Many years ago, working on my MAT, I was fortunate to stumble into the classroom of a teacher who was well and truly ‘old school’. He was domineering. He was obstinate. He was rude. He suffered nothing remotely close to foolishness. He publicly embarrassed me on more than one occasion.
Yet I went out of my way, to take another course under him. Years later, he pulled strings so that I could teach his granddaughters. I visited him in the hospital, and sawed firewood in his stead. Later, I helped spread his ashes off Cape Lookout. I both respected and loved him. He opened my eyes.
One essay that he shared in that second college course, was the classic ecological piece by Garrett Hardin: ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, written in 1968. It largely deals with overpopulation, which is irrelevant to my rambling here. But it describes a centuries-old social contract that sheds light on our current self-destructive obsession with guns in America.
The essay, based on the 19th century writing of William Forster Lloyd, describes the costs and benefits of an individual raising his personal cattle on communal grazing space, known as the ‘commons’. As Hardin writes: “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries…. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.
1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1. Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
Enough about cows.
Let’s talk about slaughtered American civilians.
Our debates over gun control are understandably very complex.
I own a gun. Actually, several.
But as I’ve written elsewhere, we not only don’t control guns, they control us.
It was Dr. Charles Jenner who introduced me to Hardin, who introduced me to Lloyd, who previously shed light on the basic human trait that makes it so damned difficult to find common ground on this tragedy.
Guns are like cattle. But rather than providing economic security for an individual, they provide a sense of physical security. For most, possibly including me, that is illusory. As statistics show, the presence of a firearm in a home is more likely to create violence rather than prevent it. However, I readily accept that there are individuals who have the proper training and temperament to manage a firearm. In my recent experience, those individuals argue loudly and logically that any restriction on their access to a semi-automatic weapon capable of using a high-capacity magazine makes them less safe. I agree that in certain situations, they have a valid point. They may indeed be safer. If, as they argue, an armed ‘good guy’ who was highly-trained and cool-headed been present at X (pick your massacre), the death toll may well have been reduced.
But in allowing for that rare possibility, we make ourselves much, much less safe. It’s the ‘tragedy of the commons’, substituting safety for profit. And assault rifles for livestock.
By law, allowing that previously-mentioned, well-trained civilian access to a weapon that can fire multiple rounds per second, with magazines that hold 30-150 rounds, in reality means that almost ANYONE can own the same handheld carnage factory. Such has been the case for twelve years, since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired. In the decade-plus since, the genie has left the bottle. Firearms designed for inflicting mass casualty are cheaply available almost everywhere. As a result, on average there is a firearm for every man, woman and child in this country, and increasingly those guns fit into the ‘assault weapon’ category, rather than your uncle’s deer rifle.
So, my point? While I accept that a rare civilian may personally benefit from easy access to such a gun, his or her access comes at a huge price. Namely, that all of us, including that person, are far less safe, because we are awash in a sea of easily-accessible mass casualty weapons, thus hugely increasing the odds that any one of us will walk into the wrong bar.
Or the wrong school.
Or the wrong theatre.
Again, my suggestions on walking this back are elsewhere. But I thought it useful to throw one more element into our discussion on our uniquely American problem. Some of the opponents of gun regulation are being ‘logical’, while largely oblivious or unmoved by the selfishness of their position.