Evolving Thoughts

It is always a Very Bad Idea, as Pooh Bear might have said, for a foreigner to comment on another nation’s internal policy after a tragedy. As I am inveterately attracted to Very Bad Ideas, being a Philosopher of Little Brain, this does not deter me. If one cannot comment on gun policy after a tragedy like this, when can you?

First thing is the necessity for weapons in a civil society. I do not mean a society run by gangsters (or gangstas), or one in a Somalian warlord condition, or the Wild West, but a well-ordered civil society. One in which order is maintained with a balance of civil rights and freedoms. Is there any kind of need for weapons in that society?

I would say no. Not even the police would have a right to a weapon in that society; they may have a privilege to carry one under some circumstances, but experience teaches us that when police take their carriage of weapons for granted, they overuse them, and needless deaths result. But ordinary citizens not in the police or military and even those when not engaged in police or military activities, have no right to bear arms.

Now the American Constitution was formed when there was no standing army in the United States, and when there was no Police Force anywhere (Robert Peel formed the first modern police in 1829, although there had been officers of civil law and order for centuries), so the provision for citizenry to bear arms against tyrants was not only understandable, it was necessary – if Britain, or France or Russia or Spain, invaded the United States, it would be the citizenry that would need to not only fight, but provide the weapons and know how to use them, in defense of their homeland. Even so, a standing army was formed pretty soon afterwards. Arguably, the Constitutional Right was out of date before it was an adolescent.

But once people have arms, it is hard to give them up, as every nation that has undergone a civil war has found throughout history, and rebellions, civil wars, guerilla campaigns, terrorism and so on have all left the nation in worse shape for generations, and in some cases centuries. So I say, if you have a civil society, control of weapons is essential.

But would gun control have stopped this tragedy? I rather doubt it. Reports suggest the shooter had only two semiautomatic handguns, which are the simplest to get even in nations like my own that do have gun control. On the other hand, the pressure not to provide guns easily might have meant this man, when he went over the edge of civilised behaviour, was unable to procure them, and so killed only a few people. The one real mass murder event in Australia, which itself caused a major buyback by the government of guns, was due to a lunatic (a clear lunatic even to his relatives) being able to gain unfettered access to a range of weapons not even the most ardent farmer needing to control vermin would ever use, let alone a sports shooter. So maybe gun control, if in place over a number of years and with a buyback of weapons to take as many out of circulation as possible, might have prevented this tragedy. The problem is, we’d not know if that were true for some time.

American society has this hard edge of violence that is not apparent in some other western democracies, although it is spreading in part due to the glorification of violence in American-inspired popular culture. But this is, I think, a distinct issue from questions of mass killings, in schools or anywhere else. That is rather more like the Viking berserkers of legend or the Malay mengamok. Most often, I think this sort of thing is based on hypertrophied notions of honour or face, or is the result of real insanity like the Port Arthur Massacre. What we are discussing with gun control is the availability of weapons for that small fraction of people who run amok. Criminals will always get guns, yes, and police and military will always have access to them. But the ordinary citizen need not have them at all.

That said, sports shooters should be allowed controlled access – one of the most fun days I ever had was when a friend took me shooting with his 9mm handguns (including a WWI Luger, which kept jamming because of its age and wear, but otherwise worked fine), and in that situation there is no problem in my mind. But they need to be registered, and controlled where and when they can be carried and how. And even then, sports shooters do not have a right to their weapons; they have the privilege of owning and using them. Same for farmers, vets, and anyone else who legitimately uses weapons in their line of work. If they abuse that privilege, it should be possible to take them away from the abuser.

But why anyone not involved in military action should have access to fully automatic weapons, I simply cannot understand. There is not the slightest rationale for that, in any society that has the slightest social order at all…

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    April 16, 2007

    But why anyone not involved in military action should have access to fully automatic weapons, I simply cannot understand. There is not the slightest rationale for that, in any society that has the slightest social order at all…

    Note that that is already illegal in the USA….

    There is frequently confusion because the term “automatic” is sometimes applied to handguns, but all that means is “semi-automatic,” which in turn doesn’t mean “sub-machine gun,” but simply means you don’t have to recock the gun after each time you fire it.

    Automatic weapons are definitely outlawed for non-military.

