Friday, November 19, 2021

Radicalizing on Guns

If you were to ask me the one issue I think I've "radicalized" on over the past few years, it'd probably be the issue of guns. A few years ago, my view on guns would be sort of a standard soft-liberal answer: I have no issue with guns per se, but we need common-sense regulation (assault weapons ban, background checks, and so on), and while I'd vote for any of these reforms if I were a member of Congress, it isn't an issue that would exercise me that much. Now, I find myself returning over and over to "guns are one of the central problems" holding up a host of important and salutary social reforms, such that if we don't tackle the scourge of widespread gun possession, we'll never get anywhere. So in that sense, I've radicalized on guns more so than on maybe any other issue. 

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think of guns as being a common "the issue" where people are being radicalized right now. Certainly, plenty of people have held very strong views on guns and gun control for a long time. But when I think of the issues where you see people talk about a really sharp swing in their views over the past few years from a starting position of "not really something I have strong feelings on", I think of things like "abolition" or "Israel/Palestine" or "anti-wokeism" or "anti-capitalism". Guns, for lack of a better way of putting it, seems to be socially speaking in a similar position to where it was several years ago -- or if there is movement, it's the typical jockeying for position around the margins.

How did I get here? I grew up in the era where school shootings were a major part of the public discourse (I was in middle school when Columbine happened), and that "discourse" was probably the main point of intersection between myself and guns as a kid. I did not grow up in an area where gun ownership was common (I don't think I knew of anyone who owned a gun), nor in an area where gun violence was a regular feature of life (though the "beltway sniper" rampage occurred while I was in high school); my personal experience with guns consisted entirely of firing one once while at sleepaway camp. As I recall my earliest views on guns, they were much as described above -- supportive of common-sense limits, but coupled with some amount of nervousness about meddling with part of the Bill of Rights.

Fast forward into adulthood, and for the most part guns remained marginal to my thinking. I read some books about the importance of armed self-defense to the civil rights movement, which I found interesting and modulated my thinking on the issue somewhat. I also came across the "Top Shot" reality TV competition series, which I viewed as a useful peek into what I took to be the healthy version of American gun culture. I still identified with a vague liberal gun control outlook, and indeed, as a lawyer, my pro bono practice actually centered around work for the Brady Campaign. I even applied for a job with the Brady Campaign -- but I withdrew after the interview, precisely because I felt that if you worked at Brady you should be a "true believer", and I didn't consider myself to be one on the matter of guns.

What changed? First, it was thinking through how to reduce the footprint of potentially-violent police interactions in our lives. For example, noticing how often violent police encounters occur in the aftermath of traffic stops, one might ask "why does the guy who gives tickets for turning right on red need to be armed and dangerous"? Recognizing that some officers may need to be armed for their jobs, could we not disarm our traffic cops?

Of course, part of the reason why traffic cops are armed as if they're infiltrating a violent drug cartel is because we've enlisted traffic policing into a convenient workaround to negate the Fourth Amendment -- it's not about traffic laws, it's about finding some ticky-tack rolled through a stop sign excuse to pull someone over so one can search them for drugs. But in part (and these are not unrelated), it's because we know there is a solid chance that the driver of the car is armed, and potentially the sort of armed man who thinks that turning-right-on-red is his God-given right as an American so don't tread on me, and police officers never want to be a situation where they are outgunned by a civilian. The proliferation of guns in the civilian population means that there needs to be a counter-proliferation in the police population.

And the knowledge that anyone one encounters could be armed with death-dealing firearms also predictably impacts how police officers treat ordinary policing encounters. Reading a steady drumbeat of qualified immunity decisions involving police violence, often (though not always) against unarmed victims, it becomes very clear how much both constitutional doctrine and policing policy operate under the shadow of a view where everyone around the police is a potential threat. This is the "warrior cop" mentality: A nervous twitch or a furtive glance has to be viewed as a potential precursor to drawing a gun, because, well, there are a lot of guns out there, and officers are only human. "What would you have them do?" But if that's the question, it's a question that presupposes a rider "What would you have them do in a country where guns are everywhere and anyone could be packing?" To the extent that rider is what generates the hapless and helpless inability to respond to the problem of "police keep killing people in situations where it was eminently avoidable", then the rider reflects the problem. The judicial system and much of our political reaction has not-altogether-unreasonable sympathy for the position well-meaning officers are placed in, even as that sympathy itself is demonstrative of a broader systemic failing.

