For one reason or another I have found myself trying lately to understand the American obsession with guns. Self defense comes up a lot, as perhaps the main reason why we are told (or we tell ourselves) that we need to own a firearm. I hear talk about “gun rights,” “gun control,” “gun ownership,” “gun safety”, “gun crime,” “gun deaths” - but never “gun use.” It’s as if we had a blind spot about not just bearing arms, but wielding them. I try to keep an open mind, and so I wonder, what would it be like, if we really did all carry guns, as some keep proposing? Would it work? Would we be safer, would there be less crime? I don’t know, and it’s hard to find out, for one reason or another. It seems there would be even more tragic accidents, but I’m not sure this would be the worst outcome. I am more worried about how having guns makes us think differently about the people around us.
A few years ago I took a day-long course in handgun safety down in Los Angeles. It was the bridegroom’s request, it was his bachelor party, and I was best man, so I set it up. But I was also interested to see what it was like, to be around people who knew and worked with guns, and to hold something that had been designed specifically to kill with. Our instructor was a young father, who lectured us on keeping our families safe: his story was all about protecting our homes from intruders, and storing the gun safely in between times. He started out suitably stern, but towards the end of the class, I began to get the impression that guns somehow delighted this man. I couldn’t help thinking, perhaps he would like to come face to face with an intruder in his kitchen. As for me, I felt dangerous, shooting at (or rather, towards) the target. I felt like an accident waiting to happen. Maybe this is how everyone feels, holding a murder weapon: not at all like a murderer, until it’s too late.
Those few hours at the pistol range are not much to go on, I know. Inevitably, the actual self defense scenarios we are invited to prepare for would be very different. Imagine: scared witless, adrenaline pumping, someone who has done us wrong right there in front of us, and this instrument of instant, personalized, apparent justice in one hand. Would holding the gun push me more towards justice (as my chemically-altered, fear-addled brain would see it), or mercy?
I didn’t really spend any time at all thinking about justice and mercy until I got put in a position of having to choose a path between them, and then suddenly I learned a lot. You might think we seek justice for ourselves, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me that being served justice, like your greens, is good for you, even though you may not like it at the time. And mercy seems like something it would be good to be granted, but I think it’s even better as something given. Being merciful is like forgiving, but easier: you can start with one and build up to the other. The most difficult part I found was finding the right balance: edge too far in the direction of either justice or mercy and both parties’ suffering increases. I think the last thing I’d want to be holding when confronted with crime and pushed, emotional, for a judgement, is a gun.