The Difficult Question at the Heart of the Gun Debate

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 aboutWe 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.

Dan Melo

Dan Melo is a recovering lawyer and learner of many things. He is currently writing a book exploring our inability to be reasonable.

Latest posts by Dan Melo (see all)

Our support comes entirely from our readers; we stay ad-free to bring you the best experience. If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:
Dan Melo

Dan Melo is a recovering lawyer and learner of many things. He is currently writing a book exploring our inability to be reasonable.

9 thoughts on “The Difficult Question at the Heart of the Gun Debate

  1. The question of whether or not missiles, tanks, etc., qualify as “arms” under the Second Amendment, while debatable and entertaining, in no way justifies the reclassification of what are and always have been considered “arms” — pistols, shotguns, and rifles — as something else.

    And no, the Second Amendment is not conditional on body counts, crime, or any other practical consideration. It’s the law. A mechanism exists to change or repeal it but, until and unless it’s changed or repealed, it remains the law.

    Which I think is a good thing.

  2. I disagree. If the constitution (and the law generally) is to mean anything, it has to mean what it says. The fact that the politics of a Supreme Court justice matter so much should be a big flashing red warning sign that the system has failed. It should be possible for Alito and Ginsburg to agree on almost every case.

    The way the constitution “lives” is through amendment. It should not “live” by Supreme Courts telling us that it says something that it plainly does not say.

    So if we don’t want people to have tanks, this is not a matter for the Courts. It’s a matter for our state and federal representatives, who should amend the Constitution.

    It wouldn’t be a bad idea to throw the whole thing out and start fresh, with a new understanding of how technology and language evolves over the life of a country. Certain kinds of amendments ought to be easier. And it would give Congress something productive to do.

  3. “I have made that point in many forums, that modern rifles are too powerful, i.e. they should be in the same category as tanks, grenades and artillery. ”

    Well, the 2nd Amendment was written the way it was to ensure that the people would always have access to the weaponry they would need to wage war against a foreign power. And even back then, that meant artillery, although they kept that stuff locked up in armories. Anybody in town could use them if needed – there was no standing army. On purpose.

    The idea that the people would not be allowed to carry rifles and pistols to protect themselves was never even contemplated then. And it has never been the topic of any court case that I am aware of at any time in U.S. history.

  4. “Are the sum total of all the arguments in favor of mass gun ownership …outweighed at some point by a body count? ”

    Nope. Not as long as the 2nd Amendment exists.

    And, if body count was the deciding factor, how many other things should be banned on ethical grounds? Swimming pools? Big Macs? Cigars? Alcohol?

    Think guns are a different case? Let’s look at it another way: To a statistical farthing, zero gun owners do anything untoward to anyone else with a gun. And, likewise, zero guns are ever involved in anything untoward.

    The statistics of untoward events involving guns or gun owners are merely tiny rounding errors. There are 100 million gun owners. At least 300 million guns in the U.S. A bit more than half of annual gun deaths are men committing suicide. Of the remainder, a full two-thirds are drug/gang related. That leaves about 5,000 instances per year, which means that 0.00016 % of guns are involved and 0.005% of gun owners are involved in something untoward against other people not involved in drugs or gangs. Rounding errors.

    Excessive alcohol use kills 88,000 people per year vs 5000 against guns
    Swimming pools kill 3500 per year – about 70% of those 5000 gun deaths.
    The flu kills 36,000 every year
    Cigars kill 9,000.
    300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are attributed to obesity.

    The Constitutional right of individuals to own and use guns for self-defense is the strongest it has ever been in the history of the United States. If you want to restrict gun use, you must eliminate the 2nd Amendment. And you will never do that until you control both houses of Congress at the Federal and State level. And to do THAT, you need to stop yourself from giving Karl Rove an orgasm every time you write another article, or put up another Facebook post, calling for yet another unconstitutional restriction on gun ownership. Because it makes you feel good. All you are doing is electing more Republicans.

    Better to keep your powder dry.

  5. > At its heart, the second amendment and gun ownership are about one thing — the ability to take another’s life.

    I think that’s just one way of looking at it. Another way is this: At its heart, the second amendment and gun ownership are about one thing — the right for a person to defend one’s self, property, and family, by any means necessary, against those who wish to do him harm.

  6. I only have to think of one question:

    “At any point in my life, would it have been a bad idea for me to have a gun?”

    Let’s see, instances that immediately come to mind are 1985, 1989, 1993-1995 inclusive, 2000….

    And let’s not EVEN get into my Jr. High years…

    yeah…that about answers that question.

  7. I have made that point in many forums, that modern rifles are too powerful, i.e. they should be in the same category as tanks, grenades and artillery. If every one who wants one were issued a Civil War Confederate musket, the kind that you have to shove the little ball in with a rod of some sort, dump in the powder and fire, there would be few gun deaths. A good rebel soldier could get off three shots a minute, but the maximum range is about 40 yards, even then most people would miss.

What are your thoughts?