Arms as Instruments of Evil Omen
In the Daodejing, attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi, it is said: “Arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore, those who have Dao do not like to employ them” (chapter 31). What Laozi pointed out more than two thousand years ago is the plain fact that arms will lead to evil outcomes and thus should be avoided at all costs.
On June 23, 2013, a five-year-old girl in New Orleans died from a self-inflicted gunshot would to the head. On June 7, a four-year-old boy found a gun in the house of his father’s friend and accidentally shot and killed his father. On May 6, a three-year-old boy in Florida accidentally shot and killed himself with a handgun he found in the room he shared with his uncle. On April 30, a five-year-old boy in Kentucky accidentally shot and killed his two-year-old sister while playing with a rifle given to him as a gift. On April 9, during a family cookout in Tennessee, a four-year-old picked up a loaded gun from the bed and pulled the trigger. The bullet killed the wife of a sheriff’s deputy, who was hosting the party. On December 5, 2012, a four-year-old boy in Minnesota shot and killed his two-year-old brother while playing with his father’s gun. Tragedies like these are becoming rampant in all parts of the country, due to the simple fact that there are more and more people owning guns and these people treat their guns as common household items. Nowadays guns do not belong merely to law-enforcers, gang members, murderers or robbers. In our society, everyone with or without a solid background check has a means of getting guns and even highly destructive assault weapons. Gun-possession has become so ingrained in our culture that there are people who would defend to the death their right to own guns, with a simple argument that the right to bear arms is granted in our Constitution.
What do we fear more: tyranny of the State or tyranny of the minority who own guns?
The Second Amendment has its historical roots. Ratified in 1791, it was meant to give citizens of the United States the means to defend themselves against attacks from others, including a tyrannical federal government, should the threat ever arise. Resistance to tyranny and oppression was a major motivating cause for the framers’ adoption of this amendment. Some people today believe that we are still under this threat. They do not want to give up their arms for fear that the government has a conspiracy against its people. Some of them don’t even trust the media coverage of mass shootings, and suspect that some government agency is behind all major catastrophes involving guns. Is this fear justified?
If one believes that the government wants to disarm its citizens, one must consider what benefit there would be for “the government.” Our government is not a monolithic entity consisting of thousands of like-minded people with shared interests. As early as 1788, James Madison had the foresight to analyze the nature of government and the way to safeguard against its tyranny: “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” (The Federalist, No. 51) What Madison suggested as a way to control the government was not for the people to deny its authority, but for the government itself to contain opposite and rival powers, to include people and departments of different interests, and to distribute authorities respectively. In addition to what was instituted as different departments of checks and balances, our political structure is typified by two parties equally competitive and hence critical of each other. Are we to believe that all these different minds from various backgrounds with rival interests would agree upon one common goal: to disarm the people for complete subjugation?
On the other hand, we as a society are subjected to the tyranny of those who would use guns against innocent others for personal vendetta, on a whim or out of a demented personality. Adam Lanza, a twenty-year old with a troubled past, shot and killed twenty young children and six adults with a semiautomatic assault rifle AR-15 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. John Zawahri, 23, shot and killed his father and brother, before going to Santa Monica College and killing five more total strangers along the way. Seung-Hui Cho, 23, killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself at Virginia Tech University. James Holmes, 24, took an assortment of weapons to a movie theater in Colorado during the screening of the new Batman movie, killing twelve people and wounding 58 others. Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, went into a mall in Oregon with a mask and a semiautomatic rifle AR-15. He began a shooting spree in the mall that was crowded with holiday shoppers, killing two people before committing suicide. Robert A. Hawkins, 19, carried a stolen semiautomatic rifle to the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska and started shooting. He fired more than thirty rounds, and killed nine people. Senseless mass killings with assault weapons have occurred in our elementary schools, in colleges, in shopping malls, and in movie theaters. Before these events, the killers were just like anyone of us, anonymous, living in our own corners of society. But they had the power to take away innocent lives, destroy happy families, upset our social order and shatter our illusion that the world is a safe place. Who is going to be the next random shooter? Where will the next mass shooting take place? We now live under the threat of unpredictable violence against ourselves, our loved ones, and against the people whose tragic stories we read about in the headline news. Our society seems to be laced with these hidden potential killers in every corner. And they have the assault weapons to do what they want with us. This is the tyranny of the minority.
Is the right to bear arms the right thing for our society?
