Last week I argued that people encountering a gun activist who is openly carrying a weapon should leave restaurants immediately and make the activist pay for their meal. This struck a chord. As of right now, that post has been shared by over 70,000 people and there are almost 1,000 comments. [Edit: most were on Facebook which is currently not visible via our new blog platform.] By the time you read this, there will be more. First and foremost, THANK YOU! Thank you to everyone who read it, shared it, and commented on it. Even if we disagree, I am deeply honored that you all took the time to consider what I wrote and I look forward to continuing the discussion. Here is my response to all those who took the time to post their thoughts. It is long, but 1,000 comments are a lot to consider.
The response to my open-carry argument was overwhelming and I intentionally stayed out of it so that people could talk amongst themselves. I think it is time, now, to respond to those comments that I think were the most philosophically interesting, because, of course, this is a philosophy blog and not one that defends a particular public policy.
By philosophically interesting I mean that I am responding to those comments that refer to theoretical issues that lie at the foundation of the debate. They tend to be definitional or general in scope, and they usually apply to other debates as well.
This means that I will pass over the insults, the misogyny, and homophobia. I will ignore the anger and the recriminations, although I suspect I will end up writing about the rhetoric sometime in the future. I will also pass over the people who claim Hitler took away everyone’s guns as a prelude to the holocaust, although I did write a separate post about that.
I was not writing about gun control.
Only a portion of the respondents actually discussed my open-carry comments. Many, if not most, discussed gun control in general, but that was not my focus. One of the hardest things for non-philosophers to understand is that we philosophers like to talk about one thing at a time. We don’t always succeed and we do consider the consequences of our positions, but we are interested in analyzing single issues before we move on to other things.
For those interested in the more general discussion, I do indeed talk about gun control hereand here, and I even have a 90- minute debate with a formal president of the NRA that many people enjoy (video here and opening statement here).
In short, my point was not about gun control in general nor about the morality of guns in themselves. It was only about open carry and nothing more.
Open carry and conceal carry are different things.
Lots of commenters pointed out that more people conceal their guns than open carry, and that to be afraid of only those whose weapons we can see makes no sense. The two activities, they claim, are essentially the same, but I disagree. Those who conceal their guns are ready for trouble, but open-carry activists are looking for it. In general, I don’t trust anyone who is looking for trouble
There are many ways to protest gun laws. On my campus the group Females for Firearms protests once per year by wearing empty holsters to class. They inform the administration in advance who, in turn, notifies the teachers. As a result, we are all prepared. We respect their protest and in return, they respect our safety concerns. Open carry activists are not doing this. They do not warn people in advance and they give up symbolism for loaded weapons. At best, they are trying to shock and frighten, and at worst, they have an itchy trigger finger, daring people to interact with them negatively. It is often difficult to draw lines in philosophy, but one of the classic ways is to focus on a person’s intent. In the issue of open versus conceal carry, intent makes all the difference. (And for the record, I am also afraid of those who conceal their guns too, but that is a topic of another time.)
“Dine and dash” is illegal but this isn’t dine and dash.
Many people pointed out that not paying for one’s meals is illegal and claimed that using open-carry activists as an excuse to not pay a bill is thievery. I agree. Again, this is an issue of intent and I’m not talking about liars here. I’m discussing people who are legitimately concerned about guns and are genuinely afraid. Responding non-violently to their fear is not unreasonable.
The fact of the matter is that in most states, private businesses can decide whether to allow guns on their premises, and where they have that choice, they should face the consequences of their decisions. Even when businesses are prohibited by law from excluding weapons, they are still free to request that people not carry them. A sign on the door asking people to leave their guns outside is neither illegal nor rude. All my proposal is doing is holding business owners responsible for their own decisions.
I do concede that a single person leaving a restaurant may be arrested if he or she leaves, but this is why I think it is incumbent for everyone to act this way. When twenty people leave a restaurant simultaneously, the business owner will understand the point. Some commenters called this civil disobedience and it may be. This means that for many, the punishment of being arrested may be worth it, if their actions change the law and behavior, and make everyone safer. But I’m still on the fence as to whether it is civil disobedience or not, because running for one’s life is not stealing, and what the open-carry activists refuse to accept is that we are, indeed, running for our lives.
Isn’t leaving provoking people with guns?
