Answering the Gun Control Crowd’s Rhetorical Questions

When, in the aftermath of every well-publicized mass shooting, emotional or opportunistic people say things such as, “How many children have to die before you are willing to do something about guns?” they are not really engaging in dialogue, trying to understand alternative points of view, or even seeking any reply at all. They are merely trying to score rhetorical points against “the other side” by hitting their perceived enemies with emotional arguments that are, so they imagine, unanswerable, or rather for which there is only one, all-too-obvious answer. Too often, however, the people being attacked with such rhetorical questions or emotional ultimatums are ill-prepared to respond, and hence either leave the implicit moral judgment against them unanswered, or answer it in equally emotional and irrational ways that only heighten the attacker’s sense of righteous indignation. This is one of the almost endless examples of why populism, along with the demagoguery upon which it relies, is doomed to catastrophic results. Having no real principles, having developed no theoretical understanding of the issues, and having no capacity for, or patience with, rational thought or discussion, the populists and their demagogues are always left flat-footed in situations which call for cooling reason rather than mere moral coldness, or for the careful undermining of the accusers’ irrational foundations, rather than a mere carpet bombing of the other side initiated in a fit of defensive outrage.

Here are two examples of actual rhetorical questions or challenges from advocates of new gun regulations, bans, or confiscations, which I have seen repeatedly within the past few days since the school shooting in Texas, along with my answers to them.

Question: “So you think that nineteen children dying every once in a while is an acceptable price to pay for your beloved gun rights?”

In principle, yes. For there is no perfect world, since neither human nature nor human society is susceptible to absolute purification. All practical life and political reality demand trade-offs, which means an acceptance of some pain and suffering in exchange for, one hopes, greater overall benefits. Freedom entails risks. Self-determination entails the possibility of failure. Living among others in a civilized community entails the ever-present danger of incivility occasionally rearing its head. The alternative to this imperfect but inescapable reality is the delusion of one who believes that the world and human nature could be perfected, and all problems permanently overcome, if only men were willing to submit their souls to those individuals who know exactly what human perfection is, and which universal dictates they, the perfectly wise, must grant themselves the power to enforce in order to establish that general perfection. The alternatives of “nineteen dead children” versus “no dead children” cannot be viewed independently of the wider context of the respective societies in which those two alternatives are presumed (by the questioner) to exist. This case is analogous to the great socio-political calamity of the past two years, the inuring of the general population, worldwide, to the previously unthinkable notion that universal and open-ended lockdowns and social distancing mandates are viable, or even rational, responses to the unpleasant risks of living with a virus pandemic.

Any attempt to erase all risk, failure, or incivility from life would require the sacrifice of a greater good, freedom and civilization for all, in the name of a lesser good, the elimination of the occasional but inevitable pains and heartbreaks of living in society. In other words, it would in effect mean seeking to avoid the hardships and crushing blows of human life by simply obliterating the necessary conditions of a properly human social life as such. If the alternatives, properly framed, are “freedom with nineteen dead children” versus “tyranny with no dead children” — which is indeed the choice implied in this question — then yes, the only rational answer for a sober adult to offer is, “I choose freedom. Now let me use that freedom to protect those children as best I can, without destroying the foundations of the very society they ought to inherit.”

And that final point leads us to the second question.

Question: “Why do these terrible mass killings only happen in America?”

First of all, it is self-evidently false that mass killings only happen in America. Even if we confine the question to the matter of mass shootings, there have been several well-known cases in recent years around the world. And if we leave off the somewhat artificial stipulation that mass killings must mean only mass shootings, then the global numbers rise, since there have been mass poisonings, mass stabbings, mass vehicular attacks, and various other terrible acts of random violence perpetrated in various countries over recent years, whether by individuals or by cultish groups.

