Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Timothy Egan, "The Myth of the Hero Gunslinger"

Well, you can always rely on the NYT to air unsound arguments against firearms. Here's an installment, by Timothy Egan. It's no secret, but I feel like it bears repeating: many of our errors are so obvious that we could catch them ourselves if we thought a little more about what we were saying and writing. It's important to be one's own critic, one's own interlocutor. Egan, writing of the Giffords shooting incident, says:
On the day of the shooting, a young man named Joseph Zamudio was leaving a drugstore when he saw the chaos at the Safeway parking lot. Zamudio was armed, carrying his 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. Heroically, he rushed to the scene, fingering his weapon, ready to fire.

Now, in the view of the more-guns proponents, Zamudio might have been able to prevent any carnage, or maybe even gotten off a shot before someone was killed.

In fact, several people were armed. So, what actually happened? As Zamudio said in numerous interviews, he never got a shot off at the gunman, but he nearly harmed the wrong person — one of those trying to control Loughner.
It's a tiny bit complicated, explaining what's wrong with this argument. We might start by pointing out that no one specifically thought that Zamudio should have been able to "get a shot off." The view, of course, is that someone close enough (if armed) would have a fair chance of taking out the shooter. Zamudio was not close enough, so it's very odd to try to count this as evidence against the view in question. It's especially odd when you try to have it both ways as Egan does here:

The fact that Zamudio was almost in a position to take out the shooter does NOT count

The fact that Zamudio was almost in a position to shoot the wrong person DOES count

But you can't have it both ways. The fact is that Zamudio was simply not close enough to be part of the action. Like anyone else with a firearm, had things been a bit different, he might have done something smart or he might have done something dumb...but if you hear Zamudio talk, there actually seems very little chance of him shooting the wrong person. He is, by all indications, smart and sensible enough to make the likelihood of shooting the wrong person small. He himself noted how easy it would have been to shoot the wrong person,...which is exactly the sort of thing a responsible firearm owner thinks of/emphasizes. Of course, most firearm opponents are not interested in the objective facts here; they want to treat Zamudio shoots the shooter and Zamudio shoots an innocent person as equiprobable, as if his decisions to shoot would be, in effect, random.

Egan then cherry-picks some studies that link guns to violence...but that's a different problem for a different post. All we need to note here is that the evidence is equivocal...but that people with CCWs basically don't commit gun crimes. That is: they commit them at a rate far below that of the general public; CCW-bearers are a particularly law-abiding group.

In some sense, Egan and I are on the same page about the important conclusion here: contrary to what many friends of firearms argue, it's unlikely that we'd have significantly fewer or less-catastrophic mass shootings if more people had CCWs. First, such events are exceedingly rare to begin with. (Add to this that, as S. rex often points out to me, we're not terribly good at thinking about high-cost, low-probability events.) Second, even doubling or tripling the number of CCWs would still generate only a small percentage of armed citizens. Furthermore, many of these shootings typically happen too fast. However, we do need to keep in mind--something Egan ignores--that many do not happen fast; the VA Tech shooting took 10-12 minutes--an eternity as such things go. There is simply no doubt whatsoever than an armed citizen could have saved lives in that situation.

As I frequently note: the pro-firearm side wants us to believe the following falsehood: if only we had more guns out there, we would significantly decrease the likelihood of events like the Giffords shooting. The anti-firearm side wants us to believe this falsehood: armed citizens who find themselves in the midst of such a shooting are simply going to make the situation worse. The fact of the matter, however, is that though even increased rates of concealed-carry are unlikely to stop such shootings, you're a fool if you think you're better off throwing your gun out the window than using it to defend yourself and others.

 Perhaps the hero gunslinger is a myth, but I have to say, I tend to prefer those who find such myths inspiring to those who find them risible and contemptible. Heroic myths appeal to our sense of self-reliance, and to our recognition that we ought to fight against aggression when possible. Perhaps the aspiration to return fire in such situations is crude, primitive, and unsophisticated...but it isn't unreasonable or immoral, and it strikes me as being very much more rational than the alternative. I'm not arguing for making policy on these grounds alone...but I do think we've moved in a bad direction if we cease to have such aspirations.


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