Patrick Blanchfield wrote an excellent blog entry in response to mine, suggesting that the open-carry activists are most dangerous when they imagine themselves enforcing a law. He documents instances in which gun activists become vigilantes, and he points out that if they perceive people as stealing, many will think they have the right to shoot the thief.
Patrick is right, of course, and these dangerous vigilante tendencies are much the problem. Again, we face the issue of intent. If open-carry activists were genuinely just bringing their guns to protest, then they would be less dangerous. But they aren’t just protesting; they are looking for trouble. The violence and implied threats in the comments to my previous post provide even more evidence for their hair-trigger hostility.
The only solution I have for Patrick’s concern is, again, getting everyone to do it together. Sheer numbers will protect people best and no one should be required to be a prisoner of a gun-owner, even in a restaurant.
I’m not scared of the police.
Some people asked why I’m not as scared of the police as I am of the activists since they carry guns too. My response is that both groups have guns but only the activists have neither oversight nor accountability. Police have training. Their backgrounds are checked. Their guns are registered and in most (if not all) police departments, every gun and bullet is accounted for. If they discharge their weapon, they have to record it after the fact. They also have a community that is attentive to their psychological states and needs. As imperfect as police bureaucracies may be, if open-carry activists would consent to meeting all the conditions police have to meet in order to carry their guns, I would be willing to change my mind on this matter.
Gun owners are not victims; they are not oppressed.
A common theme in many of the responses is that by leaving the restaurant, we are oppressing gun owners. Several people claimed that if I did the same thing when a person of a different color walked into a restaurant, than it would be acting intolerantly. My comments are bigoted, they say, and anti-American.
And this gets to the heart of the nonsense. There is absolutely no scenario in which gun owners are oppressed. Gun laws have become more permissive, not less. Gun ownership is thriving and the gun lobby has more power than any other group in this country. It’s unclear how many members the NRA actually has, but even if we take them at their word and assume the unlikely number of 4.5 million, they still only represent 1.4% of the American population. This tiny portion of people controls gun policy and terrifies elected officials. They are the oppressors not the oppressed.
Furthermore, we leave places when we find things uncomfortable all the time. We leave when movies are inappropriate, when someone is being unpleasantly rowdy, and when we don’t want to see a coworker whom we don’t like. If a scantily clad couple were to walk into a restaurant, he wearing a dog chain and a leash, and she, holding his leash while wearing a 12-inch strap-on dildo, many restaurants would empty immediately. But the couple in question is not dangerous at all, nor are they doing anything illegal. Remember, there is a huge population in the United States that uses their discomfort in discussing gay marriage as a reason to deny other people the right to get married. Gay marriage isn’t dangerous, but people with guns are. In short, leaving is neither abnormal nor intolerant.
Really, I mean it. They aren’t oppressed (the really controversial bit).
Finally, I believe there is something else going on that hasn’t gotten the requisite attention. Much has been made of liberal or white guilt, the guilt that many Caucasian liberals people feel for past wrong-doings that they had no part in, but may benefit from. But little has been made of what I will call “conservative envy,” the jealousy that white (often Christian) conservatives feel about the oppression that others have experienced. Many conservatives regularly compare themselves to African Americans and Jews when someone is challenging their point of view. They decry affirmative action for their lot in life and hope to dismantle entitlement programs because, they feel, it is these that have prevented them from being super-wealthy, or famous, or in power, or cool, or whatever else they want but think they don’t have. Libertarians have built an entire philosophy on the notion that any restriction on freedom is tantamount to slavery, and many conservative Christians hold the untenable position that those who don’t abide by their rules are oppressing them. Right-wing politicians and pundits suffer from conservative envy when they claim that black Americans were better off under slavery.
Obviously, not every conservative is guilty of this, just like not every liberal feels white guilt. Furthermore, libertarianism and conservatism both have a great deal to offer political debates. I am sympathetic to many of their individual claims and all of my books defend philosophers who are conservative or libertarian icons. Nevertheless, what I suggest is that open-carry activists do seem to suffer from conservative envy. They either believe (or purport to believe) that they are victims because they want the “advantages” that they imagine marginalized people get. But there are no such advantages, and any gun owner who claims to be oppressed, or who invokes civil rights or the holocaust, is either being disingenuous or knows nothing about history.