  2. #2 John Wilkins
    April 16, 2007

    I know the distinction, but I thought it was not illegal to sell fully automatic weapons so long as the firing mechanism had been disabled (in an easy to fix manner).

    In any case, don’t the NRA try to justify legitimating automatic weapons?

  3. #3 bruce
    April 17, 2007

    Finally some antipodean sensibility! I felt like I had walked into the twilight zone where scienceblogs was a mouthpiece for the NRA. Over here in New Zealand, our police donít even carry guns.

  4. #4 Eric Irvine
    April 17, 2007

    Maybe it’s the Canadian in me. I just want to let you know that I agree with everything you just said. Well put.

  5. #5 Jeb, FCD
    April 17, 2007

    Rob,

    Automatic weapons are not outlawed for non-military. You just have to obtain a permit, meaning some government institution gets paid for a certification.

    I’ve fired several legally obtained automatic weapons myself (Uzi, AR-15.M-16). And, I always wondered how the people who got them could be considered certifiable sane.

    Yet, the weapons used at VT were handguns (according the major media outlets). Handguns seems to be the common denominator in all of these shootings.

  6. #6 bruce
    April 17, 2007

    Hand guns are just as bad as automatic rifles. These hand guns are made for the sole purpose of shooting people. They have no use to the farmer or the sportsman.

  7. #7 Jeb, FCD
    April 17, 2007

    Bruce,

    I agree.

    Handguns were made for killing people. Period. “Self-defense” in the “Old West (US)” meant killing the other guy.

    Automatic rifles the same. I have no problem seeing them all banned.

    I love the Canadian model. Hunters still get to hunt.

  8. #8 mtraven
    April 17, 2007

    …a well-ordered civil society. One in which order is maintained with a balance of civil rights and freedoms. Is there any kind of need for weapons in that society?

    The US has never fully accepted that it is, in fact, a well-ordered civil society. The myth of the frontier runs deep, even in urban settings. And in fact, compared to Europe, our civil society is deeply lacking. The current administration has done a lot to drive us further into barbarism.

  9. #9 Trinifar
    April 17, 2007

    I live in a country that holds itself out to the world as a beacon of liberty and freedom yet the most powerful political lobby is the National Rifle Association and the one most vilified is the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of my fellow citizens think that is just the way it should be.

    American society has this hard edge of violence that is not apparent in some other western democracies, although it is spreading in part due to the glorification of violence in American-inspired popular culture.

    Sadly most Americans don’t know this. Only 15% have passports, for many “foreign travel” means going to Toronto, Vancouver, or the Canadian side of Niagra Falls. Add to that Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry and the Man With No Name, the California actor turned governor who made his name on screen with an automatic weapon in each hand, and any number of other film stars whose contribution to “art” is high on-screen body count and, well, it seems hopeless that attitudes will change anytime soon.

    Meanwhile, state by state the NRA is seeing to it that Right-to-Carry laws get passed. Fill out a form and you can carry a concealed weapon in public places. It’s is exactly like playing Cowboys and Indians as children — except these are adults and the guns are real.

    What people in other countries can not appreciate unless they spend enough time here is how pervasive this gun-mentality is. There are smaller, lighter guns marketed to women, 50 caliber hand guns (hand guns!) to carry on your hip in case you’re mugged by a grizzly bear, and gear like ankle holsters since if one concealed weapon is good two must be better.

    And look what good it has done us. We have the highest number of people in prison of all the nations in the world — both absolutely and as a portion of our population — and higher and deadlier crime than any of the “developed” countries.

  10. #10 G
    April 17, 2007

    Trinifar: Not that you aren’t correct 100% about your facts (and even your attitude), but that last statistic is WILDLY misleading. The reason we have the ridiculously high proportion of our adult (disproportionately young, black and male) population in prison is the ludicrous and indefensible “War on Drugs.” It has fuck-all to do with gun culture as such, except (as we first discovered during that monumentally stupid social experiment called Prohibition) that creating a black market also creates violent crime.

  11. #11 Josh
    April 17, 2007

    I’ve always found that sentence in the constitution to be so ridiculousely misquoted. How can people cut of the first half and not see a problem. I do remember having this discussion with a friend of mine who studied american law and having the idea to have a look through the rest. It says you can have guns while america needs a militia, but it also says the president can call up that militia. I’m guessing people would be less eager to own a gun if they were all told they now have to go to iraq, or maybe actually finish the job in afganistan.

