Guns, Honor, and the Dubious Freedom to Be an Asshole

Josh Marshall makes a good point about the ‘non-gun’ culture (boldface mine):

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….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….

But a huge amount of the current gun debate, the argument for the gun-owning tribe, amounts to the gun culture invading my area, my culture, my part of the country…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.

I’ll to return to “That doesn’t work where I live”, because that’s a key point: guns aren’t just “alien”, they actually make urban areas dysfunctional.

I recently attended a neighborhood meeting with the Boston Police Superintendent (the number two cop in the city). I’m fortunate that in my neighborhood, the occasional moron notwithstanding (more about him in a bit), the biggest problems are traffic and panhandling. Despite Boston’s liberal reputation, I’m pretty certain that there were a few attendees who would be perfectly fine with the BPD giving panhandlers punishment beatings*. But when the issue of gun control arose, there was no disagreement: people don’t want guns in the neighborhood.

Leaving aside the insanity of having several people carrying on the Green Line during rush hour, it just doesn’t work with Northeastern urban culture. People here will give someone a piece of his or her mind, especially if said someone is being an idiot. It’s also not always done in a long, drawn-out, polite way either. It’s just the way things are done. This results in one of three typical responses:

1) Said idiot realizes that he was wrong, and that the person has a right to be bothered, and apologizes. Believe it or not, this does happen, more often than you might think.

2) Said idiot doesn’t think he was wrong, and argues back in return.

3) Said idiot says, “Yeah, whatever douchebag,” and walks away.

Note that ‘opening fire’ isn’t on the list.

Last week, I attended a public hearing about Boston’s Green Line (which is always fucked). For those who haven’t been to public meetings in cities, it’s always a tough crowd. When the meeting reached the audience question time, the very first speaker started going on and on, at which point, a woman declared, “You’re repeating yourself, and there are thirty other people waiting to ask a question” (which was true on all counts). So he got to the point (though I’m not sure what it was…) and finished. Contrast this to the healthcare town hall meetings of 2009 where some very agitated ‘patriots’ showed up with sidearms–in the actual meetings. Is anyone in the audience going to tell him to get to the point? Is anyone going to vociferously disagree with him? He is an agitated man with a gun. That is not politeness, that is fear, despite the quips about an armed society being a polite one.

If there is one hallmark failing urban neighborhoods, it is that residents don’t approach and criticize other people because they are afraid they will be shot. For cities to work, people have to be able to communicate with each other without fear of violence (ironically, one would think conservatives would be keen on the whole paralegal enforcement of community norms). That’s why the recent case of two sanitation workers who were threatened with a gun by a resident of Back Bay (a very wealthy and safe neighborhood) shocked residents.

Basically, two workers confronted someone about putting their garbage in the wrong place. I’m guessing, while they are fine people, they’re not leading candidates for the Foreign Service. The resident is a recent transplant from Texas (and, according to the police, had himself a nice little arsenal–none of it registered in Massachusetts). I’m guessing between culture clash on both sides and misinterpretation, the situation rapidly escalated due a misperceived assault on the resident’s ‘honor’, at which point the resident ‘couldn’t’ back down. While this insecurity-driven bullshit happens everywhere, it’s more common in the South (and, being from Virginia, I could definitely see how someone unfamiliar with the Northeast could completely misinterpret what was happening). It’s a miracle no one was hurt or killed (it’s worth noting that no racial epithets were used according to the police).

While guns might be an integral part of some U.S. subcultures, they are oppositional to most U.S. urban cultures. The problem is that, even though a state like Massachusetts has very strict gun laws, the majority of the guns used in crime come from out of state (Massachusetts has the third highest ‘import’ rate, behind New Jersey and New York). So we’re not only experiencing a cultural or psychological encroachment by the gun culture but a very real one too.

That brings us to the assholes segment of this post. In Marshall’s column, he was responding to someone who was defending the right of two assholes to walk around a neighborhood with legally-owned assault rifles (the local school went into lockdown as a result):

My point is that regardless of how we feel about the law, that it was legal for them to do what they did but the tone I read was illustrating criminal behavior. I liken it to people obnoxiously purposely coughing and giving the stink eye to others who are smoking outside, well away from a door, in an allowed smoking area. Obviously less severe but an example of frankly, being pissy about others’ non criminal choices.

