22 October 2015

By the sword

While the observation has never justified their resistance to gun control, gun-rights absolutists are correct to note that there are violent impulses in human societies and cultures, if not in human nature itself, that won't be suppressed entirely by the elimination of firearms. This was proven again today in Sweden, where a sword fetishist attacked a school and wounded several people, two fatally so far, before he was shot to death. In this case the answer to a bad guy with a sword was good guys with guns who happened to be lawfully delegated police officers. Inevitably some will say that the two fatalities would not have died had someone at the school had a gun. The logic of this, it seems, is that the more people have weapons, the less likely anyone is to use them. The logic seems faulty given the "suicide-by-cop" mentality of many mass-shooters. Such people are hardly more likely to be deterred by the prospect of "suicide-by-civilian," unless your assumption is that they'd be deterred by the thought of not getting an adequate body count before they go down. That assumption in turn depends on whether body count is essential to the blaze of glory with which so many madmen want to leave this world. Just as inevitably, people will argue sarcastically for a ban on swords, just as they've argued for bans on knives, automobiles and any object that can be held responsible for multitudes of deaths each year. Their sarcasm can be taken more seriously once a sword lobby emerges to assert their constituents' right to kill with their weapon of choice, or when car owners organize to assert their right to run people over. The debate over gun rights has gone beyond the question of whether guns or people kill people. It should be recognized as a political struggle pitting one side that above all else asserts a right to kill against another that denies that claim even under the circumstances the first side considers most advantageous to itself, i.e. self-defense against crime. The essence of that debate is unanalogizable, just as the abortion debate is, rendering the gun-keepers' reductio ad absurdam arguments fallacious. But the truth with which this article started remains: gun culture may feed the lethal impulse in our culture, but it's not the sole source. Around the world, we've seen the damage people can do without guns -- a guy in Japan went on a sword rampage a few years ago, and more recently China has seen waves of mass knife attacks -- and we should concede that there's no longer something uniquely American about the impulse to kill people en masse for purely personal reasons. That doesn't excuse the gun fetishists and vigilantes who exacerbate the problem by advocating for lethal self-defense, but it does mean our work won't be done should they be silenced. What more will it take to eliminate those fatal mixtures of fear, alienation and entitlement that make people killers? We may not have the answer now but we need to keep asking the question.

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