The Madness of the Law-Abiding Citizen, or, There Are No Innocents

There’s a meme out in the pro-gun world that goes something like this: there are good guys and there are bad guys. Since all a gun does is increase the power of its wielder, all we have to do is get out there and make fewer bad guys (or at least identify them before they can do any harm). Wayne LaPierre himself made a version of this argument when he proposed the School Shield program of stocking compulsory education sites with armed guards.

To paraphrase Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Science of Evil, though: Evil is no explanation. In fact, it’s in many ways a dodge. To claim “evil” is to claim either that the causes of crime are unknowable and random (and thus crime cannot be prevented effectively) or it is to claim that people are irredeemable and reprobate and those deemed evil only do evil through some kind of inherent perversity.

Perhaps gun lovers are all latter-day Calvinists, but I don’t think so. Here’s why: the also-persistent meme that an anti-gun government will have to pry the guns out of a multitude of cold, dead hands.

These two idea, which coexist so comfortably in the minds of the gun lobby, are actually antithetical. If, indeed, a “criminal” were a person born with an inherent predilection toward crime, or who had become through his or her life dedicated to the pursuit of lawbreaking, then, sure, we’d want to keep an eye out for these people.

But the only way we can tell is someone is a criminal is if they break laws. And the only way we can tell that someone is law-abiding is if they refuse to break laws.

Gun lovers, then, by refusing to give up their guns in the admittedly unlikely event of a recall of all weaponry, would immediately and by their own definition enter the class of persons known as criminals. Surely they don’t also believe that this would make them into lawless “criminal-class” persons, suddenly out to break all laws.

If that were the case, then the mere existence of one law that you don’t agree with would immediately cast you into the ranks of the reprobate, the anti-law. We would, in effect, all become criminal-class, and we would all need total protection from each others’ depredations.

More likely, “criminal” is a code word in the current discourse. It encourages the listen to fill in his or her own demon: drug cartel enforcers, bath-salts addicts, whatever. Of course, unless one is engaged in the drug trade, one is unlikely to be up against cartel enforcers, but the likelihood of these events was never the point. The “criminal” is the kind of person that the gun owner would feel comfortable killing.

That’s all. And that, itself, may be why this duality persists. In this worldview, there are the killable and the unkillable, the ones who can die and the ones who can live. The gun gives the owner the power to decide. If the gun-wielder shows forbearance, then it isn’t about the rights of society anymore. It’s about mercy, which is a much more fuzzy feeling than the obligation to not kill another member of your community.

But worst of all, there never really is a law-abiding citizen. As some of my fellow commentators put it: we’re all law-abiding until we’re not.



  1. Have you read the NRA’s School Shield report? Most of it centers around pre-incident indicators, early behavioral intervention, and access controls to the school.

    1. I’d be interested to see what mechanisms the NRA proposes to intervene with. The simplest would seem to be keeping guns away from at-risk kids so that the shooting never happens, but that seems like a tactic that LaPierre’s opponents would sign off on.

      From the rhetoric that LaPierre uses, it would seem that he would want to use pre-incident indicators to position the armed guards so that they had a tactical advantage when a school shooting began. And I realize I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but how someone talks to their supporters is important and shouldn’t be discounted.

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