I can only infer on their motives in this case, and yes there are some idiots who just want attention; but from knowing others who open carry they believe that they must show that there is nothing to fear, to show the community the difference between psychopaths, real or imagined, and normal people who choose to carry. The first time you see something scary, that you may not understand completely, are you less afraid when nothing bad happens? The second time, third time? I believe that is what is meant by ‘educate the public’ and is not meant to be derogatory.

They might have the legal right to walk around a neighborhood, but, according to the reaction they received, they were being assholes. But, as I noted above, rather than telling these yahoos, “Stop being assholes”, people were afraid (for the obvious reason). So while these yahoos might be ‘free’, everyone else was intimidated. If people don’t want to live like that, if they think it’s harmful, that imperative should also be respected. That is called freedom (and not the freedom to hunt slaves).

Just as Southern white male is no longer the cultural default setting (as it was in the 1990s), there’s no reason ‘heavily armed gun lover’ should be either. We too are Americans.

Related: Paul Waldmann has some related thoughts.

*It’s pretty clear from the meeting that the BPD, to its credit, doesn’t think being crazy and stinky by itself is a crime, although that was put very diplomatically.

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8 Responses to Guns, Honor, and the Dubious Freedom to Be an Asshole

  1. Gwen says:

    agreed. If the gun tribe wants to sit home or in a tree stand and fondle their collection, so be it. But the wild west mentality that they need to walk around JCPenney and brandish it to prove how responsible and trustworthy they are just doesn’t quite make the argument. We have learned enough from road rage to know that some folks are just not gonna settle their public disagreements safely. Or maybe we haven’t learned enough…

  2. MCA says:

    IMHO, the thing that makes guns scary isn’t the gun, it’s that it’s in the hands of a member of the most irrational, unpredictable, mercurial species in existence (and I’m not excluding myself from that). For all the talk of “responsible gun owners”, there’s the truth that *everyone* has something that can provoke them to irrational anger, and humans are so diverse that there’s no way to know what that is. We’re dangerous, unpredictable animals who’ll turn on each other at the drop of a hat.

    Ironically, I routinely deal with dangerous wild animals, and these animals are much less scary than a guy openly carrying in the street. Some of it is familiarity, but a lot is that the animals are *predictable*, at least in a broad sense. They have brains the size of rice grains, so it doesn’t take much to figure out what scares them or triggers particular behaviors. Even the nasty ones, at least I know they’re trying to kill me. I’ll flat-out say that a 20-foot python is safer than a gun, and I’m indisputably right (seriously, look at deaths by guns vs deaths by pythons, even normalized per number owned).

    But if I have to walk by someone with a gun in the street, how do I know they won’t take offense to my humorously snarky T-shirt, or won’t overhear a political discussion I’m having with a friend, or won’t just decide I’m a threat based on my highly unusual appearance? And it gets even worse if you’re a racial minority, or if the gun-guy is virulently homophobic and you happen to be gay and out for a walk with your partner. Sure, technically you can get them thrown in jail for starting anything, but that doesn’t do you much good if you’re bleeding to death on the sidewalk.

    Sure, not all, or even most, gun owners would start anything, but I have no way of knowing who’s a “good guy with a gun” and who’s a raving Tea-bagging racist homophobic jackass with poor anger management. And think of the number of people you encounter every day. If even 1% of them carry, and 1% of those are the aforementioned jackasses, that means you’ll run into said jackasses numerous times a year, a month, or even a week, depending on your city size and extroversion. Outside of Glenn Beck rallies, most such jackasses look fairly normal.

  3. albanaeon says:

    This is a very good set of points. I don’t exactly know why my right to not have to worry about being shot is completely superseded by others rights to pretend they can be Rambo at the drop of a hat. Of the two of these, mine results in less dead people, but somehow its shockingly out there for our current political establishment.

  4. Jim Sweeney says:

    It’s literally science fiction that “an armed society is a polite society.” It comes from a story by Robert Heinlein.

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