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Ethics from the Barrel of a Gun: What Bearing Weapons Teaches About the Good Life
``The bearing of arms is the essential medium through which the individual asserts both his social power and his participation in politics as a responsible moral being...'' (Historian J.G.A. Pocock, describing the beliefs of the founders of the U.S.)
There is nothing like having your finger on the trigger of a gun to reveal who you really are. Life or death in one twitch -- ultimate decision, with the ultimate price for carelessness or bad choices.
It is a kind of acid test, an initiation, to know that there is lethal force in your hand and all the complexities and ambiguities of moral choice have fined down to a single action: fire or not?
In truth, we are called upon to make life-or-death choices more often than we generally realize. Every political choice ultimately reduces to a choice about when and how to use lethal force, because the threat of lethal force is what makes politics and law more than a game out of which anyone could opt at any time.
But most of our life-and-death choices are abstract; their costs are diffused and distant. We are insulated from those costs by layers of institutions we have created to specialize in controlled violence (police, prisons, armies) and to direct that violence (legislatures, courts). As such, the lessons those choices teach seldom become personal to most of us.
Nothing most of us will ever do combines the moral weight of life-or-death choice with the concrete immediacy of the moment as thoroughly as the conscious handling of instruments deliberately designed to kill. As such, there are lessons both merciless and priceless to be learned from bearing arms -- lessons which are not merely instructive to the intellect but transformative of one's whole emotional, reflexive, and moral character.
The first and most important of these lessons is this: it all comes down to you.
No one's finger is on the trigger but your own. All the talk-talk in your head, all the emotions in your heart, all the experiences of your past -- these things may inform your choice, but they can't move your finger. All the socialization and rationalization and justification in the world, all the approval or disapproval of your neighbors -- none of these things can pull the trigger either. They can change how you feel about the choice, but only you can actually make the choice. Only you. Only here. Only now. Fire, or not?
A second is this: never count on being able to undo your choices.
If you shoot someone through the heart, dead is dead. You can't take it back. There are no do-overs. Real choice is like that; you make it, you live with it -- or die with it.
A third lesson is this: the universe doesn't care about motives.
If your gun has an accidental discharge while pointed an unsafe direction, the bullet will kill just as dead as if you had been aiming the shot. ``I didn't mean to'' may persuade others that you are less likely to repeat a behavior, but it won't bring a corpse back to life.
These are hard lessons, but necessary ones. Stated, in print, they may seem trivial or obvious. But ethical maturity consists, in significant part, of knowing these things -- not merely at the level of intellect but at the level of emotion, experience and reflex. And nothing teaches these things like repeated confrontation with life-or-death choices in grave knowledge of the consequences of failure.
This psychological insight both illuminates and is reinforced by one central fact of U.S. history that is usually considered purely political, and even (wrongly) thought to be of interest only to Americans.
The Founding Fathers of the United States believed, and wrote, that the bearing of arms was essential to the character and dignity of a free people. For this reason, they wrote a Second Amendment in the Bill Of Rights which reads ``the right to bear arms shall not be infringed''.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with it, the Second Amendment is usually interpreted in these latter days as an axiom of and about political character -- an expression of republican political thought, a prescription for a equilibrium of power in which the armed people are at least equal in might to the organized forces of government.
It is all these things. But it is something more, because the Founders regarded political character and individual ethical character as inseparable. They had a clear notion of the individual virtues necessary collectively to a free people. They did not merely regard the habit of bearing arms as a political virtue, but as a direct promoter of personal virtue.
The Founders had been successful armed revolutionaries. Every one of them had had repeated confrontation with life-or-death choices, in grave knowledge of the consequences of failure. They desired that the people of their infant nation should always cultivate that kind of ethical maturity, the keen sense of individual moral responsibility that they had personally learned from using lethal force in defense of their liberty.
Accordingly, firearms were prohibited only to those intended to be kept powerless and infantilized. American gun control has its origins in racist legislation designed to disarm slaves and black freedmen. The wording of that legislation repays study; it was designed not merely to deny blacks the political power of arms but to prevent them from aspiring to the dignity of free men.
The dignity of free men (and, as we would properly add today, free women). That is a phrase that bears thinking on. As the twentieth century draws to a close, it sounds archaic. Our discourse has nearly lost the concept that the health of the res publica is founded on private virtue. Too many of us contemplate a president who preaches ``family values'' and ``responsibility'' to the nation while committing adultery and perjury, and don't see a contradiction.