This extends beyond policing. As Charles Pierce put it, the proliferation of firearms throughout the populace "transforms any mass event into a potential firefight." Guns being everywhere means any public outing now is potentially life-or-death -- all the more so ones that have controversy or heated passions. When Ta-Nehisi Coates said that he'd "rather die by shooting than live armed",  he was getting at the notion that in order to have a gun on you during an active shooting, you'd need to live armed. The gun doesn't just teleport into your hand in the moment of need, it needs to be on your person as you live your life -- including when you're playing with your baby, including when you're drunk, including when you're depressed, including when you're furious, including when you've just had an emotional argument with your ex. To have a gun on you during a shooting is to have a gun on you in those moments too. But when guns are everywhere, we all to some extent have to live that life -- or least, live on the far side of it. All of us now, when encountering the belligerent drunk at the bar or the depressed just-laid-off coworker or the furious protester or the incensed ex-boyfriend, now have to wonder -- on top of everything else -- "are they armed"? The mere act of living in public becomes a sort of haunted house -- we're all forced to eye each other warily and wonder if they're going to get us (which, for some of us, then becomes "so I better get them first").

And every time I look for a solution to this, I run into the brick wall of "it won't work unless we tackle the gun epidemic". Focus on those who actually engage in gun violence? Doesn't resolve the prospective anxiety of not knowing who is a potential threat, and doesn't have anything to do with the problem of extra-twitchy officers shooting at unarmed individuals. Disarming (non-specialized) police? It'll never happen in circumstances where police officers can reasonably say that they are liable to encounter armed individuals not just in specialized raids on violent cartels but in their ordinary beat work. Get rid of qualified immunity? As much as courts overuse rhetoric like cops being forced into "split-second decisions", some of this is a matter of symptom rather than cause; we know from too many experiences that juries have sympathy for officers who are reacting in the face of uncertainty in a world we know is awash in dangerous firearms. Criminal liability? Same problem: the panicked uncertainty of "anyone could be a danger" doesn't mesh well with guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; once the gun is in hand, it's too easy to imagine "wouldn't I panic in a similar fashion?" And maybe if there gun wasn't in hand, the panic would be the same, but the result wouldn't be.

The ultimate tragedy is that the sort of response that recognizable, non-monstrous humans make when feeling threatened -- not barbarians, not sociopaths, but people we can see ourselves in -- is one that, when one has a gun, often will result in people being maimed or killed. And the more guns there are, the tighter hair-trigger we'll all be on vis-à-vis feeling threatened. Guns -- both their actual presence, and the pervasive knowledge that they could always be present -- raise the stakes of confrontation to intolerable levels. It's a one-way ratchet, and there's no way down from it save by clearing guns off the street.

Hence my new radicalism. I don't need to believe that everyone who owns a gun is a secret militia member or yahoo or has some toxic masculinity fetish going on. And while it is abundantly clear that the humanizing sympathy towards persons who respond violently to feeling threatened is very much mediated by race, the core problem would persist even if it could be somehow deracialized (which, of course, it can't). The problem with guns is not that gun owners are not "law-abiding", and so it cannot be resolved by more stringently enforcing laws about guns. The problem is that, particularly in highly pluralized and polarized society, there is no way to preserve a functioning public square when everyone knows everyone else is capable of dealing death at a moment's notice; when every fight and every protest and every confrontation and every moment of negative emotion has immediate life-and-death stakes. That's not civilization, that's Hobbes' state of nature. Remember the old saw about "God made Man, Sam Colt made 'em equal?" Hobbes' state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short because it presents a state of affairs where all people are fundamentally equal in their ability to kill one another. Entering civilization was supposed to remove us from that hell. Instead, we've recreated it.

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