If anyone is likely to have a gun at any time, society and daily life feel the consequences. Police shot first and ask questions later, and the possibility of being shot for absolutely no reason becomes a practical reality of going to work, going out with friends, and simply going about the mundane reality of life. This is the world that Vox wants to bring about, all for the sake of political grandstanding and an impressively large ego.
When I was around 12 years old I was on a train traveling from the East Coast of the United States where I would visit my family back to my hometown of Seattle. The train never left the borders of the United States, but came within the 100-mile zone beginning at the border that allows the Border Control to carry out operations, and on one of the stops, agents boarded the train. At the moment I was talking to a Mexican-American family in the lounge car, and when the agent reached us, he asked if I was a US citizen. I said yes. He turned to the family across from me whose brown skin juxtaposed mine, and asked the same question. When they also said yes, he asked to see their passports. With nervousness written clearly over their faces, they rushed back to their luggage to find their documentation.
My conversation abruptly cut off, I returned to my seat in the passenger car. A middle-aged Asian woman a few rows ahead of me was soon approached by agents and asked for her passport. She didn't seem to understand their questions, and kept repeating the word “citizen”, looking more and more confused.
After watching this scene for a while, I stood up with my youthful fearlessness and tried to tell the officers that she didn't understand their questions, and that I had seen her get on a few stops ago. My intention was to deescalate, but instead, the younger of the two agents whipped around and began to pull his gun out of its holster. I don't know if he had meant to raise it, because his older partner, wide-eyed, grabbed his arm and quickly lead him out of the train. The now undisturbed woman just stared at me, completely baffled.
This was my first interaction with law enforcement involving guns.
Years later I was back in the USA for summer break. A couple friends who also went to my European university had come to visit my quiet, suburban community. In order not to disturb my sleeping parents, at around 1 am we walked to my childhood elementary school around the corner to drink and catch up. We had some fast food and a bottle of cheap whiskey, sipping it slowly and enjoying ourselves without getting particularly drunk.
At around three in the morning an alarm went off. It sounded like a car alarm from the nearby houses, so we didn’t think much of it, until we saw police lights in the distance. Before we could go anywhere, three police officers were coming directly at us with flashlights and guns raised like you see in bad tv shows. Behind a building, but knowing they would find us, I decided to step out first since my identification was local. With both hands raised, I slowly walked out to loud, contradictory shouts to “put your hands in the air!” and “drop the bottle!”. Facing three loaded handguns and bright lights, I slowly put down the whiskey bottle and trash, and did my best to calmly inform them about my two friends who would very much like not to be shot. We spent the next 20 minutes lying on the ground with our hands on our heads while the police ran our names through their database.
After deducing that we weren’t late-night burglars, they informed us that it was illegal to be on school property at night, and also to be drinking here. That if they wanted they could arrest the three of us. That we were “lucky” that we were over 21 years old, or we’d be in the back of their cars.
I grew up in this neighborhood and was stopped by these same police officers between once and twice a month beginning around the age of 13. Mostly it was simply because I liked hanging out at night with my friends. But here, being out at night is suspicious. In fact, this was the second time officers from this department had raised guns at me.
Even though we have an almost nonexistent crime rate in this area, each police car is equipped with a shotgun and a semi-automatic assault rifle in between the driver and passenger seats, complimenting the semi-automatic handgun, taser, mace, and baton that the officers always carry on their person. In a municipality of around 25,000 people, there were always a half-dozen of these officers on duty at all hours of the night. They have searched my belongings, had me sit on corners with my hands beneath my butt, and generally harassed me more times that I can remember. And I was a white cis male in a rich neighborhood.
Eventually, at close to four in the morning, the police officers decided to let us go. They act disappointed that we aren’t nefarious criminals stealing the desk chairs of the elementary school, yet also try to paint themselves as magnanimous for not hauling us off to jail. We slowly walk back to my house, painfully aware that this is the world that awaits us upon our graduation.
This is what daily life looks like in a country where anyone is likely to own a gun. When I am asked why I live in Basque Country, one of my first responses is that I’m not afraid of being shot on a daily basis. Most people think its a joke. It’s not.
Here I don’t have to worry that if I accidentally push the wrong person the wrong way in a bar I might be shot. I don’t have to worry that being pulled over by the police1 will get me shot as I reach for my wallet. I don’t have to worry that I will be killed in a mass murder by some right-wing conspiracy-theorist with an assault rifle.
