Gun control, gun related crimes. These are headlines that feature our newspapers perennially, and this afternoon, the New York Times reported the result of a poll. According to it, “fifty-two percent of respondents said it was more important to protect gun ownership rights, while 46 percent said the priority should be controlled access to firearms.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/12/us/gun-control-gun-rights-pew-survey.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0)
I was driven into despair. I felt, “there is no way to get rid of gun violence in this country. It is simply a matter of time that another Sandy Hook tragedy happens.” Oh, yes, I hear you. My interlocutor will challenge me by saying, “Wait a minute. Aren’t you drawing such a hasty conclusion?” There is nothing wrong with gun possession per se. Gun violence happens when people who are not supposed to have guns lay their hands on them. What we need, therefore, is not a restriction of gun possession for all but the enforcement of regulations to limit mentally ill people’s access to guns. Let’s do background checks. Let them present their mental health history, if they want a gun.” We hear this kind of argument all the time, whenever a massive shooting happens. After the Sandy Hook shooting, for example, moms across the nation organized to demand stricter gun control. The moms said that they didn’t want to send their child to school, when any crazy person can carry a gun to the school and kill their precious angel.
The moms of the nation and my imaginary interlocutor (and I will add President Obama later) have one assumption in common. That is, gun violence is committed by a few crazy people, when a vast majority of us are sane people who won’t misuse guns. So is stricter gun control is really the answer? I think that about gun possession, there are only two positions. Either you approve of gun possession for all, or you disapprove of it altogether. There is no middle ground. No “depending on who owns a gun.” If you are calling for stricter gun control, you are joining the first group, the one who approves of gun possession for all. So, the NYT poll result reads to me like 98 (52+46) percent of approval.
To make my point, I want to discuss a novel. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of the literatures most widely read in American colleges. A very problematic book, but nonetheless, it includes a number of insightful ideas. Let me provide a two minute summary of the novel for those of you who have not read it: the novel is set in the late nineteenth century Congo under Belgian colonial rule. Marlow, a European man, travels to “the heart of darkness,” to observe that European men on the colonial mission become – subject to capitalist avarice, greed, and an insatiable will to power and domination – become irredeemably corrupt. The novel calls this process of corruption “going native.” In other words, these European men are decent people at home before they set out to Africa, but while they stay in Africa, they turn into bloody monsters. To prove that I am not lying, let me share with you one passage from the novel. The passage is from the opening pages of the novel. Marlow got the job that sends him to the Congo, because the guy who previously had the job got killed and needs a replacement. Below is a story about Marlow’s predecessor:
It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives….Fresleven—that was the fellow’s name, a Dane—thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn’t surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly. (Emphasis mine)
One of the Joseph Conrad’s insights in his novel is that we can all flip over from sanity to insanity in a split second. Nobody is inherently good or bad. We are mostly sane and nice most of the time, but we have some mean streak inside us. In unfortunate situations, the mean and violent streak will find its way out. As a result, we can swing from one extreme to the other. (Conrad suggest in the novel that Africa, the space of darkness that lacks civilization, is responsible for taking out the dark sides of European men, and this is exactly where his colonial thinking shines. But this point is rather irrelevant to today’s topic, so I will skip it.)
So, the sentence I want to emphasize in the Conrad quote above is this: Fresleven, the guy who “whacked the old nigger mercilessly,” the guy capable of such violence, was in fact “the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs.” Did you hear something similar to this somewhere else? I did. I heard it about Adam Lanza, the gunman of the Sandy Hook shooting. People who knew Lanza remembered him as “a very quiet kid, a shy kid” and were shocked that the “nice kid was responsible for such horror.” (“Who was Adam Lanza?” http://gawker.com/5968719/what-was-adam-lanza-actually-like)
I think that if we really want to eliminate gun violence, we should agree with Conrad. People like Adam Lanza are not a separate group from us. We can all become Adam Lanza. When the moms mentioned above say that they want their children to be safe from crazy people, they would like to imagine their children as innocent victims of gun violence only. Sadly, they are not quite right. If they really want a gun-free school, they should admit that their children can become gunmen as well. Instead of saying “crazy people should not own guns,” they should say, “nobody should own guns.”
President Obama once asked, “why do we have a monopoly on gun violence when we don’t have a monopoly on crazy people?” (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/10/politics/obama-guns/) Good question. The answer is that we have a monopoly on gun violence, because we are all potentially crazy people and can misuse guns when situations allow it. This is why guns should not be allowed in any circumstance. Guns are dangerous not only in the hands of a small number of crazy people but also in any and every hand. Your hand, my hand, and the hand of that dude on the street. I won’t have a problem getting a gun permit. But I know that if a gun is around, I am going to use it. And I know you are going to use it, too. Remember that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature. Remember that Adam Lanza was a quiet, shy kid. Remember that when we allow gun possession even limitedly and partially, we are basically soliciting and paving the highway to rampant gun violence.