Almost a year to the date of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and we are faced with another school shooting, this one at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. The details, at this point, are still hazy, but one thing remains clear: we desperately need to have a sensible, real discussion about gun control.
Of course, those already convinced otherwise, those so-called defenders of the Second Amendment, will scream: the solution is not less guns, but more—arm teachers if you have to! Arm everyone! The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
There’s plenty wrong with this logic, and I think A Christmas Story has something to say about it. Yes, that A Christmas Story, Bob Clark’s now classic light-hearted, nostalgic take on the holiday season that is virtually ubiquitous on cable from Thanksgiving up to the New Year. Let me explain.
One of the main arguments for easy access to guns, especially the powerful kind, is self-defense. Since an armed criminal element exists and is bent on wreaking havoc on normal, law-abiding citizens, guns are necessary for our own protection. No amount of gun control is going to stop a determined criminal, the argument goes, so we need guns to deter crime and, more importantly, to put a stop to crime when it occurs.
It’s notoriously difficult, of course, to determine with accuracy the relationship between gun ownership, gun control, and crime. Nevertheless, common sense tells us that a determined criminal will strike despite the possibility that the victim might be in possession of a gun. That’s just what it means to be determined, so logically speaking it’s unlikely that the mass existence of legal guns among otherwise law-abiding citizens has much of a deterrent effect.
As far as the need for guns for direct self-defense, it’s at one level a fair point. We all want to be able to defend ourselves and others, especially in seemingly life or death situations. But the simple fact of the matter is that such situations are extremely rare: most of those who own guns—and most of those who do not—will never find themselves in the type of life or death situations where the use of force is either warranted or necessitated. That such situations are common, despite all evidence to the contrary, is little more than a fantasy, a fantasy fed by fear and, in many ways, produced by gun ownership itself.
It’s this fantasy that we see acted out in A Christmas Story. Ralphie desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun, designed to resemble the Winchester rifle found in Western movies, for Christmas. While fantasizing at the beginning of the movie about the object of his desire, Ralphie daydreams about protecting his family from a band of robbers attempting to break into his house. Ralphie, dressed in kitschy western get-up and sure of himself, handily and steadily picks off the robbers one-by-one, because of the gun.
Of course we would all like to think that, confronted with a similar situation, we too would act with such decisiveness, precisely because we have the upper hand in being armed. The gun gives us the confidence to face such situations and reminds us that we are always ready, because that’s what the gun is for. The reality, however, is that such situations, on the slight chance that they do happen, are fraught with fear and anxiety rather than decisiveness, meaning that there is the real possibility for something to go wrong. Most people simply don’t act well in tense, life or death situations, simply because we don’t often find ourselves in them. No amount of firearm training will alter that.
Throughout A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s desire for a Red Ryder BB gun is met with the warning, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” Ralphie, of course, will have none of it, but when he finally gets his gun, he shoots himself in the eye. Unintentionally, of course, but it happened nonetheless. According to the CDC, in 2008-2009, there were 1,146 firearm-related deaths classified as “unintentional,” meaning that they were accidental. Add to this the 35,826 “unintentional” non-fatal firearm-related injuries during the same period, and you get the point. With so many accidents, it’s not at all clear how much guns contribute to our protection, all things considered.
To those shouting for less and less gun control as a solution to our school- and mass-shooting problems, perhaps we would do well to simply respond as did Ralphie’s mom, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”