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Some People Love Guns. Why Should the Rest of Us Be Targets?

By Jonathan Safran Foer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Knives also cut bread and carve wood and aid surgery, but guns only shoot bullets. That's what they are designed to do, and that's what they do. When we talk about protecting our right to have guns, we are talking about protecting our right to shoot bullets. So what is it that's so important to shoot at?

The principal defense of guns is constitutional. The Second Amendment ensures that "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." It's used as the final authority, to be deferred to even if not agreed with or understood. But the Constitution isn't the Bible. (The Second Amendment, being an amendment, is a testament to the Constitution's ability to correct itself.) The Founding Fathers were neither infallible nor divine. And times change.

Does anyone any longer believe that a well-regulated militia is necessary for a free state? Why do those who fall back on the constitutional defense so often avoid the terms "militia" and "state"? And why, after the massacre at Virginia Tech -- hours after -- did Sen. John McCain proclaim, "I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has, in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to carry a weapon"? Just what is it, precisely, that he believes in? Is it the Constitution itself? (But surely he thinks it was wise to change the Constitution to abolish slavery, give women the vote, end Prohibition and so on?) Or is it the guns themselves that he believes in? It would be refreshing to have a politician try to defend guns without any reference to the Second Amendment, but on the merits of guns. What if, hours after the killings, McCain had stood at the podium and said instead, "Guns are good because . . . " But what would have followed?

Guns are good because they provide the ultimate self-defense? While I'm sure some people believe that having a gun at their bedside will make them safer, they are wrong. This is not my opinion, and it's not a political or controversial statement. It is a fact. Guns kept in the home for self-protection are 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than to kill an intruder, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Guns on the street make us less safe. For every justifiable handgun homicide, there are more than 50 handgun murders, according to the FBI. The expanding right to carry concealed guns make us even less safe. So what right is being protected if it is not the right to be safe? The right to feel safe, at the expense of actual safety?

Or perhaps guns are good because they facilitate hunting? It's a constitutional red herring, but no coincidence or surprise, that the National Rifle Association is so closely aligned with hunters -- they are the group's most powerful contingent. Let's just assume, for a moment, that hunting is good. Really, really good. (It must be, if militias and self-defense don't explain guns.) How many of the nearly 3,000 children who are killed by firearms in the United States each year does the good of hunting justify? All of them? A handful? How many of the students and faculty at Virginia Tech? And what's so good about hunting, anyway?

It's rarely talked about, but hunting for sport is just about as vile as we humans get. In the words of former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, "Most wicked deeds are done because the doer proposes some good to himself . . . [but] the killer for sport has no such comprehensible motive. He prefers death to life, darkness to light. He gets nothing except the satisfaction of saying, 'Something that wanted to live is dead.' " If the thrill of hunting were in the hunt, or even in the marksmanship, a camera would do just as well. (Imagine hunting cameras that looked and felt like guns.) But something else is going on. Something that sounds as bad as it is. Hunters love death. Can someone explain to me why that's acceptable, or why that love of death should be more important than the safety of the 94 percent of us who don't have hunting licenses and don't hunt?

In 2004, more preschoolers than law enforcement officers were killed by firearms, according to the Children's Defense Fund. The number of children killed by guns in the United States each year is about three times greater than the number of servicemen and women killed annually in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, more children -- children-- have been killed by guns in the past 25 years than the total number of American fatalities in all wars of the past five decades. It's possible that the upcoming election will be decided by the war in Iraq. But what about the far deadlier war at home?

Jonathan Safran Foer, a Washington native, is the author of two novels, "Everything Is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

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