The national president of Vox, Santiago Abascal, has been campaigning for the rights of Spanish citizens to own guns and use them on anyone who “violates their homes”. This is a familiar political line to my ears. On the one hand, the idea that you should be able to defend yourself can sound reasonable in isolation. But lets be honest for a moment. First, the homicide rate in Spain is incredibly low. Around 300 people are killed a year, which is 30% less than thirty years ago and one of the lowest rates in the world. 50% less people are victims of any type of crime today than thirty years ago. If anything, we should be less interested in guns for self-defense than ever before.
But that’s not really the argument being made by Vox, and this kind of empirical argument won’t convince a single one of them if the US-American experience is to be believed. Vox is making an emotional argument, saying that I have the right to use any force necessary to defend myself and my family. I would like to attack that idea head on rather than enter a losing debate on crime rates. What this argument is really trying to say is that I am the final and all-powerful authority in my home and that I have the right to kill another human being simply because I have perceived a threat to that authority. Realistically, since your possessions are obviously not worth a human life, and you are almost certainly not going to be killed by a robber in the real world2, what you are truly defending is the principle of the thing. In other words, you are defending your ego. Vox is not advocating self-defense. It is defending its right to kill others to protect your own sense of power.
It should be no surprise then, that while the homicide rate overall has been going down in Spain, femicide has stayed completely steady this entire time. It should come as no surprise that as we find right-wing men defending their right to kill others to protect their egos, we also find men killing women, usually because their egos were hurt.
We cannot let men who would like to kill other human beings in order to feel powerful allow Spain to become a gun-carrying country. Putting aside the legal fact that almost anyone can obtain a gun relatively easily3, making this whole argument irrelevant in a sense, the increase of guns has a serious and inevitable impact on policing. When the police are afraid that they may be shot at, they are far more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.
The more guns are around, the more the police will reach for theirs. This turns every interaction between an officer and the public into a situation where the police officer can later say that they “feared for their life” because of an arm movement. It makes police officers see every interaction as a life or death moment. Speeding tickets become life or death. House calls become life or death. Jaywalking becomes life or death. Usually, the death part is for us.
This is the true danger of the proliferation and normalization of guns and the rhetoric of “legitimate self-defense”. Once anyone is likely to have a gun on their person, police are taught that the public is a dangerous enemy, and begin to see themselves as soldiers. This mentality then leads to a situation like that of the United States, where over a thousand people are killed by police each year and thousands more are non-fatally shot. This is how I can have three guns drawn on me in my child-hood school-yard in an area with close to no crime, and the police can tell me with a straight face that I am lucky to go free.
I believe there to be legitimate arguments for the right to have guns. Santiago Abascal’s argument is not one of them. It is an argument that is based in a fragile male ego and has very predictable outcomes: Femicide, suicide, and a world in which an interaction with the police is one of the most dangerous moments of your life. While there is a much larger debate to be had about guns and self-determination, the only real point I want to state at the moment is simple. Today, Vox only wants more guns in Spanish homes, but this is only the beginning. As the left-wing media cautions about Trump in the USA, we need to take these far-right groups seriously, but not literally. Be very attentive to their attitude and discourse, but don’t be fooled into thinking that they are clearly stating their goals. Today they want guns in homes, but tomorrow they may want to patrol the border with those same guns, or carry them proudly on our streets. One naturally leads to the other.
In 2002, in my dystopianly peaceful suburb, a man robbed a bank with nothing more than a piece of paper. He was then shot from behind by a police officer. Though it’s not in the newspaper archives, I remember reading that over 30 shots were fired from two officers, enough to imply they had stopped to reload their weapons.
In 2004, a 22-year-old carjacker was shot multiple times in the chest and arms after a brief car chase that followed his being stopped for “suspicious driving”.
In 2008, during high school, I was awoken by the sound of a high-speed car chase outside of my house, in which the local police were firing guns out the windows of their cars as they drove in excess of 160 km/hr. A neighbor of mine, walking their dog, jumped into a ditch from fear of being hit in the crossfire.
In 2014, an aspiring chef with no violent criminal history was shot and killed after robbing a bank with a fake gun, with no witnesses to confirm that the officer had acted in self-defense.
These shootings were all perpetrated by only two local police officers, in my affluent, white community of 25,000 people, a constant background noise of violence that enveloped my developmental years.
In all this time, my entire adolescence really, no one I know bothered to ask the simple question: Are a few thousand dollars of the banks money really worth the robber’s life? Is anything at all worth shooting guns out of your moving car in a residential neighborhood? The only true answer is a proud man’s ego.
If we confuse self-defense with self-righteousness, we will all suffer the consequences.
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