I’ll be real honest with you: by the time November 6 of last year had come and gone, I had long since lost all desire to tune in to the prime time funland on any of our fine 24-hour “news” networks. It gets tiresome constantly repeating the “What Simple Thing Are Crazy People in Washington Going to Fuck Up This Week?” game over and over again, with no real end in sight. After Sandy Hook, I really started trying to avoid the avalanche of gibbering that I knew was coming, none of which would have any impact on anything other than aggrandizing gun fetishists and narcissistic TV personalities.
Of course, completely ignoring all “news” coverage is, for me, unavoidable, because I have a sickness. In what I’ve seen of the gun “debate,” there’s one particular exchange that bugs me, and it always goes something like this:
Second Amendment Advocate: The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms! Hunting! Self-defense! Freedom fighters! WOLVERINES!
Host: But what do you need to have an assault rifle for?
Second Amendment Advocate: IT’S A BILL OF RIGHTS, NOT A BILL OF NEEDS, ASSHOLE!
Host: Yes, but what do you NEED it for?
Me (at television and, thus, nobody): BOTH OF YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP!
There’s a mountain of fail in this one exchange, which has been repeated so often even in my limited viewing that I’m starting to think the whole bit is a rehearsed routine. While I sympathize with the sentiment, “what do you need it for?” really is a stupid question in the context in which its being asked, because it invites the tired response it always gets. And the gun folks are right; it’s not a bill of needs! When you get into the realm of “needs” you’re in the realm of opinion, and while it might be my opinion that I need not to have troops being quartered in my house, what happens if the government decides that I don’t have that particular need? I’ve got marines sleeping in my family room, is what. No, it really is a bill of rights, and need doesn’t enter into it.
What bothers me is that “what do you need it for?” doesn’t have to be a stupid question, and in fact can be a very important question if not for the fact that idiot TV personalities keep ruining it. America is gun-obsessed. We have a full 30 guns more per 100 residents than any other country (as of 2007). UN stats show rates of gun homicide per 100,000 population multiple times higher in the US than in any other industrialized nation. As of 2 days ago, 919 people had been killed nationwide by gun violence in the single month since Sandy Hook. We are on an unsustainable path in terms of gun violence in this country, when parents begin to feel justified questioning how safe their children are in school.
There is an important line of inquiry that should be has as to why we have decided that ownership of assault rifles is sacrosanct, and “what do you need it for?” is part of that equation. Are they for home defense? Who is coming to raid your home in the middle of the night that can’t be stopped with a shotgun (nobody is talking about banning these), a revolver (ditto), a hunting rifle (again, ditto) or a semi-automatic pistol (unfortunately, in my opinion, also ditto)? For personal carry protection? Again, are you worried about being combat assaulted by a North Korean platoon on your lunch hour? And if so many people are that afraid of home invasion or personal safety, shouldn’t we as a society be concerned about that? People shouldn’t live in that kind of fear in a modern society, should they?
Do you need it for hunting? Does anybody actually hunt anything with AR-15s? It is because they’re fun to target shoot? Great; can’t we license gun clubs to carry them for recreational shooting, and people can go to the range, check one out, shoot the hell out of some targets, then check it back in?
Or is it because you’re preparing to do battle against a tyrannical American government? I am sympathetic to this argument even though I’m not swayed by it; it was clearly part of the ratification debate around the Second Amendment (although slave owners had their reasons for making it part of that debate) and thus in my view cannot simply be waved away. But here’s the problem for many (not all, but many) of the “Second Amendment to fight government tyranny” types: why aren’t you already fighting to legalize the possession of fully automatic weapons, explosives, artillery, and so on? If the idea is that an American leader is going to turn tyrannical and use the power of the American military against our own citizenry, how on Earth do you expect to prevent that with a couple of AR-15s? “Arms” at the time of ratification clearly meant state-of-the-art weaponry; why shouldn’t it mean that now? If you claim to be worried about government tyranny but still want to draw arbitrary lines around what categories of weapons can or can’t be legally purchased by the public, isn’t that fairly inconsistent, even hypocritical?
(And if you ARE one of the few folks with enough internal consistency to say that anybody should be allowed to own any weapon, here’s a question: were the Weathermen traitorous terrorists, or were they freedom fighters exercising their Second Amendment rights against a tyrannical government?)
“What do you need it for?” matters, not in the context of demanding justification for committing a legal act, but as a window into the culture of owning these high-capacity semi-automatic rifles that are best used for rapidly killing large groups of people. There’s a lot to be gained from understanding why people want to own these kinds of weapons, but we’ll never get there if we keep asking the question in the wrong way.