22 February 2006

If guns don't kill people...?

The never-ending madness of the cartoon controversy reminds me of what's wrong with the National Rifle Association.

The New York Times' latest attempt to give a voice to moderate Muslims who would rather talk about their problem with the depictions of their No. 1 prophet than burn down embassies in protest lays bare the fundamental problem with the idea that it's not Islam that threatens us, only a few extreme and unrepresentative fundamentalists.

According to reporters Michael Slackman and Hassan M. Fattah
The flare-up over the cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper, has magnified a fault line running through the Middle East, between those who want to engage their communities in a direct, introspective dialogue and those who focus on outside enemies.
They quote a series of Muslim journalists, including Muhammad al-Assadi, who "lamented" that "Muslims had an opportunity to educate the world about the merits of the Prophet Muhammad and the peacefulness of the religion he had come with."

The completely understandable request not to be painted with the brush of extremism is hard to argue with. But I'm going to try. What the moderates are saying, essentially, is it's not our faith that compels people to issue fatwas against cartoonists, it's those who abuse our faith. This evokes the NRA's old bumper-sticker saw that guns don't kill people, people kill people. And therefore, the right to bear arms is absolute.

This sort of thinking is patently absurd when it comes to weapons. If it had an once of merit beyond semantics (and even then, if you want to get technical, it's the bullets that do the actually killing), there would be no controls on nuclear bombs, nerve gas or anthrax. Of course, guns kill people.

And yet the NRA continues to push the meme. On the NRA website, for example, one can read about John R. Lott's new book, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You've Heard about Gun Control is Wrong and that "while gun accidents and gun crime are often covered, we rarely see coverage of defensive gun uses."

Among the book's back-cover blurbs is this gem from J. Mark Ramseyer, a Harvard law professor: "The gun ownership might bring social benefits as well as costs is a story we do not often see in the press." (Why the publishers would turn to an academic who specializes in Japanese history to sing the praises of a book on gun control -- the Harvard faculty website says "virtually all of his research involves Japan" -- is beyond me, but I'm not going to get into an ad hominen attack.)

It gets worse. Lott actually claims that widespread gun ownership decreases crime, while lock-up-your-gun safety laws leads to more deaths. His evidence is, to put it mildly, unconvincing, and his been soundly debunked. I'm sure our rabbis, reverends and imams are being less disingenuos when they argue that a faithful society is better off than a secular one, but there is also no evidence to support that claim. Quite the reverse.

To summarize, just as the gun nuts talk up the social benefits of widespread gun ownership to justify widespread ownership, so the moderate Muslims justify their faith by reminding us of all the good things that Islam can do. The fact remains that both organized religion and guns make it a whole lot easier to do a whole lot of damage.

Note that the analogy also works when arguing against blanket bans. While there no rational excuses for anyone not employed by a police force to own a pistol, some guns are very useful. There are thousands of people on this continent, most living north of 60 degrees north latitude, who put food on the table with the help of bolt-action .308 rifles and similar devices. Their dining habits impose much less stress on the environment than those of most vegetarians and involve much less suffering on the part of their dinner than the standard factory farm from where the rest of us derive most of our protein.

That doesn't mean everyone should have a gun. To the contrary, it means what's needed is an appropriate regulatory regime, one that keeps the wrong kinds of weapons out of heavily populated areas, the hands of children, and the arsenals of felons, mercenaries and vigilantes. Which is why the NRA's cherished Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that says "the right to bear arms shall not be infringed," begins with the less-often-quoted "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state..."

Similarly, the best way to approach religion is not to make it illegal, but to discourage widespread application in the public sphere in favor of the personal, private realm, where it can do the least damage.

For me, that means shedding light on the foibles of organized religion, which the Danish cartoons do quite handily. I recognize this argument will carry little weight among those for whom the idea of a personal faith devoid of a shared community context has no meaning. But we have to start somewhere. If this whole silly affair introduces even a few shards of doubt among the faithful, then perhaps it will have been worth it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guns don't kill people. Muslims kill people

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guns don't kill people. Islam kills people

11:01 AM  

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