Nobody Needs a Handgun

On july 22nd, a maniac walked down a busy Toronto street and shot at several people, killing an 18 year old girl and a 10 year old girl having ice cream with her family at a restaurant on the strip, and wounding several others.

As the father of a 5 year old girl, who occasionally takes her for ice cream – just as the parents of this girl did that awful night – the thought of this makes my skin crawl, and summons unspeakable rage at the injustice of this act.

So it is with a certain amount of disgust and shame that I wade into the inevitable political aftermath of this event.

In the days following the murders, Toronto Mayor John Tory and the council voted to pursue a “handgun ban” in the city of Toronto, and a promise to pursue the matter federally.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale non-committally agreed that the Canadian government would look into the possibility of a handgun ban.

And to many people, reading with horror and feeling empathy for the victims of this senseless murder spree, these actions seem reasonable – if not long overdue. Many Canadians have no connection to guns – no interest in owning them – and see no positive aspects to their existence in Canadian society.

People – radio hosts, reporters, social media commentators, and government officials – are increasingly asking the question:

“Why does anybody need a handgun?”

The answer quite simply is that nobody (save people in a few specialized professions) needs a handgun. You could argue that in some communities, hunting rifles serve a purpose as recreational and food gathering items, but certainly nobody other than a policeman or guard needs a semi-automatic rifle or a handgun.

So we should just ban them, because they come with a certain social risk, but serve no tangible need, right?

To many people it seems to be case closed after this assertion.

But in asking whether or not they are needed, we are conveniently jumping to the unquestioned conclusion that if anything comes with risk, and is not strictly needed, then it should be forbidden.

Let’s think of some other examples that fit this criterion, then – we’ll include the risk of self-injury, and to be fair we’ll include financial costs to society, since I’ve heard those factors being discussed in the context of guns (e.g. suicide by gun, law enforcement costs). We’ll set aside discussions of “primary purpose” for now and address it later.

Cars and Trucks

One example that is very commonly cited by gun advocates is the common car. We can obviously argue that car accidents are a cost of the convenience of using a car for day to day business, and the value of the car in shaping our society can’t be questioned… but we also permit a large amount of unnecessary and frankly risky freedom with respect to what kinds of cars people can own, and for what purposes.

People are free to buy and lift large trucks, which are far more dangerous in a collision with smaller car. Nobody really needs a large truck, except for those in a few specialized professions (e.g. contractors, landscapers).

People are free to buy fast sports cars, which are capable of moving at much higher speed than the bolt-action deer rifle 4-cylinder small displacement family sedans, and certainly some people will illegally abuse this power to speed and cause horrible traffic accidents that kill innocent people. Nobody really needs a sports car, except for those in a few specialized professions like police and race car drivers.

In fact, for most commuting purposes, nobody needs a car at all – buses are safer, create less emissions, and take potentially deadly vehicles out of the hands of minimally trained civilian drivers.  I’m not being facetious here – this really is a much safer alternative to allowing the risk of single-occupant cars for commuting.

But beyond cars, there are numerous other examples. Mountain climbing puts the climber at risk, puts search and rescue personnel at risk in the event of an accident, and in countries like Canada puts the taxpayer at risk for medical and evacuation costs.  Nobody really needs to mountain climb, save those in specialized professions (like geologists and surveyors).

Large breed dogs occasionally misbehave and clearly present a much greater risk to the public than smaller lapdogs. Nobody really needs a large breed dog, except maybe hunters or farmers in rural communities, but certainly they serve no purpose in the city.

Fast food and snack foods cause obesity, premature death, and increased medical costs for much of society. Nobody really needs high calorie snack foods or fast food, save those in specialized occupations with limited access to refrigeration and high calorie burn rates.

Knives can be used for severe harm and are commonly carried by gang members. About 10 years ago, a knife-wielding assailant showed up at a house party in Northwest Calgary, and slaughtered and wounded several people. Most people can get by with a simple bread knife and table knives. Nobody really needs a pocket knife or a camping knife, save for maybe people in specialized occupations like tradesmen and farmers in rural communities – certainly the average person in the city has no need for sharp camping or hunting knives.

