In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote that free people consent to give up their individual rights in order to establish a political community, i.e., civil society, which establishes laws so that everyone can enjoy security. Although simplistic, this theory supports the following arguments for gun control:
- Private citizens should give up the right to own military-style weapons, so that a violent person cannot get one to use on innocent people. In our First World society, we have police, sheriffs, constables, SWAT teams, reservists, military, Special Forces, and a variety of teams that can respond to an emergency at a moment’s notice. If military weapons are needed, a cadre of weapons can arrive with expertly trained professionals.
- Citizens who want guns should give up the right of privacy so that they can be vetted to keep guns out of the wrong hands. If you don’t have anything to hide, you should submit to a background check. The government can keep a registry so that if a gun is passed to a new owner it can be tracked so that it is not used unlawfully.
- Gun owners should give up the right to buy large quantities of ammunition, so that a violent person cannot obtain thousands of rounds of ammo. Similarly, gun owners should use smaller magazines to limit the round count so that if someone uses a gun unlawfully there may be fewer fatalities.
- Lastly, it doesn’t support Hobbes’ theory, but this argument often accompanies the previous ones: The NRA should be universally recognized as a heartless political engine that is funded by firearm manufacturers for profit and it mocks the deaths of innocent people.
I spent many years making these arguments in support of gun control. I cried out, “Enough is enough!” when another senseless murder happened because of a gun. I reviled politicians who were in the NRA’s pockets. I didn’t let my kids play with toy guns. I wanted to end America’s obsession with destruction and start a new generation of we’re-all-in-this-together, rational human beings.
Then I bought a gun.
After a 10-year conversation weighing the pros and cons, my husband and I bought a handgun. I was suddenly on the other side of the mountain and what I discovered was very surprising:
- Surprise #1: Gun owners are some of the most family-friendly, kind-hearted people I’d ever met. They welcome newcomers and are willing and happy to teach anyone who wants to learn. It is common to find veterans, active military, and law enforcement men and women at the range. This isn’t solely because of the enjoyment for shooting itself; rather it is the culture of people who enjoy shooting sports. Many shooters grew up in 4H or scouting programs that emphasize good citizenship and working together for the common good, and they’re raising their children in the same values. From a young age children are taught gun safety, responsibility, and accountability, and family times at the shooting range or deer lease create lasting memories and traditions.
- Surprise #2: On my very first trip to the range the first thing I had to do was watch a video that reviewed NRA’s safety guidelines. I discovered that lobbying is only one facet of the NRA. A primary role has always been marksmanship education and safety, but you wouldn’t know that if you’ve never been to a shooting range. At a range you’ll see that most firearms instructors have taken NRA classes to become certified and many shooting ranges offer NRA classes to new and advanced shooters. The NRA also has the Eddie Eagle program to teach gun safety to young children, and it hosts a variety of shooting competitions that can lead a youth shooter to college scholarships and Olympic dreams.
- Surprise #3: It is socially unacceptable in the shooting community to use a firearm irresponsibly. Post a picture on social media of you at the range without ear protection? Prepare for ridicule. Share a picture of your child holding a toy cap-gun with her finger off the trigger? People will comment just as much about her trigger discipline as her cute smile. They hold each other to a higher standard of safety, so when a senseless tragedy happens gun owners are the first to yell, “Enough is enough!” They want to know why it happened, how it could have been prevented, and solutions to complicated problems. They continue to model responsible behavior with firearms and value safety and accountability.
- Surprise #4: A “military-style” rifle is actually the same as any other rifle. They can look scary because you see them in war movies and video games, but the body style makes them lightweight and easy to hold and customize so that it fits your body correctly. Having a rifle that is the right size for you makes it more comfortable to shoot and therefore more accurate and safer. The rails look tactical, but that allows you to safely attach flashlights or other accessories. Once you learn about them, they are really not scary at all and are fun to shoot! By the way, automatic weapons are already illegal for (most) private citizens to own. You can’t make them extra-illegal.
- Surprise #5: Although it is a big responsibility to have a firearm that scared me at first, I feel safer with it. I’ve seen cities be hit by natural disasters that become opportunities for crime, and I know that if we lose power or communications I can keep outsiders from looting our home. I watched mothers in a Nairobi mall beg gunmen for their children’s lives, and I feel safer knowing that we can find shelter and have a fighting chance. I’m not anything close to the female-equivalent of Jason Bourne, but I continue to take training classes and practice so that I model responsible behavior and can protect my family if the need arises.
