Just as one of the local newspapers started a two-part series of interviews with people on both sides of the debate over gun control, it occurred to me that we really have a debate between two kinds of fear. The people who want more gun control fear random gun violence; they worry that they'll be caught in a public place in the middle of an amoklauf or in the crossfire when a beef breaks out of nowhere. The opponents of gun control, as their constant affirmation of their right to self-defense makes clear, fear that they will be the specific targets of crime: muggings, home invasions, assault by a tyrannical government, etc. These fears seem mutually exclusive, or else each side accuses the other of indifference to its particular fears. Are these blind spots real? While you can suppose that pro-gun people do consider the possibility of random violence but believe themselves capable of stopping it, can it be true that gun-control advocates don't fear being mugged or having their homes broken into? This isn't a question of whether one side or the other is paranoid, but maybe more a matter of what different groups of people take for granted.
The Saratogian gave one day to "gun enthusiasts, " the next to gun-control supporters. The pro-gun side is represented by a mother with school-aged kids who empathizes with the bereaved parents of Sandy Hook but can't help seeing "a gun-free zone [as] a sitting-duck zone," with New York State's SAFE Act only restricting "law-abiding people." She assumes that some "they" out there wants "total confiscation," though for what purpose she doesn't say. A father with two teenage sons, whom he's trained on gun ranges, keeps his weapons under lock and key and considers himself an "unduly targeted" and "responsible gun owner." He emphasizes that he plans to comply with the SAFE Act, but he participated in the February 28 protest against it in Albany and hopes that the law can be "changed or improved." Another interviewee learned to fire guns as a young hunter and Boy Scout. He believes that gun purchasers should undergo background checks and take mandatory training courses and is less bugged over the SAFE Act's limits on magazine capacity than the previous subject. However, he does seem concerned about a slippery slope, noting that "it is difficult to draw a line in the sand" while worrying that "I don't want someone to tell me how much I can protect myself." Gun violence today, in his opinion, is "a symptom of a larger societal problem," but like many gun-control opponents, he believes that the entertainment industry is more to blame and "more dangerous than assault weapons."
A Presbyterian pastor echoes a concern about the larger culture, but he roots a perceived "social pathology in our country" to a love of guns rather than the media that express it. This gun-control supporter makes what may sound like an ad hominem argument against the other side, asking "what goes on in [their] minds that makes possessing weapons so important to them" and questioning a tendency for "insecure individuals [to] purchase guns to make themselves feel more secure." But this may be a debate where ad hominem arguments are unavoidable, if you agree that it's a conflict of different sets of emotions and fears. The gun enthusiasts themselves are quick to say that the other side's emotions are overriding their intelligence or objectivity, so their own emotional state is a fair subject for discussion. Another gun-control supporter interviewed is a current member of the NRA who changed her views after moving from the country to the city, where "there are a lot of people who own guns who have no business owning guns." Like the pastor, she hopes for a more rational and comprehensive gun-control regime. So does another interviewee who happened to have been one of President Reagan's nurses following the 1981 attempt on his life. A longtime member of the Brady Campaign founded by Reagan's wounded press secretary, she argues that critics of the SAFE Act "show a lack of empathy and compassion," but as I've suggested, that lack appears to be mutual. Gun-control advocates may disagree, arguing that their answer to the other side's fear of crime (diplomatically ignoring its fear of the government) is to make sure that criminals don't have guns. But one of the fundamental assumptions of the opponents of gun control is that the "bad guys" will somehow always have guns or other lethal weapons, and that no measures taken by governments can truly disarm the criminal element. The pastor protests that the other side's "false division between the good guys and the bad guys" is "theologically bankrupt," not to mention intellectually insolvent by secular standards, but I wonder whether the true source of the gun enthusiasts' defining anxiety isn't so much that there'll always be "bad guys" than that someone out there might always have an advantage over them. There may be a competition in them, as Daniel Plainview might say, the absence of which may explain why some people don't share their fears and why those who don't share their fears are often thought of as docile "sheep." We might get a step closer to a solution to this national dilemma if the gun-control would address more decisively the other side's all-too-personal fear of crime, or show how people can live without that fear of crime dominating their lives or their political thinking.