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The Future of Handguns: A Response to Sam Harris’ “The Riddle of the Gun”

Published: Wednesday 30 January 2013

The NRA owes Sam Harris a debt of gratitude. In his short piece Riddle of the Gun, Mr. Harris makes a more compelling defense of civilian gun ownership and critique of popular gun control measures than the NRA has been able to muster in the 140+ years of its existence. While recently the NRA has been preoccupied with spewing inflammatory rhetoric and taking cheap shots at President Obama, Sam Harris has put together a reasoned argument that all but the most closed-minded of liberal political thinkers will find difficult to dismiss. 

Harris reaches a varied audience because he forces his readers to set aside moral judgments on the inherent value of guns in public life and, instead, discusses in detail the plausibility of political suggestions on both sides of the gun control debate. Acknowledging that a world without the necessity of guns would be most desirable, Harris goes on to explain that the reality of a world without guns today (or a world where only law enforcement officers have guns) would not be a great place to live. In such a world, people would be helpless against other aggressive people with the advantages of youth, physical strength, and/or sheer numbers. Harris claims that we can call 911, but if a person breaks into our home with the intent to harm us, we cannot reasonably expect police or other protectors to arrive in time to stop violence. 

Harris also points out that most of the gun control measures being discussed by U.S. lawmakers in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre are mere symbolic gestures which will have little effect on our nation’s problem with gun violence. For example, gun control advocates have called for a new “assault weapons” ban, but only three percent (3%) of murders in the U.S. are committed with rifles of any type, including assault rifles. According to Harris, in the vast majority of murders committed with firearms (47% of all U.S. murders in general), the weapon used is a handgun, yet handguns would not fall under any “plausible” or politically feasible weapons ban.  

It may seem difficult to disagree entirely with Mr. Harris, but what he fails to realize is that we should not discount or ignore potentially effective gun control measures simply because they might not be politically feasible--or, more specifically, not politically feasible right now. 

The question we should be asking today is whether an eventual America without handguns would be a safer place for all people. In other words, is it ultimately desirable to keep handguns out of the hands of civilians? Much of Harris’ piece seems to be a tacit recognition that handguns are the type of weapon best suited (and most often used) for violent criminal activities. If we could eliminate these deadliest weapons from daily life, while maintaining civilian access to other guns that are suitable for home defense (a need Harris claims we will always, on some level, have) but not nearly as suitable for committing violent acts in public places, would this not be a humane goal towards which we should try to work? Guns with longer barrels, like rifles and shotguns, are just as good as (and in the case of shotguns, arguably better than) handguns for Harris’s idea of home defense, yet their size inhibits easy concealment and, therefore, they would not pose the same threat to the nonviolent public.  

And while the argument can be made that violent people will still have access to the millions of handguns that are already circulated throughout the country, we must recognize that such an argument should never dissuade political efforts to change the U.S.’s gun culture. Put simply, we are not living safely with the pervasive gun violence in this country. In order to change our situation, we have to start somewhere. 

The fact that we will have a difficult time finding and confiscating all of the handguns currently available for violent purposes is not an argument for continuing to generate more and more handguns. Just because we might not be able to immediately stop violent people from acquiring handguns on the so-called “black market” does not mean we should continue making handguns readily available to them on the regular market. Anything that makes it more difficult for a violent person to gain possession of a handgun is a good thing. And eventually, the handguns currently in circulation will fall out of service and/or be confiscated. It may take a very long time, perhaps even centuries, to get them all; but again, we have to start somewhere.  

In the meantime, there are other steps we could take to reduce daily handgun crime. For example, we could outlaw the manufacture and sale of handgun ammunition. While a well-made handgun can remain functional for a very long time, without bullets, it is nothing more than a fancy club. Sure, the more connected violent people will probably still find ways to make or acquire illegal handgun ammunition; but an ammunition ban would make that more difficult. And since handguns do not use the same types of ammunition as rifles and shotguns, such a ban would not affect law-abiding citizens’ ability to defend themselves, if they feel the need to do so, with these other types of guns. So to the question of whether a handgun ban would ultimately lead to a better, safer America for everyone, the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”

Harris’ dismissal of the idea of a handgun ban is primarily rooted in its political infeasibility rather than its potential effectiveness. Even if we somehow determine that banning civilian access to handguns and handgun ammunition would not be effective in the long term, there may be other measures out there that would be effective, and we should not limit our thinking in developing such measures based on what seems politically feasible right now. 

