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Guns and Motivations

Guns and Motivations

By: Jefferson Paine

The debate over firearms in America is hotter today than it has been in decades. Unfortunately, passion has eclipsed reason as the driving force therein. Recently, in an online forum that caters to exceptionally intelligent members, I found a very popular post and ensuing thread about “the gun crisis.” I realized two things immediately. First, my ancient aphorism, “Intelligence is more frequently employed to reinforce biases than to escape them,” is under no immediate threat of obsolescence. Second, someone needs to apply an understanding of human psychology that goes deeper than “they can’t gun folks down if they don’t have guns.”

Motive, Means, or Opportunity?

The first thing we need is a way to think about the problem. Many of us learned from television courtroom dramas of the three components of criminal success: motive, means, and opportunity. If someone accused of a murder had no reason to do it, you can bet she's innocent; if she was incapable of doing the deed when the opportunity arose, ditto; and if she desperately wanted to kill the victim and had dozens of ways to do it, yet never found an opportunity, she won't be guilty either. We can analyze the problem of violent crime from that perspective, choosing which of these elements is best addressed to reduce the carnage.

Motive is the most complex of these variables, and probably for that reason usually plays only a subordinate role in policy discussions. Yes, we wonder what makes some young man become a homicidal maniac, but comparatively few Americans want to focus on preventing that transition as the primary approach to the problem. Actually, proposals in this vein are among the most sensible: stop over-prescribing psychotropic drugs, and closely monitor their side-effects for signs of potential violent behavior. But there are practical problems accompanying this approach, such as policy-making delays as scientific evidence is studied and political wheels grind, or perhaps most important, the difficulty of identifying the volatile cases before it's too late. We'll revisit this topic after briefly examining means and opportunity.

Means is obviously the focus of the gun control lobby. "They can't gun folks down if they don't have guns." I don't have room here to recapitulate the many reasons this is a non-starter. The upshot is primarily twofold: eliminating guns is effectively impossible, and it would do much more harm than good even if it were possible. Consider:

We can't realistically eliminate guns from society, for criminal elements will always rely on them to avoid punishment and to expand their power. A worldwide attempt to do so would most likely end in one of two ways: the criminals will win by overwhelming or compromising (or becoming) government authority, or the people will rearm themselves in the knowledge that they must always be capable of prevailing, long-term, over criminals.

Denying ordinary citizens their firearms is especially foolhardy because that ownership itself can and does suppress crime. For one thing, armed citizens can stop a shooting spree long before it would otherwise be over, saving many lives. More often, the mere knowledge " or even suspicion " that someone nearby is armed is a powerful influence on would-be criminals we'll revisit momentarily.

Opportunity is in my opinion the proper focus of attention. But I propose to consider it from a level of abstraction beyond just a confluence of time, place, motive, and means. We need to realize that the real challenge we face isn’t preventing opportunities to kill. It is preventing opportunities to fulfill the motivations for killing.

Again: Our challenge is to prevent opportunities to fulfill the motivations for killing.

Think about it. People often joke about how nutcases don’t choose police stations or gun clubs as targets for their mayhem, but that isn’t because we don’t think cops or gun clubbers aren’t the objects of homicidal attitudes. It’s because we understand correctly that someone who wants to make a mark by blowing away dozens of people wouldn’t choose a target venue where they would be stopped immediately, losing forever their opportunity for historical notoriety. They have bigger ambitions than annihilation at the hands of their betters.

The actual question to be answered, then, is “How do we prevent would-be killers from following through on the best plans they can make?” And the generic answer to that question is simple: Make it obvious that no plans offer much likelihood that they will achieve their deep objective " not the killing, but the payoff they want from the killing. 

The NRA and its allies are pushing for the hiring of armed guards for schools, for exactly that reason. They hope that the presence of those guards will deter mass murderers. Secondarily (and only a bit more realistically) they hope the guards will quickly put a stop to any attack. This is, unfortunately, sub-optimal to say the least.

First, place yourself in the role of psychotic killer. You know Phil has been hired as an armed guard at Whatsit Elementary, your target of choice. Do you give up automatically, knowing there is a gun aligned against you there? Or do you ask yourself, “Okay, where will Phil be?” If you begin your assault by taking out an armed adult, your imagined reputation goes ballistic. Looks good for you, bad for the kiddies, and really bad for Phil.

Rewind. Now you’re a psychotic killer who has just discovered that all adults at Whatsit have been encouraged to get firearms training, and some already have concealed weapons. Can you plan around that? No. Do you decide to prosecute your assault in hopes you won’t be stopped at the door " maybe before you even get off the first round from your arsenal?

I have to tell you: If I wanted to go out in a psychopathic blaze of glory, I don’t think I’d choose to light my fuse in the rain.

The best solution to the problem of “gun” violence is the best solution to the problem of violence in general: The society with the least violence is one in which the typical individual is capable of stopping violence against herself or others. In practical terms, that means many responsible individuals carrying concealed weapons " enough so that people with violent ambitions have no easy targets and face formidable odds that they will fail horribly (for them) if they undertake violence against others.

Now, there are powerful objections against the idea I’m advancing here. Not valid, cogent, or even sensible ones … but they are most definitely powerful.

The primary objection to gun ownership, I believe, is closely related to animism, the belief that inanimate objects like guns have intrinsically good or bad “souls.” In this case guns aren’t thought to have souls, but they are thought to be intrinsically bad; let’s call that attitude “quasi-animism.”

