The Cartoonishly Implacable Criminal That Gun Owners Fear

A few weeks ago, I admitted my ignorance of guns and how that affects my ability to create workable gun legislation. So I asked gun owners for their input.

I’d say about 70% of the pro-gun feedback that explained why laws were useless when it came to stopping criminals from getting guns could be summarized by this actual quote:

“You cannot stop someone from doing EVIL that is the truth.”

Well, except no. That’s not the truth.

When I was a teenager, some schmuck in Chicago opened random bottles of Tylenol and laced the capsules with cyanide, killing seven people. This was a horrible crime.

Manufacturers made tamper-proof packaging that makes it harder to get into pill bottles and poison them. It’s not impossible. I mean, if you wanted to poison a bunch of people, you could probably devise a way to reseal bottles in a way that folks wouldn’t notice – a dab of clear nail polish would probably do it.

But honestly, the fact is, it’d be a large pain in the butt to pull off, and that guy probably poisoned capsules because it was easy to do. Make it a little harder, and they don’t do that.

Yet by the standards of a lot of gun owners, who kept repeating “If a criminal wants a gun, he’s gonna get one,” the reality would be that the Tylenol poisoner and all his copycat friends – because there are almost always copycat murders – would circumvent any barrier, so why bother changing the packaging?

But no. The actual truth is that while there are absolutely criminals who will not stop at anything until they have committed their dastardly crime, a large portion of criminals – perhaps the majority – respond, quite sanely, to making crimes more difficult.

You put cameras and beeper labels in stores and there’s less shoplifting because they’re more likely to get caught. You have locks on your doors and people are less likely to break in when they know they’ll have to kick in a door. Do stringent background checks at your school, and it’s less likely a child molester will try for a job there. If there’s too many cops on the street, lots of muggers will stay home that day.

Make it difficult for long enough, lots of criminals decide not to bother.

That’s literally how it works.

Yet the pro-gun people seem to genuinely believe that all criminals are this implacable Terminator, having woken up with a deep and implacable bloodlust that says “I AM GOING TO ROB A LIQUOR STORE AND MURDER THE PROPRIETOR, AND NOTHING WILL STOP ME UNTIL I FIND A WAY TO DO SO.”

I mean, there doubtlessly are a few devoted villains like that out there – guys who would find a way to murder Pop down at the Brown Bag with a toothbrush. But most guys robbing liquor stores are doing it because they think it’s something that’s reasonably easy to pull off.

If that store has cameras, they’re not going to do it until they think they can get around the cameras. (Admittedly: a balaclava will generally do it.) If that store is in a place that’s got a lot of bystanders, they’re not going to rob it unless there’s a way to thin those bystanders. (Admittedly: Waiting until night is a good strategy.) If that store is next to the police station, they’re probably not going to rob it ever.

And hell, gun owners know this because one of their most frequent arguments is “That store owner should have a shotgun to scare robbers away.”

In other words, “You can stop someone from doing evil.” Make it inconvenient enough to pull off a given crime, and the lazier criminals won’t bother. I mean, yes, people still try to rob banks – but not as many as try to rob liquor stores, because even dim criminals know that you’re not likely to get away with much when there’s a vault and cameras and trained FBI teams dedicated tracking you down.

And maybe all that does is kick the problem over to tomorrow, but let’s look at the most implacable criminals of all: terrorists. They’ve been looking to get an atomic bomb to destroy American cities for years now. That’s hard because it’s a severely technological issue and the materials are scarce.

Are you honestly willing to look me in the eye and say we shouldn’t even make the attempt to block terrorists from getting nuclear weapons because “You cannot stop someone from doing EVIL that is the truth”?

No. The truth is that every day we stop someone from doing a crime, that’s another day we’ve bought that maybe something else stops them. Maybe that bomb-seeking terrorist drops dead of cancer, one of the rare cases I’m pro-cancer. Maybe he recants his hatred of America. Maybe he’s been promising his terrorist buddies that he’s gonna get a nuclear bomb tomorrow, I swear, it’s totally happening dudes, and he loses financial support because people now think he’s full of shit.

