Citizens, criminals, and how we view them

I didn’t used to be pro-gun. During my time as a Brady Campaign supporter, I dutifully parroted their talking points without really listening to myself. I was a weak supporter, though, vulnerable to being shown the truth because my support of gun control was based on ignorance of the other side’s positions, rather than a rejection of them.

But I have met some people who truly do believe in the cause of gun control. Attempts to reason with these people almost always fail, and I’m always frustrated by how little it seems they’re listening to me. But that makes perfect sense. My arguments reflect my worldview, as do theirs, so when I make my point, their defensiveness kicks in since I’m implicitly rejecting their perception of reality.

And what a difference in perception we have. To us pro-gun folks, when it comes to gun policy, we perceive that there are essentially two relevant groups of people, “law-abiding citizens”, and “criminals.” We think, “law abiding citizens, being responsible and trustworthy, should be able to defend themselves from the criminals, who are neither responsible nor trustworthy.” But the other side sees things very differently. I think much of the gun control debate comes down to dueling world views regarding trust, responsibility, violence, and victimhood; it boils down to how you view citizens and criminals. I’ve gotten the chance to know some gun control supporters well enough to understand how it is they feel, and I will try to represent them fairly here.

Let’s examine the two worldviews. Here’s how the gun owner or 2nd amendment supporter typically sees things:

CITIZEN — trustworthy and law-abiding

law_abiding.jpegThe person comfortable with guns sees citizens as basically law-abiding creatures, who are fairly responsible, and who acquire guns not because they are paranoid or fearful(though some may be, with good reason, having been stalked, raped, or otherwise victimized in the past), but because they favor being prepared for the worst over ignoring potential danger. Gun owners are relatively comfortable with the idea of using violence to defend themselves, their family, or anything else they are legally justified in protecting using lethal force, because, we will see, they view criminals as predators who abdicate their right to safety.

However, owning guns themselves, they try their very hardest to be responsible with them, and they understand the tremendous weight of responsibility that comes from owning a gun and possessing the capacity to kill easily. Being familiar with their operation, gun owners further understand that guns are inanimate objects that are capable of no action without human intervention, and so the use or misuse of a gun is entirely due to the actions and intentions of the human using it.

CRIMINAL — social predator

social_predator.jpegOn the other hand, gun owners have nothing but contempt for criminals. They view criminal behavior as a personal choice to abandon the social contract and become a predator, and that the consequences for this action are not only the possibility of being caught and locked up, but also the danger of being shot and possibly killed by an armed victim or police officer. Such a thing is neither tragic nor even unfortunate.

This is because gun owners see criminal use of force as totally 100% unjustified, since it is used solely to prey on the weak and defenseless. This makes criminals pariahs in their eyes, as they use force irresponsibly, compared to legal gun owners, who see their own potential uses of defensive force as responsible (not to mention lawful). However, gun owners understand that criminals also love guns because they make it easy to intimidate the unarmed, but they also feel that it’s basically impossible to prevent them from acquiring firearms, seeing as they tend not to follow the law in the first place and that there are 300 million guns in private hands in the United States available for criminals to steal.

Therefore, the gun owner feels that the best way to stop an armed criminal is using arms of your own, whether you are a private citizen or a police officer. The only equalizer to a gun is another gun; justified force stops unjustified force.

As we can see, pro-gun people basically divide violence into two categories: justified and unjustified. Violence used to defend yourself or your family is justified, (both legally and morally), while violence in anger or against the innocent is unjustified. The anti-gun see things very differently, however, and here’s the biggest divergence: to them, any type of violence at all is abhorrent and distasteful. Therefore, anyone who deliberately purchases, owns, and attains proficiency in the use of a tool specifically designed to magnify one’s capacity for violence must be mentally unbalanced. This is reflected in their perceptions:

CITIZEN — wacko powderkeg

gun-nut.jpegThe anti-gun fear gun owners fairly universally. They feel that guns are too dangerous for the average citizen to be trusted with, and that allowed to buy and own guns, people — being the volatile, emotional creatures that they are — will inevitably blow each other away other over insults and perceived slights. Surely, they think, you would only want a gun if you’re out to shoot someone. These people have most likely never fired a gun themselves, and their only experiences with guns are from Hollywood, or maybe an armed robbery and not liking very much having a gun shoved in their face.

Armed citizens are scorned because they have no real excuse to be so preoccupied with violence, according to the anti-gun. If they’re not already criminals, they were probably socialized well enough, so what’s with this fascination with weapons and killing?, goes the thinking.

Whenever a shooting makes the 6 o’clock the news, the anti-gun are likely to place the blame on armed citizens and easy access to guns, because they believe that most gun violence is committed by enraged, armed citizens in the heat of the moment. They feel that if there were more restrictions on the sale of guns, then the volatile, emotional citizens wouldn’t be able to acquire them as easily, an therefore there would be less gun violence. Of course, it might be replaced with knife or fist violence, but those types of violence are less violent, and so less unacceptable!

