The Wrong Way to Advocate for Your Cause

Yesterday on NPR I heard a story about a panic in a Charlottesville, VA grocery store caused when a man carried his rifle into the store. I am all for gun rights, but this was just plain foolish. Scaring people doesn't win them to your cause.

This episode is pretty interesting, and NPR did a good job covering it. You can see the urban/rural divide in play, and also the similar but distinct difference between gun folks and everyone else. To a gun lover, a man with a gun is just a man with a gun. If you are paying attention [and you should be], you will take note of the guy but not worry unless he starts acting strange. The presence of a gun is not in and of itself alarming. For the the rest of America, he is already acting strange, and even folks who aren't particularly anti-gun will likely be afraid, because those outside the gun culture can't conceive of a reason why a normal person would want to carry a gun to the grocery store. The only reason someone would have a gun is to do wrong, so the 911 calls start.

I don't know anything about the local politics in Charlottesville, but according to the Washington Post Ablemarle County is a blue island in the middle of a lot of red, much like my own home of Flagstaff. There are a lot of places in Flagstaff I would be reluctant to carry a gun openly, for fear of causing exactly this. On the other hand, there are places in Flagstaff I have openly carried a gun, and no one said anything. Flagstaff is an interesting mix of cowboy and urban liberal.

Ablemarle County 2012 Presidential Results

In twenty-first century America, I wonder whether the open carry movement really has the right idea. Some of the problem is political, but I think the greater part of it is psychological. Most people don't really have it in them to shoot someone else in self-defense. Some firearms instructors make a point of telling this to their clients who have just bought their first gun after a robbery or mugging. They have a good point. Practical self-defense training for the average person focuses on situational awareness, and techniques for running away more effectively. If you aren't prepared to actually shoot someone in self-defense, and accept the personal consequences of doing that, you shouldn't carry a gun. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has written a number of books on this subject.

Inchoately, I think many Americans realize this, and prefer to outsource their protection to the state. However, I still think there is something to the idea of the Second Amendment. It comes down to what it means to be a citizen, and the relationship between you and the state. Gun folks usually call this the difference between a citizen and a subject. A citizen who can be trusted with a deadly weapon is seen very differently from a subject who cannot be so trusted. This is precisely why gun folks get so offended about gun control, because their fellow citizens seem to be saying they cannot be trusted, in fact that they are something less than a full human being.

Conversely, the gun folks have a less than flattering description of their fellow citizens who do not have the personality to effectively defend themselves: sheep. It goes further than this, because much like in the movie Babe, sheep can't tell the difference between a sheepdog and a wolf. However, when a wolf does show up, the first thing the sheep want is protection provided by the sheepdog. This is exactly what happened in Charlottesville, because the response of the grocery store to a man carrying a gun in the store was to hire an armed security guard.

I'm not sure I know how to bridge this psychological and political divide. Cultures can change, so the balance between folks who prefer to outsource violence and do-it-yourselfers can change. However, I'm not sure we really want a society where everyone is mentally prepared for death. Robert Heinlein famously said that "an armed society is a polite society", but I think not everyone who quotes this appreciates what he really meant. The reason an armed society is a polite society is a casual insult can cost you your life. This is reason behind the elaborate hospitality rituals in many Middle Eastern societies. If you want to know what an armed,  polite society looks like, you should look to Afghanistan.

What we really need is for some Americans not to fear their fellow citizens who have a different capacity for violence, but no less virtue thereby. Conversely, some Americans need to stop frightening their fellow citizens who have different natures.