14 December 2012
Amoklauf in Connecticut
The numbers vary -- from "close to 20" to "more than 27" as I write -- but one thing is probably certain. The person (or persons) who murdered something like two dozen people, many of them children, in a Newton grade school today did not make a vow to live a life of crime when purchasing firearms. There is no way, when screening someone making such a purchase, to determine whether that person will never use the weapon in anger -- whether the person's impulse to "self-defense" will never be directed at anyone other than criminals. People aren't that predictable. Those who argue at times like this that someone else with a gun could have saved the day assume that humanity is easily divisible into "bad guys" and "good guys," the latter always to be entrusted with firearms. Most of the time, however, bad guys are made, not born. They can be made after years as good guys. Once you assume a right to kill for self-defense, the line you draw may not be the law's -- especially if you claim a natural right to lethal self-defense above and beyond what the law may grant you. Claiming the right to kill is one instance when the slippery slope metaphor fits. That doesn't mean pacifism is the answer in a world of bullies and aggressors, but too many people plainly don't know how to draw the proper line between "I must kill" and "I can kill." On that point the apologists for gun ownership are correct: it isn't gun ownership itself but a certain mentality that's most dangerous. But those apologists never seem to appreciate their own role in cultivating that dangerous mentality, because they really don't seem to appreciate how easily anyone can snap and claim a greater (and graver) prerogative than the gun apologists (to be fair) ever meant to imply. For too many people, it seems, the prerogative of self-defense authorizes violence not just against "criminals" but also against the larger category of "enemies," the distinction between the categories being vague at best for the worst cases. We can assume that today's shooter (or shooters) wasn't a burglar or a gangster; we know the victims don't fit that description. Is the answer really for even more people to have guns in case the other gun owners suddenly go crazy? Attitudes have to change, but I don't think that attitudes toward killing can be separated from attitudes toward guns as easily as some would like. I know gun advocates and gun apologists are tired of this sort of talk every time something like this happens -- or even in a high-profile individual case, as when the broadcaster Bob Costas offended by editorializing after a football player shot his girlfriend and himself earlier this month. But the burden of thinking hard about consequences does fall on those who affirm the personal right to kill. I wonder what they're thinking today.