Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Responsibility and Guns

I haven't had a chance, yet, to read the original piece, but I just read a commentary on an essay by Stephen King, in which he explores the connection between guns in the media and actual, real world violence. I absolutely love the fact that he addresses the questions of rights and responsibility, head-on:
…I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

 I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, “We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.”
I'm a pretty strident supporter of First Amendment rights, and I would defend, until I was hoarse and blue in the face, King's right to keep publishing a book, even though it may contribute to violent acts. But, I applaud with even greater enthusiasm his willingness to focus on his responsibility, not just his rights.

Whether a novel can actually, meaningfully contribute to violence is a very difficult question. And, it's probably a debate worth having, although I imagine it will be ambiguous, circular, inconclusive and deeply, deeply frustrating. But, if I'm an author who becomes convinced that there is, at the very least, a real possibility that my writing might be contributing to violence, don't I have a responsibility to at least think about stopping? If my novel (or essay, or sermon, or painting, or movie…) might take the life of one innocent person, then doesn't that override whatever rights I may have? I don't mean that it negates those rights in a legal sense. I mean that, in a moral sense, it makes them irrelevant. 

I have the right to write whatever I want. But, that doesn't make it right to do so.

You may have guessed, I feel exactly the same way about much of the conversation around gun control. There are some serious conversations that we have to have, as a society, about what laws and regulations can meaningfully reduce gun violence. I've heard arguments, for example, that any restriction on large capacity magazines will be meaningless, and won't do a thing to reduce violence. As we decide what we're going to regulate, or ban, it seems important to have a serious discussion about what regulations, or bans, will be effective. And, I'm sure that that discussion will be ambiguous, circular, inconclusive and deeply, deeply frustrating. But, we have to have it. Because, we've got to figure out what, if anything, will stop the violence, or at least reduce it.

You may, or may not, have the right to a large capacity magazine. But, if allowing you access to that magazine will result in the death of one more innocent person, then don't you have a responsibility, don't we all, to forgo that right? To at least entertain the idea?

One of the biggest differences between Judaism and "Western thought," has to do with questions of blame and responsibility. In the West, especially (it seems to me) under our legal system, the ultimate question is "Who's to blame?" And, it seems to always be implied (if not stated outright) that if one person is to blame, then the rest of us aren't. That if I didn't do something, directly, then I am not to blame for it.

Judaism, for the most part, takes a different view. The ultimate question is, "What could I have done to prevent this?" And, even if I'm not "to blame," doesn't the fact that I could have possibly stopped this make me somewhat responsible for it?

This isn't just about gun control — if I contribute, even through my inaction, to any societal problem, then I am partially to blame, or at least partially responsible for, that problem, and for its results. If I don't help the poor to get out of their poverty, and that poverty leads to crimes, then I have some responsibility for those crimes. If I fight to protect dangerous, unnecessary weapons, and those weapons are used to kill innocents, then I have some responsibility for those deaths. You might claim that that isn't "fair." You might claim that it goes against "personal responsibility."

I might claim that, fair or not, that sense of responsibility will move me to act. Will move me to try to alleviate the problem. Will move me to try to make the world a better place. I'm not sure that "fair" is the only operative category here.

I deeply, profoundly believe in rights. We should thank God for the rights we have, and we should protect them, vigorously.

But, lets not make an idol out of them.

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