The Phenomenology of Guns

The debate over handguns centers on the question as to whether a given individual is better off owning, and perhaps carrying, a handgun than not; and whether we as a nation are better off allowing our citizens to own, and perhaps carry, such guns.  To that end, arguments are advanced on both sides, supported with statistics of various sorts.  And yet, the issue remains unsettled, each side remaining as firm in its convictions after the arguments and evidence have been presented as they were before.  From this we must conclude that either the reasons given for or against these weapons are insufficient to the case, or we are not as rational as we would like to suppose.

By this point, readers less patient than yourself have already begun skipping down the page to see where I stand in this debate, in order that they may assume the appropriate posture, lest they be lulled into approving my early remarks only to discover later that they should have been despising them all along.  It is not my purpose, however, to argue the point one way or the other, but rather to bring to light an element that often goes unnoticed.  It is a delicate matter which, if not handled properly, may appear to be a veiled insult, instead of the objective analysis I intend.

The matter, understood in its broadest terms, is that of feeling.  Merely possessing a gun will induce a feeling of power in a man, and if that same man wears the gun on his person when he leaves the house, he carries that feeling with him as well.  I say “man” for two reasons.  First, as a matter of grammar, I always use the masculine gender when the sex of the individual is either unknown or indeterminate; and second, as a matter of fact, far more men have guns than women. Nevertheless, women own and carry guns too, and I can only assume that what they feel in this matter is no different from that of the men.  To return to the point, this feeling of power stems, obviously enough, from the fact that guns are dangerous.  And it is that same dangerous quality that will often produce a feeling of dread as well.  I do not wish to oversimplify the issue, but I suspect that whether one owns or carries a gun has more to do with the preponderance of one feeling over the other, of power or dread, than it does with the arguments or statistics alluded to above.

Feelings are much despised, except for recreational purposes.  In serious matters, we are expected to eschew mere emotion and allow reason to prevail. And when it is a matter of life and death, as guns often are, it is unseemly to suggest that whether one carries a gun or not is based on something as frivolous as a mere passion.  Nevertheless, let us consider two situations, in which feeling is allowed to prevail over reason, one for each side of the debate.

We shall begin by assuming that the gun enthusiasts are right, that the individual is safer if he has a gun to protect himself, and that we would be safer as a society if more law-abiding citizens carried a gun.  What then should we say of the timid man, who, though reason urges him to carry a gun, yet his fear of guns keeps him from even owning one?  Is there any doubt that, owing to his apprehension regarding handguns, he would be better off not having one?  A certain amount of confidence and determination is needed to prevail in a gunfight, and lacking that, the timid man might only make things worse for himself if he tried to be something he is not. Complying with a robber by giving him your wallet is a strategy that often costs no more than a few dollars, plus the nuisance of canceling credit cards. If the object is to survive, it is often better to yield than to fight.  So even in the face of the evidence, the timid man might be well-advised to go unarmed. Thus we see that at least in this case, it is proper that feeling should prevail over reason.

Suppose, now, that those who favor strict gun control laws are right, that the individual is far more likely to harm himself and his loved ones by owning a gun, and that we as a nation are not safer but less so, owing to the prevalence of guns in our society.  What then shall we say of the man who, notwithstanding the evidence, persists in owning a gun and carrying it on his person? Clearly, such a man believes that the feeling he derives from owning a gun is worth the increased risk of carrying it.  This man of honor, let us call him, is undeterred by statistics regarding his safety, because it is not his safety he cares about.  He counts his life cheap and his honor dear. More than anything else, the man of honor dreads being a victim.  The idea of suffering the humiliation of being robbed or assaulted fills him with horror, even if his monetary losses are small and his injuries slight.  The idea of going out in a blaze of glory, on the other hand, taking a few punks with him in the process, fills him with a sense of peace.  The woman who believes that rape is a fate worse than death is similarly motivated.

Dueling is no longer a custom in western society, but the human nature that gave rise to it has not changed.  In those days, a man might purposely provoke a duel, if by so doing he could establish his worth as a man.  Except in the military, where the expression “death before dishonor” is an attitude encouraged, honor is today thought of as something quaint, and thus is seldom admitted as a motive, though it often is one nevertheless.

So we say to ourselves, granted the assumption above, if a man is willing to put his own life at risk for the sake of honor, who are we to question his choice?  But, per that same assumption, the man of honor also puts others at risk by carrying a gun, considering the numerous cases of accidental shootings we hear about.  It is not my purpose to moralize, but only to understand.  And it seems clear that if the man of honor is careless of his own life, we should not expect him to be especially concerned with the lives of others.

If this analysis is correct, it may help to decide the question whether the laws concerning the carrying of handguns should require concealment or allow for open-carry.  The problem with allowing people to carry guns openly is not merely that it is disturbing, though it certainly is that, but rather that it leads to an unfortunate need to prove oneself.  A man who goes around with a gun strapped to his hip may look as though he is playing dress-up, and may even invite snickers to that effect.  In such cases, redemption can only come when the gun is fired in anger.  In Roughing It, Mark Twain noted that in Virginia City, in order to have status, it was not enough merely to carry a gun.  One had to have “killed his man.”  Only then did one advance to the rank of desperado. And the man one killed could not be some unarmed store clerk, but rather had to be someone who also carried a gun.  In the following chapter, Mark Twain casually noted that he quit wearing a gun.  He obviously did not want to become someone else’s means of social advancement.  From this we may conclude that if citizens are to be allowed to carry guns, the law should require their concealment, thereby avoiding the need of the man of honor to prove that he is not just a desperado wannabe.

In any event, it is not to be expected that many minds will be changed by all the arguments and evidence concerning guns, for it is more a matter of the heart than the head.  When strong passions are at play, reason must quit the field.   Less still must we expect of reason when she is a servant of two masters, lending her support first to one side and then to the other.

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