Some people argue that this is exactly why we should all have guns for self-defense. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, the National Rifle Association proposed that we arm teachers and school officials, and now from Texas to Ohio, more and more teachers are taking lessons on how to use guns effectively. Gun sales skyrocketed to an all-time high in recent months, and among all the firearms showcased in a gun show near Atlanta, the hottest seller was the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that has been used in many of the mass shootings. According to Mark Malkowski, president of Stag Arms, a manufacturer for the AR-15, at this point they are at about a year’s backorder, 70,000 rifles. Together with other manufacturers of the AR-15, they sell about 800,000 semiautomatic rifles a year, nearly all of which are for the domestic market. Do people buy these rifles for self-defense? If those random shootings listed above could happen anywhere, any time, by anyone who wants to destroy others before committing suicide, then should we all carry semiautomatic assault weapons to shopping malls, to movie theaters, to classrooms, and basically anywhere that might have strangers with guns and a violent intent? What is the scenario if someone does attempt to shoot and kill? Do we just launch into an open shootout in our classrooms and shopping malls? Bullets don’t have eyes and shooters are not perfect marksmen. How many more casualties would we incur before we call it quits? Is this the direction we want our society to go? A society inundated with guns is destined for self-destruction.
There are also those who want to own guns simply because it is their right to bear arms. Indeed, the government is in no position to infringe on the people’s rights, especially when those rights are protected under the Constitution. But the notion of right is being abused in our society. The recognition of rights should be “others-directed” rather than self-proclaimed. We need to recognize others’ rights in our dealings with them, and we expect others to similarly respect our rights. However, some rights are our natural rights and should be granted to everyone; some other rights are conventional rights and should be negotiable in a civil society. According to John Locke, in the state of nature, where there is no common dominion and no legal bounds, everyone has the right to punish transgressors. However, such a state easily turns into a state of war, a state characterized by “enmity and destruction.” To avoid this state of war, humans subject themselves to society and quit the state of nature. When humans enter into a civil society, they consent to giving up some of their rights in exchange for a harmonious coexistence with others. Locke declares that in a civil society, it is too inconvenient to have everyone be the executive of punishment. The right to bear arms is thus not an absolute inalienable right in a civil society. If we now revert back to carrying guns and readily using them for self-defense or retaliation, then we are forfeiting our state of civility and returning our society to a state of war.
Many people who legally own guns profess that they pose no threat to society since they are rational and self-monitored. Nevertheless, for every gun owned by someone responsible, there will be nephews, sons, grandchildren, friends and neighbors or their children, etc., who are irresponsible and who have caused great calamity either intentionally or accidentally with found guns, as we have seen in the above cases that took place all over the nation. How many more of those accidents involving children with guns will we read about in the future? Arms are instruments of evil omen, as Laozi said. Why do we want to keep this evil omen in our households, in classrooms, and among our personal belongings? Even if the government is not the right agency to ban gun ownership, rational citizens in our society should start to say NO to this current trend of increasing gun sales and the proliferation of massively destructive weapons. We do not want to see our society deteriorate back to the hostile state of war, and we do not want to live under the tyranny of those who own weapons of mass destruction.
What kind of society do we want for ourselves and for our children?
It is time for the whole society to consider where we are going with the current trend of gun proliferation. We as a society need to cultivate a different mentality, a different philosophy of life. According to the ancient Chinese worldview, there are five fundamental elements of all things: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. These five elements also represent five different forms of existence. Arms are representative of metal, whose nature is hard, sharp and whose life form is to advance, to harm, or to kill. In his metaphor about the philosophy of life, Laozi appeals to water: “The highest good is like water. Water is good in that it benefits everything without contending with them” (Chapter 8). Taking the lesson from the nature of water, we need to think about nurturing and benefiting others rather than arming ourselves against the threat of others. Having more informed concerns for those with mental imbalance and bystanders’ intervention could curb the spread of random violence. Having more arms, on the other hand, cannot remove the threat of arms. For gun owners, the first step is to drop the weapons. Every gun owner should be asking him or herself: “what is the right thing for our society?” and not just “what is within my right?” We as members of a civil society can negotiate away the legal right to buy and sell assault weapons such as the AR-15. After a horrific massacre executed by a lone shooter in 1996, Australia changed their existing gun laws and banned high-powered assault weapons. To ensure the reduction of gun possession, the Australian government also adopted a federally financed gun buyback program. There was strong resistance at the time, but the program succeeded. As John Howard, the prime minister of Australia at the time, writes, “Almost 700,000 guns were bought back and destroyed — the equivalent of 40 million guns in the United States” (The New York Times, January 16, 2013). After the gun-control laws were passed in 1996, Australia’s gun-related homicide rate dropped sharply and there has not been a single gun massacre since then. We can do the same here as a social movement. Without the gun culture, our society may begin to restore peace and harmony.