And – this is crazy – maybe if we prevent him from getting a nuclear bomb for long enough, he’ll figure it’s a waste of time and try to get some other form of bomb that’s less damaging. I mean, I don’t want a truck explosion in Times Square, but that outcome’s way better than a nuke.

Because here’s the other truth: even in the few cases where someone is waking up in the morning with a murderous intent that no amount of deterrents will stop them, you can mitigate the damage they’ll do. Maybe she’s desperate to kill as many people as possible, but there’s going to be a difference in her lethality if she can get her hands on a tank instead of a shotgun. Or a nuke versus an IED.

Yet you wouldn’t find a gun owner saying, “Well, we shouldn’t even make the attempt to try to stop terrorists from getting fissionable material, that’s stupid.” Why?

Because “stopping terrorists from getting nukes” isn’t going to inconvenience them. Whereas more laws on guns will inconvenience them. And you may note that in most cases they’re locking up their business at night rather than putting out a sign that says “WE DON’T LOCK UP OUR SAFE HERE” because in the end, they do actually believe that you can stop someone from doing evil, even if you only stop them for one day, because “stopping someone for one day” is still worthwhile.

And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that some significant percentage of murders are caused because a gun made it super-easy for someone to make a stupid mistake. Which happens all the time. Flip through the news and you’ll find a family argument that turned lethal because tempers rose and someone had a gadget at hand that’s designed entirely to end lives easily. A lot of those people, if you watch the interviews afterwards, seem stunned and regretful, because sure, they were angry, but if they had to strangle Uncle Phil instead of shooting him, they might have changed their minds.

Which is not to say that I believe we should get rid of guns entirely. (Some liberals do; I don’t.) I made a major error when I asked pro-gun folks, “So what gun laws can we pass to lower gun deaths?” – because honestly, restricting that solution to “Gun laws only” is needlessly restrictive. If people want to discuss alternative solutions like “better mental health care” or “less news PR for mass shooters” or, well, anything, I’m open to it.

And there’s an honest debate to be had about the balance between effective laws and inconvenience to law-abiding citizens. I’m for decriminalizing marijuana because I think it’s a comparatively harmless drug that winds up getting a lot of otherwise-innocent people arrested. (Even if I personally dislike pot myself.) If you want to argue that passing laws would inconvenience law-abiding gun owners and not lower the crime rate all that much, well, that’s a legit debate to have.

(Even if I think of what my friend Sean said when he told me, “This is now so far gone we have no hope of cleaning this up for us. We may have to look at reducing gun deaths as a task that will take a generation to solve, some national battle like reducing smallpox. And honestly, America is terrible at that.” The more I ponder that, the more I come to believe that yeah, it might take decades to stem the flow even if we all agreed on a solution.)

But that is now my litmus test: does this person I am discussing gun laws with acknowledge that yes, we not only can we stop someone from doing evil by making committing a crime more inconvenient, but we do it all the time?

There are dedicated criminals, sure. But most of them are not operating off of some preordained notion of “I WILL DO THIS SPECIFIC EVIL,” but rather “What can I get away with today?”

And for some of them, “What they can get away with” is predicated on having easy access to a weapon designed to make murdering people as simple as possible. Maybe guns are so widely available in America that we no longer have a reasonable hope left of stopping that person from getting a gun any more.

But when you argue that there’s no sense in trying every criminal in the world wakes up with this Snidely Whiplash, salmon-spawning motivation to “DO EVIL TODAY” and there’s no hope of blocking his dastardly plan to get himself a weapon because every criminal will find a knife if they can’t get a gun and they’ll smother you with a pillow if they can’t get a knife, then I know there’s no common ground we can find.

Because we can stop evil. Because the true horror is that evil is, all too frequently, a matter of convenience.

Ignoring that means you’re ignoring reality – and alas, I can’t listen to your advice on gun laws then. Sorry.

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