But Thomas Jefferson's question, posed in his inaugural address of 1801, still stings. If a man cannot be trusted with the government of himself, how can he be trusted with the government of others? And this is where history and politics circle back to ethics and psychology: because ``the dignity of a free (wo)man'' consists in being competent to govern one's self, and in knowing, down to the core of one's self, that one is so competent.
And that is where ethics and psychology bring us back to the bearing of arms. For causality runs both ways here; the dignity of a free man is what makes one ethically competent to bear arms, and the act of bearing arms promotes (by teaching its hard and subtle lessons) the inner qualities that compose the dignity of a free man.
It is not always so, of course. There is a 3% or so of psychotics, drug addicts, and criminal deviants who are incapable of the dignity of free men. Arms in the hands of such as these do not promote virtue, but are merely instruments of tragedy and destruction. But so, too, are cars. And kitchen knives. And bricks. The ethically incompetent readily (and effectively) find other means to destroy and terrorize when denied arms. And when civilians arms are banned, they more readily find helpless victims.
But for the other 97%, the bearing of arms functions not merely as an assertion of power but as a fierce and redemptive discipline. When sudden death hangs inches from your right hand, you become much more careful, more mindful, and much more peaceful in your heart -- because you know that if you are thoughtless or sloppy in your actions or succumb to bad temper, people will die.
Too many of us have come to believe ourselves incapable of this discipline. We fall prey to the sick belief that we are all psychopaths or incompetents under the skin. We have been taught to imagine ourselves armed only as villains, doomed to succumb to our own worst nature and kill a loved one in a moment of carelessness or rage. Or to end our days holed up in a mall listening to police bullhorns as some SWAT sniper draws a bead...
But it's not so. To believe this is to ignore the actual statistics and generative patterns of weapons crimes. ``Virtually never'', writes criminologist Don B. Kates, ``are murderers the ordinary, law-abiding people against whom gun bans are aimed. Almost without exception, murderers are extreme aberrants with lifelong histories of crime, substance abuse, psychopathology, mental retardation and/or irrational violence against those around them, as well as other hazardous behavior, e.g., automobile and gun accidents.''
To believe one is incompetent to bear arms is, therefore, to live in corroding and almost always needless fear of the self -- in fact, to affirm oneself a moral coward. A state further from ``the dignity of a free man'' would be rather hard to imagine. It is as a way of exorcising this demon, of reclaiming for ourselves the dignity and courage and ethical self-confidence of free (wo)men that the bearing of personal arms, is, ultimately, most important.
This is the final ethical lesson of bearing arms: that right choices are possible, and the ordinary judgement of ordinary (wo)men is sufficient to make them.
We can, truly, embrace our power and our responsibility to make life-or-death decisions, rather than fearing both. We can accept our ultimate responsibility for our own actions. We can know (not just intellectually, but in the sinew of experience) that we are fit to choose.
And not only can we -- we must. The Founding Fathers of the United States understood why. If we fail this test, we fail not only in private virtue but consequently in our capacity to make public choices. Rudderless, lacking an earned and grounded faith in ourselves, we can only drift -- increasingly helpless to summon even the will to resist predators and tyrants (let alone the capability to do so).
Joel Barlow, a political theorist of Jefferson's time, wrote tellingly: ``[The disarming of citizens has] a double effect, it palsies the hand and brutalizes the mind: a habitual disuse of physical forces totally destroys the moral [force]; and men lose at once the power of protecting themselves, and of discerning the cause of their oppression.''
We live with a recent history of massacres by governments that have dwarfed in scope and cruelty anything Barlow or Jefferson could have imagined. The Turkish massacre of the Armenians, the Nazi ``final solution'', the Soviet purges, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Hutu-Tutsi massacres in Rwanda; each and every one of these vast and hideous slaughters was preceded by and relied upon the disarmament of the victims.
It is more important than ever, today after a century of blood, that we retain the power both to protect ourselves and to discern the cause of such oppressions. That cause has never been in civilian arms borne by free people, but in their opposite and enemy -- the organized and conscienceless brutality of cancerous states.
It is time to recognize that we, as individuals and as citizens of our neighborhoods and our nations and our planet, have gone too far down a road that leads only to disintegration of both society and self -- a future of atomized and alienated sheep, terrified by the reflection in each others' eyes of the phantoms in their own souls, easy prey for demagogues and dictators.
It is time for each of us to rediscover the dignity of free men (and women) in the only way possible; by proving it in the crucible of daily decision, even on ultimate matters of life and death. It is time for us to embrace bearing arms again -- not merely as a deterrent against criminals and tyrants, but as a gift and sacrament and affirmation to ourselves.
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