Monday, July 30, 2007

The Well-tempered Beretta

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2007

The recent shootings at Virginia Tech have raised an old question: Should we allow responsible people to own guns to protect themselves and others?

Along with about 7,000 of the 325,000 people in my county, I have a permit from the sheriff to carry a concealed gun. Many more people keep guns in their homes, for which a permit is not required. In fact, no permit is required to carry a gun openly in my state of Oregon, or in many other states, although that practice is so uncommon outside very rural areas that most people don't realize it is legal.

Some of the people at the colleges and universities I visit as part of my job probably didn't know that I carry a gun on their campuses. Now they do. I carry it as protection from criminal attacks, and I couldn't have gotten a permit if I had a serious criminal record or had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems.

I know how to operate my gun safely; I know when I can use it legally; and I never leave it where anybody else could take it. I practice shooting at a range, to make sure that I remain competent. Yet even some of my friends think I am strange, possibly wicked, for owning a gun. I don't understand that view. Surely each person has the right to decide whether to kill or die — and that is the choice we are talking about.

Should I — a 51-year-old bookworm with no significant biceps — have to defend myself with a broom handle if a knife-wielding thug attacks me in my yard? It is true that, given reasonable warning, I might be able to run away. But why make me run off my property merely because some criminal has run onto it? Though I was raised a Quaker, I no longer accept that flight is morally superior to self-defense.

One reason for my decision to carry a gun is that I live in a small city in the mostly rural Western United States. In rural areas, guns are readily available to criminals and unwilling victims alike.

Also common in the West are some of the less congenial animals. Cougars have entered the city where I live twice in recent years; one hid under a house. Black bears are common, although they are usually not dangerous. Usually. Wolverines live at one place where I go birding every year, and where many people camp. I once went to a small store in southeastern Oregon and found a rattlesnake guarding the doorway. Granted, snakes can usually be escorted away with a long-handled push broom (after being swept away from the store, the serpent promptly slithered under the driver's side of my car, where it waited in the shade), but I don't always carry a broom.

Of course, the key issue in most people's minds is whether, in an emergency, it is right to use a gun not against an animal, but against a human. Some people would not shoot another person in self-defense. I would.

The argument that the police can't be everywhere may sound like a cliché from the National Rifle Association, of which I am not a member — not believing in a personal right to own machine guns or armor-piercing bullets. In fact, it is an important reality. There are few police officers in rural America; those we do have (my father was one) are usually located in isolated towns. In some parts of Oregon where I go, the nearest police officer may be 50 miles away, across uninhabited country.

That fact adds to the general libertarian attitude in the West of preferring to solve problems personally. Sometimes government help is not an option: The district attorney of my county announced several years ago that no misdemeanors and only major property crimes would be prosecuted, owing to a lack of resources. In effect, he transferred the economic burden of resolving "minor" crimes from the public coffers to citizens' insurance rates.

There is certainly something macabre about the idea, shown graphically in a cartoon shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, that we should just let the good guys and bad guys shoot it out. Yet it is even worse to pretend that the good guys and bad guys should be treated as morally equivalent.

The question of who should be allowed to own a gun is a legitimate one, and it is proper to ban private guns from certain places, like courtrooms. But let's argue about gun ownership from a coherent moral and factual position, not from the gut reactions of any one moment, however tragic that moment may be.

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