Guns R not us
April 16, 2007, was like any other spring day on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Seung-Hui Cho, carrying a Walther P22 and a Glock 19 semi-automatic, opened indiscriminate fire, first in a residential dorm and later in several classrooms of Norris Hall. Cho was an English
major with a history of mental illness. He killed 32 people before turning the weapon on himself. Gun rights advocates argued that Cho’s death toll would have been lower had some of his victims been armed.
On October 17, 1992, Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori was on his way to a Halloween party in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He got confused about the address and knocked on the wrong door. The couple in the house, encountering a foreigner in strange costume and alien manners, mistook him to be a criminal intruder. Hattori was fatally shot in the chest by Rodney Peairs, the homeowner. In the trial, Peairs was acquitted of manslaughter charges under Louisiana’s “kill the burglar” statute. To his mind, he was defending himself.
“Guns don’t kill people, people do” is a favourite slogan of the powerful gun lobby in America. This is actually a profound statement, though its complexities often elude those who love its rhetorical flourish. The widespread availability of guns fundamentally alters risk perceptions and reactions among members of a society. To understand the most far-reaching implications of the right to bear arms, we must focus not on tactics but on psychology.
America’s love affair with guns has its roots in the country’s very foundations, its frontiers country philosophy and mistrust of government, the hunting tradition that is still widespread and, above all, it is enshrined in the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Though the same right is granted to all Indian citizens by the Constitution, carrying guns has always been an alien and scary concept for the urban middle class, and strict government regulations make it difficult for a citizen to get a licence.
All this may change soon if a nascent National Rifle Association-style movement gains momentum. The National Association for Gun Rights in India (Nagri) held its first meeting last year, gathering support from prominent politicians like Digvijay Singh and Naveen Jindal. Gun rights lobbyists are now organising themselves over the Internet, at forums like. Media coverage of violent crime in places like Gurgaon and Noida is making urban professionals, including women, warm up to the idea of self-defence with firearms.
What will incredible India look like if guns become household items or nestle with lipstick in every Gucci handbag? Let me turn to a thought experiment proposed by Thomas Schelling, a noted game theorist. A man, on hearing suspicious noises in his home, grabs his gun and rushes to the living room, where he finds himself face-to-face with an armed burglar. What outcome can we expect from this confrontation? A quiet exit of the burglar or a bloody shootout?
Of course, most burglars and homeowners would want the situation to be diffused. Ideally, they would like their weapon to act as an instrument of deterrence, not death. However, neither side can rule out the possibility that the other party isn’t a trigger-happy desperado or an avenging angel bent on retribution. That possibility, however small, unleashes a powerful chain of reasoning that may make it logical for each side to pull the trigger regardless of his true intentions. It starts thus: “Maybe I should shoot him in case he is crazy”, which, of course, leads to “Maybe I should shoot him in case s/he thinks I am crazy”, followed by “Maybe I should shoot him in case he thinks I think he is crazy” and so on. There is a possible reason to shoot at many levels, which add up to a very solid reason to open fire, maybe even a compelling one.
Gun control advocates often rest their arguments on the possibility of lunatics getting hold of firearms, but this is easily refutable. We do not avoid choices because of a tiny probability of a fatal result — we get on airplanes in spite of the occasional plane crash. The right prototype for gun violence is not the Virginia Tech shooter but the Japanese exchange student who delivered a Halloween scare to the wrong address.
When people talk about what could have been, they erroneously use the clarity of hindsight. What if some of the victims of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai were armed and capable of fighting back? When these events unravel in real time, people have to make split-second decisions under a cloud of uncertainty and rumour. Who is the assailant and who is the resisting citizen? How many terrorists are there? Is this a real attack or a false alarm?
Schelling’s burglar parable illustrates what is wrong with guns in the hands of the sane. The argument does not rely on human folly or adrenalin rush. Ironically, it is a series of deductive steps that builds on hyper-rationality, and the fundamental imperative to shoot before being shot at. It cannot be neutralised by advocating calm and “responsible” gun use.
It is tempting to conclude that people who crave weapons for self-defence are deluded fools with a death wish, but that would be a mistake. For an individual living in a crime-ridden environment, being armed and ready could make sense. There are many kinds of social interactions where what is good for an individual is a disaster when everyone does it. Like nuclear disarmament, gun control is a collective interest — we must resist universal weaponisation, even if we are individually tempted to arm ourselves.
When lethal weapons are everywhere, the line between offence and defence is blurred and pre-emption may become its own justification, leading to a contagion of suspicion and violence. Everyone is quick to the trigger because everyone else is. Into that hell of freedom, my Father, let my country not awake.
Parikshit Ghosh, associate professor, Delhi School of Economics