Gun control, especially on the political left, is almost universally framed as a matter of safety. The typical leftist argument for disarming the public goes something like this. “Guns are only used for killing things, they are often used by accident and they help people commit the mass shootings that terrify us so.” On the right the argument is, frankly, much more confused. The weakest, but most common, argument is a right wing spin on the safety point. The NRA, for example, often points to instances where armed civilians killed rampaging crazies. Stronger but more fraught is the contention that gun violence is overwhelmingly concentrated in poor and inner-city communities – communities that are noticeably light on establishment conservatives and NRA activists. Finally, there is the strongest argument, guns are a means of ensuring independence.
First, the safety arguments. If safety is the only thing you care about, the debate is very simple. The leftists are correct, the conservatives are wrong and we should outlaw all firearms. Violent crimes are almost never stopped by armed civilians and are more often made worse. Guns make suicide much more convenient and are often discharged accidentally. They turn lower stakes crimes, robberies for example, into potential shootouts. Even mass murder sprees, a trivial danger in statistical terms, are more deadly when the attacker has a gun.
Second, the “not our problem” argument is valid but incomplete. It is true that the amount of gun violence present is strongly connected with the group of people under consideration. Canada has very high rates of gun ownership and basically no gun violence. Same thing with Norway, France, Switzerland, Sweeden and Finland. According to the FBI, white Americans have murder rates in line with these countries. This lends credence to the “we aren’t the problem” argument but runs into a major obstacle. The US is composed of many communities, a great number of which are ravaged by gun violence. So long as Americans wish to maintain an inclusive democracy, they must at least pretend to care about all citizens, which is why I don’t think we can take the “not our problem” argument seriously.
For the matters of independence and safety, I think it is instructive to compare the US and China because, in many ways, they are very similar. Like the US, China has experienced a wave of school and crowd massacres. Like the US, this was largely the result of “social revenge” motives brought on by, according to Professor Joshua Miller and several other sociologists, decreasing economic and marriage opportunity, rapidly changing gender relations and the breakdown of traditional social roles. Like the US, these murder massacres tended to top out around 35 deaths and a hundred or so people injured. The main difference, then, is China’s strict gun control and the US’s notoriously lax gun laws. In China, this means that the mass killings have tended to use kitchen knives. They have tended to require a higher level of organization and planning than American mass shootings and, while the difference is not huge, the maximum body counts tend to be higher in the US.
On the other hand, though, it’s interesting to note that the unarmed Chinese population never once attempted to rise up against Mao Zedong, even when his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were killing 50 million people. It’s difficult to imagine Texas, for example, going so quietly to its own destruction.
The standard leftist refutation to the independence argument has always been “we live in a stable, flourishing democracy” and that is certainly true. The danger in disarming, in submitting fully to society, is directly proportional to the threat of authoritarianism. It then seems that the honest way to weigh the gun issue revolves not around tales of heroic civilians gunning down rapists or retreats into our segregated racial communities, but how much the murder and accident reduction benefits from disarming the population stack up against the risks of the government becoming authoritarian. Do you take Donald Trump seriously when he praises Xi Jinping’s new “president for life” powers and says “we might have to try that here someday?” Do you fear the masked antifa thugs and white nationalists who keep lighting city centers on fire? Are you simply willing to accept the risk of gun violence in order to possess the ability to care for yourself in an emergency?