I'm not the only one with guns on the mind. I have never been a strong advocate one way or another of gun rights, there have been other issues, like the environment, reason, and fairness that have held my attention instead.
With the senseless killing by a 20 year old of six adults and twenty children, the argument that has been playing out in this country for my whole life about guns is bouncing around in my head.
Are my friends right when they say that guns don't kill people, people kill people?
Would murder still happen if you take guns out of the equation? I mean, knives, baseball bats, and almost anything else you think of could also be used for murder.
What is the difference between gun rights and the right to own knives, matches, gasoline, or any other dangerous thing?
Some of my thoughts after the croissant, ways of thinking about guns that I haven't seen other places.
The argument goes like this:
"If the killer did not have access to guns, he would have used something else, like a knife or fire. Surely we can't regulate access to things just because they are potentially deadly."
In chemistry, there is a phrase called "Activation Energy" that I've used a lot in my work as a user experience designer for software. The chemistry meaning of this term is the amount of energy required for a chemical reaction to begin. For example, temperature or catalysts may be added to lower the amount of energy it requires for a reaction to occur.
When I design user experiences, I think about activation energy a lot. A button that is visible without scrolling requires less energy to click than a button that you must scroll down to see. A checkout process on an e-commerce site that includes a preferences survey requires more energy than Amazon's "one-click" purchase process.
So it is with guns.
The energy required to kill someone with a gun, compared with the energy required to kill someone with a bat, a knife, drowning, rope, or many other forms of mayhem, is less. All you need to do is aim and shoot.
Think about camera phones. In days gone by, to take a photo, you would set up a tripod, mount the camera, adjust the lens, insert the film, pose the subjects, and then later go through a long chemical process to see the result. Cost and availability of photography equipment notwithstanding, there weren't a lot of photos taken when this is the amount of energy it requires to snap one pic. Now, everyone has a camera in their pocket, and now we are on a trajectory where number of photos taken each year exceeds the total number of photos ever taken by mankind in all years prior.
Point and shoot. It's less work. More people do it. Less activation energy.
There is another reason guns are different than other killing implements, like knives, karate, drowning, etc.
There is a famous thought experiment called the "Trolley Problem" that goes roughly like this:
Five men are standing on a railway track. Unbeknownst to them all, a train is hurling toward them and will kill them all.The vast majority of people presented with this problem will pull the lever in scenario 1, but, even though the life/death ratio is identical, would not push the big-boned man off the bridge in scenario 2.
Scenario 1: There is a lever in front of you that would divert the train to another track, where only one person stands. If you observed the scene, and had the option to pull that lever to save the five by killing the one, would you do that?
Scenario 2: Same situation as before, five men standing on the track who will all die from the oncoming train. You can save them. In this case, though, you are above the scene on a bridge, and beside you is a very fat man (the thought experiment is not sensitive to weight issues). You can save the five but only by grabbing the fat man and pushing him off the bridge onto the tracks, killing him, to derail the train.
There is something to this.
The fact of killing with a gun is more like pulling the lever in scenario 1, and most other means of murder are more like pushing the man in scenario 2. We (very generally) share an internal moral compass that favors humanity when we are part of the scene.
What if you had the same gun argument with a proponent of "Assassination Drones"? This guy thinks it's everyones' God-given right to own whatever hardware and technology you want. Never mind that it's a video-equipped, gun-equipped drone that can sneak up on anyone without repercussion to strike them dead at a distance.
I've heard the argument that asks whether there is a difference between gun ownership and shoulder-launched rocket ownership. It's not too far off my point, but the issue is not firepower. Instead, it's ethical involvement with the cause and effect of the action.
So, I do think that there is a difference between guns and knives. From the psychological and ethical perspective of the owner, killing with one is easy and free of (in the moment, at least) perceived personal involvement, and with the other, it's not easy and the act itself gives moral pause to the actor.