The Newtown school massacre has already begun to fade from North American news, as the NRA had anticipated. There’s probably a satanic magic number of child shootings in a single massacre that would galvanize Americans to ride the NRA out of town, but apparently twenty doesn’t rise to that level. As it stands, though, American gun enthusiasts are more passionate than American gun control advocates, and so there likely won’t be meaningful restriction of gun ownership in that country. One reason for the asymmetry is that guns work so well whereas laws alone don’t. If you pick up a gun, you have the power of God to take a life in the blink of an eye. Only if the gun jams or is very old and it no longer works may you miss that frisson from holding godlike power in the palm of your hand. By contrast, outlawing some practice on paper may or may not succeed, depending on the strength of the demand for that practice. Thus, prohibition of alcohol failed in the US and gun control would surely fare no better, because alcohol and guns are so potent; if outlawed, they flourish underground. Like guns, alcohol works immediately and universally: anyone can get drunk from just a few shots or several beers, and anyone can kill or maim with nearly any gun. The demand for those products can’t be curtailed just with legislation.
The deep question, then, is why Americans love guns more than do, say, Canadians, Europeans, or the Japanese. Gun control works in those other countries because the demand there isn’t off the chart; nevertheless, guns obviously work just as well there as they do in the US. One well-known reason for the differences in demand is historical, and it’s just the one I give elsewhere, that the US has a bloody anarchical history, which bred Americans to value individualism and self-reliance. Americans love guns for the same reason they love cars, because these technologies empower the individual.
But that reason is insufficient, because lots of other countries have violent pasts, and individualism also has a genetic and thus a universal basis. I think a more complete reason emerges when we consider the dubious but oft heard platitude that guns are morally neutral instruments, that guns by themselves don’t kill people and can be used for good or for ill depending on the user’s intention. On the contrary, Marshal McLuhan was right: technologies have unexpected background effects rather than just the obvious foreground ones. Of course guns don’t pick themselves up, walk around, and shoot people; guns aren’t artificially intelligent (yet). But to contrast this wild scenario with the moral neutrality of guns is to set up a false dichotomy.
Why Guns are for Sissies
To see the background effect of guns on users and nonusers alike, compare projectile weapons with nonprojectile ones like the sword, club, or axe. These latter weapons are armaments in the strict sense that they’re extensions of the arm; they’re limited by the human arm’s strength and length. As a consequence, to kill with a sword, for example, you have to put yourself in danger since you have to get close to your enemy. Of course, if that enemy is unarmed, the person with the sword has the advantage, but even such a fight is more equal than that between a shooter and an unarmed person. A bow can kill from a greater distance than the sword, ensuring the killer’s safety even when the bow threatens the targeted person. The point is that you can’t kill with a sword without putting yourself at some risk, whereas there’s at least a possibility of killing with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety.