Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Josh Marshall's Fear Itself

Nota Bene: Given the sensitive nature of the subject, I want to reiterate my blog's disclaimer that this is a personal blog and not to be associated with my employer or imply their endorsement. Thanks, JPB

Last week, TPM's top-man Josh Marshall took it upon himself to speak for "his tribe": "non-gun people." I am not so bold as to speak for anyone but myself, but I think his post merits a response.

After recounting a childhood memory in which he found himself playing with an actual gun and pointing it at a friend, Marshall explains his discomfort with guns:
More than this, I come from a culture where guns are not so much feared as alien, as I said. I don’t own one. I don’t think many people I know have one. It would scare me to have one in my home for a lot of reasons. Not least of which because I have two wonderful beyond belief little boys and accidents happen and I know that firearms in the home are most likely to kill their owners or their families. People have accidents. They get depressed. They get angry.
In the current rhetorical climate people seem not to want to say: I think guns are kind of scary and don’t want to be around them. Yes, plenty of people have them and use them safely. And I have no problem with that. But remember, handguns especially are designed to kill people. You may want to use it to threaten or deter. You may use it to kill people who should be killed (i.e., in self-defense). But handguns are designed to kill people. They’re not designed to hunt. You may use it to shoot at the range. But they’re designed to kill people quickly and efficiently.

That frightens me. I don’t want to have those in my home. I don’t particularly want to be around people who are carrying. Cops, I don’t mind. They’re trained, under an organized system and supposed to use them for a specific purpose. But do I want to have people carrying firearms out and about where I live my life — at the store, the restaurant, at my kid’s playground? No, the whole idea is alien and frankly scary. Because remember, guns are extremely efficient tools for killing people and people get weird and do stupid things. (emphases mine)
As many caveats and explanation he gives, Marshall is simply stating that his feelings about guns are based on fear, and that fear is rooted in ignorance of the 'alien.' Indeed, after corresponding with a reader who was defending the right to open carry, he writes:

But at this point I was already starting to see red. I don’t pretend that [Marshall's interlocutor] is representative. But it captured a mentality that does seem pervasive among many more determined gun rights advocates — basically that us non-gun people need to be held down as it were and made to learn that it’s okay being around people carrying loaded weapons.
Well, I don’t want to learn. That doesn’t work where I live — geographically or metaphorically. (emphases mine)
This last bit struck me particularly, because he made this post about "his tribe." This fear of people unlike him and this idea that he's 'forced to accept' the rights of others often emanates from the more reactionary Right, usually regarding open displays of homosexuality or, more directly related to fear, when uncomfortable in the presence of racial or religious minorities.*(1)

Take the Juan Williams fiasco, in which Williams said that he was frightened by people on airplanes in traditional Muslim garb. Williams' forthright prejudice was a personal bias against Muslims, not reflective of any real threat from a Muslim just because he was wearing a keffiye. (Indeed, the 9/11 hijackers, the probable source of Willams' discomfort, were wearing Western clothes during the attack.)  Marshall's fearful explanation is no different, as the vast majority of gun owners are not criminals nor will they ever pose a direct threat to others or themselves. Similarly, it is the same sort of fear that motivates the cliched white woman to clutch her purse when in the elevator with a black man. Just as there are Muslim (and other) terrorists and black (and other) criminals, there are gun owners (and others) who kill people. In our society, the individual enjoys a presumption of innocence, particularly when exercising his or her rights. That guns give people like Marshall the creeps is not enough to restrict them at the expense of others' rights. Marshall's fear is just as irrational, if more understandable on some level, but his locked-in bias against guns isn't a policy argument.

I personally think that people carrying openly for its own sake is an ostentatious, provocative, and unpersuasive political gesture, but that's their right. Brandishing a weapon is still a crime, as it should be and where the fear of a "non-gun person" is justified, but the right to carry a gun should not be generally prohibited to law-abiding citizens. If it makes Marshall feel better, any law-abiding citizen may 'open carry' in Virginia, but you probably wouldn't know it by walking around Old Town or Arlington. Just because it's legal, it doesn't mean it's common or likely to become so. I can understand Marshall's hesitation to live in a city where most everyone is carrying a gun, though I wouldn't fear it as he does, but its sheer unlikelihood makes it the most fanciful of his many listed fears and thus he need not "learn" that, despite what the other tribe is saying.

But there are plenty of legitimate reasons that someone may want to carry a weapon. Take, for example, what a facebook friend of mine recently posted (verbatim):
I lived in NYC for 10 years, without ONCE fearing for my safety. Yet, it's only when I move to the nation's capital (how ironic is that?) that I find myself truly on alert. After 2 gay men were attacked 3 blocks from my home, it finally dawned on me that I'm not in the Big Apple anymore and that perhaps, I need to learn some self-defense. But another thing dawned on me too: the conversation about guns and gun violence is mostly taking place among people who live in safe environments and can therefore feel confident in telling others they don't need a gun to defend themselves. It would really interest me to hear what less privileged people-- who live in higher crime areas-- have to say about the issue. I don't think anyone is listening to them right now.
I can't imagine she's alone in her particular fear, as brutal attacks on gays and other Queer minorities seem to be on the rise in the District.**(2) As to her revelation about privilege, Marshall virtually stipulates his own in his post.

