Building Better Societies
As people continue to be driven by emotion, our propensity for overreacting to dramatic events remains firmly intact. Recent events in Aurora, Colorado have ignited passions on both sides of the argument over the 2nd Amendment, commonly conceived of as protecting our right to own and possess weapons. This will not be a passionate plea feeding on the tension of a horrific crime, no matter how sensationalized. Today we consider modern society, modern man, and the need to bear arms.
Any discussion of gun control in America must begin with an understanding of the constitution. The 2nd Amendment does not simply state we possess an unalienable right to have guns. It says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Much has been written parsing the meaning of that sentence. An understanding of how the word State is used is critical to reaching an ultimate interpretation. A literal read would conclude the clause protects the rights of States to establish and maintain an armed militia, which does not necessarily guarantee you and me the right to own and carry a gun. A looser reading suggests you and I do have the protected right to own and possess firearms and form a militia as needed for the protection of the State (used here to refer to a collection of people under common governance, not one of the United States as a separate entity). Since we have long lived under the premise of the less strict reading, we shall proceed on that foundation, but the argument our understanding of the Bill of Rights is flawed has merit.
Assuming our forefathers thought it paramount we be a nation of armed civilians, the discussion should consider if people, America, and the world have changed sufficiently in the last 200 years as to alter the necessity of this right. In 1800, only 2% of the world’s population lived in cities. 98% of the world’s population lived in rural areas where security was almost exclusively a self-provided service. Threats from the environment, animals, hostile neighbors, invading outsiders, etc. were real-life concerns. Providing your own protection was not optional and owning weapons was the only insurance policy you could rely on.
In 1800 America, the stigma of an oppressive government and a successful revolution made a people’s militia an apparent necessity to prevent the rise of a new monarchy. Owning a weapon prepared a man to defend his freedom, not from the randomness of a psychopath or armed robber, but from an invading foreign army. For some, a gun was the surest way to find and obtain dinner. From those realities, guns became intrinsic to American culture. The iconic images of men up to the 1950s often portrayed a man and his gun, rough and ready.
Today, 3.3 billion people live in cities, over 50% of the world’s population. In America, 250 million of our 300 million citizens are urbanites. Cities have been crucial to human development for a number of reasons, but perhaps most crucially, for the security they offer. Cities, for better or worse, alter the natural landscape, pushing predatory animals away from human populations. Cities require impressive levels of human cooperation to function, reducing our ability to isolate ourselves and develop anti-social attitudes. Cities bind our fates economically, exposing most inhabitants to shared costs and rewards for collective decisions. The unifying power of cities has fundamentally changed the way we interact with other and our ability to violently infringe on each other’s rights. We give up considerable personal freedoms to live in cities; in exchange we pursue a greater common good.
Modern urban life does not depend on gun ownership. Choosing to live without a firearm does not reduce your odds of survival, impact your chances of eating dinner tonight, or expose you to increased risk of crime. Your house is not less likely to be burgled if you own a gun. Perhaps owning a gun will allow you to alter the course of a would-be robbery, but even that outcome is uncertain. Even would-be criminals are not substantially aided by guns; over the last 16 years, only 7% of violent crimes committed involved a gun.
What then, is the value of continuing to protect gun ownership in America? Tradition. Though guns are no longer intrinsic to our society’s survival, we continue to perceive them as a natural right. Few would argue the right to protect yourself should be denied, but the manner of protection we tolerate is endlessly arguable. The threats we face in modern society are rarely addressed with guns. When did you last encounter a violation of your rights that a gun could solve? The honest answer is likely never.
Finally, we must confront the ideals we aspire to as a society. Violence may not be extractable from human behavior. We may have to forever live with a percentage of our population living outside our laws and using violence as a means to gain power over others. For the entire history of our species, weapons have failed to correct this flaw in our behavior. More subtle forces have diminished incidents of violent acts; the necessities of social life in urban spaces most notably. People may want guns, but arguments the citizenry needs them fail. The evolution of man as a social animal has rendered the right to bear arms an antiquated artifact of our distant past. It’s time for the modern man to embrace his reality and let tradition be a fond memory and not a weighted chain against his further progress.