Scattered thoughts on a dialogue between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg on guns

Posted by Sappho on January 3rd, 2013 filed in News and Commentary

I linked this one on Facebook already: Last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged More Guns, Less Crime: A Dialogue, which is a dialogue between him and Jeffrey Goldberg about guns. A few thoughts on things that one or the other said.

Jeffrey Goldberg: … I know we’re all supposed to pay fealty to hunters — at least, presidential candidates are expected to extol them — but I never understood the impulse to gun down defenseless herbivores, especially if you’re not going to eat them afterward.

I never much cared for election year macho talk about love of hunting, but I never understood aversion to hunting, either, at least among non-vegetarians. I tend to assume the point of gunning down defenseless herbivores is to eat them afterwards.

TNC: Here’s something I’ve been thinking about: In African-American history, guns have a particular meaning. After the Civil War, the first thing the Klan, the White Liners, the Red Shirts and other terrorists did was attempt to strip black people (many of them Civil War veterans) of their guns. One of my commenters was pointing to a historian who argues that the rate of lynchings was affected by the return of black veterans who were trained in the use of firearms….

Jeff: … It’s an amazing history: Ronald Reagan was pro-gun control because he feared the Black Panthers. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in order to seize guns from free blacks. I don’t generally buy the narrative of Second Amendment absolutists, that individually-owned guns are the best defense against the imposition of tyrannical rule in America (I think we’re pretty safe from tyrannical rule.) But if you were an African-American in 1870s, or 1950s, you might have felt a lot safer with a gun….

What I like about this part of the exchange is that Goldberg (coming from the more gun control skeptical side of the argument) rejects what I find the silliest anti-gun-control argument, the one about how the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment into the Constitution specifically because we were going to need them in case we wanted to start a bloody revolt against our government, and that guns are the vital thing that’s keeping us free, and at the same time Coates and Goldberg both point to the one sense in which “taking away guns is a precursor to tyranny” can be true.

That sense, of course, would be that if the someone, be it the government or a group of vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan, is going around confiscating the guns of just one group, while leaving everyone else armed, then yes, that group has reason to be scared. It seems to me that most of the “they took away guns and then” examples people trot out are of that kind; they’re not cases of a legislature openly debating and voting in a set of gun regulations that apply equally to everyone, but one ethnic group taking another ethnic group’s guns away.

But as for guns being some sort of bulwark against tyranny, well, come again?

  1. When, in US history since the Revolutionary War, has this actually happened? There were slave revolts, sure, that could count as taking arms against tyranny (and that happened without any sort of protection from the Second Amendment, and that failed). The last time any serious attempt was made to use guns, in this country, in a way that could really be called a revolt for freedom, was John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. Maybe you could count that, in a roundabout way, in the sense that its failure helped spark the Civil War, which freed the slaves. But the people taking up arms against the government in the Civil War certainly weren’t taking arms against tyranny, since they were fighting to defend slavery. And all freedoms defended or rested since the Civil War have been won by lawyers or by legislators or by journalists or by nonviolent activists, not by force of arms.
  2. How could any right to bear arms seriously function as a right to armed revolt without the kinds of military weapons that even most NRA members don’t think it includes? Is a military that has defeated rocket launchers supposed to be foiled by people armed with assault rifles at best?
  3. As Matt Steinglass points out, militias of armed private citizens have a terrible track record at preserving liberties, as “In Lebanon, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Colombia, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, we see that militias of armed private citizens rip apart weak democratic states in order to prey upon local populations in authoritarian sub-states or fiefdoms.”
  4. Indeed, though it looks to me as if the language of the Second Amendment supports the argument that it’s about citizen militias preventing the need for a standing army, when Akhil Reed Amar argues that interpretation of the Second Amendment started to shift from a militia oriented interpretation to an individual right interpretation when the “militia” under consideration was, not the Minutemen, but the Ku Klux Klan, I can see why. “Now the motto goes, when guns are outlawed, only klansmen will have guns. Individual black men had to have guns in their homes because they couldn’t count on the local constabulary. It’s in the text of the Freedman’s Bureau Act of 1866 that we actually see the reinterpretation of the original Second Amendment. It becomes about original rights.”

