100 days after Sandy Hook and guns still protect you (apparently)
Even modest gun law reform in the USA is faltering. Despite there still being plenty of outrage around, and national support for change, not enough members of Congress in areas committed to gun rights see the benefits of voting against the will of their constituents.
The pro and anti arguments are lined up very much in the way I described in January. President Obama, Michael Bloomberg, and the more progressive commentariat are leading the charge for increased restrictions with the idea that a large number of firearms in circulation is ultimately bad for public safety. This is compounded, they argue, by some of these weapons being automatic, high capacity guns, sold without thorough background checks on buyers. The opposing position, articulated by the National Rifle Association, values freedom, training people to use firearms and, crucially, a need for personal protection, if necessary by lethal force, in a world where criminals may be armed.
Unfortunately the case for cutting the number of firearms equalling cutting danger isn’t getting any more traction than it has in the past. Proponents of greater control cite lower rates of gun death in countries like the UK (where availability is low). Antis feel less safe without guns. Legislation has become bogged down in a conundrum of societal gain versus individual interest. The problem (well described here by the philosopher Jeff McMahan) is that what is good for the wider population – less guns – may leave individuals feeling more vulnerable in the face of armed attack. And who is to say this position is entirely invalid if you live in a dangerous place? The recent Oscar Pistorius case showed us a South Africa that is highly fragmented and violent and where, if you have the money, the temptation to live in a gated community with armed guards must be huge. Owning a gun yourself may complete the sense of security – though if your first response to a noise in your house is to strafe the place with bullets, it might be argued that this feeling may not always reflect reality.
Politically perhaps the two positions cannot meet. The Obama/Bloomberg argument ultimately doesn’t take on the notion that guns may protect you when faced with threat.
However, as I also argued previously, psychological research on the use of guns suggests the argument that firearms protect you is, at best, simplistic. For most people using a gun against another human being is enormously stressful, incredibly difficult to do effectively (Oscar Pistorious is a standout example), and potentially hugely costly in terms of emotional trauma. There is no simple equivalence between owning a gun and being able stand up for you and yours.
In the face of resistance President Obama is again using the heavy artillery of dead children and public shame. It convinces me, but clearly not everyone has drawn the same lessons from Newtown. I wonder if perhaps he needs to shift his aim.
By John McGowan