In an earlier post I referred to my neighbor's bumper sticker, which reads:
Sure you can have my gun... BULLETS FIRST!
My neighbor would probably be surprised to learn that guns, as I noted in that post, have not always been considered private property. But for him - if his bumper sticker is any indication - they are not only private property, but a special (and threatened) class of private, in defense of which any means is justified.
Many other writers have noted the frequent connection between guns and self-identity. Of course, guns are not unique in this respect. We often identify ourselves by objects in our possession. I am a great music lover, and have a rather obscene collection of compact discs, to go along with my records (yes, I have a vinyl record collection - and even an operational record player!) and other musical media. I once dreamed that all of my cds were lost in a flood, and woke up existentially disoriented. Just having my musical collection threatened in a nightmare was enough to call my self-identity into question, leaving me emotionally rudderless until I could confirm that nothing had happened to those objects.
This connection between possessions and identity has often been exploited by gun lobbyists to resist even the most moderate and sensible restrictions on private ownership of dangerous weapons, creating the paranoia reflected in my neighbor's bumper sticker. How can someone reach the point where they are willing to threaten the life of anyone who philosophically disagrees with the wisdom of allowing citizens to arm themselves to the teeth? But that is exactly the sentiment communicated by my neighbor's bumper sticker, and that sentiment is not unique to him.
The problem with having weapons is that having them makes us more likely to use them, without making us any safer. The mere possession of the means by which to kill or maim another person makes us contemplate situations in which such killing or maiming might be justified, and such contemplation, if it is left unchecked, can cause us to seriously mis-evaluate the morality of such situations.
While Jesus' Sermon on the Mount calls into question the moral justification for self defense ("You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Matthew 5:38-41 NRSV) the American gun culture, which insists on an unchecked right to defend self and property by any means, clothes itself in the rhetoric of Christianity.
Jesus expressly forbids meeting violence with violence, evil with evil. This is the case whether health, property, or even liberty is at stake. But, of course, a reasonable person could argue that the commands of Jesus are not universally binding. After all, we live in a plural society, in which both the law and the public morality should account for the diversity of views and beliefs. And, despite Jesus' protestations to the contrary, most people in America believe in a basic right to defend self, property and liberty.
But, hopefully those of us who believe in such a right do not consider it to be an entirely unlimited right. Hopefully reasonable people who believe that it is morally justified to visit some level of violence on those who would threaten their person, possessions, or freedom believe that the level of violence visited upon those who threaten them must be proportional to the threat.
I say that because on my walk this morning I saw a sign much more troubling that my aforementioned neighbor's bumper sticker. A few blocks from my house, posted on the gated fence around a well-manicured yard, is a menacing sign which reads:
NO TRESPASSING: THERE'S NOTHING IN THIS YARD WORTH BEING SHOT OVER!
Not exactly a subtle threat. When I first saw this sign I was tempted to knock on the door and ask the owner of the house if they would seriously shoot anyone who jumped the fence. But, thankfully, I thought better of it. Anyone who would post such a sign would not make, I think, for a very good conversation partner on the ethics of self-defense.
I'm not sure how to tie all of this together, Even though I've lived in Kentucky all of my life, and even though I've lived in Louisville for over 6 years now (qualifying me as a honorary Louisvilleian, I think!), some days I feel like an alien who was tossed out of a spaceship and had to make my home here. I simply can't relate to the desire to visit lethal force upon someone for the crime of trespassing.
Perhaps that's because I can relate more to the trespasser than the property owner. After all, it wasn't that long ago that I was a boy, passing through my neighbor's yards on my short-cut to the park, or jumping the fence into the garden next door to retrieve the tennis ball that my brother pummelled in one of our daily games of BYBB (Backyard Baseball - the greatest childhood game ever invented, and the only form of baseball that I could ever dominate).
While I'm sure that some people enter into private property with more menacing intent than the childhood version of me, I still can't understand how anyone could get to the place where they could shoot someone just for being on their property. Personally I'd rather be robbed than allow myself to kill another human being, and I hope that such an intuition is a common one.
So I have to ask: When, as a culture, did we get so crazy or depraved that we started to value our possessions over the lives of others? Can someone help me to understand this?
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