Despite all the rhetoric from pro-gun legislators and the propagandists of the National Rifle Association, rhetoric that insists that we can’t allow gun-control laws in America because the Second Amendment gives every American the right to own as many guns and as much ammunition as he can gobble up, the truth is something other. What these quintessentially American gun-lovers and gun-manufacturers really prize is THE RIGHT TO KILL (and, pun intended, that it’s right to kill). That’s right. Americans of the stripe who scream about gun control really refuse to have their right to kill abrogated in any way. It is the primary right, in their minds, of every human being, especially of the white male persuasion.
At one time, of course, this right to kill was hidden behind the rationale of hunting: the alleged reason Americans insisted on the right to have guns was that they were clean, sport-loving hunters who lived for the time of year when they could go out into nature and stalk and kill deer or ducks or whatever game happened to be in season. Sarah Palin proudly proclaimed her membership in this fraternity, regaling audiences with her adventures shooting wolves from an airplane, and they responded by making her the darling of the loony right in America. More recently however, especially since the Roberts Court ruled, unequivocally and idiotically, that the second amendment confers an inalienable right not to members of a militia but to every single individual American to own guns, that right has been justified as conferring the right to self-defense. In other words, gun ownership is now promoted as a right primarily of protection: a man has a right to protect himself and his family and his castle in the most lethal way he can—with a gun. ‘Stand your ground’ laws passed by many states extend even this, for no longer is a person required to retreat into his castle before shooting at someone he finds threatening; in ‘stand your ground’ states, a person can shoot a perceived threat anywhere, at any time, emphasis on “perceived.” The Trayvon Martin case in Florida, a ‘stand-your-ground’ state, clarified this for all to see, because George Zimmerman was not in his house or anywhere near it when he shot Trayvon Martin, whom he saw as threatening (i.e. black and male).
I raise these issues not to enter the gun-control debate again during this week when the Senate is scheduled to vote on new gun-registration laws. I raise them because my recent reading of Jared Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday (Viking: 2012) provides a different angle from which to view these issues. Contrary to what we might like to think, i.e. that small bands of humans in the traditional societies of our ancestors were peace-loving hunter-gatherers who resorted only occasionally to small-scale hostilities, the small bands Diamond himself has investigated engaged in war and killing almost constantly. Males in tribes like the Dani of New Guinea, according to Diamond, were always on the alert for any “stranger” from another tribe. This is because in such small, tight-knit communities living their lives almost exclusively in an isolated valley, an unknown stranger was considered to be hostile—perhaps an enemy scouting out one’s own territory for weaknesses preparatory to an attack, or perhaps seeking quick revenge for a prior one. With no inhibitions on killing face-to-face (children are trained early that killing an outsider is good), all members of these New Guinea tribes, not just a professional warrior class, are (or were until Australia imposed state law) constantly prepared to go to war to prevent a rival group from taking their women, their foods, or their territories, or to retaliate for prior takings. And the figures Diamond provides show that, as a percentage of population, the constant warfare in these traditional ‘edens’ took a greater toll of human lives than the stupendous slaughters that have riven modern nation states at war. This is because modern warfare tends to be intermittent: four or five years of savage killing in World Wars I or II, for example, were relieved with breaks of ten or twenty years even for the most warlike states like Germany or Russia or the United States. The figures Diamond provides thus show that, given the greater population of large states, the percentage of those killed in war is only a third or a sixth or even a tenth of the killed-vs.-population percentages in small societies like the Dani of New Guinea. Nor is this simply a bias of a modern-state resident like Diamond. Members of New Guinea tribes themselves indicated by their behavior in readily giving up tribal warfare as soon as Australia imposed state-authorized policing, that they much preferred the relative peace brought by the modern state. In other words, when the state arrogated to itself alone the right to kill those who violated its laws, these New Guinea tribesmen indicated to Diamond that, despite the “loss of freedom” to continue to kill their neighbors for whatever reasons, they preferred the ability of the state to guarantee peace. Though they lost their own “right” to settle disputes in the traditional way, they gained the much more valuable peace and security they had never been able to achieve on their own.
This points up, indeed, a prime function of any state. Rather than letting people settle grievances on their own, with a continuing round of killings to avenge prior killings, the state sets up courts and other elements of an adjudication procedure that outlaws taking justice into one’s own hands. Under this regime, only the state has the license to kill, and only after whatever procedures it sets up to judge guilt or innocence, liability or immunity.
This, in short, is why any state will also take great pains to control the means of violence its citizens have access to. When a few dozen citizens have only spears or bows and arrows, and are obliged to curtail warlike activities in order to go bring in a harvest or support their families by hunting, perhaps access to primitive weapons might be considered harmless or even necessary. But when masses of citizens can easily obtain lethal weapons capable of killing dozens or hundreds of their fellows in seconds, a state has an obligation to severely limit the extent to which average citizens (not soldiers) can have such weapons, and under what conditions they can use them. It may license its citizens to use weapons for sport, to hunt animals for sport, in a season designated for it. But a rational state would have to see that, given its charter to maintain peace and security for its citizens, it ought not to allow them to possess the most deadly weapons in its arsenal. Because it is not that long ago that humans were killing each other routinely in the way that Jared Diamond describes. A mere ten thousand years ago for most societies, and until yesterday for some, all humans, based on several varieties of evidence Diamond marshals, were engaged in tribal warfare with their neighbors almost constantly. The urge to kill those who have wronged you, or whom you perceive to have wronged you, thus lurks in the emotional DNA of every human being. For a state to allow masses of such humans—in the United States, there are estimated to be 300 million guns in the hands of private citizens—to have the means to kill dozens of their neighbors or hundreds of random strangers is simply insane. It is also an abrogation of the prime duty of the state to ensure the public safety; to provide its citizens with reasonable security (we will omit from this discussion the right of the state to periodically compel some of its citizens to don uniforms and slaughter people it has no quarrel with; or to impose often unbearable restrictions on its citizens, especially those without money or influence); and to assure its citizens that rational state laws and those who enforce them will do everything possible to keep most other citizens from killing them.
And that is why gun control is absolutely necessary in a modern state. Humans, all humans, have the recurrent urge, if pushed hard enough, to kill. To give such volatile and dangerous animals wholly unfettered access to weapons of mass destruction—and make no mistake, assault rifles and glock pistols with magazines capable of holding 30 or 100 rounds are weapons of mass destruction—is literally insane, and, in a social-compact sense, an abrogation of the state’s primary responsibility. It is a pretense of giving humans a constitutional right, a freedom, which is not freedom at all.
Rather, it is license—license to kill. And it must be, and eventually will be I hope, controlled. Even here in killer America.