Monday, May 11, 2015

We the armed

Armed citizens have been in the news lately—some good, some bad, and some contentious. Since the Baltimore protests, the brunette and I talked a lot about this issue.

The definition of “armed citizen” is a battleground. Armed is a relative term that can range from some martial prowess with fisticuffs to wielding a firearm. Many people simply class anyone with a dedicated self defense device as “armed.” These implements include flashlights with striking bezels, strobes, pens with glass breakers, martial arts aids, brass knuckles, pocket knives, pepper spray, bear spray, fire arms, fixed blades, swords, crossbows, bb guns, air soft guns, slingshots, bows and arrows, batons, bricks…etc. One of the challenges in discussing armed citizens is that everyone’s threshold for armedness is different. I have friends who view anything even remotely resembling a weapon qualifying one as “armed.” I grew up as a boy scout, hiking, and playing outdoors. As a result I view knives as tools. If I had my way I’d carry a 4-6 inch fixed blade everywhere. Some people consider this extreme; I simply like having a good knife around in the same way I like having my cell phone and bottle opener handy. I don’t consider pepper spray or stun guns weapons. They certainly can harm, but their purpose is primarily defensive. So, a lot of people believe that a person is armed and dangerous well before they get to the point of carrying a gun. For those of us interested in self defense there are further gradations between handguns meant for close quarters defense and long guns intended for medium to long range shooting. What you consider armed, adequately armed, or armed and dangerous varies—largely with how you feel about the objects in question. This makes it difficult to talk about armed Americans in mixed company—not because of differing views, but because peoples’ opinions are informed by their comfort level with the inanimate object under discussion.

That comfort level builds directly from familiarity. I am a dedicated gun guy. I read about firearms. I try and get to my local range regularly. I associate with other gun people. Firearms are one of my hobbies. I find the science, the art, the precision, the history, and the technology of guns academically fascinating. Shooting is a relaxing and enjoyable experience like unto exercise and listening to music. I spend a lot of time handling, researching, and discussing firearms. I respect guns. I know what they can do. I know their limitations. I have the same relationship with knives, pepper spray, and other defensive items. I look at the tools of the armed citizen as just that, tools. In contrast, I have several friends who have never spent any meaningful time with guns. Their opinions are based largely on what they see in games, movies, television, and books. I play RPGs with people who arm their characters to the teeth but won’t carry even a pocket knife in the real world. I am not in any way implying that games and RL are equivalent. Rather, I am saying that our culture has two very different standards for armed people depending on whether we’re talking about entertainment or every-day interactions. The same people who are happy watching Rambo, age of Ultron, and the walking dead are just as likely to look at guns and knives as agents of woe outside the theatre. I can’t blame them really. Much as I disagree with their point of view, if you’ve been told your entire life that guns are magic death rays with but one purpose, it’s perfectly reasonable to be scared of them. Deathquaker, a devout pacifist, once told me that a gun’s only purpose is to kill. I respect her position even though I fundamentally disagree. Guns are designed for numerous purposes including competition, bench rest shooting, plinking, fun, art, teaching, collectability, and self defense. While people kill each other and animals with firearms all the time, there are plenty of uses for them that don’t involve loss of life. Sadly, it’s often the negative interactions that are magnified in the collective awareness.

One of the challenges for the second amendment community in this regard is distinguishing between the intent of self defense and straight up murder. One of Obama’s legendary quotes referred to those who cling to guns and religion. This is a common view—one where gun owners are irrational violent people just waiting for a justifiable chance to go-postal. The reality is that self defense is not state sanctioned murder. When a gun owner shoots “in self-defense” they are acting to “stop” the threat. While death will end the threat, the intent isn’t to kill anyone. Rather it is to conclude the present circumstances that threaten them, their property, and/or others in their care—preferably with as little risk to life and limb as possible. We the armed view this as a risk management strategy and as a way of preserving the lives of innocents. Carrying a firearm is a sacred trust in which the citizen implicitly agrees to act only in defense of self and others. Although many see the desire to arm oneself as a sign of mental deficiency, I see it as an act of courage. It takes great strength of character to choose to stand up for oneself and ones neighbors. It requires a sense of honor to face the legal, moral, and physical risks of carrying a weapon while responding to a threat.