It might be useful to think about other measures that seemed unrealistic goals at their onset, but, after much time and effort, became not only realistic goals, but political realities. Just one example would be the integration in higher education efforts that occurred in the 1960s. If this was a debate over James Meredith's admittance into the University of Mississippi, we could see someone like Harris making the argument that although all people, no matter their race, should be able to learn side by side, the liberal call for integration no matter the circumstances was not looking at the facts of U.S. culture. This person would point out that it would be far too dangerous for students to integrate in areas like Mississippi where racial tensions had been overt, pervasive, and especially violent. Integration, he would say, would lead to an inevitable proliferation of vigilante violence; it would be infeasible politically and culturally to push such an agenda. Perhaps he would have argued that Americans learn much more and advance more easily when they remain in segregated environments because of such impossible tensions. And many people would have agreed with him, and in the short term, he would have seemed correct. 

This is not to say that the question of integration in higher education is a moot point today; there are still plenty of debates on the topic. We use this example to point out that what might have seemed an impossible political goal at that time was actually entirely possible. The key in this case is to understand that shortsightedness is not politically beneficial, and that big social and political changes simply do not happen overnight. Harris himself must recognize this idea on some level. One measure that Harris supports is making a gun license as difficult to obtain as a license to fly an airplane, requiring dozens of hours of training. This is an excellent idea, but it is hardly any more politically feasible right now than an all-out handgun ban. Indeed, President Obama’s opening salvo of gun-control proposals does not include anything near as extreme as Harris’ idea of training, yet Obama’s mild (and, according to Harris, merely symbolic) proposals have met with opposition even among his fellow Democrats.

Harris has provided a good argument about the limitations of the gun control debate. He brought us to the realization that our current efforts will not make enough of a difference because they do little to address the most problematic type of gun: the handgun. He stops short of suggesting a next step with the question of handguns, however, because he does not think a next step, such as a handgun ban, is possible. Yet Harris has given us many good reasons to consider an eventual handgun ban a primary political goal. As our nation continues to be plagued with gun violence daily, we owe it to ourselves to not abandon such a goal. Like any comprehensive political and social change, the elimination of handguns will be difficult, but with the right amount of commitment, it is far from impossible.  

ABOUT Maria Faini and Dave Pogue
Maria Faini is a PhD student and instructor at the University of California, Berkeley. Dave Pogue is an attorney in Charleston, West Virginia.
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As an American living in

As an American living in Germany, I had to laugh when I read this comment:
... Harris goes on to explain that the reality of a world without guns today (or a world where only law enforcement officers have guns) would not be a great place to live. In such a world, people would be helpless against other aggressive people with the advantages of youth, physical strength, and/or sheer numbers.
Yes laugh, because much of Western Europe is just such a place and no, we do not live in fear of criminals and thugs. Homicides, rapes, and just about any other crimes that are so prevalent in the States are a rarity here by comparison.
The real problem is we shouldn't be talking about one item, gun ownership, in a vacuum. It really is about the society we live in. Here in Germany, the average, or even the poor individual, has a much better life than in the States.
Better pay, better infrastructure including excellent public transportation, better schools for everybody not just the well to do, more regulations controlling run away capitalism, free education ––yes all the way to a good trade or a PhD, a solid welfare system where people are treated with respect and their children go to the same schools as all the other kids, and university attendance is based on grades, not on who daddy knows, where he previously studied, how much he's willing to donate, or how well a student plays a particular sport. Everybody is equal! 100% heath care is a reality and at extremely fair rates for everybody. Why? Because exorbitant health care costs are not tolerated. When a man or woman is insured his/her entire family is immediately insured as well at no extra cost. These things do make a difference! The result is a richer, more educated society where everybody really has equal opportunity.
Let's not that forget every society needs factory workers, sales clerks, waiters and waitresses, etc., here these people get full social benefits, 6 weeks paid vacation, and much more job security. Gun ownership is rare. All gun owners must be registered and take a gun training course and cannot carry them for “protection”.
I can hear the critics and apologists for hard-core capitalist exploitation claiming, "It won't work." Really? How many decades of success do you have to witness before you open your eyes to reality?
Obamacare? Gun control? School vouchers? Bigger and better drone planes to control the local inhabitants? More and more wars to even out the perpetual recessions and fill the pockets of the industrialists? Privately run prisons guaranteeing longer prison sentences? Swifter capital punishment?
All Band-Aid’s ...
The U.S. needs a social revolution. Not with guns or weapons but with the vote. Unfortunately, neither party represents the great majority of the people. Our first objective is to raise consciousness ( bravo Nation of Change for doing your part) and then we urgently need a new political party. I suggest we call it The American Party. It must grow in the hearts of the people, but it will be difficult due to all the brainwashing we as a people are subjected to almost everywhere. I can’t foresee any other way to get out of the morass we have gotten into.

(Note: I am taking Germany as an example for several reasons: 1) live there so I know it better. 2) It was reduced to rubble in the 1940’s. 3) It has a large population 82 million people and it has millions of foreigners living there. If they can do it, we can too!)
J. Merrill