We’re armed and unsafe: Abundant firearms give only the allusion of being protected

By Robert Jensen

Published in Baltimore Sun · January, 1999

[This article appeared in the Baltimore Sun, January 3, 1999, p. C-1.]

I have never owned a gun. I haven’t fired a gun since I was a kid. Even if I knew how to shoot one, having a gun in my home would terrify me.

I dislike guns, not just because of what they do to the people who get shot, but because of what they can do to the people who shoot them. At the same time, I have friends who own guns, and I can understand what motivates people to buy them. So, my views about guns and my emotions about people who own them are complicated.

As for public policy, I’ve listened to my share of Second Amendment debates and, barring some new and insightful interpretation, I think the gun-control folks have the better argument. I can offer the predictable reason I am for gun control and a ban on handguns: Reducing the number of handguns in circulation will reduce the number of murders by handguns.

Because such traditional solutions haven’t won out in the United States, some lawyers and city officials are considering suing gun makers for the costs of gun violence. Taking their cue from successful suits against the tobacco industry, they want to go after the profits of the industry. If that strategy can work, I’m not opposed to trying it, even if in the end the lawyers end up with most of the money.

But beyond the arguments over policy options, I think we need to look honestly at this very peculiar gun culture in which we live and learn something about ourselves from it. A couple of stories from my life may make things more clear.

When I was a newspaper reporter in Florida some years ago, I reported a story about a man who broke into a home and assaulted the couple who lived there. A neighbor heard the commotion, grabbed his handgun, went outside and saw a man jump into a car and drive away. The neighbor, assuming the man was a criminal, fired at the car but missed.

When I interviewed the neighbor, I was horrified that he would open fire on a person who was, at best, a possible suspect in an unknown crime leaving the scene of that unknown crime and posing no known threat to anyone. I assumed the sheriff’s deputies would charge the neighbor with, at the very least, some sort of misdemeanor. When I asked what the deputies told him, the neighbor said, “They said thanks for helping out.”

I called my editor to ask guidance for how to write the story. He said, “What story?” I suggested there was a story not only in the assault on the couple, but in deputies ignoring an obvious violation that could have resulted in a murder. “It’s no big deal,” he said. I ended up writing a couple of paragraphs about the assault.

I have told that story often, usually with a laugh. But deep in my gut, it scares me. One obvious lesson from that experience is that in a country where almost anyone can buy a gun, a lot of people with bad judgment are going to have guns. And, sometimes those people are going to fire those guns, and inevitably people will die because of that.

But beyond that, the moral of that story for me is that living in this kind of gun culture erodes our collective humanity. My editor was not a sadist or a gun freak. He was a fairly average guy who saw no problem with actions I thought were horribly irresponsible. I’m sure many people reading this would agree with him, not me.

I’m not suggesting some simplistic cause-and-effect, that guns are responsible for all cruelty in the world. Nor am I saying that everyone who owns a gun would open fire in such a situation. I’m describing what saddens and scares me about living in a world in which guns, and the firing of them, are so routine.

I don’t like living in a such a world. It makes me afraid, not only for my own safety but for what my fellow citizens are becoming. And it makes me fearful of what may be happening to me, of how callous I might become as I live in that same world and, inevitably, am affected by it.

My second story is about masculinity and guns. I come from a family of three boys and one girl. When we were in our teens, my father, who had been an avid hunter when he was young, got a good deal on some used shotguns. Three of them, to be exact, one for each of his boys.

My shotgun sat on the rack, unused by me; I don’t recall if I ever shot it. I remember at one point in my youth shooting at clay pigeons with a shotgun, but I never hunted an animal with my shotgun or anyone else’s.

Like most boys of my generation, I had grown up playing gun games, and with my brothers I had shot a few times at tin cans out in the country with a .22-caliber rifle. I grew up in North Dakota, where hunting was common. While I wasn’t repulsed by the notion of hunting, I never wanted to do it. And I never wanted a gun. Why?

No matter what my father’s intentions, guns are mixed up with masculinity and power in this culture. I’ve heard many men talk fondly of buying their sons rifles and shotguns, and teaching them to shoot and hunt. Again, this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Lots of people I have known learned to respect the natural world through responsible hunting. But that does not derail my critique.

Guns are about power and control, the ability to use violence to achieve ends. Sometimes the use of guns can be justified; I’m a vegetarian and a peace activist, but not an animal rights activist nor a pacifist. What I find disturbing is the linking of that power and control to masculinity, to becoming a man.

As a boy, I never wanted to be a man. I still don’t want to be, because being a man in this culture means carrying too much of this kind of baggage. For me, guns evoke all those cultural demands, which more than ever I want to reject.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not despise people who own guns. I have respect for lots of individual gun owners, especially responsible hunters. Some of my friends hunt. One of my brothers once owned a 9mm handgun and an AR-15 rifle (the semiautomatic version of an M-16). I didn’t love him any less when he had that arsenal under his bed, nor any more when he sold the weapons. People have lots of reasons for owning guns, and while I can find fault with most of those reasons, I think reasonable people can disagree about such matters.

But I do despise the people who profit from making guns and play off our fears in marketing them. I also don’t much like the National Rifle Association, whose juvenile rhetoric and short-sighted politics have impeded the country in the task of coming to terms with a problem that much of the rest of the world has faced.

But the NRA is an easy target. The tougher question is what to say to a friend who, looking for a sense of safety in an unsafe world, buys a gun for protection. What if that person lives in a part of town overrun with drug dealers carrying weapons of their own? What if people buy guns because they want to protect their children?

I don’t have a definitive answer. But I think it’s worth considering that the protection of a gun is mostly illusory; the gun is as likely to get you or a loved one killed as it is to save you. But deeper than that, I would want to say this to that friend: When you buy a gun, you add one more gun to an unsafe culture. You add to the insanity of a culture awash in guns. In such a world, who is really safe?