CRIMINAL — victim of society

victim_of_society.jpegCriminals are viewed through an entirely different lens. The anti-gun person is likely to see criminals themselves as victims; victims of a poor educational system, victims of racism, victims of circumstance, or victims of anything else at all. These assumptions cast criminal behavior in a very different light. No longer are criminals seen as bullies and thugs who prey on the weak, but rather as poor, oppressed, directionless young men who are driven to violence by racism, poverty, or lack of opportunity. Though this doesn’t necessarily excuse criminal behavior, it does seem to explain why they do what they do.

You see, the criminal — like the armed citizen — is perceived as mentally unbalanced because he is open to the use of violence, but unlike the armed citizen, he has an excuse — his previous victimization. The armed citizen is disturbing because he seems to like guns despite his normal socialization; the armed criminal is pitiable because he has merely succumbed to his violent upbringing. It was inevitable, you see.

Now for the editorializing

In a nutshell: The anti-gun empathize with criminals but fear armed citizens; the pro-gun admire armed citizens and hate criminals. This is why so many gun control debates go nowhere. When a pro-gun person argues that gun control only disarms the law-abiding, the anti-gun person isn’t likely to see that as a problem because he’s deathly afraid of his neighbors having guns and wants them forcibly disarmed. And whenever a homeowner lawfully shoots and kills an armed robber, the anti-gun can only think of the pointlessness of it all and how ruthless the homeowner had to be to kill a fellow human being who could have been a responsible, productive member of society if only that society hadn’t beaten him down.

On criminals

What’s strange is that the anti-gun person’s view of armed citizens (emotional, volatile, unpredictable) is an almost perfect definition of inner-city gang members, who actually do shoot each other over perceived disrespect and get into gunfights over the price of lunch. But the anti-gun don’t see criminals this way; they see them primarily as victims, rather than abusers.

The problem is that this is false; criminals hail from all socioeconomic backgrounds, from the poorest of the poor to the born-rich pseudo-aristocracy. How has the unscrupulous banker been victimized? How has the stalker been victimized? What about the road rager? The tax cheat? The computer hacker? The petty shoplifter? The victimization theory of crime falls apart as soon as you look at non-violent crime, and I don’t think it even does a very good job of explaining violent crime, either.

The only commonality that binds all criminals together is selfishness: the ability to privilege yourself over others and repress all empathy for your victims. It’s selfishness that allows a poor black gang member to shoot his robbery victim in the face, and the very same thing allows a rich white CEO to raid the pension fund of thousands of grandmothers to buy a statue of David made of ice that pisses vodka. Selfishness is at work in property theft, stalking, securities fraud, assault, tax evasion, poaching, bribery, looting, embezzlement, and rape. The moment you lose your concern for others and see yourself as more important, or more worthy, or more deserving, or simply better, you have the capacity in your heart to harm another and be a criminal.

Socioeconomic class doesn’t necessarily determine the likelihood that you will become a criminal, but it determines what kind of criminal you’ll be if you’re selfish. This is why poor neighborhoods are dangerous but bereft of securities fraud; the types of crimes that are easiest and least shocking there are violent in nature. Bank boardrooms are the opposite; violence is not tolerated and swiftly punished, but greed and theft are often tacitly encouraged among the selfish of the upper class.

A poor selfish person is therefore more likely to use a gun to steal your wallet, while a rich selfish person is more likely to use complicated financial jargon to steal your retirement, and a teenage computer hacker will use his internet connection to purloin your credit card information, but it’s still really the same crime, and it’s still the same type of person committing it — one who has no consideration for others, merely for himself. But it does make urban areas look more crime-ridden since the type of crime committed by poor people is more violent and more obviously criminal.

On citizens

Implicit in the view that armed citizens must be wacko violence-mongers is the assumption of the neutrality of violence; that is to say, violence cannot be categorized as “justified” or “unjustified”; rather, it is what it is. And the extension of this view taken by the anti-gun is that violence is bad, all kinds of it. So if an armed citizen kills a burglar who’s attacked his family during a home invasion, that’s just as tragic as the burglar’s own violent crimes against them.

If only we could purge the human heart of violence! wail the believers of this theory. To them, violence in the service of preventing greater violence is not noble, it’s a dangerous slippery slope. It may not be quite as bad as random criminal violence, but it’s still bad, because it’s violence, and violence itself is always bad.

The obvious flaw in this reasoning is that most people who purport to support it are actually okay with a great deal of preventative violence. Ask them whether the Allies in World War II were justified in fighting the Nazis to prevent massacres and genocide, and 99% of them will answer in the affirmative. This is because it involves a well-known event, and it’s hard to argue with the long history of violence successfully being used to prevent or address even greater violence (e.g. police lawfully shooting criminals).

The truth is that the vast majority of these people aren’t actually disgusted by the very idea of using violence to prevent greater violence, they just couldn’t imagine themselves doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but for the fact that they would then try to deny everyone else the right to do what only they find distasteful or objectionable.

I think it’s very important to understand these wildly differing assumptions when you approach the issue, especially when you debate someone who disagrees with you. In this case, the very core of what the pro-gun see as a good idea (allowing citizens to arm themselves for their own defense) is viewed with suspicion and fear by the other side. Throwing around talking points (“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”) isn’t going to do anything, you have to address the assumptions behind the assumptions until you reach the core. That’s the only way to have a debate without talking past one another.


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