Secondly, and more to the point, if one were engaging in an honest investigation of the ugly phenomenon of mass shootings in America, rather than merely trying to score gun control talking points, then it would be far more pointed and appropriate to ask the question this way: Why are there more of these random mass shootings in America than in all the other advanced countries where private gun ownership is also legal and widespread? Or even more tellingly and to the point: Why are there more of these random acts of murder in America today than there were in America itself a hundred or seventy-five years ago, when guns were at least as legal and available as they are now? After all, if the right to private gun ownership is a direct corollary of the rights to life and liberty, and if widespread gun ownership in Switzerland, Finland, and a host of other countries seems not to have “caused” a rash of mass killings, then the leap to outlaw weapons, or to establish “red flag” laws to remove legally owned firearms from anyone the government deems untrustworthy (“insurrectionists” and “anti-democrats,” for example?), seems both disproportionate and irrational, since such rash responses would fail to address any of the real or plausible sources of the problem, functioning instead on a principle analogous to locking one’s child in the basement for his entire life in order to prevent him from suffering any injury or heartache in the outside world.

Since guns, whether in other countries or in the America of past generations, have never displayed the power to magically pull themselves off a shelf, plant themselves in a man’s hands, and fill that man’s heart with an irrational and ultimately suicidal craving for vengeance and destruction against any group of sitting targets within his reach, we must assume they have no such magic power today. Therefore, rather than focusing on the means to such random acts of inhumanity, we might ask why so many young American males seem to be susceptible to this blatantly nihilistic death spiral. And since it does appear to be a phenomenon peculiarly prominent today, as opposed to the past, and in today’s America more so than elsewhere, we might infer that the most reasonable path of investigation would be to ask what fundamental influences in the lives of today’s young American males might be causing them to be particularly vulnerable to such an amoral spiritual dissolution — an investigation which would likely prove far less gratifying to the vested interests and progressive activists who wish to pin the whole problem, implausibly, on the mere fact of privately owned guns.

This serious and proper investigation might begin with the following list of conspicuous leads:

  • The collapse of fatherhood, with many young males living in homes with no father present, and little fatherly attention (i.e., discipline, encouragement, moral support) from any male guardian figure.
  • Divorce, which means not merely the loss of a “two-parent home,” but more devastatingly the loss, in the developing emotional life of a child, of any faith in permanent attachment, any trust in the for-better-or-worse stable reality that family once represented in almost every person’s life.
  • Modern public schooling, which actively discourages learning and independent thought in favor of uniform activist indoctrination, a catering to the mechanisms of popularity and conformity, and in general a culture of “coolness.”
  • The general sexual licentiousness of today’s nihilistically propagandized and over-stimulated democratic youth, which inevitably leaves many young people, who for whatever reasons cannot “fit in” or “succeed” within the sexually exposed and competitive setting of a modern school environment, drowning in a combination of untethered urges and humiliating exclusion.
  • A popular entertainment industry — from the incessant music to the sensationalized film and television to the addictively reality-annihilating computer games — that both promotes and glamorizes nihilism regarding life and death, immoderate desires of all sorts, and the most extreme and amoral violence, as the essential meanings of excitement and liberation.
  • Easy access to, and virtually no social stigma regarding, the use of drugs and alcohol, i.e., chemical agents of moral numbness and spiritual pain relief which are designed, like all pain relievers, to weaken the overt symptoms of an illness without curing or mitigating its causes.
  • A media and “social media” culture that intrinsically aggrandizes fame and attention, however attained, while simultaneously fostering an aimless quagmire sense of social existence in which millions of young people feel increasingly impotent and utterly invisible within an infinite, purposeless chaos.
  • The belief, promoted by the most prominent and popular voices in and out of the political realm, that society and all human life within it is under the manipulative control of a secret elite, while the individual is a powerless pawn of forces beyond all penetration or comprehension.

If you wanted to respond intelligently to the societal alarm bell of increased and increasingly random mass violence, you would not have to emasculate the citizenry and grease the wheels of tyrannical expansion to achieve this. Quite the contrary. Rather, you would have to seriously address the emerging conditions that are calling forth such violence. Guns have always been present in America, as they are in many other countries, without always being used in these ways. What has changed? And how could one go about correcting the recognizable new societal influences that seem most responsible for the increase in random explosions of unbridled and self-destructive evil from the souls of so many weak and ordinary young people?

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