Every now and then someone who ordinarily makes a fair amount of sense writes something that serves only to remind us that even the extraordinarily smart can be extraordinarily wrong. So it was with Sam Harris‘s defense of gun rights, The Riddle of the Gun.
First, Harris insists that “the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward.” He doesn’t really attempt to bolster that argument with relevant facts, though, and there there’s little point in an all-too-easy exercise in debunking. In fact, that’s not even his central thesis. No, that would be good old-fashioned defeatism, which seems to me to be more and more a defining characteristic of American culture.
For Harris, because there are so many guns in the United States (300 million is the most widely quoted figure), it just doesn’t make sense to try to do much beyond making sure everyone who has one knows how to use it responsibly.
Guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime. This is, of course, a familiar “gun nut” talking point. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
No, it’s wrong because it doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny. Sean Faircloth, a former assistant state attorney general, offers one of a near infinite number of possible counterarguments here and Greg Laden offers some valuable historical context here.
Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist, admits to a penchant for target shooting, and he suffers from the same stubborn, child-like refusal to accept the fact that life is sometimes hard. And just because something is hard is no reason for not trying. I am reminded of my six-year-old son, whose response to challenging tasks is often “But I can’t!” As his father, I often know he can, but convincing him not to give up is among the most challenging tasks either of us face these days.
Yes, a handgun buyback program isn’t likely to be effective in the short term. But such programs have worked elsewhere (Australia being the most recent example), so it’s just not rational to give up without even trying. And yes, doing something about the hopelessly ambiguous and atavistic Second Amendment won’t be easy, but the Constitution has been amended before, against comparable opposition. So again, don’t try telling us there’s no point in organizing what may be a decades long-campaign.
The whole affairs brings to mind one of the common arguments against doing something about global warming. The world is hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. True. There’s enough easily accessible volumes of the stuff in the ground to tip the climate into some new equilibrium much less hospitable to civilization as we know it for the next 100,000 years. Also true. And all of the alternatives are more expensive. Yes, and yes and yes. But does any of that mean we shouldn’t even try to make the switch to clean renewables?
“It’s too hard, Daddy!”
When did America come to embrace defeatism? Somewhere between the last moon shot and Ronald Reagan’s first term, is my guess. Of course, it’s no coincidence that defeatism in the face of an overwhelming need for change always seems to bolster the profit margins of the secure and wealthy. Still, I suspect there’s something else at work here.
Chris Mooney has written about the evidence for a physiological basis for conservatism, which is now intimately associated with defeatism. Dan Kaheman makes the case of two types of thinking, one adapted for surviving on the Paleolithic plains of Africa, and one for civilization (although he doesn’t put it that way). But all of this dances around the essential fact that civilization is all about overcoming our ancient programming. We may not be designed to take the long view, and walk the hard path, and set aside our gut instincts in the face of carefully reasoned argument, but that’s what mature and responsible people – and societies – do.
Nothing give fills me with more pride than seeing my son try again, even when he isn’t sure he’s going to succeed. Even when he’s almost sure he won’t. It’s called growing up.