We can see Thomas Hobbes’ social theory at work in our society because we frequently give up rights in order to have order and security. Some examples are speed limits, drinking ages, and showing ID before you can buy Sudafed. However, the first thing you must know about Hobbes’ theory is that it only works if everyone is on board.
Remember when I said that shooters are often veterans and law enforcement? They sacrifice their lives to protect the common good, but also recognize that not everyone is good. Many gun owners believe that using a gun to protect their loved ones is not only a constitutionally protected right but a moral obligation. I championed for gun control for a long time, but I found that once I became self-reliant for my personal security, the arguments no longer made sense. Here are the reasons why:
- There is a saying that regardless of species the most dangerous place is between a mother and her young. If my family is threatened and I have the training and tools to protect my children, it is my right and duty to do so. If I have nonlethal options I will use them — and part of good training is knowing if I do. If I can call 911 and wait for help I may do so. The problem with relying on law enforcement is that they respond after you call them. If someone is assaulting you or breaking into your home, you’ll be toast before the cadre of professionals arrive.
- More than anybody, the good guys want to keep guns out of the hands of bad guys. Many law-abiding gun owners understand the reasoning for background checks before buying a gun, and many have conceal/open carry licenses that require background checks plus fingerprinting. The problem is that 38 states submit less than 80% of their felony convictions to the database for background checks, so more than 7,000,000 felons aren’t in the system. This is another example of trying to make something extra-illegal: it is illegal for convicted felons to have guns, so we don’t need more laws about it. We need all of the names entered into the background check database, so that when they try to buy a gun they can be arrested for it.
While the background check database holds names of those who should not have guns, it makes gun owners very nervous when you talk about “registries” of good guys. It sounds like paranoia to anti-gun people, but this is an era of intense religious and racial tensions, with polarizing, far-left and far-right politicians. Gun owners do not want a list that could be used to identify them for the simple fact that guns are expensive and they don’t want anyone knowing what they have, in addition to a “gun round up” or any other dramatic possibilities. They feel safer being anonymous knowing they can personally protect their families in case of a widespread information or communication outage, terrorist attack, or natural disaster.
Also if the government intends to track every gun that passes hands it can only log the transactions of people who go to the office and file the paperwork. I’ve never seen a movie of a fugitive getting a duffle bag of passports and pistols that he takes to the state office to file. Similarly, I am carded to buy a box of Sudafed, but the bad guy doesn’t show ID when he steals a case of it for his meth lab. Laws like these are meaningless because only good guys adhere to them, and that creates a registry of good guys. That does nothing to keep guns (or large quantities of ammunition) away from criminals and crazy people.
- Another example of going after the good guys is limiting magazine capacity. When I was anti-gun, this sounded pretty serious; however, now I know that it takes less than 2 seconds to change a magazine. It doesn’t slow anybody down, and more importantly, it doesn’t solve the problem of bad guys getting guns in the first place. Focus on the stuff that matters.
- As for the NRA, when I wasn’t a gun owner I hated “them” passionately. I began to appreciate the training programs, publications, and other services, but dragged my feet on joining. The acceptance of the NRA was my final step into the gun culture. Now I support the NRA because it fights for *me*. I like the security (and enjoyment) that my gun gives me and I want to keep it. If you aren’t a gun owner you just won’t understand that.
If we truly lived in a Hobbes society where everyone was on board and accountable, then there would be no need for gun control. It seems easier to control guns than human behavior, just like it is easier to take all the markers away when your toddler writes on the wall. As a long-term strategy, however, we need to address the root of the problems: the irresponsible parent that didn’t keep it locked in a safe away from a child, or the gang member skirting background checks, or the teenager struggling with mental instability, or the domestic or international terrorist with a plan to get on the evening news. These behavior problems are much harder to address, but allocating resources to our law enforcement, criminal justice, and mental health systems is a good place to start.
We don’t need more laws to monitor what good guys are doing, or gun control laws that make things extra-illegal. We need we’re-all-in-this-together leaders to get to the root of these complex problems and develop rational policies so that all law-abiding Americans can enjoy the security of a civil society.
I used to wish that the government would get rid of all the guns and then everyone would be safe, but I discovered that the utopia in my mind was actually a society with no bad guys. It was never about guns at all.