When we lived in Buffalo, I made, maybe, a dozen car trips into Canada. No, not for the ballet; either to eat, or to visit Toronto (“and that’s what’s great about Buffalo”1). In our “post 9/11 world” I always found Canadian border guards to be perfunctory but relatively polite, and American border guards, with rare exception, to be surly, rude, offensive, and intrusive. Only the last is forgivable. On one trip back to the States, after sitting in hours of traffic to get back into the US, the guard set into a range of drilling.
Guard: Where do you reside?
Guard: And what is your occupation?
Me: I’m a professor at UB?
(As I recall, there was some back-and-forth. He was incredulous. I was incredulous regarding his incredulity. I showed faculty ID.)
Guard: So you’re a professor, huh?
Guard: So I guess that makes you a Liberal?
I was dumbstruck, and that’s not a usual thing for me. Had he asked me for an oath of allegiance before returning to my home country, I would have been less surprised. But this injection of political opinion set me back on my heals. I smiled, and said “yep.” But the question bugged me for days afterward. Perhaps the fact that it did makes me a Liberal.
However, there are many situations in which I find myself lacking Liberal (big L) cred. When conversation steers in these directions, I generally just try to keep my mouth shut to avoid discomfort among friends and colleagues. One of those is gun rights.
I live in a city where it’s pretty hard to get a handgun legally. Getting one illegally usually means a trip to Virginia or a hefty mark-up, and so you probably really want to have one. It also has become one of the safest large cities in the US. I’m not sure how closely those two facts are tied, but they probably are related in some way.
Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way. I recognize that places in which guns are legal have more gun deaths. I realize that the number of gun deaths that are a result of self-defense are dwarfed by the number of self-inflicted wounds, accidental shootings, and murders. The idea that I might someday have to send my kid to school with ballistic armor scares the hell out of me. I am fully aware that most developed countries have strict controls on firearms that we do not.
I enjoy shooting, even if it’s not my life’s love. That people enjoy shooting does not mean it should be legal. They can switch to archery; or for bans on handguns, they can switch to long guns. But likewise, that guns kill people is not enough reason to severely limit their availability. Second-hand smoke kills people, and we have yet to outlaw cigarettes. Drunk drivers kill people, and we are not about to outlaw drinking.
Oh, and I fully support jailing people for committing crimes with guns. Heck, I would be OK with changing most drug offenses to misdemeanors, unless a firearm was involved in some way.
But the original reason for the Second Amendment is one of the reasons I think it is still worth keeping. The Bush presidency was an uncomfortable move toward a totalitarian state, and although I am pleased with Obama’s election, I can’t imagine that he will wave a wand and we will suddenly forget our fear and start living as a free nation. That we could swing so far in such a short time suggests that there remains a good reason for citizens to prepare a defense against their own government. Yes, of course, diplomacy should always be the first choice, but sometimes that no longer works. Ironically, many of the people who espouse such a radical adherence to the principles of self-government seemed to be lining up to support secret wiretapping of American citizens, and the downward redefinition of torture by state actors. Yes, the fact that the people most interested in challenging the government tend to be extreme right-wing nuts does bother me, but I still think the idea of having a collective violent backstop to government expansion is a good one.
Second, I believe that someone well practiced in the use of a firearm can put it to effective use as a weapon of self-defense. My former judo and jujitsu teacher, who was also a police detective, urged a three-step process when encountering someone who wished to do you grave harm: 1. Run. If running is not an option, 2. Shoot. If shooting is not an option, 3. Use whatever other means are at hand. (You can presume that there is a 0. Don’t place yourself in a position where such a confrontation occurs. After all, Judo is a “gentle” way.)
It is absolutely the case that a handgun in untrained hands is as likely to end in the death of the owner as it is in protecting her, but a handgun in trained hands represents a weapon of substantial lethality, and presents the opportunity to establish a better personal outcome in the case of an extreme conflict.
So the problem is not necessarily guns, but education. You are required to pass a driving test and get a license to drive a car, and I think you should be required to have a license to use a gun. This, of course, makes me a pinko liberal in many people’s books, but I think there is a legitimate state interest in making sure that people that have guns do not allow them to be used inappropriately. (I think a similar set of restrictions should be put on drug dealers and prostitutes, allowing those activities with proper regulatory oversight.)
1 There was a series of radio spots boosting the city when we lived there. One extolled the virtues of Toronto, which was a short two-hour drive from the city. Proximity to Toronto was just one of the things that was “great about Buffalo.” Halo effect, I guess.