Civil Liberties

Walter Kirn Wants You To Surrender Your Gun Rights To Appear "Reasonable"


Over at The New Republic, Walter Kirn (author of Up in the Air, among other works) penned an essay on guns that is alternately informative, touching, self-contradictory and craven. He's a good writer, so he's up to the challenge of jamming all that, however unfortunately, into one piece. His take is that guns are fun, useful and empowering, but that owning them is somehow transformative, and that giving in to some of the proposed gun restrictions, no matter how pointless, will make gun owners look "civilized" and "reasonable" to non-owners.

At one point, Kirn describes gun owners as "a loose fraternity of people who feel embattled and defensive and are primally eager to win allies." There may be some truth in that description, but it seems just as apt a take on Kirn himself. Despite a life-long familiarity with firearms, from a childhood Iver Johnson .410 shotgun to a .38 revolver he owns now, Kirn goes to pains to assure his readers that he's not like other gun owners who might consider him a "traitor and a weakling." Those others include an Army captain friend (probably former friend, after this) who he paints as a bit off because of his fear that the U.S. government is becoming more authoritarian. "PTSD," cautions Kirn. When you own guns, "[y]ou start to entertain scenarios that might not occur to you if you didn't shoot."

Kirn also describes defending himself and his kids with a .22 pistol, but then warns that "[s]tatistics on the dangers guns pose to the health of their owners and those who live with them suggest that I'd be safer selling my guns than reserving them for Tombstone II." Nevermind that nobody bothers attributing those statistics anymore because they all seem to come from the much-debunked Arthur Kellerman, who has revised downward his own claims about the risks of owning a gun, and is largely responsible for the controversy over whether the Centers for Disease Control ought to be allowed anywhere near research on firearms, given a politicized history when dealing with the topic.

That's right, Kirn defended his family with a gun, but warns others against doing the same, based on bogus data. But he was hired just last year for this gig, and may be "eager to win allies."

Kirn is clearly aware of just how arbitrary and bizarre firearms laws can be, having been coached on their intricacies in the course of a concealed-carry class.

It's flattering being recruited into an ethos of responsibility. It makes you want to walk the line. It also reminds you how arbitrary some lines are. Cross the wrong state border with your gun or wake up one morning to new legislation or a new presidential executive order, and suddenly you're the bad guy, not the good guy. No wonder some gun owners seem so touchy; they feel, at some level, like criminals in waiting.

And yet … He goes on to embrace that arbitrariness, and the delusions and falsehoods behind it. "Will there be fewer murders with tighter gun laws—the modest laws that might actually materialize rather than the grand ones that probably won't but will surely rev up the rhetoric and the hoarding—or only fewer or smaller massacres?" But what makes him think there will be "fewer murders" or "fewer massacres" just because we've drawn more arbitrary lines? Why wouldn't there be no change? Or even more murders?

The specific arbitrary line that Kirn embraces is one that would be drawn around "the cult of maximum firepower that draws harder-boiled folks to stores and gun shows to handle Bushmasters and similar weapons with death-dealing, quasi-military designs." Kirn doesn't even address the almost non-existent usage of these guns in crime, that the Congressional Research Service reports (PDF) a survey of prisoners who had been armed during their crimes found "less than 2%, used, carried, or possessed a semiautomatic assault weapon or machine gun." What matters to Kirn is that "[h]orror and panic themselves are forms of violence, and diminishing them, restricting their dimensions, is itself a civilizing act."

But "horror and panic" are subjective and often irrational reactions. Kirn's "civilizing act" boils down to nothing more than appeasing the mob with a gesture of surrender so that "the gun-owning community can demonstrate precisely the sort of reasonable public-mindedness of which some believe it to be incapable."

Gun owners shouldn't object, continues Kirn, because "assault rifles are functionally similar to ordinary semi-automatic rifles, differing chiefly in their sinister cosmetics, not in their underlying ballistics. This being the case, what will be lost by giving them up?"

It's all about appearances, you see. About looking "civilized" so that nobody can call you a "nut job" as a former girlfriend once called Kirn when she saw a few loose cartridges in his desk.

Eager to win allies, indeed.

Walter Kirn describes gun owners as "a loose fraternity of people who feel embattled and defensive" and proceeds to justify their feelings. But as a writer as well as a gun owner, would he be so willing to surrender free speech rights if those, too were embattled? Actually, he might. The word "rights" is evoked only twice in his essay — rather dismissively, both times. But the lack of "reasonable public-mindedness" Kirn says gun opponents attribute to gun owners might also be described as principle. Gun owners stand on their rights in the belief that freedom shouldn't be surrendered without very good reason.

An argument that gun owners should give ground for the sake of appearances doesn't come off as good reason.