In the end, Philadelphia police officer Moses Walker Jr. died Saturday morning not just because the city’s streets are filled with bad men—though, surely, that is true—but because of a theory. An ideology. A fantasy, actually, that more guns are better, that more guns make us safer, that the solution to gun violence is more guns.
Those ideas are belied by the facts in Philadelphia, a city so beset with gun violence that there’s a website—run by a few heroic journalists—dedicated to tracking the single topic. But it’s still worth examining them a little more closely, just to see how at odds they are with reality.
The reality is that two-thirds of all homicides in the United States are committed with guns. The reality is that guns are a big factor in why somebody in Philadelphia is murdered nearly every single day. The theories can’t compare, can they?
Theory: Guns are needed and useful for self-defense.
Reality: The cases of guns being used to successfully defend against assaults in America are few and far between—one study suggested that guns are used by victims to defend themselves in less than 1 percent of all violent crimes. “Firearm self-defense,” the study’s authors noted drily, “is rare compared with gun crimes.” And there’s little evidence that the crime rate has changed in states that adopt “concealed carry” laws.
One reason that stories go viral when old geezers get the drop on criminals is because those cases are so rare. But ask yourself this: What story do you hear more often? The one about the gun being fired legitimately in self-defense? Or the story about a young children getting hit by stray bullets?
It’s not really close, is it?
Theory: We need guns to help us defend our God-given rights.
Reality: A variation on that theory was probably on the mind of Floyd Corkins II, an activist for gay causes, when he walked into the headquarters of the conservative Family Research Council last week and shot a guard there in the arm. Funny thing: Corkins’ actions didn’t actually do anything to advance the political cause of gay marriage in this country. (More than 25 gay rights groups, not incidentally, banded together to condemn the shooting.) And the Virginia Republicans who suggested that “armed revolution” might be needed if President Obama wins re-election? Nobody thinks they’re real patriots.
Listen: The last real revolution in this country happened more than 200 years ago. We’ve been through all kinds of upheavals since then, but it’s never been guns that persuaded Americans and their government to move in the direction of greater freedom. Guns didn’t win women the vote; guns didn’t end Jim Crow; guns didn’t even persuade anybody to lower marginal tax rates. The truth is, you don’t want to live in a nation where citizens actually decide to take up arms against their government. In the meantime, there are lots of people dying now in order that some folks can be prepared for a revolution that may never come.
Theory: The Founding Fathers built gun rights into the Second Amendment.
Reality: That’s debatable—there’s an argument to be made they were attaching that right to the raising of “well-regulated militias”—but even so, consider how far today’s Second Amendment fundamentalists are willing to say that vision extends: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the amendment just might offer the right for individual citizens to possess anti-aircraft missiles.
That’s insane. And if it should somehow be proven that that was the Founders’ vision—let’s be skeptical on that count—well, we shouldn’t overly revere the Founders then, because that idea would still be insane.
I always pause when writing critiques of Second Amendment fundamentalism; I grew up in Kansas among good, conservative folks—many of whom were good, responsible gun-owners who take the responsibilities of gun ownership seriously, and who take seriously those theories behind gun ownership. I’m not interested in taking away their guns, and the politics of guns in America wouldn’t allow for it anyway.
But they don’t live in Philadelphia, or any other big city plagued with gun violence. They don’t live where five people can be shot to death in a single weekend. They don’t live in a town where—as the folks at GunCrisis.org pointed out last week—more than 100 people have been shot in the weeks since the Aurora massacre. They don’t live in a town where an off-duty cop, Moses Walker Jr., wasn’t even safe enough to avoid being murdered walking through town.
The Second Amendment is a good idea … in theory. In reality—in Philadelphia—gun culture is a culture of death.