A couple days ago, I went to the optometrist for a checkup and a new pair of frames. Sitting across from the office manager, discussing high-index lenses, a strange break in the perfunctory remarks suddenly arose:
"I'm sorry, I'm a little out of it. It's been a really tough week," she told me. "That whole thing in Connecticut. You said you have kids, right? How would you explain it to them?"
"Why the Sandy Hook murders?" is a tough topic—all the more so because the blood of twenty little kids calls from the earth to take the question seriously. Explaining the inexplicable is impossible, so we're left with mourning, and debating the real causes. This debate—about firearms and their availability—we assume, has big consequences for the well-being of our nation and its citizens.
If words are weapons, however, the gun control debate takes a decidedly unexpected twist. Folks on the left tend to restrain no manner of short-sightedness; they support free access to fully automatic bursts of irrational, emotional firepower. Targets are acquired indiscriminately, and they're all pumped full of the same thoughtless rhetoric: "More guns mean more dead means more need for more laws..." Who can face it?
On the right, things are simpler. Access to guns is part of an absolute freedom of self-determination. Ultimately, guns equal liberty. Any further thoughts on what might be best in individual cases is subject to this inflexible principle. The scale starts at controlling most weapons (i.e., discounting opinions to the contrary) and permits the extreme case of total lockdown (i.e., pro-gun "sociopathy").
Such practical irony illustrates, I think, the impracticability of the gun control debate. On the one hand, a string of poorly constructed causal dependencies is hardly a position that demands serious engagement, much less is it a convincing argument. On the other hand, championing the universal right to bear arms—given by the Constitution—so that we can point those arms at anyone who threatens to take them away—domestic or foreign—is equally unpersuasive.
As one who'd prefer, most of all, a society governed by reason, neither side is appealing—precisely because neither side embodies, in its rants and raves, anything akin to genuine rationality. (The closest thing to reason, in all of this, might be the economic assertion, from some on the right, who espouse a sort of "rational choice" basis for the deregulation of firearms. But even this relies on a severely limited notion of rationality vis-à-vis utility.)
The question, "To what degree is self-defense reasonable, and despite what costs?" is mostly omitted from the discussion. Of course, almost no one wonders whether we should be allowed to possess individual nuclear weapons—probably there are some who could afford them—because the proposition is outlandish. It shows that at a certain level, this question is a live one. So why is it conspicuously absent in the case of guns? Rather than beginning with such a fundamental (and logical) point of departure, gun control debates start from the principle of absolute personal self-determination (either emotional or physical) and progress out from there.
What about self-determination in sobriety, goodness, and truth?
I suppose my reply back to the office manager as I was fingering a new set of frames summed up my response to it all: "I'm not sure how I'd explain to my kids. They're too young to know, yet. It really was an evil thing."
As long as gun control is a matter of mere practicality—and nothing more—I doubt that either camp will walk away the victor. I also doubt that many people will come to recognize more clearly the value of human freedom—the thing that defenders and enforcers of the Constitution ought to seek above all else.
Hopefully I'll be able to show my kids that separating practicality from wisdom generally gives bad results. I just hope I won't have to point at events like Sandy Hook as evidence.