The Evil That Guns Can Do

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - JULY 12:  A collection of guns found inside the destroyed Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) on July 12, 2007 in I
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - JULY 12: A collection of guns found inside the destroyed Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) on July 12, 2007 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Government reports indicate that 1 policeman, 10 soldiers and 75 militants were killed in the fighting, including the ring leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The women's seminary inside the mosque became the centre of the battle. The Red Mosque was considered the epicentre of Pakistan's Islamic religious radicals. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

There used to be a car parked up the street from where I live that had a faded bumper sticker showing a handgun whose barrel morphed into a sharpened pencil. Beneath it were the words: "If guns kill people, do pencils misspell words?"

The bumper sticker was meant to be provocative. I guess its logic was that both guns and pencils are just dumb objects, tools that only operate in the hands of people. If the tool is misused -- well, that's on the person and not the tool.

The problem with that logic is that the handgun evolved for a very specific purpose: to kill people. All other uses are secondary to the fact that guns are tools designed to inflict grievous bodily injury. You can't really say that the same relationship exists between pencils and misspelled words.

If one strand of the gun rights argument relies on the fallacy that "guns don't kill people, people kill people," another strand recognizes that, yes, guns do kill people and that's why we need to have ever more guns -- so that the good guys can kill the bad guys.

Take, for example, this line from an article titled "Gun Control is Evil Misspelled," published two days after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on "People do kill people and the only way to stop people from killing people is by killing them first." If this sounds like a call for vigilante justice or the culling of potential killers, I've been assured by a staunchly conservative friend that this isn't the intended message.

It is, however, a "wolf at the door" argument in its suggestion that we should all live in fear of the evil that is out there (though, apparently, not of the evil that exists in each of us). Those of us who are "good" need to be armed and ready so that we can respond to evil violence with our own righteous violence.

This argument insists that we adopt a Manichean and nihilistic worldview. Those of us who are "good" need to arm ourselves against those who are "evil," as though each of us solidly and permanently inhabits one or the other of these binaries. No need to consider complexity; just shoot at the first sign of trouble. No need to try to prevent would-be killers from making their attempts; let them try and then kill them when they do.

I'm not someone who is so morally relativistic that I don't believe that evil exists. Indeed, I believe it exists just as surely as I believe that goodness exists. I'm equally certain, though, that not all people who kill are inherently evil and need to be killed in order to stop them. Evil acts are often situational and opportunistic. Lessening the likelihood that an evil impulse can be followed to its most destructive potential can stop some people from killing other people, and it can do so while recognizing the intrinsic value of human life.

There are no easy solutions for how to lessen this likelihood, but part of the answer has to be making it more difficult for those would do evil to get their (our) hands on the weapons with which to act on those impulses, whether through banning the sale of assault weapons, or limiting magazine capacities, or imposing heavy taxes on bullets, or conducting background checks on all gun purchases, or regulating well all gun owners as members of militia.

Reducing access to assault weapons wouldn't prevent all gun murders from occurring, but that needn't be the goal of tightening our gun laws. Nor should the goal be banning the possession of all firearms. Most guns in most hands will never result in intentional violence against other humans. But some guns in some hands do. We shouldn't just shrug our shoulders and say, "Oh well, that is the cost of our freedom, and besides, there is nothing we can do about evil."

Do supporters of the argument that only an armed society can stop evil really believe that it is better to give people free reign to act on their evil impulses and then kill them when they do? If so, then Garry Wills is right, and evil has already won.