Every year, most Americans die from heart failure, old age, and car accidents. This should not surprise anyone. Most people today eat poorly, do not exercise enough, and often drive like idiots on the road. Miraculously, many of them will actually survive long enough to die a natural death later on, usually from pneumonia or some form of cancer.
In spite of these facts, Americans still continue to have lifestyles that greatly increase their chance of death from these causes. Unhealthy fast food chains continue proliferate; technology turns people into addicted couch potatoes; and carmakers manufacture newer models to Americans who unwisely desire size and power more than safety or fuel efficiency. Many will even go on enjoying cigarettes and alcohol despite what they may do to their lungs and liver.
Not surprisingly, some citizens will object to Americans having these things in the name of safety and health. They will create documentaries exposing the horrors threatening Americans, protest in the streets, write up articles in popular journals, start up activist campaigns, harass businesses and customers for promoting hazardous behavior, and even create laws and regulations to curb people’s excesses. Nevertheless, these efforts hardly do anything to change the predominant practices. Americans mostly continue living as they choose to live.
Before lamenting the lack of change, it must be asked: Is this a bad thing? What many critics and social justice warriors fail to realize is that simply living longer is not enough. Rather, human beings seek to live well, and that will usually mean living freely; as Socrates put it in the dialogue Crito over two millennia ago, “the really important thing is not to live, but to live well.” The United States was founded on this idea of freedom, and Americans will exercise their freedom in the form of risky living because it makes them happy.
If the U.S. were instead founded on the idea of safety, then the government would need to take control of people’s diets, activities, and surroundings. A truly safe citizen would likely live in an enclosed space away from danger, exercising at prescribed times, eating healthy but probably bland allotments of food prepared by uncontaminated hands. In other words, the truly safe and healthy American would like a convict in prison. While this type of life may appeal to those who may suffer the consequences of excessive behavior, it would soon destroy a person’s soul.
The classic science fiction novella In Folded Hands illustrates this scenario in all its terror, depicting the mysterious arrival of alien robots that insist on doing everything for human beings. At first, everyone on earth gladly relinquishes their responsibilities and allows the robots to serve them. Eventually, their attitudes change when the robots do not let them do anything that might cause harm; that includes games, unhealthy eating, working, hobbies, studying, and any other over-stimulating activities. What results from giving up their freedoms (and connected responsibilities) is a monotonous helpless existence that drives every person insane.
Freedom is essential even if it allows conflict, even if it allows death or injury. And it is this freedom that lies at the heart of the infamous second amendment that allows American citizens to bear arms. Anti-gun advocates fail to understand or even acknowledge that owning a gun is a freedom that many people want to enjoy. Just like the freedom to binge on Netflix, eat a supersized meal at MacDonald’s, or ride a bicycle without a helmet, Americans own a gun because they can, and it makes them happy. Although this might raise the level of violence, just like smoking increases the chance of lung disease, or owning cars ensures a greater amount of motor accidents, Americans have a right to accept that risk if they choose.
Rather of pondering this idea of freedom so ingrained in American culture, critics of the second amendment will cite hundreds of statistics showing the hazards of gun ownership, the increase in violence and homicides, and the relative peace that Scandinavians enjoy because of their gun control laws. Shamelessly, they will exploit every tragic shooting that would not have happened if the government banned guns, and ardently quote stupid gun nuts barricading themselves for the oncoming zombie apocalypse. All this they will use this as proof that guns do not make people safer in general.
One could make the same argument—and same kind of person usually will—for every other potentially risky thing that Americans have freedom to enjoy. Not only do guns make life less safe for Americans, so do cars, pollution, unstable relationships, contact sports, and home renovation. Still, most Americans would prefer keeping these freedoms than giving than up in the name of safety.
Even if it does not make sense to those who live in a safe well-lit neighborhood with responsible police force patrolling every so often, owning a gun holds a great significance for everyone else. Some may live in a rural area where the nearest police force is hundreds of miles away; some may live in a gang-infested borough where vandalism and theft are daily occurrences; some, as recent events suggest, may have to cope with a corrupt police force that unfairly targets racial minorities; and some may just like to go out hunting or shooting targets. Many gun owners are aware of the dangers that come from misuse of their weapon, but many accept that danger because they cannot depend on the police or do not want to depend on them. Although this might make certain pacifists nervous, they should be more nervous about sacrificing this important freedom to a government run by fallible human beings.
As the Gospels, and Uncle Ben from Spiderman, would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The founding fathers and most educated adults today know that enjoying certain freedoms, the source of individual empowerment, means accepting potential failures, the first lesson of responsibility. The power to kill that comes from guns may scare certain people, but they should respond to this power with responsibility. As trite as it may sound, guns don’t kill people, people do. People hoping to reduce murders and accidents tied to guns should look at the people who own them rather than the guns themselves.
If they do this, they will realize that the problem can only be solved through education and charity. As with anything else, people abuse power because they usually lack knowledge, and they lack people who love them. Banning guns may sound like an easy solution to gun violence, just like banning fast food, soft drinks, alcohol, or soft drinks seem like easy solutions to poor health, but they will never work in the end. People must freely choose to address these problems themselves. Otherwise, no one will ever take responsibility and the problem will persist—and the ongoing argument will continue creating sides instead of practical solutions.