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When Gun Logic Leads to Death

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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A five-year-old in Missouri shot his baby brother earlier this week. Yesterday,  a two-year-old shot himself. These are familiar acts, especially in regions of the nation where guns are most prevalent. Perhaps such tragedies are an acceptable price paid for maximalist gun laws and a laissez faire gun culture. But before accepting that conclusion, let's ponder some of the logic that leads there.

 There are four general reasons (other than crime) for a civilian to own a gun:

  1. Hunting or other sport;
  2. Cultural affinity;
  3. Personal defense;
  4. Incipient insurrection.

Insurrection against the federal government -- the childlike fantasy of American militia men -- is not terribly relevant to the gun regulation debate. Since the militia sharpshooters will presumably have time to organize themselves against impending tyranny, they can safely lock away their guns for now.  

Likewise, neither hunting nor sport shooting is central to the national conflict over gun laws and norms. People are injured or killed in hunting accidents. But they are at risk in other types of sport, as well. Meanwhile, a hunting gun can be stored securely and removed when someone is ready to hunt. The same holds for sport shooting (unless the "sport" requires an Uzi, and the "sportsman" is a 9-year-old girl). If these weapons were responsibly locked away -- although there's no guarantee they will be -- they would pose little threat.

Conflict, and harm, arise more often from the other general types of gun possession. Guns have a powerful place in American culture. Some own guns for the sake of owning guns. A case in point: Veronica Rutledge, the Idaho mother who was shot dead by her own toddler after he opened her purse, withdrew a handgun and fired.

Why was she carrying a gun to Wal-Mart?

“In Idaho, we don’t have to worry about a lot of crime and things like that,” said Sheri Sandow, who told the Washington Post that she had been a friend of Rutledge. Sandow said Rutledge “wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns.”

Raised around guns is never cited as an official cause of death, but it surely is. Of course, plenty of people are raised around guns responsibly, with due respect for their destructive power and precautions taken to assure that power doesn't explode. And the gun industry is not uniformly reckless, as an August 2014 Guns & Ammo article promoting "bedside gun safes" makes clear. The point of the product, the article stated, is to keep guns out of the wrong hands -- whether of a "hardened criminal or a small child." Amen.

But as guns have become a more potent cultural signifier, the better to defy the "jackboot of authoritarianism" or some other resented target, raised around guns has become an ideological disposition, and reckless endangerment has become a political stance and badge of cultural authenticity

The other form of gun possession that generates conflict, and harm, is possession for self-defense. And because self-defense is too often necessary, the logic gets trickier.

Personal protection is a main focus of rhetoric from the National Rifle Association and a prime subject of gun industry marketing. It's impossible to know where the cynicism of NRA leader Wayne LaPierre ends and genuine madness begins, but both sides of LaPierre's mind work overtime to foment fear.

For LaPierre, business and paranoia are complementary, each aiming to proliferate gun ownership. The more acute the public's anxiety, the more desperate will be its efforts to protect itself. And if you perceive yourself to be under constant physical threat you really can't afford to be unarmed at any time in any place. If you go to the supermarket, you could be at the mercy of "carjackers" or "shopping mall killers" -- two among LaPierre's roll call of monsters. At school, you are a sitting duck for "campus killers." Taking a vacation? Beware of "airport killers." Sure, go on and barricade yourself in your bedroom, but that won't protect you from the rampaging "home invaders."

Everywhere, at every hour, good guys with guns are under siege, according to the NRA. In such a world, how can you afford to use a trigger lock or store a gun in a gun locker? You will waste precious seconds while "gamers, rapers, haters" and other demons are breaking down your door. Better to have a gun always at the ready.

Until your five-year-old picks it up and shoots your infant.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net