(The following essay was published in FrontPage Magazine by my friend and political philosophy group colleague, Jeff Crow, an ex-fire department paramedic and writer in Houston. It is entitled “Gun Rights and Compassion: Apples and Oranges”)
Jamie was in “one of his moods” again. When Doris Fleener’s troubled teenaged son felt depressed he would shut himself in his room and play that awful heavy metal music so loud that it made the windows rattle. This time, when she knocked on his bedroom door he didn’t answer, and when she poked her head inside to ask him to please turn down that racket, she found Jamie with a shotgun, holding its barrel to his temple with one hand and his thumb on the trigger with the other. Suppressing panic, Doris switched off the stereo and approaching her son with soothing words, reached out for the shotgun. Her hand had barely grasped the barrel and begun to pull it forward when Jamie pulled the trigger. A twelve-gauge load of buckshot blasted through and blew away both of her son’s eyes and most of his frontal lobe—blinding and lobotomizing him instantly. Jamie Fleener survives to this day, sightless and insane, in a nursing home where Doris visits daily.
Some years ago, I was the paramedic who transported Jamie (not his real name) to the hospital. I saw first hand the son’s catastrophe and the mother’s grief, as I have seen hundreds of bloody victims of gun violence. Gun control advocates might ask how, having seen all this, I could support freedom of gun ownership. Look Doris Fleener in the eye, they’d say, and sell her on the right to keep and bear arms. Convince her that gun control is mistaken public policy. Tough cases test political philosophy. So what exactly would I say to Mrs. Fleener?
Well, if she would listen, I’d tell Mrs. Fleener that despite her personal tragedy a nation where law-abiding citizens have the right to own firearms is, on the whole, safer than a nation that denies that right. “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” read the bumper sticker seen on many Texas pickup trucks. This may sound like a simplistic redneck slogan, but it is logically unassailable and backed by solid evidence. “Analyzing 18 years of data for more than 3,000 counties,” writes John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, “found that violent crime drops significantly” when states permit law abiding citizens to keep and carry guns. Criminals fear armed citizens. The National Institute of Justice interviewed convicted violent felons in prison and found that more than a third had been “scared off, shot at, wounded or captured by an armed victim…. and about two-thirds had at least one acquaintance who had this experience.” More than half, “agreed that ‘most criminals are more worried about meeting an armed victim than they are about running into the police.’”
I’d remind Mrs. Fleener that far more people are harmed in automobile accidents than with firearm mishaps. Yes, she might say, but unlike automobiles, guns serve no “utilitarian purpose” such as transportation; they are only used to kill. So why don’t gun control advocates propose disarming the police? The answer is that, although only a tiny fraction of police officers ever fire their weapons, they carry guns for their own self-defense. Self-defense is a utilitarian purpose, perhaps the most fundamental one of all. It should be the right of every law-abiding citizen, not just those who work for the government.
If all else failed, I’d cite the Constitution. If Mrs. Fleener had read the Second Amendment, she might object that it was intended to restrict gun ownership to the equivalent of today’s National Guard. But, as Randy Barnett of the Cato Institute explains, far from intending restriction of gun use to a militia, “The Founders’ attitude towards firearms and the desirability of an armed citizenry would put even the most ardent modern gun extremist to shame.” Whether we consult the writings of Thomas Jefferson (“No freeman shall be debarred from the use of arms in his own lands or tenements”), John Adams (supporting “arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion…in private self-defense”), or Patrick Henry (“The great object is that every man be armed…Everyone who is able may have a gun.”), we find that the Framers and their contemporaries spoke with one voice on this issue.
I could say all these things to Mrs. Fleener, but she probably wouldn’t be persuaded. And while she may bear her grief in silence, many others like her don’t. Many people whose lives have been affected by firearm tragedies channel their despair into political activism. These are the Grief Stricken Activists—the Sarah Bradys, the Yoko Onos of the world. We hear the GSA’s poignant stories on the news, see them lobby Congress, demanding “responsible legislation” to prevent such tragedies from ever happening to others. Who could be so hard-hearted as to ignore their pleas? Why, anyone would do and say the same things, if they were in their shoes. But that’s just the point. The GSA perspective is understandably one-dimensional. Public policy must not be dictated by anguished survivors of personal tragedy striving to assuage their grief, but by clear-headed citizens, grasping the broader implications of their actions—exactly the kind of citizens who framed our Constitution.