Gun Ownership Looks Different on an Excel Spreadsheet

The cost-benefit analysis of the Second Amendment.

Even before news broke about the horrific Newtown massacre, I’d already spent an inordinate amount of my Friday morning watching—and re-watching, and re-watching again—the video from last week’s shooting on the SEPTA platform at 46th and Market.

The violence is so casual, it almost doesn’t feel like violence.

A young man and his buddy step off the subway car. The young man turns back, still walking away, reveals a small pistol, aims it quickly at a Bulls fan still inside the car. Pop. It’s enough to cause panic on the platform—you see a terrified young woman and others trying to find a beam to hide behind—but the shooter turns and walks away, his pace quickening only a bit.
So quick. So easy. So effortless. Give the gun-maker credit: His product works so well that it’s possible for a young Philadelphia man to attempt murder in public almost without breaking his stride.

Whenever we decide to get angry about gun violence—whether from the day-to-day plague that afflicts Philadelphia, or because of the bursts of death that occur in places like Columbine, Aurora, or Newtown—gun advocates remind us that evil exists in the world, that murder will still occur, and that deadly violence can be accomplished by other tools. And they are right. Guns are not the source of evil in the world.

But almost uniquely, guns make evil so much easier to accomplish. The problem with our current gun debate? Gun advocates can’t seem to admit even that simple truth, instead often luxuriating behind the faux naiveté of arguments like, “Cars kill people too! You gonna ban cars?”

If that young man on the SEPTA platform had been armed with a knife—or his fists, perhaps—he would’ve had to walk back into the car and engage the Bulls fan. Would he have been willing to make that effort, to risk the possibility of getting his own ass kicked, without the easy efficiency of a gun? Maybe. But I have my doubts.

Similarly, if Adam Lanza had walked into the elementary school in Newtown armed with nothing more than a machete or a baseball bat, how many more people might be alive today? Impossible to say, but more than likely: a few. Instead, with just 10 minutes time, he was able to perpetrate a holocaust.

Gun ownership is, of course, a civil right in America, which is why we have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. But civil rights are generally thought to protect something of value—and with each massacre it becomes more difficult to honestly understand what communal good is being protected by the way we do the Second Amendment.

Guns help Americans protect their own rights, we’re told, but that defense seems almost entirely theoretical. Guns help Americans defend themselves and their families, and that’s less theoretical—but only slightly less so: We don’t hear about such cases that often, and when we do, it’s usually in cases like that of Trayvon Martin, where the facts end up murky at best.

So it’s difficult to quantify the benefit. The costs, however, continue to mount, easily calculated and added to the awful ledger.

Twenty-six people, mostly children, in Newtown. Twelve in Aurora. Thirty-two dead at Virginia Tech. Twelve students and one teacher in Columbine. Four students and a teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

And in Philadelphia, the costs mount daily, in smaller, less spectacular bursts. Sixty-eight people shot in November; 111 in October; 140 in September. Hundreds dead, every year. And every life not lost still represents a toll on the community—time and energy spent by police, emergency techs, hospitals, rehabilitation experts, and more, often for months or years after this incident itself has faded.

Every time I write about guns, I try to remember all the people I grew up with in the rural midwest, people who revere the Second Amendment without living in a daily culture of violence, and try to remember that there are many good, gun-owning people in the world. It’s unfair, maybe, to ask gun advocates to so thoroughly document the good their stance does us, to defend their rights because of the abuses perpetrated by others. But increasingly, the benefits they derive from gun ownership seem ephemeral and weightless compared to the volume of all that shed blood. It’s time to ask gun advocates to demonstrate to the rest of us precisely, concretely why this particular civil right is worth a damn.