Following the events in Orlando earlier this month, the news and social media networks erupted with a sadly predictable response. The airwaves filled with pundits and talking heads who bemoaned how this “lone wolf” easily obtained an “assault weapon” and savagely murdered almost 50 people. They insisted that the government should respond by making it more difficult to purchase guns, if not outright outlawing any and all firearms.
If only that dastardly man hadn’t been able to buy that evil gun, the storyline goes, he would never have killed those civilians. Ignore for now how the media is spinning an act of war by a Muslim allied with ISIS into a crime committed by some random individual who simply bore an irrational hatred of homosexuals (inspired, no doubt, by Christians, Republicans, and the NRA). Instead, focus on the attitude underlying calls to outlaw guns in response to mass shootings.
From the tone adopted by some commentators, you would be forgiven for thinking that the gun had somehow animated itself and killed those people, with no need for a human to pull the trigger. For those who even bother to discuss the shooter, the general consensus is that he was “insane,” “unhinged,” and “irrational.” They assume no human being would ever attempt to murder dozens of strangers if he had been thinking straight. As a friend of mine said when we were discussing the shooting, “I can’t believe that people could ever choose to be so evil.”
This is an appealing but dangerous attitude. Statements like this assure us that if only we had stricter laws, we might one day be able to prevent atrocities like this from ever happening again. We should outlaw AR-15s and make their possession illegal for civilians, “because why do they even need those kinds of guns, anyway?”
We do not want to face the idea that people might in fact choose to perform evil deeds, or consciously perform evil actions—that people can, in fact, be evil. The great story of our age is that people are not inherently bad, but only become so either because of their environment or because something breaks in their heads. Nobody is every truly responsible for his actions, because society is to blame for all ills.
Most of us don’t want to accept the fact that there are people, very much like you or me, who wake up in their nice suburban home, kiss their kids, walk the dog, and then go out and do hideous, unspeakable things to their fellow man – and not only decide to do so, but believe that they are right and justified in their decision! We think that only barbarians perform barbaric acts, and we shudder at the thought that our civilized neighbors—and selves—could commit crimes just as easily.
In our technologically advanced era, it is tempting to think that our salvation, and conversely our damnation, comes at the hands of our tools. During the Cold War, much of the discussion centered around the threat posed by nuclear weapons, with little thought spared for the people who would use them. Nuclear weapons opponents state that the weapons themselves are destabilizing, regardless of who owns them, and that for the world to be truly safe, all nuclear weapons must be destroyed.
By shifting the blame from the wielder to the weapon, people forget something important: A tool is just a tool. Not good, not evil, just a tool. The good or evil comes from the purpose for which it is wielded. By extension, the wielder determines whether to use a tool for good or evil. Although some tools have more potential for danger than others, tools are not inherently dangerous.
Had the AR-15 used in Orlando instead been carried by a police officer outside the club and used to kill the gunman before he could murder anyone, that officer may have been lauded as a hero (assuming, given the shooter’s religion and ethnicity, that the media didn’t attack the officer as a racist or Islamophobe instead). A scalpel can be used to heal and to harm. Strychnine, a potent nerve poison, can in certain doses and circumstances be used to treat heart and nerve problems.
The human will is dangerous. Minds are dangerous. Without a mind to understand it, and a will to use it, a gun is just a lump of plastic and metal. Instead of blaming the tool used by the shooter, we would be better served by blaming ISIS, who for years has urged American citizens to answer the call to jihad and wage war against the infidel. Had AR-15s been illegal, the man would have been just as able to kill people in the nightclub. He could have blocked the doors and set the building on fire, or assembled a suicide vest, walked into the crowd, and blown himself to bits, just like the Bali nightclub bombings a decade ago in Indonesia. He wanted to kill people, and little things like laws were not going to stop him. Note that he chose to attack a gay nightclub instead of, say, a Hell’s Angels rally or a NRA convention. He was a predator, and predators attack the vulnerable and the defenseless, not the strong and the prepared.
The best way to prevent a repeat of the tragedy in Orlando is not to make it harder for people to defend themselves, but rather to make it easier. The Swiss let their off-duty and reserve soldiers keep their military-grade hardware in their homes. It is not uncommon to see a Swiss doing errands with a machine gun slung over one shoulder. Mass shootings like the ones that have been plaguing the US are vanishingly rare in Switzerland. Unless you prefer to think that guns made in Switzerland are less evil than the ones we have here, perhaps there is in fact a connection between the weapons’ use and the mindset of the people using them.