The first sign you’re dealing with quasi-animism is the pronouncement that guns have one purpose only: to kill. The second sign is the refusal to acknowledge any good resulting from the use of guns " apart from reluctantly accepting that police need them to stop crime. The quasi-animist simply can’t process evidence that ordinary people can use guns for good, because the notion is incoherent to them. So much for debate…. 

Quasi-animism results from fear of guns, and the fear is nearly as irrational as the response. It is orders of magnitude more difficult to operate an automobile safely than it is to handle a gun safely. A 15-year-old seeking a driving permit risks much more than does an 11-year-old learning firearms safety. And, much as guns are effective in preventing non-gun crime, the habits of caution and respect instilled with firearms training extend into other areas of life. People who understand and respect firearms enhance the level of safety throughout society. Really, the upside of responsible firearms ownership is so huge that opposition to it often seems cartoonish.

The most understandable fear about common gun ownership is accidental shootings of and by kids. And the biggest threats to kids are curiosity and attention seeking. Unprepared, kids may be led by curiosity to handle a firearm they encounter, and they may be led by a thirst for attention to show off a found gun to their peers, to handle one brought by someone else to show they aren’t afraid, or even just to stick around when such behavior is going on. The solution to this problem is the same as I propose for stemming gun violence: attack the motivations for unsafe behavior. Familiarize children with guns at an early age, demonstrating the awesome destructive power and asking what it might do to them, a sibling, or a close friend. Tell them about tragic gun accidents and have them think about how they would avoid them. Teach them at least the basics of gun safety for kids: assume every gun is loaded, never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy, and don’t touch the trigger, period. Make it clear that if they ever handle a firearm without permission, or watch other children do so, they will regret it very, very much for a very, very long time. In short, remove their curiosity through experience, and make sure they’re more concerned about not being stupid and staying healthy than about looking “tough” to their peers.

I hate to say that quasi-animism is all there is to the anti-gun stance, and I’m sure many individuals try to bring more than that in defense of their position. Unfortunately, the reality of the discourse on the topic of gun control is that arguments in favor of gun rights are routinely dismissed, not refuted. The volumes of statistical evidence showing that crimes committed with guns are most frequent where gun laws prevent effective self-defense, and least frequent where citizens are knowledgeably armed, might as well not exist as far as the prohibition crowd is concerned. And so it goes. To paraphrase my old friend L. Neil Smith, these are people who would rather see a woman raped and strangled with her own pantyhose than see her standing over an assailant’s corpse with a gun in her hand.

Still, I have some hope that the logic of preventing violence by rendering its payoffs extremely difficult and unlikely to fulfill may be the ammunition needed for gun rights to prevail.

The first thing to realize is that the superficial level of analysis underlying gun control proposals is at base about making people’s motivations irrelevant. The whole point of gun control is to make it impossible to act on motivations for violence using one particular kind of tool. 

Of course, people do emphasize motivation in these discussions. What tips a kid over the edge into committing mass murder? Bullying, failed parenting, a psychopath's plan crystallized at last ... or (in my estimation a promising tack) psychotropic prescription medication? But these are what you might call “top level” motivations " reasons one might wax homicidal if everything else works out. There's a good deal of distance between that and launching an all-out attack at a specific time and place. Given a hatred for the kiddies (or whatever else might initially make mayhem seem attractive), what convinces a would-be murderer to begin his attack?

What factors motivate the decision to go through with a planned assault, despite all anticipated difficulties? Is there some social or legal policy we could implement that can reliably undermine that resolve, rendering such schemes non-starters?

That is the way I would reformulate the problem dominating public discourse these days. The way I see it, good solutions will demotivate the violence in most cases, and the best solutions will accomplish not only that, but also provide the best likelihood that unprevented assaults are stopped as quickly as possible, minimizing the carnage and further demotivating other would-be assailants. That focus allows us to escape what is often considered a bias guaranteed to increase human suffering: the presumption that easy gun ownership is pertinent only to the increased probability of innocent suffering, and doesn’t most often serve instead to prevent innocent suffering. We don’t need to go there.

The focus du jour is means: can one accumulate the tools to accomplish one's nogoodnik goals? For practical purposes, that is: GOT GUNS? 

One proposition carries a lot of intuitive weight: a country without guns is a country without gun crime. Who can argue against that? Except ... how do you keep guns out of your country? The easy answer: pass a law. But can such a law actually prevent people from bringing guns in country? Well, no. It can specify penalties for doing so … assuming one is caught. Do penalties for, say, selling drugs prevent drugs from being sold? Even if many individuals are caught doing so and are punished? No. When a strong market force governs a class of transactions, something very powerful is needed to counteract it.

So let’s not try to deal with “gun violence” as we have dealt with drug abuse. Drug law? Check. Decreased drug problems? Umm ... uh-oh! INcreased drug problems? Aww, dang!

Seriously, folks, you're not looking for the kind of success with guns that we've had in the Drug War.

Let's get serious. Real-world serious.

If you want to stop a nogoodnik from doing his nogoodnikies, MAKE HIM (odds are really good it won't be a HER) decide it isn't worth it.

Let's step back and look at the most important common denominator in all the mass school shootings that have defined the debate. The perps had reason to fully expect they would have no serious opposition until they had attained their minimal objective: showing themselves to be wholly in control of the lives of many people, and capable of pronouncing some kind of judgment without interruption ... at least for as long as required for their legacy to be one of power and domination.

Now it's time to think about denying, in advance, the very kinds of success desired by such individuals.

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