Nobody needs anything other than a concrete cell to sleep in, a plate of gruel, and a multivitamin supplement per day.

Obviously I’m taking this argument to an extreme conclusion, but I make it with the utmost sincerity.  Need is not the right question to ask, when it comes to deciding whether or not to allow things.

When people say “nobody needs a handgun”, what they really mean is:

I don’t personally like that slightly risky thing, so it should be banned, unlike slightly risky things that I do like.

We currently do, and should, allow properly vetted people to own handguns and rifles, simply because it is not our business to dictate the risks other people are allowed to take, nor to single out particular risks at the exclusion of others that are equal – or greater – in magnitude.

Often the severity of an event is mistaken for the probability of it happening. September 11th, 2001 is a great example of this – in a rare act of extreme terrorism, a few fundamentalist Islamic terrorists commandeered planes and flew them into buildings around the united states. Nearly 20 years later, we’re still riding out the political and social aftermath of this event and the responses to it. Some are even calling for a ban on all Muslim immigrants – after all, nobody needs to allow Muslim immigrants in.

As far as I can tell, the primary criteria people use when calling for a ban are:

– Some sort of perceived risk (violence, health, financial, environmental)
– No personal interest in the activity

The latter is very important. Many sports shooters and hunters have families, and we all have people we care about and don’t want to see murdered, and we are absolutely horrified whenever innocent people are injured by firearms – just like anybody else. But, just like truck owners, we realize the risk of allowing (licensed, vetted) people to own those things is extremely small, and can be mitigated by an appropriate licensing system. We require training and testing, and authorities retain the legal ability to revoke licenses for various infractions that indicate the person is a danger (e.g. DUIs). We have a strong and effective licensing system for firearms in Canada, including registration and connection to a particular owner for restricted firearms (like handguns) which are deemed to be most desirable for use in crime.

Finally, I’d like to address the issue of “primary purpose” that comes up.

Unlike a vehicle, the primary purpose of a gun is to kill

I’m a relatively new firearms owner, and in the past have expressed strongly anti-gun sentiments using many of the same arguments we see today.

This is a quote of mine from 2008 that I found by searching a forum I’ve been a longtime member of:

“They [firearms] only serve to exacerbate the outcome of random acts of violence between otherwise law-abiding people.”

I believe now that I was wrong. Violence between individuals and countries is not the only purpose they serve. They serve a purpose as sporting objects for people who enjoy the noise, the challenge, and frankly the symbolic freedom of being able to own one and use one. It’s just a heck of a lot of fun to be able to use tiny explosions to throw lead rocks at high speed and move distant targets. It’s like noisy telekinesis.  Many shooting disciplines are analogous to games like golf.

I think in the past I understated the importance of that symbolic freedom, and didn’t account for the value of allowing other people to pursue their interests, even if those interests don’t align with mine.

As for the developmental history of firearms, other military devices have been repurposed for civilian life, including rockets, aircraft, and GPS. I’m intentionally avoiding the larger discussion of firearms for self-defense and deterrence of state force, since my interest is sporting, but I do think there can be validity to those reasons for ownership – but that conversation is beyond the scope of this piece.  Let’s just say that when I take a former weapon of war like my World War II rifles and use them for a peaceful and enjoyable range day, I feel privileged to live in the time and place we live today, and can’t think of a better end for a fascinating historical rifle than being used for peaceful enjoyment in a stable and prosperous country like Canada.

Of course today firearms play a central role in conflict… but banning civilian ownership in societies without major conflict isn’t going to make conflict zones disappear.

The ideal society is one in which nobody needs a gun, but anybody is free to own one*

(*with the obvious background check caveats).

I’m suspicious of unnecessarily large SUVs and trucks (I’m far more afraid of crossing at a busy controlled intersection than I am at the gun range), and get nervous around certain breeds of dogs and owners (I’ve had some run-ins with aggressive animals at the dog park), but I realize that society shouldn’t be structured to only meet my needs and protect me from those particular risks I’m annoyed by or worried about.  All life comes with risk; treat it with care and appreciate the things you enjoy – including firearms.