This is a repost from an essay I wrote in the aftermath of the killings of schoolchildren in Newtown. It, unfortunately, continues to be relevant in our society, and there is no end in site to that.
I have trained to kill for most of my adult life. I have wielded a weapon so powerful it exceeds a citizen’s right to keep and bear. I have been trained to kill hundreds of thousands with the flip of a switch and push of button, and I have attempted to kill just a very few with a missile that flies three times the speed of sound. In more than twenty years in the profession of arms I have watched men die on too many occasions—sometimes by observing the rise of black smoke marking an abrupt end to flight, sometimes by the dim light of a monitor in the last moments of cockpit or weapons video. I have listened time and again to the last words men have ever said, words that will never even be known to their closest loved ones, as they wrestled with stricken craft or tried to undo the situation they put themselves into. In the skies over Iraq I watched, zoomed into a cockpit three miles above the earth, as two men desperately tried to evade the military might of the United States in a decades-old, compact car. As Special Forces surrounded them, they fired assault weapons from the open windows and in the seconds that followed were “neutralized” by the most highly skilled killers the world has yet known. Thankfully I was insulated from the rat-tat-tat of .223 rounds leaving the barrel. I was insulated from the thud of them ripping through flesh and causing the destruction they were singularly designed to do. These things haunt me in a way no one who has never taken part in such actions can ever know. There is no pleasure in knowing what I know; none in doing what I know sometimes must be done.
There is a responsibility in owning or using weapons made to cause death. There is an even greater responsibility in carrying those weapons—or in strapping into them and making them a part of your very being. We have heard little about those responsibilities in recent weeks, but what we have heard nothing of during the latest round of arguments that the only thing that can solve our gun problem is more guns, is a responsibility that is deeper still. It is the three-fold responsibility that goes along with leveling a weapon on another human being with the intent, as such action must inherently entail, of taking a life. It is a responsibility that cannot be distilled into sound bites. It cannot by quantified in lobbyists’ vision statements…and it has never been considered by anyone who easily talks of killing. Those who have thought about it with enormous depth, who have had to come to grips with the finality of their own actions, who have often even considered it meditatively…they are the ones who rarely decide to discuss it at all. That is perhaps a shame.
Those who would wish upon us more citizens carrying guns must acknowledge three individual responsibilities, founded in moral reasoning, and most analogous to the western world’s driving ethic of warfare, Just War Theory. These responsibilities are the requirement to kill the correct target, the necessity to avoid harm to innocents, and the duty to act. Because these are moral responsibilities they must also be subject to moral, and legal, judgment. The latter is a concept which must surely temper arguments for conceal and/or carry laws.
The requirement to kill the correct target, called distinction in the ethic of Just War, seems an easy requirement to meet. It would be argued so by those who believe all combat—or the taking of lives in self-defense situations—is sanitary and conforms to all logic. It would be argued, for instance, by those who cannot understand why the chaos of surprise attacks and the ambiguity of who is taking action could not have been clearly foreseen and must inevitably lead to the character assassination of those in charge. In short it would be argued by those who have never known the excruciating unknowns of mortal combat—who have never had to make decisions about life and death with little more than the words of another or one’s own notoriously poor human perceptions. It is an argument made by those who have never stood a single electrical pulse away from killing the valid target of another military or one’s own brother in arms. Distinction, and our inability to act within its bounds, often leaves us impotent even when our own lives are at risk for fear of what we may do to those who are merely bystanders and wholly undeserving of our wrath. No…in snap matters of life and death, chaos and ambiguity are the norm, and that makes the second responsibility even harder to meet when later judged.
The responsibility to protect innocents while attempting to kill the correct target is what makes modern war exceedingly difficult to prosecute. The impact of “collateral damage” on the political environment simply cannot be overestimated. The same is true for those who would carry weapons and decide, as they must, to take action in the face of great danger. It is here, when once they point a weapon intending harm, where they cannot fail. They cannot succumb to the nerves which come during a threat to life; they cannot let it affect their aim such that they endanger others—those mere bystanders—who neither asked for such a fate nor were complicit in whatever crime may be occurring. We know from study after study that even combat-hardened soldiers in armies the world over often falter in such situations. How will an ordinary citizen whose daily business is in no way connected to trading gunfire fare under a circumstance we are fairly certain she has never faced before? The answer is we simply do not know, and yet without a voice in the matter, we are most certainly bound by her actions.
The recent story which became a clarion call for gun advocates about the suburban housewife and gun user is instructive. A man broke into a large home set well apart from other homes in the neighborhood. The housewife gathered up her children and a .38 revolver, responsible gun owner that she was, and hustled into a crawl space. When the intruder found them there, she fired six shots at what must have been point blank range. She fully missed at least once and the rest of her shots, perhaps five in all, failed to be lethal. She apparently could not aim for the chest or head where just a single round would likely have ended the life of the intruder. Perhaps she was not trying to kill him…but then why empty the gun in his general direction? Consider what would have happened if this responsible gun owner had attempted to stop a robbery like this one, but instead of being confined inside her large house and firing a small caliber revolver she did the same in a crowded store with a semi-automatic, large-caliber handgun. It is reasonable to assume that not only would she have failed again to fell the attacker, she would also have shot several innocents in the process. Perhaps it was not the success story it was supposed to be. Such a possibility might just make her decide not to act at all, yet if she did not she would be committing perhaps the most egregious immoral act of all.