In another context, the last time I saw my father carry, he was transporting a considerable but not huge amount of money in order to purchase a car from a neighbor whom he'd known for over 60 years. My father and his friend lived in a neighborhood in which break-ins induced more than a few homes to have bars on doors and windows, and thus he felt he—a fit man, but in his 70s at the time—could use protection in case someone decided to rob two seniors who they heard had a bit of money on them. (In my experience, many robberies are crimes of opportunity by which someone takes action after learning a piece of otherwise innocuous information.) Gun bans, such as those struck down in D.C. and Chicago, would have made criminals of my father and his friend, whom I recall was also carrying that day—or, alternatively, it would have made them more vulnerable to potential criminals who were neither persuaded nor hindered by gun bans. My father had personal reason to be wary, as many years before, and an off-duty police officer at the time, he once stopped his own mugging with his concealed service weapon.

I've never pointed a gun at anyone, but I had one at-the-ready when a friend of my then-girlfriend was a victim of domestic violence and escaped to our place. The abuser, on a previous friendly(-ish) occasion, decided to fireman-carry me up a flight of stairs on a lark. Despite being six feet tall and weighing over 200 lbs., I was upside-down and half up the stairs before I knew what was going on. I would be no match for him in a fistfight, and any non-firearm weapon would require close contact, which would leave me vulnerable to being overpowered. Furthermore, it was very likely he knew where she was. Fortunately, I never had to use that gun, but we slept more soundly that night knowing we had an effective defensive deterrent in case we needed it.

When you think about it, a considerable amount of gall is needed to deny the right of self-defense to others just because it makes you feel uncomfortable. I grant that perhaps Marshall was just speaking his mind and not actually pushing back against the right to carry, but the Left's push for legislation similarly relies on fear and their own notions of propriety. I'm not asking, let alone 'holding down,' anyone to enthusiastically accept gun rights. But Marshall and others should understand that a relative feeling of safety without a weapon is far from universal. Good for him that the idea of personally defending himself or his family against attack is an alien concept, but that's simply not the case for everyone, even in the "good" neighborhoods in D.C..

We can debate options for the future, such as expanding gun safety training to anyone who seeks to carry firearms publicly or various restrictions on time and place for carrying, but prejudicial fear of the presence of a loaded gun, however palpable to some, does not remotely approach the threshold appropriate to deny a responsible, law-abiding citizen his or her most fundamental right to self-defense.

I speak for no one but myself, but I understand the sometimes-imminent necessity of firearms for people that may not have the luxury of waiting for a 911 response. There are many who choose not to use firearms for self-protection, which is fine and I'm not telling them they should. But there are some who, at one time or another, feel safer carrying a weapon for self-defense, and their rights should be respected—despite the fears of Josh Marshall.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

*(1)This is not to say, at all, that gun owners are being persecuted like blacks, Muslims, or other minorities have been or currently are—it's that Marshall's remarks bear a strong resemblance to the myopic mentality that, in other contexts, sometimes feeds persecution: 'I don't want to learn in order to respect your rights.' To wit, direct comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia that many virulent gun-rights supporters have invoked are entirely off-base and offensive. American gun owners may have reason to be wary of potential government action, but they have no reasonable fear of oppression against them. Absolutely none. 
Furthermore, it should not be inferred that I think Marshall is a bigot. It's just that Marshall admitted his own close-mindedness about people carrying firearms and, to a "gun person," its syntactical resemblance to other forms of prejudice is unmistakable. That does not mean, however, the effect of his particular prejudice bears the same cultural weight as racial, religious, or identity prejudice—nor do I think it makes him a bad guy.

**(2) I use "Queer" as an all-encompassing term for non-heteronormative genders and identities. Though in context it should be obvious, I wanted to make clear since I'm a straight guy loosely  right of center.


Libertarian Realist said...

"There is one excellent litmus test which can set up a clear dividing line between genuine conservatives and neoconservatives, and between paleolibertarians and what we can now call 'left-libertarians.' And that test is where one stands on 'Doctor' King."
-Murray Rothbard

Should Libertarians Celebrate MLK Day?

Justin said...

There is no "right", constitutionally or otherwise, to own a particular style of gun. Never has been. The National Firearm Act was passed in the 30s, I believe, and it curtailed ownership of various weapons. This country has a long history of regulating which weapons its citizens can own.

That said, I agree that there is a cultural component to the debate on gun control -- on both sides. Some people like guns, some people don't. If enough people decide they don't like a particular style of weapon, they may seek to have it banned, and the only real question is whether they have the political power to achieve that goal. This is democracy. There is nothing unconstitutional about this. There is no real debate about whether the Legislature has the power to prohibit ownership of certain types of weapons. The current battle is for public sentiment. Do you feel safer with guns around, or do you feel safer without them around? None of the defenses of assault weapons I have heard make me feel safer. Especially when I am told they are needed for guerrilla warfare against the government.

All of the stories you refer to in your post involve ownership of a handgun. Nobody in any of those vignettes was arguing that owning an AK-47 was a vital part of living in the city. The vast majority of Americans do not own weapons with large capacity magazines or automatic capabilities. They do not believe such weapons should be owned by private citizens. This does not seem complicated or controversial. Maybe someday there will be a serious social debate about ownership of a handgun, but that debate is not taking place at the moment.

Matthew said...

"I personally think that people carrying openly for its own sake is an ostentatious, provocative, and unpersuasive political gesture, but that's their right. Brandishing a weapon is still a crime, as it should be and where the fear of a "non-gun person" is justified, but the right to carry a gun should not be generally prohibited to law-abiding citizens."

This reminds me of part of this article from The New Yorker, "BATTLEGROUND AMERICA: One nation, under the gun," by Jill Lepore:


"firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man."

So did it actually used to be the opposite? Concealing your weapon was a sign of deceit, to commit a crime?