in any way retard the overwhelming landslide of physical violence enjoyed by the human race?
As we all know, Japan has strict gun control and has seen many mass stabbings, most memorably for the sake of proximity in 2001 and 2008 but in reality Japan’s entire history is one mass stabbing. Yet, I doubt it’s any more difficult to find a sturdy knife in Japan than it is in the US. The control of any weapon now feels akin to air in a plastic bag, squeeze one side of the bag and the air must fill the opposite side. China has also had a string of school stabbings by disgruntled individuals. (Surprisingly Chinese mass killers reportedly—loosely and scarcely reported—also find explosives cheap and efficient) Some people will rebut the Asian mass stabbings by throwing around kill counts, saying these stabbings result in far fewer deaths than gun rampages but that argument proves irrelevant when we stir in the totality of physical violence humans engage against one another. Drone strikes kill 40 civilians for every “terrorist” target eliminated, 17 children and many more adults killed in the Oklahoma City Federal Building without a single bullet fired, 70’s Chilean deaths squads drugging targets and tossing them into the ocean from choppers, great numbers of Africans hacked and beaten to death with machetes and hammers, hostages lose their heads, hookers strangled, hobos stabbed or beaten to death with pipes, pillows over sleeping faces, heads held under water, poisoned food. Advances in 3D printing allow those who choose to print functional assault rifles. There are several online instructional videos explaining how to use a credit card as a slicing weapon. Burt Reynolds used this trick to incapacitate two burly goons in the movie Stick. Anything can be a weapon. Human beings are in love with weapons. All these examples are simply extensions of one our first and most efficient evolutionary weapons. The hand. A recent study by University of Utah’s David Carrier suggests our hands are more efficient weapons than the hands of other primates. Our ancestors evolved a weapon permanently attached to the end of our arm. Take away all the guns, knives, bombs, bows and arrows, slings, hammers, tree limbs and rocks, glass the planet to sand and we are still endowed with a cheap—and once again highly efficient—weapon. So even if weapons were the actual problem, banning them (as with banning anything) is the slipperiest of slopes.
Weapons aren’t the problem. Violence is obviously the problem. A gargantuan problem. We are violent animals who have unfortunately gained the insight to suspect this trait may be inherent, part of our nature. Western religion declared long ago that man is born from sin, condemned from birth to rage against his brother and his god for resources and power. So let’s say for a moment this is true. For the most part, I’ve harvested my examples of violence from the very recent past and the twentieth century. Any educated person knows there are far more violent epochs in our history. Ghengis Kahn killed over 30 million people, took a nap and then raped everyone who hadn’t jumped off a cliff to escape him. Slavery killed untold numbers. Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined relays anthropological evidence that violent death found nine times more ancient tribes people than the inhabitants of the twentieth century and its two “world wars.” Pinker also points out the astronomically high murder rates of medieval Europe when compared to modern times.
So if we are condemned to violence as so many have declared, why the decline? Contrary to what the media or the opposing sides of the gun debate will—or possibly can—tell you, human beings are shedding violence. There appear to be many reasons for this but the broadest answer seems to be education combined with communication. When people became literate, they communicated better and now centuries later the spread of higher education and vast amounts of exchanged information are dampening the violence we so willingly engaged as we crawled from the jungles to build human civilization. Unfortunately, the remnants of the initial control mechanisms still haunt us, such as organized religion and government but these too may be in the twilight of their existence, at least in the forms we see them today. Education and scientific exploration of the human condition is moving at a staggering pace. We may have stumbled in a few cases, namely the care and treatment of the mentally ill, harkening back to the Newport shooting and others like it, but we can only keep struggling to inform the collective intelligence of the human race, not chain it with reactionary laws born from emotion such as gun control. A law by its very nature creates a crime. I will only briefly reiterate that the Newport shooter could have dealt as much death in that school with a Louisville Slugger as he did with a gun. Laws against gun owners or baseball enthusiasts will lead nowhere. Education however breeds individual autonomy and empathy and perhaps it is already retarding our love affair with weapons, power and the violence that accompanies them. Taking guns away, stripping people of their right to do anything so long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others, is a failure to focus on the questions of why we are violent as well as why we are growing more peaceful as a race. Even now with all the weapons new and ancient at our disposal, we may be just as quarrelsome as ever but we are no doubt growing less violent. So when confronted with the old cliché “there will always be war,” I endeavor to contain my emotional instincts as I relent to this possible truth but I reject the idea that the need for “war” necessitates a need for murder.
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Chrysalis, a growing collection of very short fiction.
That Night Filled Mountain
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