In warfare, the right to self-defense is not free. It comes with a solemn duty to act in defense of others should one have the ability to do so. It seems to me this duty to act must also be morally tied to self-defense for those who wish to keep and bear arms on their person in a concealed manner. In fact it begs the question why we do not demand such exercisers of rights carry their arms openly as international humanitarian law compels the militaries of belligerent nations to do. It would bring our nation’s gun culture right out into the light of day to be observed by her citizens. No one could ignore it. Logic says, if the gun lobby’s argument holds, such action would create even more of a deterrent to those wishing to do great harm to a mass of people. Of course it would also create more risk for those who decide to carry, for they would certainly become the first targets of those bent on mass killing. These potential murderers would focus on other potential shooters not for fear of death, for almost all recent mass killers also intended to end their own lives in the aftermath, but fear of being unable to complete their dastardly task. Deterrence, after all, for those already willing to die is a hollow concept. But here is the fallacy for those who would not wish to become standout targets themselves even as they exercise a right to carry. They cannot hide in instances where what they wear may bring an end to slaughter. They are morally bound to act, for perhaps only they have the means to protect others. Their rights are not free either, even in the simple act of carrying a gun. And when they draw a weapon and aim for another’s life, they will and must endure the risk such an act entails. In that moment, as they consider all their moral responsibilities—perhaps for the first time attached to any real meaning—in the knowledge they will later be judged for their actions, I wonder if they would rather see leveled back at them a highly accurate assault weapon with its fully loaded high-capacity magazine of high-velocity ammunition and a hair trigger capable of invoking a firing chain again and again as fast as is humanly possible …or would they wish it were a single-shot, bolt-action hunting rifle, a six-shot snub-nosed revolver, or a weapon not carrying rounds intended for the sole purpose of killing human beings. Only if they have ever truly considered the circumstances and consequences could we hope to retrieve a valid answer.
I have thought about death with a depth few average citizens ever have. I have been surrounded by it; have been part of an enterprise where success is judged by it. I have been its harbinger and defended myself and others against its blinding flash and slow, steady slog. I have been declared an expert marksman with a semi-automatic pistol and fully automatic rifle of the same shape and ammunition currently flying off the shelves in stores and gun shows nationwide. I can put a 9 mm round through the head and two through the chest of a man-sized silhouette at 20 meters. I can put 5 rounds of .223 through the chest of the same silhouette at 200 meters with an open-sighted M-16. And yet I have never heard a single round impact the human body…as twenty innocent first graders and six adults in Newtown heard time and time and time again before life slipped away from them in the depths of a national tragedy. I have known death, have heard and seen it too many times, but I have not smelled it or sensed it at such close range. I am a technically skilled and highly trained killer, and yet I do not know how I might react at the scene of a mass shooting when faced with carnage on such a scale and in such proximity. I wonder, do you?
Before we cede our safety to a group of average citizens whose training and currency we cannot quantify and who almost certainly lack the kind of introspection and understanding of moral responsibility required at the nexus between life and death, before we claim without consequence that only more of the same can cure our ills, wouldn’t it be prudent to try something else? No citizen has the right to keep and bear the weapon system in which I spent 19 years honing my craft. No citizen can own an Abrams tank, a rocket-propelled grenade, or a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile system. There are clearly limits to the arms we are guaranteed a right to bear, and we ought to deeply consider the methods our rights entail.
If the senseless deaths of 20 children—whose lives were snuffed out with the same lethal efficiency we bestow on our nation’s protectors—cannot open that dialogue it will be the next great national tragedy. It will be because of a lack of fortitude on the part of millions of Americans who want neither the threat of mass gun violence nor the protection of those who believe it will only be quelled by guns in ever greater numbers. It will be because we fall seduced by the ludicrous claims of a few radicals who misread or simply misunderstand our seminal founding document. It will be because we refuse to take to task a punditry claiming a fictional tyrannical government in the most stable and advanced democracy in history, a democracy which still stands—apparently to the ignorant amazement of those same pundits—as a beacon of hope to the very real parts of the world where tyranny still does exist and where we have invested so much of ourselves over the last eighty years. It will be because we do not repeatedly say in the loud voice of majority that we live in a democracy with an unbroken, two-hundred-and-twenty-four-year streak of forty-three peaceful and openly-contested transitions of power since our Constitution came into being. It will be because we have come to believe a right to free speech in political circles and social media somehow accompanies a right not to be impeached for outlandish claims that, no matter how “viral” they go, come no closer to the truth or in any significant way contribute to the quality of our debate. It will be because, in our fervor to cast aspersions on social conscience, we will allow those walking in the fog of mental illness to go untreated then become surprised when they act out irrationally, sometimes with great violence. It will be because we refuse to admit that people do kill people, and that they do so far more effectively and in far greater numbers because of the kinds of guns which are so readily available in our country. It will be because we will have decided that the deaths of school children—past, present, and future—are simply the cost of freedom. And that, my fellow citizens, is something we cannot abide. It is a perversion of our 2nd Amendment rights, it taints all the others we may subsequently claim, and it brings discredit to us all. It is a concept the Founders could not have foreseen, and they would be confounded and deeply saddened at the thought of it.
So should we all. For the sake of our Republic’s enduring legacy…so should we all.