So, it’s good to see a debate where the guy arguing the pro-gun side of the argument is arguing for something guns can plausibly be used for: not defense of freedom by bands of private warlords, but self-defense.

Jeff: … I could go on, but let me ask you a question: If you were confronted with an “active shooter,” do you think, in that moment, you might wish you had a gun?

TNC: I think that last question gets to the heart of a difference. I actually wouldn’t wish I had a gun. I’ve shot a rifle at camp once, but that’s about it. If I had a gun, there is a good chance I would shoot myself, thus doing the active shooter’s work for him (it’s usually “him.”) But the deeper question is, “If I were confronted with an active shooter, would I wish to have a gun and be trained in its use?” It’s funny, but I still don’t know that I would. I’m pretty clear that I am going to die one day. That moment will not be of my choosing, and it almost certainly will not be too my liking. But death happens. Life — and living — on the other hand are more under my control. And the fact is that I would actually rather die by shooting than live armed.

This is not mere cant. It is not enough to have a gun, anymore than it’s enough to have a baby. It’s a responsibility. I would have to orient myself to that fact. I’d have to be trained and I would have to, with some regularity, keep up my shooting skills. I would have to think about the weight I carried on my hip and think about how people might respond to me should they happen to notice. I would have to think about the cops and how I would interact with them, should we come into contact. I’d have to think about my own anger issues and remember that I can never be an position where I have a rage black-out….

This is where the exchange got really interesting for me, because TNC just made a point that seemed self-evidently obvious to me, and it turned out that this point absolutely baffled Goldberg. Goldberg is amazed that TNC is so unwilling to defend himself, then brings up Augustine. I learned, to my surprise, that TNC doesn’t know who Augustine is, and then realized that, after all, I grew up in the Episcopal Church, which is as saint-filled a church as you can find, short of being Roman Catholic or Orthodox, while both TNC and Goldberg would have had to learn about Augustine later. So that on reflection maybe TNC’s ignorance of Augustine shouldn’t be that surprising. But Goldberg’s befuddlement at TNC’s unwillingness to carry a gun remained surprising. Because, to me, it’s so obvious that living armed has serious downsides.

I’m a particularly glaring example of why you might not wish for a gun, if confronted with an “active shooter.” If confronted with an active shooter, would I wish to live? Sure. Would I, for a fleeting moment, wish for a gun? I don’t know, maybe. All kinds of things might fly through my head in such a situation. Probably not, though, since I know my aim would be lousy, that I could just as easily shoot bystanders as the active shooter, and since I’d probably be busier trying to figure out how to survive and/or rescue anyone around me who might be more helpless than me than I would be worrying about what I didn’t have. When I was volunteering at Urban Ministry and a man with a knife was on the grounds, I didn’t wish for either his strength or a better weapon; I simply went to the side of the one child at the center that morning, and made up my mind that if I could do nothing else, I’d get that particular child safely back to her mother.

More importantly, would I seriously, not just for a moment, wish I had a gun and the actual preparation to use it? Of course not. Not even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that I’m not a Quaker, and that I’m in no way a pacifist. Because, to have that gun ready any time a shooter should be at hand, I have to be, in an ongoing way, a person with a gun. I have to train myself to use that gun, which is free time taken away from forms of recreation which would do more to bring my pre-cancer energy back, by giving me more of a workout. And I have to have that gun with me regularly, and not locked up in a place I couldn’t get to. Which means that I have to have that gun regularly accessible to my husband, since you can’t really effectively live in the same house with another adult while making it impossible for him to access the very gun that you’re keeping easy access to, because you use it for self-defense. And my husband has bipolar disorder. Clearly, keeping a gun handy and increasing his risk of suicide isn’t a net survival boost for my particular household.