Unfortunately, that’s not how many people view armed Americans. That’s partly due to the familiarity I mentioned before. As the U.S. moved from the post WWII manufacturing and agricultural focus to an urban service based economy, firearms became less present in every-day life. I have plenty of friends who grew up with guns. I have even more friends who didn’t. I even have a few friends who though they enjoy shooting, have seriously mixed emotions regarding firearms and concealed carry. For some people it’s a philosophical choice. For other’s it’s a religious decision. For most people media, Hollywood, and politicians have taught them that guns are simply too dangerous. Take a recent conversation in which an acquaintance told me that it was just as well that there were no concealed carriers at the Colorado movie shooting because if there had been there just would have been more people killed. From this person’s perspective guns were capable of killing multiple people, but couldn’t be used defensively against the shooter. As an aside, she’s probably right as James Holmes was credited with wearing body armor and using tear gas—creating conditions that would have made it difficult for someone to effectively engage him. If that had been the basis for her argument I would have conceded. Her point though was that armed Americans are simply accidental deaths waiting to happen—in other words all they can do is harm, not help. This reasoning is provably and logically flawed. Not only are there numerous examples of armed citizens engaging threats and saving lives; but you have only to ask, what if one of the teachers in Sandy hook had a firearm when they tried to subdue Adam Lanza? What if they could have countered his threat? No more lives would have been lost, but more lives might have been saved. This is the fundamental disconnect when people talk about guns. For many, they can only do harm and are only mildly tolerable in the hands of police and military. For the rest of us they are valuable tools that save lives and guard freedom.

Later, after a few minutes of difficult back and forth, the dialog ended when one of the conversationalists said that she went to Virginia Tec. This was said with a degree of satisfaction—knowing that there was no good response to such a declaration. In retrospect, the reason the conversation ended is because I wasn’t willing to challenge the sense of superiority granted by association with that tragic shooting. There were valid responses if I wanted to keep throwing myself in front of that bus, but I chose the better part of valor. With the benefit of hindsight it’s clear to me that what she was saying was that it is better to risk becoming a victim rather than take the risk of allowing more guns in public circulation. To me this is just another symptom of the growing cult of victimhood and learned helplessness. For example, the brunette’s employer prohibits employees from carrying any kind of weapon, pepper spray, or defensive implement. The thought is that the kids she teaches might hurt themselves with such a tool if they got hold of it. I was visiting one day when they put the building in an active shooter lockdown drill—and the official response to someone coming in and shooting up the place is to hide in a closet. The thinking in these situations seems to be that the risk of someone accidentally hurting themselves or others is far worse than someone coming in and killing staff. Her office has literally no defense other than cowering in fear. If you’re the person paying the insurance premiums maybe that makes sense; but if you’re the person in the closet it’s no consolation. If you’re the employee taking public transportation in questionable parts of town I somehow doubt that the employer’s bottom line is your biggest concern—and yet society endorses this way of thinking. We would rather become victims than have to trust fellow citizens to act responsibly. Given the prevalence of this perspective it’s understandable that Armed Americans are viewed with such fear.

While it’s “understandable, I still wonder why people are so closed minded when it comes to firearms. In the previously referenced conversation it took about three minutes for a tone of mild condescension to enter the dialog. This is par for the course when I talk to people who don’t like guns. It’s one thing to raise practical objections to a difficult situation; but too often what I end up hearing is why anyone with a gun is bad. From the other person’s perspective they are addressing distinct issues—concealed carry, armed school resource officers, armed teachers, youth firearm safety education, and constitutional carry. They just happen to oppose them all for good and substantial reasons. While everyone seems to have “reasons” why guns in public hands are bad, it seems to come down to guns in general are objectionable—to wit, there is no acceptable way to place firearms with the public or loosen related strictures. Their fear of firearms trumps my freedom, my right to defend myself, and my right to live my life independent of the moralizing of others.

I use the word “fear” here intentionally. Most of these people are afraid of scary looking guns. They are afraid of media driven buzz words. They have been indoctrinated into the idea that a gun’s only purpose is to kill. The reality is that modern gun control got its start in anti-black sentiment during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. California ended the right to open carry when armed black panthers marched on a city hall in response to discriminatory police practices. Maryland’s gun control movement got started after the 1968 race riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. If I said today that I wanted to base any part of public policy on a fear of black people I’d be rightly and roundly denounced; and yet, that’s exactly where the modern gun control movement began. It’s difficult trusting the people around you. It’s difficult choosing to see the benefit of a potentially dangerous freedom. I’ve thought a lot about the subject and I’ve decided that I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want to walk around believing the worst of everyone I meet. It’s certainly easier for me to adopt that attitude since I don’t have the fear of the unknown to deal with. That being said, I firmly believe that armed citizens do more good than harm in our society. I have to hope and pray that others come to my point of view.

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