Some Peo­ple Love Guns. Why Should the Rest of Us Be Tar­gets?

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Jonathan Safran Foer

Knives also cut bread and carve wood and aid surgery, but guns only shoot bul­lets. That’s what they are de­signed to do, and that’s what they do. When we talk about pro­tect­ing our right to have guns, we are talk­ing about pro­tect­ing our right to shoot bul­lets. So what is it that’s so im­por­tant to shoot at?

The prin­ci­pal de­fense of guns is con­sti­tu­tional. The Sec­ond Amend­ment en­sures that “a well reg­u­lated Mili­tia, be­ing nec­es­sary to the se­cu­rity of a free State, the right of the peo­ple to keep and bear Arms, shall not be in­fringed.” It’s used as the fi­nal author­ity, to be de­ferred to even if not agreed with or un­der­stood. But the Con­sti­tu­tion isn’t the Bi­ble. (The Sec­ond Amend­ment, be­ing an amend­ment, is a tes­ta­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion’s abil­ity to cor­rect it­self.) The Found­ing Fa­thers were nei­ther in­fal­li­ble nor divine. And times change.

Does any­one any longer be­lieve that a well-reg­u­lated mili­tia is nec­es­sary for a free state? Why do those who fall back on the con­sti­tu­tional de­fense so of­ten avoid the terms “mili­tia” and “state”? And why, af­ter the mas­sacre at Vir­ginia Tech — hours af­ter — did Sen. John McCain pro­claim, “I do be­lieve in the con­sti­tu­tional right that ev­ery­one has, in the Sec­ond Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion, to carry a weapon”? Just what is it, pre­cisely, that he be­lieves in? Is it the Con­sti­tu­tion it­self? (But surely he thinks it was wise to change the Con­sti­tu­tion to abol­ish slav­ery, give women the vote, end Pro­hi­bi­tion and so on?) Or is it the guns them­selves that he be­lieves in? It would be re­fresh­ing to have a politi­cian try to de­fend guns with­out any ref­er­ence to the Sec­ond Amend­ment, but on the mer­its of guns. What if, hours af­ter the killings, McCain had stood at the podium and said in­stead, “Guns are good be­cause . . . ” But what would have fol­lowed?

Guns are good be­cause they pro­vide the ul­ti­mate self-de­fense? While I’m sure some peo­ple be­lieve that hav­ing a gun at their bed­side will make them safer, they are wrong. This is not my opin­ion, and it’s not a po­lit­i­cal or con­tro­ver­sial state­ment. It is a fact. Guns kept in the home for self-pro­tec­tion are 43 times more likely to kill a fam­ily mem­ber, friend or ac­quain­tance than to kill an in­truder, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Medicine. Guns on the street make us less safe. For ev­ery jus­ti­fi­able hand­gun homi­cide, there are more than 50 hand­gun mur­ders, ac­cord­ing to the FBI. The ex­pand­ing right to carry con­cealed guns make us even less safe. So what right is be­ing pro­tected if it is not the right to be safe? The right to feel safe, at the ex­pense of ac­tual safety?

Or per­haps guns are good be­cause they fa­cil­i­tate hunt­ing? It’s a con­sti­tu­tional red her­ring, but no co­in­ci­dence or sur­prise, that the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion is so closely aligned with hunters — they are the group’s most pow­er­ful con­tin­gent. Let’s just as­sume, for a mo­ment, that hunt­ing is good. Re­ally, re­ally good. (It must be, if mili­tias and self-de­fense don’t ex­plain guns.) How many of the nearly 3,000 chil­dren who are killed by firearms in the United States each year does the good of hunt­ing jus­tify? All of them? A hand­ful? How many of the stu­dents and fac­ulty at Vir­ginia Tech? And what’s so good about hunt­ing, any­way?

It’s rarely talked about, but hunt­ing for sport is just about as vile as we hu­mans get. In the words of for­mer Bush speech­writer Matthew Scully, “Most wicked deeds are done be­cause the doer pro­poses some good to him­self . . . [but] the killer for sport has no such com­pre­hen­si­ble mo­tive. He prefers death to life, dark­ness to light. He gets noth­ing ex­cept the sat­is­fac­tion of say­ing, ‘Some­thing that wanted to live is dead.’ ” If the thrill of hunt­ing were in the hunt, or even in the marks­man­ship, a cam­era would do just as well. (Imag­ine hunt­ing cam­eras that looked and felt like guns.) But some­thing else is go­ing on. Some­thing that sounds as bad as it is. Hunters love death. Can some­one ex­plain to me why that’s ac­cept­able, or why that love of death should be more im­por­tant than the safety of the 94 per­cent of us who don’t have hunt­ing li­censes and don’t hunt?

In 2004, more preschool­ers than law en­force­ment of­fi­cers were killed by firearms, ac­cord­ing to the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund. The num­ber of chil­dren killed by guns in the United States each year is about three times greater than the num­ber of ser­vice­men and women killed an­nu­ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, more chil­dren — chil­dren — have been killed by guns in the past 25 years than the to­tal num­ber of Amer­i­can fa­tal­i­ties in all wars of the past five decades. It’s pos­si­ble that the up­com­ing elec­tion will be de­cided by the war in Iraq. But what about the far dead­lier war at home?

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