But you don’t have to have a person with bipolar disorder in the house not to want a gun. Concerns like TNC’s about “how people might respond to me, should they happen to notice,” about how the cops might interact with him, about “my own anger issues” and how he’s seen violence come down, also come into play.

Jeff: You didn’t answer the key question that Saint Augustine poses to all those who swear off violence. I really do think it’s important to ask yourself this: At what point is it justifiable to meet violence with violence? At what point is it immoral not to respond to violence with violence? …

TNC: Forgive me, I didn’t understand your question. (I actually don’t know who Saint Augustine is.) I think it is totally moral to use violence to protect yourself and to protect your family. I did not understand that that was ever at issue. For instance, if someone breaks into my house, it is totally moral for me to do whatever I need to do to protect my home and family. Period. That’s been the law of my life, for as long as I can remember. The second part of your question –when is it immoral to not respond with violence — is harder for me, mostly because I haven’t really thought about it. I didn’t really grow up around pacifism. The notion of self-defense as immoral was simply never a consideration. To my mind, a concern advocating for “less guns” or arguing against “more guns” isn’t an argument against violent self-defense. It’s not even an argument against self-defense via firearm. It’s a recognition that not everyone is prepared to carry a handgun, and I am among that “everyone.” …

Here’s where I head off on a digression, and talk, not about self-defense via firearm, but about torture. Imagine that I want to win enough money to pay off my mortgage, and I face a choice of two lotteries. In one lottery, I have a probability X of winning the money needed, and a ticket cost of Y. In the second lottery, I still have a chance of winning the money to pay off my mortgage, but my probability of winning is lower, let’s say X/2 to make it simple, while the cost of my ticket is bound to be higher, let’s say 2 * Y, again to make it simple. In my mind, torture is always that second lottery. It “doesn’t work,” not in the sense that you will never get the occasional scrap of true information from torture, but in the sense that your odds of winnowing true leads from a tortured person will always by lower than your odds of getting true information via regular interrogation. I’m always going to be better off with Pembleton in that interrogation room than Dirty Harry. Now, I also believe that torture is an inherent evil. I think I would be opposed to it even if I thought it “worked.” But I have to confess that it’s practically as hard for me to imagine myself as turning into someone who believes that torture “works” as it is for me to imagine myself as approving it ethically. That when I read accounts by professional interrogators about why traditional interrogation methods are better than torture, I believed them in part because of their professional expertise, but also in part because they said what always made sense to me. That for me, there is no real “ticking time bomb” scenario, and never has been.

Armed self-defense is another matter. There is no question in my mind that individually owned guns sometimes work for stopping criminals, and I’m pretty sure that situations exist when happening to own and know how to use a gun will give you better odds of getting out safely than your other available modes of self-defense. It seems probable to me, in a country already saturated with guns, that at least some people (perhaps a woman who already knows she’s faced with a dangerous stalker) may rationally conclude that their best self-defense strategy includes a gun. You can argue that a Christian should be bound to pacifism based on the Sermon on the Mount, rather than taking Augustine’s reasoning. You can argue that privately owned guns in general are more likely to be used to kill intimates than in self-defense, and therefore people in general are better off not keeping them for self-defense. You can argue that more guns tend to mean more homicide, or that countries with stricter gun laws have fewer mass killings. But I don’t think you can argue that, under current circumstances, armed self-defense is always the strategy that will make your family less safe. It is so for me, for obvious reasons, but your circumstances may differ. A choice not to bear arms is either a conscious choice to forgo guns even though they might defend you, out of pacifism, or, more commonly (since way more people are non-gun owners than are actually pacifists, whether religious or secular), a recognition that guns aren’t a net benefit in your particular situation, not a denial that guns can ever be useful to anyone in self-defense.

On the other hand, if self-defense is the thing for which we’re allowing individuals to keep guns, it’s not particularly obvious to me why that should preclude closing the gun show loophole, or microstamping bullets, or restricting magazine size.

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