Despite the panic of gun rights activists after the 2008 election of President Obama and the prediction by the NRA that Obama would be the "most anti-gun president in American history," gun sales in the US have thrived in the last four years. In fact, the gun business has been so lucrative that some handgun manufacturers have stopped taking orders for periods of time as demand outpaces production and background checks, considered a reliable barometer of sales, have never been higher. In my book The Humanity of Justice, I explore the confluence of human nature and the proliferation of handguns in the US.
Okay, I realize that few issues are as controversial as gun control. It's like telling people what you really think about abortion, religion, or partisan politics. Typically, people's opinions on such hotly divisive topics are formed by their own life experiences and beliefs. It's very challenging for most of us, if not impossible for some, to engage in a reasonable discussion on any issue that triggers such powerful emotions.
If you're a cop or a soldier, a handgun on your belt makes a lot of sense (unless, of course, the other guy has a rocket launcher). Handguns are supposed to be used for self-defense, to protect your life and those of others. For anyone with less upper body strength, a handgun is lighter to wield. It's also easier to maneuver with in tight spaces.
But the problem is, the handgun is a lethal weapon--that's too damn handy.
It's fairly easy to carry and conceal. You can fit in your purse, backpack, or jacket pocket. As political comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert likes to call it, "sweetness" can weigh as little as half a pound. A child or teenager can secretly carry his father's handgun in a coat pocket or a book bag undetected, and take it to school or a friend's house. But transporting a rifle or shotgun? Not so inconspicuous. It's this same portability and ease of concealment that allows adults to carry a handgun along a crowded public street, into a bar, restaurant, party, office, or most any location, save airports and courthouses.
In America, handguns are the number one weapon used in murders and suicides, and in many ways, the handgun has become the universal symbol of violence. Outside the United Nations in New York City, there's a bronze sculpture of a .45 caliber revolver, its barrel twisted into a knot. The artist Karl Fredrik Reutersward created it as an emblem of peace, and the Luxembourg government presented it to the UN in 1988. It's supposed to represent the UN's overriding mission to end violence in every country and corner of the world.
But ever since the first pistol-toting, rugged American cowboy rode into town, the handgun has wielded a romantic, almost glorified reputation for masculine power. In some neighborhoods, it's what separates the weak from the strong. Violence is ingrained in American pop culture, and there's no more potent symbol than the handgun. From badass action heroes such as James Bond and "Dirty" Harry Callahan, to fantasy-vengeance flicks such as Die Hard and Pulp Fiction, the handgun has been become an icon of "cool."
But the real problem posed by handguns is what they are in real life--the "weapon of choice" for emotionally charged, impulsive killings, the kind of crimes committed in moments of diminished judgment or extreme rage. A handgun takes away any hope that the perpetrator might cool down or think it over, if only for a few minutes, before doing something he or she can never take back. As Benjamin Franklin once so wisely reflected, "Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame." It's the same grimy residue that makes headline news.
In an episode of the Emmy-winning animated television series The Simpsons, Homer's told he has to wait five days before he can get his handgun. He counters, "But I'm mad nowwwww!" with his notorious, exaggerated whine. Laws that mandate a waiting period before buying a gun are well grounded in the fact that humans tend to act impulsively. These waiting periods are wise and necessary. They give people an opportunity to reflect and cool down, to use their heads first and not their handguns.
By nature, handguns play right into the unpredictable, transitory passions of human beings. Too many people are dead or in prison because a handgun was too convenient in a moment when their emotions got the best of them.
Yes, I make my living by holding people personally responsible for their own violent acts. So I bristle whenever people blame someone else or try to mitigate their own responsibility. But in case after case, I can also tell you that the mass proliferation of handguns has fueled and spread these human tragedies. The easy access and portability of a handgun leaves a wake of destruction for anyone affected by either end of the bullet.