After every mass shooting, we get another replay of the gun-control debate. One side says, "This would have been prevented if only we didn't have legal guns." The other says, "This would have been prevented if only everyone there had had a legal gun."
I'm not going to address that, because honestly I don't know. I think that guns should be kept out of the hands of criminals if at all possible, but at the same time it seems unreasonable to keep guns out of the hands of hunters, people living in remote areas, and so forth. And really I have no idea what the statistics really show, whether it is possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or whether armed civilians prevent crime.
What I want to talk about is my own personal choice not to use a gun. It's something I've struggled to explain to others for years, and lacked the vocabulary to explain until I read about virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics, in the words of my friend Seeking Omniscience, means that "virtue is fractal," or in the words of Jesus, "the one who is faithful in small matters will be faithful also in large ones." That is, you don't make ethical decisions based on a one-time, logical consideration, but based on your habits. If you have the habit of treating others with respect, you will become a respectful person. It will be against your nature, after awhile, to be disrespectful. Aristotle tells us that the most virtuous man isn't the one who does good things with immense effort, but the one who does them easily, because they are habitual.
I've understood this for a long time, though I couldn't explain it. I know that every action I take is a choice to shape myself in a certain direction. Even the thoughts you think, the things you let yourself imagine, shape your future actions. You can't make a decision in isolation that doesn't affect the sort of person you are. So when utilitarian ethicists or Catholic death-penalty promoters try to explain the sort of scenario when taking one life is morally acceptable, all I can think is, "But what is the effect on the person who has to take that life?"
There are different virtues, and different ways you could shape yourself which could all be morally good. A soldier might be habitually a violent man without being a bad man. We ask him to make the sacrifice of forming violent habits because we need that in some cases. But when he comes home, he is going to have to struggle to form new habits which work better in civilian life.
As a mother, I desperately need to be gentle and non-aggressive. I have a nasty temper, but through constant practice I have trained myself (for the most part) not to lash out defensively. Instead I hesitate before acting and try to think before I speak. I train myself to think of hurting people, by word or action, as completely beyond the pale. It's a daily struggle, but I think I'm doing okay at it.
But last year, John suggested we should get a gun for home defense. I told him that I didn't have a problem with it, provided I would not be expected to use it. He was confused -- don't I believe in self-defense?
I do, in the abstract. I think that if a violent person breaks down my door and threatens to hurt my kids, I would be well within my rights to shoot him. It would be a morally good action. However, I also don't think I would be capable of doing it. I would hesitate, and the invader would easily overpower me, take the weapon, and train it on me. I know that's how I am -- being naturally a timid person plus having trained myself to be nonaggressive at all times.
"Okay," said John, "so why don't you go to a shooting range and practice with the gun until you felt you'd overcome your hesitation to firing at an invader?"
I couldn't give a good answer to that, so we ended up abandoning the conversation, but let me try to explain it now. I think that if I practiced shooting a gun, visualizing scenarios where I would need to kill someone, I would be changing the sort of person I am. I would be making myself more suited to be a home defender but less suited to be a nurturing parent.
Now, that's not a bad thing in every scenario. If I lived in a wartorn nation plagued by roving gangs, I would get the gun, practice with it, and if it made me worse at keeping my temper, that would just be the price my kids would have to pay for safety. But in reality, home invasions are extremely rare. If I spent a single hour of my life preparing for it, I would be spending a disproportionate amount of time, compared to the risk. If I want to save my kids' lives, I should instead take a first-aid course, learn CPR, learn defensive driving, buy top-rated carseats, cut sugar out of their diets, teach them how to cross the street carefully ... there is no end to better uses of my time, when it comes to reducing risk to their lives, than learning to shoot a gun.
But besides all that, I think that it is impossible to train for combat without changing the way you see the world. Some gun owners I know have told me that they constantly survey their environment for dangers and make contingency plans. Is this a good use of their mental energy? Are they more likely to need to shoot someone in a crisis or to develop a stress-related illness from their constant vigilance?
It seems to me that if you carry a hammer everywhere you go, more and more problems start to look like nails. Certainly we've seen that with the police. When they make a mistake and shoot an unarmed person, their defenders remind us that they are trained to react quickly and have no way of being sure the person is not armed. Perhaps it would help if they spent fewer hours shooting human-shaped targets and more hours walking through scenarios with harmless civilians, especially children and the mentally ill.
Doctor Who is another example. The Doctor would be a lot more efficient at taking care of alien threats if he would carry a weapon; but on the other hand, with a quick fix like that available, would he realize the many situations when weapons aren't called for? Considering that he is a time-traveling supergenius of incredible power, there is nothing more important than for him to practice virtue. No matter how tempting it might be to commit one little atrocity here or there for a really good reason, it would send him on a course which he might not be able to correct. And then the whole universe would be threatened, as a Time Lord without a conscience goes marauding around.
A negative example is found in the show 24. In season one, Jack Bauer only tortures really bad people, when it's really necessary. By season three, he's torturing everybody, all the time, even people who seem quite obviously not guilty of anything. It's become a habit with him, so that he isn't capable of seeing what the viewers are, that the prisoner is not a threat and doesn't know anything.
So I've made the choice that the sort of person I am is the sort of person who does not use a gun. Others might make a different choice, based on the sort of person their state in life requires them to be. My point is just that it's not as simple as saying "Self-defense is morally legitimate, therefore I should own a gun." I do believe self-defense and the defense of the innocent are morally good, but I don't believe that a situation that requires it is likely enough to merit changing the sort of person I am.