|The now-infamous photo of concert-goers fleeing the shooter|
at the country music festival in Las Vegas, 2017
My father, a 21-year Coast Guard veteran and lifelong Republican, said something recently which really surprised me. Shortly after the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church shooting, we were talking about the ongoing debate whether to loosen or tighten American gun laws. “I have experience with guns,” he said. “I’ve handled them, trained with them, shot off live weapons. And I enjoyed it, too. Shooting a gun makes me feel powerful.
“And let me tell you, I don't trust myself with that kind of power.”
When Dad says he knows weapons, I believe him. Before the Coast Guard, he did seven years in the Army Reserve, meaning he’s attended boot camp twice. He served as arresting officer on the first-ever joint Navy/Coast Guard high seas drug bust. He has served in maritime law enforcement, and he has been the American representative when vessels built in international shipyards were registered and flagged American. He’s now a ranking Coast Guard auxiliary member on one of America's largest inland bodies of water.
So when Dad describes the feelings of power he receives from handling and firing a weapon, I know he speaks from the heart. And when he says these feelings could corrupt a trained, experienced shooter like himself, I take his concerns very seriously.
Following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Broward County, Florida, the familiar script has reasserted itself. Guns are to blame! No, it’s mental health care! The Constitution is too sacred to change! We should arm teachers/mall cops/civilians! But what about the children? Though the unusually outspoken response from teenagers perhaps breaks the mold, everything else feels tediously repetitive, building towards an inevitable end: nothing will change, feelings will recede, and another shooting will happen.
But what if we're having the wrong fight? I suggest this debate isn't about guns, civil rights, or the Constitution. We face a fight about power, and how people handle it.
We’ve witnessed the misuse of firearms for self-aggrandizing purposes in recent years. The shooter at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston thought he could ignite a race war. The Von Maur shooter in Omaha specifically sought to be famous. (I’ve resolved to avoid contributing to these shooters’ grab for notoriety by not using their names.) And their opposite numbers, most visibly NRA board member Wayne LaPierre, have advocated citizens seizing power by arming themselves to perpetrate vigilante justice.
One way or another, these people all want to feel powerful.
|The Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, 2017|
Many civilians don’t realize—I didn’t until recently—that military professionals face some of America’s most stringent gun controls. They aren’t allowed to carry weapons, not even personal weapons purchased and registered legally, when traveling under orders. You’ll sometimes hear critics noting that the Fort Hood shooter opened fire surrounded by hundreds of people trained with weapons. These people don’t realize that soldiers on base aren’t allowed to carry weapons.
That’s because packing heat makes people reckless. Flushed with the vigor that comes from pulling the trigger, soldiers, especially young, inexperienced soldiers, could jeopardize themselves. Conflicts tend to escalate quickly when combatants are carrying weapons; shouting matches that would’ve burned themselves out turn into armed standoffs. When feelings run high, armed people feeling powerful become dangerous.
Plato, in his Republic, notes that people who desire power most, generally deserve it least. This includes guns. We know, because we’ve been around the block, that we can know a person’s heart by how they handle power. If, like my father, they respond with increased sense of humility, responsibility, and restraint, they probably have whatever it takes to handle power. If they respond by believing themselves to have superhuman reflexes, unerring aim, and a bulletproof aura, we probably shouldn’t trust them with something as powerful as a gun.
|Outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,|
site of the most recent school shooting, 2018
Anyone could cite statistics. Though many people muster anecdotes or out-of-context internet memes of individuals packing guns preventing a holdup or something, that isn’t the standard. In the aggregate, you’re more likely to shoot your own cock off. Yet people advocating more widespread carrying and use of guns aren’t interested in facts. Packing iron makes people feel powerful, even when they’re not. And that makes them risky.
We could, and probably should, investigate why people feel so powerless these days. Has the economy narrowed the number of available jobs? Has anonymity left citizens feeling like cogs in the machine? Are people dislocated because rapid social changes have undermined their lifelong assumptiong? But whatever the reason, we should recognize they’re trying to reclaim power in their lives. And power is a mighty drug.