Indulge me momentarily in a hypothetical: I want a tank. But I can’t have one. But I should be able to get one, right? The text of the second amendment says I have the “right to bear arms.” “Arms” is ill-defined in the Constitution, but I think we can all safely agree that it could include a broad swath of weaponry from steak knives to large military equipment. The drafters probably hadn’t envisioned many-ton death machines capable of leveling city blocks, but it is a living document after all, so they didn’t have to.
I’ve got some great arguments for why I should get a tank too. I’d feel a lot safer. I’d be able to defend my house readily (I’m thinking I’ll park it in the garage). If the government decides to become tyrannical, I’m going to do way better against it than with the assault rifles most amateurs carry around. It would also be great for getting good parking spots during brunch. I know what you’re thinking — “Dan, how can we trust you with that thing?” Great question. I’ve had zero criminal convictions, not even a speeding ticket. Never been diagnosed with depression or any other mental disorder. Most importantly, I promise not to blow up anything unless it’s absolutely necessary for protection.
This example clearly borders on the absurd. But it illustrates the point that we’re having the wrong conversations about guns. We must reframe the starting point, the focus of the conversation before we can make any progress. Every time we face some tragedy involving firearms, the discussion erupts over access to guns, mental health, the intent of the founders, and Australia. That is not to say that these are not important components to the discussion and potential solutions moving forward. Rather, I believe that they are the wrong points on which to begin this debate.
All of these questions must give way to a single, simple, central one — how many lives is this right worth? At its heart, the second amendment and gun ownership are about one thing — the ability to take another’s life. Regardless of whether you construe the founder’s intent as one of self-defense or a guarantee to safeguard democracy, this idea stands — one must be able to take another’s life.
This is the sole balancing act that we have to determine moving forward, and many of the other questions will fall into place. Are the sum total of all the arguments in favor of mass gun ownership — ranging from recreation to retribution to resistance — outweighed at some point by a body count? If the idea repulses you, it should. It’s an ugly question, but one we confront all the time in other contexts without realizing it.
We could, for example, demand that all motor vehicles be driven at 15 miles an hour, thus drastically reducing or even eliminating the 30-40 thousand motor vehicle deaths each year. This measure would help safeguard against reckless driving or even people who text and drive, as accidents would mostly be small fender benders. But we’ve decided that the benefit of fast travel and a degree of personal autonomy outweigh those deaths and thus ensures our complacency. Similarly, we could reduce the yearly number of alcohol-related deaths (88,000 according to the CDC) through prohibition (which, despite popular opinion, drastically reduced alcohol consumption during its enactment), but have instead determined that personal consumption is too great a freedom.
As revolting as it is, the measure is no different with “arms” under the second amendment. As with the tank hypothetical above, we can agree that everybody probably shouldn’t have a tank or a tomahawk missile in their garage. The risk of mass destruction and death simply outweigh any personal right to military equipment, even if that means you are less prepared to protect against a despotic government. All of the same arguments of personal freedom, personal responsibility, and protection still apply, but the potential cost to all of us if everybody had a tank is too great.
To put the question more specifically: How many lives of country music fans, nightclub goers, and schoolchildren is gun ownership worth? Is it thousands? Tens of thousands? Millions? I don’t have an answer or a hardline. It seems distinctly morbid and awful to even consider where a death toll has to arrive before we say “Ok, that’s too many.” Nevertheless, we must sort this fundamental question before we can look at Australia’s ban or the UK’s murder statistics as a model for change. Until we answer it, in all of its awfulness, there is no way forward.
As reticent as I am to admit it, the argument for protection against tyranny is not without merit. If entertainment choices are any reflection of culture and attitude, the recent resurgence of books like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 suggest that many of us are worried that big brother may not be far off. Likewise, it takes little effort to look around the world and throughout history to see what happens when a government can act without fear against the governed. But this is but one more piece for us to stack and weigh against the growing body count.
Neither side of the debate should look away from this question, nor should they place the burden on the other to answer it. Both defenders and detractors alike have shielded their eyes against it for far too long. Understandably so, as it requires us to determine a horrifying statistic — how many deaths, whether the gun is pointed at others or at self, before it becomes intolerable? So long as we concede that violence must remain a part of human experience, this question is not going away.
It’s easier to talk about “original intent,” magazine size, mental health, and Australia. We avoid this question of cost because we fear the answer lies somewhere above zero. This is necessarily so because we admit it in many other contexts, from automobiles to alcohol. We avoid this question because it is not just one of cost, but of responsibility. We want to blame things like bad gun owners, the mentally infirm, or gun lobbying rather than facing the truth that we all bear responsibility for these tens of thousands of deaths in some way. We avoid the question because we don’t want to be responsible for the answer.
It is not to say that measures cannot be taken to reduce the number of innocent lives taken from us by guns. But how do we measure the efficacy of those efforts without first determining where they should stop? Nor should we reduce this terrible question to one of numbers. These are real human lives we are talking about. We must make ourselves feel every loss. Regardless of the decisions we make going forward, we are and will continue to be responsible for those lives.
So let this disturbing question of cost and risk sit with you, as dark as it is, regardless of whether or not you have a gun at home. It is part of the price of our democracy, however flawed. To do otherwise is to continue in the same routine of outrage, yelling, and then silence, until it is interrupted by gunfire once more.