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The Poag Clarification: Don’t Take Your Guns to Town

Personal responsibility is easy to talk about when you’re sitting at a keyboard in a controlled situation.
Bourne Ultimatum (2007)MATT DAMON

These are general responses to a few paraphrased comments from my previous column. A big thanks to everyone who read and left comments. It is much appreciated, even if I disagree with you.

“Damn you’re insane! You shouldn’t be carrying a gun!”

First, I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t fire a shot. I didn’t even point my pistol at them, but I was about to do so once that window rolled down. As a couple of people noted in the comments section, I could argue I was in fear for my life, and therefore, justify my actions. But I wasn’t, at least not morally, not at the point I grabbed my weapon. I was angry. The danger had passed, and once I realized it was a group of teenagers playing a very stupid game, I became incensed.

Second, I don’t carry firearms in public anymore. I don’t have one in my car, nor will I get a concealed carry permit. The jury’s still out on my sanity though. I am an internet blogger after all.

“Just because you’re not a responsible gun owner doesn’t mean I’m not! You have no right to take away my guns!”

I don’t want to take away anyone’s guns. It’s not like I want take your guns over to my house… Unless it’s a SIG Sauer than maybe I do.

I have no doubt there are plenty of responsible gun owners. I’d even go so far as to say the majority of gun owners are responsible. I’m not proposing a repeal of the Second Amendment, or rounding up all the guns in the United States, though I think the homicide rate would drop significantly if we did. That’s a separate and highly unrealistic proposition. Firearms are too ingrained in the American cultural psyche to ever completely disappear. For better or worse it’s just not going to happen. Guns are here to stay.

“So what the hell was your point?”

Just because there are responsible gun owners, even if it’s a majority, doesn’t mean you should be able to carry it in public. It’s one thing to own a firearm and keep it in your home. It’s quite another to carry it in a movie theater, grocery store, the mall, or any public place like it’s a clothing accessory. In order to be clear, let me establish just what guns are.

Webster defines a tool as “a handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task.” A gun aids in the task of accomplishing death. Its purpose is to kill something. That purpose is often downplayed to soften it. Phrases like “self-defense” or words like “protection” and “tool” are used to give the illusion of multi-purpose or general utility. Firearms are made to kill. That’s their one and only function.

“Only a Lib would be surprised by that. Of course that’s their purpose! Doesn’t mean they should be taken out of the hands of responsible gun owners. The Constitution says-”

Let me stop you right there. We’ll get to the Constitution in a second. Let’s deal with the first part. Again, I don’t want to take them out of the hands of individuals in the private sphere, just in the public sphere. How you live your life in private is one thing. As long as you’re not hurting other people, you can do almost whatever you want. But the public sphere is a whole different animal. It is shared space. It’s where we all have to put up with each other, and in order to get along, we put limits on individual behavior.

Most restaurants don’t allow you to smoke inside, just like most workplaces. You’re not allowed to drink in public or operate a vehicle while intoxicated. You can’t drive your vehicle wherever you want in whatever condition you want. Heck, you can’t even park wherever you want or walk wherever you want! We do that because society has determined that limiting certain behaviors makes life better for everyone. It’s a tradeoff between personal liberty and the common good. Carrying firearms in public is no different.

“But that’s why we have this thing called PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY! I know it’s a foreign concept to you libs but that’s what keeps it in check. Not the Nanny State!”

Personal responsibility is easy to talk about when you’re sitting at a keyboard in a controlled situation. In fact, the notion of personal responsibility assumes human beings will generally make rational choices in most situations. That’s why we don’t have an obesity epidemic, and gambling centers like Las Vegas and Atlantic City have withered on the vine, all but disappeared from the earth. Oh wait…

People can be rational. They can also be impulsive and emotional giving into urges in the heat of the moment that they later regret i.e. irrational. Combine that irrationality with a volatile situation, then throw in a tool whose purpose is to aid in death, and you have a tragedy on your hands.

“Exactly! People who misuse firearms go to jail! They’re the Bad Guys! The Good Guys who use them responsibly, don’t. In fact you’re harming the Good Guys by not letting them have firearms to protect themselves.”

The language we use around guns implies a static reality, a state that’s unchanging, that there are only law-abiding people and criminals. In essence, people are either good or bad only. A good guy, like some Aristotelian super hero, will always choose the good. His Arête, moral excellence, prevents him from doing bad, thus, he’s justified in his actions. They are the personification of The Good. So, it follows that whatever they do is good. They simply can’t make a bad choice… until they do.

There are no good guys with guns, just people with guns. People can do good things with guns: protecting lives, preventing tragedies, but those moments are brief, and situational. People can also cause tragedy with guns through anger and stupidity. People aren’t static. Sure, they have a baseline of behavior, but in moments of high stress or fear, they can act “out of character”.

The reality is people act irrationally, especially when they’re frightened or angry. That’s why military and law enforcement train with firearms and try to recreate chaotic situations in a controlled environment. The myth of the good guy rising to the occasion is just that: a myth. In a high stress situation you’ll fall back on your highest level of training, and if that’s nothing, you’ll freeze up or run. It’s fight or flight. Even highly trained professionals make mistakes. You can’t eliminate friendly fire, or collateral damage. It gets factored in to the metric, and viewing our public space in terms of a warzone is not only wrongheaded, it’s basically giving up.

“You’re making a lot of generalizations. That’s not me. I’m not you. I can carry a gun in public responsibly. I have been for a long time and I haven’t killed anyone. What about all the situations where a firearm has saved someone’s life?”

Maybe I am making generalizations and maybe that’s not you. But I’m willing to bet all those people who’ve killed someone in anger, like Curtis Reeves, would’ve said the same thing as well. No one thinks they’re capable of violence. We all like to think we’ll act calmly and rationally. We’d be the one to take down James Eagan Holmes with a well-placed shot before he could hurt anyone. We’re the good guys. We’re not the bad guys.

Actually we’re neither. We’re people and we’re all capable of doing horrible things given the right circumstances. Yes, firearms have saved lives, but how many lives have they taken needlessly because someone felt the need to carry a gun that shouldn’t? How many times has carrying a gun brought about the exact situation it was meant to prevent?

It almost did for me. I was fortunate nothing horrible happened, but others haven’t been so lucky. Guns escalate a situation, not defuse it. If you reach for a gun, you’re committing to a likely violent conclusion. Maybe a movie theater isn’t the place to pack heat. Maybe if Curtis Reeves respected the no guns policy the theater had posted, if he didn’t feel justified to carry it, had been forced to leave his gun at home, maybe his victim Chad Oulson would still be alive.

My point is simply this: do we need that in a public space? Maybe, just maybe, believing that we can carry guns wherever the fuck we want is something to reconsider. Or to quote Billy Joe’s final words “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”.