Normally, when I debate representatives from the National Rifle Association (NRA), hostile questions from the audience come from those with a decidedly Libertarian bent to their politics. Typically, these individuals advocate for broader latitude on the part of Americans to respond to criminals with loaded firearms and lethal force.
I was therefore taken aback—and pleasantly surprised—to have my credentials as a practitioner of non-violence called into question during a debate with the NRA’s Outreach Director in late February of this year.
The audience was not our typical group of American college students. This time, our debate was occurring in front of a group of British high school students visiting Washington. Specifically, these were 16-19 year-olds from Shrewsbury Sixth Form College and Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington.
When the Q&A eventually began, their professor/chaperone stated outright that my opponent would likely be getting most of the questions, and encouraged the students to save some for me. Still, I was caught quite off-guard when a young man stood up and asked me if I thought it was appropriate to shoot an intruder in my home. It was clear from his tone that he did not think it was appropriate.
I told him that I’d likely never find out, because I do not keep a firearm in my home and would never consider doing so—particularly given the fact that my wife and I now have children. That said, I added, I have no problem with another American citizen keeping a firearm in his/her home for self-defense and using it if absolutely necessary. The NRA’s outreach director then chimed in and said he was happy to hear me say that. He, of course, had zero problems with blowing a home intruder away.
Another young Brit who was sitting in the audience that day later summed up the students’ reaction in a blog:
We were surprised to hear that Ladd Everitt of [the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence] saw shooting intruders in his home as an acceptable option … I’m not unrealistic, and I know that people’s instincts are to protect themselves and their loved ones. But when a weapon is introduced, the situation is more likely to become fatal—something [he] told us in [his] talk. I think the worry for me personally was that people would become judge, jury and executioner in these situations. While I agree that it is fair to protect yourself, I don’t agree that you can unnecessarily injure or kill someone. This becomes a whole lot easier when guns are involved, and that is why we see groups like [his] as so important.
As I headed home after the debate that day, I felt a strange combination of emotions: Disappointment in myself that I had somehow let these students down, and excitement (and even inspiration) regarding their attitudes toward nonviolence. Being an American, I was stunned. You see, here we embrace “justified violence” from sea to shining sea, whether it’s the guy in Georgia who wants to carry a loaded handgun into an airport or the Hollywood producer behind “Shoot ‘Em Up.”
I wondered why these British students embraced the principles of nonviolence so readily and confidently. In all my years speaking to American students, I’d never seen anything like it. Is it simply because—whatever their concerns about self-defense—they understand that the gun death rate is 30 times lower in their country than in the United States? [I mean, let’s face it, if an armed society was a polite society, the U.S. wouldn’t have higher homicide and gun death rates than virtually every other industrialized democracy on the planet.]
Or is it something more? Don’t these kids play the same video games, watch the same movies (think “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) and listen to the same music that our kids do?
I can’t claim that I’ve quite sorted it all out yet, but I will say that the experience filled me with a profound sense of hope that is still resonating with me now, months later.
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It sounds as if the British students have become far more conditioned to submission and oppression than their American counterparts. Certainly, it seems like far less a level of perceived threat would be required to get them to comply with the dictates of those threatening.
The most chilling word was ‘unnecessarily’… as in ‘unnecessarily injure or kill someone’. When someone is breaking into your home, how do you determine what is necessary? When they’re breaking in? When they’ve broken in? When they are waving a knife at you? When they are raping your daughter? In the sterile environment of the courtroom, one can make pious, after-the-fact judgements about ‘necessity’, but during the event, to default to passive submission on the assumption that the use of force may be unnecessary invites disaster, especially when such an attitude becomes so ingrained in the populace that predators know they can threaten with impunity.
And the next time you seek to denigrate the maxim that an armed society is a polite society, please note the corollary between areas with strict gun control laws and the incidence of violent crime.
I have little patience for those who preach nonviolence. It only works when your attacker/oppressor has morals and a conscience. I used to believe in it. I was mugged at age 19, age 21, and raped at age 26. None of the attackers carried firearms. But I sure as hell do, now, and I feel like a free woman again, not a helpless victim of circumstance, and I do whatever I can to let others know that they needn’t live a life of fearful passivity.
thanks for your honest reflection of this incident. I think it clearly shows how much violence is “embedded” in our society that even long term nonviolence proponents are willing, even for one moment, to concede deadly force in a self-defense situation. It’s hard to argue otherwise, and we certainly don’t want to promote passivity in the face of violence and fear.
I’m from Australia and the presence of guns in society is nowhere near the levels in the US. We’ve had a number of tragic shootings (eg Port Arthur and Monash University) but very few people seriously considers the appropriate security measure is for students or the public to carry loaded guns. In fact it had the opposite effect, bringing in new, tougher gun control laws.
In Britain a large section of the police force does not carry guns and I think this has a big psychological effect on society at large. If policing can be done safely without the presence of guns, for the most part, then the feeling of security in general is likely to be high by the general public.
Sociologically, I continue to notice the TV programs coming out of the US, prime-time family-oriented programs like National Geographic, portraying a world that is wild, dangerous and unpredictable. If that’s what we’re feeding ourselves from a young age there is little wonder that deadly self-defense is perceived as a realistic, moral and necessary response to external threats, despite the evidence that more unintentional harm is done by keeping loaded weapons in the home.
May peace grow in us all!
Those are some wise and interesting thoughts, Chris. Thanks for sharing them.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations. As somebody who spends some of their time working with young people in the UK, thinking about nonviolence I can echo your observations. The culture of having a gun in your home is so alien that young people here find the American situation so unjustifiable. But I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling their attitudes as nonviolent. I don’t know if you talked about international issues, but I find that British young people, generally can’t concieve of solving these issues in a nonviolent manner. With our own bloody history, they are as happy as any to resort to violence as, because in the uk this kind of violence is as culturally acceptable as owning a gun is in the US.
Thanks for being so honest in your reflection. This has inspired and encouraged me to think more critically about my own attitude toward possessing firearms, how to resolve conflicts, etc. Keep up the good writing!
This story gives me yet another reason to be filled with gratitude that our forefathers killed a bunch of redcoated thugs, thus getting our country out from under the degeneracy of a culture that prefers being a victim, rather than destroying one’s assailants.
The spirit of armed resistance to evil still exists in this country, and will continue to exist for as long as this country remains worth saving.
Better to die free than live a slave! The syrupy pablum ladled out generously that violence is never justified merely empowers the violent. It makes the false assumption that everyone who is not a sheep becomes a wolf. Me? I stand with the sheepdogs. And yet as soon as the wolves are once again at bay, we shall here the sheep bleat that violence is “never the answer”, while refusing to recognize the armed force and (more often) the threat thereof that keeps them safe.
I swore 10 years ago never to be led to the slaughter on the altar of nonviolence again, and believe I am a better person for it. God bless and keep all those that volunteer to do what others won’t to keep society safe and civil, from the soldier at the front all the way down to the mother who has taken the time to educate herself and learn to shoot a gun so that, in the final extremity, she can effectively defend her family from the wolves the nonviolence crowd pretend scarcely exist.
In the UK, it is effectively against the law to defend yourself from a home invader. They’re taught to allow themselves to be victims, rather than fight back. I’m not saying it’s part of the lesson plan in school, but finding out that a home owner who hits a home invader with a bat will spend ten years in jail, whereas the home invader will spend a few months in jail, tends to teach the lesson fairly well.
Yes, well, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. It sounds like its in full force in Britain, and possibly on its way to America if the nonviolence crowd succeeds in metastasizing their worldview here.
— “[A]fter taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”