  12. #12 Ian H Spedding FCD
    April 17, 2007

    Well said, as usual, John.

    The problem is to reconcile the requirement for public safety with allowing individuals who want to shoot for sport or recreation the freedom to do so.

    The only question I would raise concerns this:

    Criminals will always get guns, yes, and police and military will always have access to them. But the ordinary citizen need not have them at all.

    The police admit that, quite obviously, they lack the resources to be everywhere and protect everyone all the time so, if you concede that criminals will never be prevented from obtaining guns, are you justified in denying citizens a means of defending themselves from such people?

  13. #13 John Wilkins
    April 17, 2007

    The stats don’t match up – more ordinary citizens die from suicide, accidental death and murder (usually by those who are known to them, as most murders are) than there are defensive shootings. Way more. On an order of three magnitudes…

    Generally if a gunman has you in his/her sights, you don’t have the time to unholster your own gun in time.

  14. #14 josh
    April 17, 2007

    Exactly, and guns change the playing field. When guns are involved, the least sympathetic and the the most aggresive (i.e. the one who shoots first) wins. Not necessarily the one “protecting his family” or however it is usually framed.

  15. #15 Matt Penfold
    April 17, 2007

    John W said “Generally if a gunman has you in his/her sights, you don’t have the time to unholster your own gun in time.”

    I would like to add to that. Surely a criminal who suspects someone he is robbing etc is armed he is more likely to use a gun first ? Wouldn’t that be likely to increase your risk of being shot and killed rather than decrease it ? Here in the UK there is a blanket ban on private individuals owning or possessing handguns. This does not prevent, nor was it intended to prevent, criminals from obtaining guns. However most criminal use of handguns is against other criminals, not against normal members of the public. Sometimes a member of the public does get shot but this is most often as a result of a bullet missing the intended target. Tragic and inexcusable but not something that would be prevented by having members of the public toting handguns.

    And one more point, if allowing the public to own handguns is supposed to make people safer, how come the US, which has more handguns per capita than most places, is such a violent place ?

  16. #16 Ian H Spedding FCD
    April 17, 2007

    The stats may simply reflect the fact that even where there is widespread availability of firearms only a relatively small number of people bother to carry a concealed weapon on a regular basis so, as was apparently the case at VT, there is usually no one near a gunman who is armed and able to shoot back.

    That said, as you pointed out, a gun is no guarantee of safety. It takes considerable training and practice to be able to use a pistol with reasonable accuracy when in a life-threatening situation. And, despite what is seen in the movies, there is no weapon or unarmed combat technique that can defend you against a surprise attack.

    Even so, I would argue that, like everyone, I am entitled to take whatever measures I judge are necessary to defend myself against violent assault since there is no one else able to do it. That does not mean I should be able to carry tactical nukes but is a pistol unreasonable providing I pass rigorous background checks and extensive training in the use of the weapon?

  17. #17 Matt Penfold
    April 17, 2007

    Ian,

    A question. In a household for a pistol to be safe it must be locked away. If it is not then owner must accept culpability for any misuse even if they were not directly involved. But locking a gun away means it is not availible when it might be needed.

    How do deal with this ?

  18. #18 John Wilkins
    April 17, 2007

    It depends where you live and what you do. You have no right to a weapon, but you may have a demonstrated need out of the ordinary for one, and with suitable training and a demonstration of that need, you may be entitled to carry one.

    For example, if you live near the parts of Johannesburg where armed holdups and attacks are common, a handgun at the ready would be prudent. But if you live in the relatively nonviolent parts of London, Melbourne or Toronto, then I’d say no, you shouldn’t have one.

    There is a Tragedy of the Commons that occurs when the density of handguns reaches a critical threshold – it gets to the point where too many people need to have weapons for individual safety but the overall common safety is degraded rapidly. It’s like the right not to get vaccinated. In fact, as a matter of public safety, you should weigh the risk of individual likelihood of violent attack against the trigger happiness of the general population and the increase in general risk of violence because people are armed.

    The end result of that trajectory will be that violence will either reach gangster/civil war proportions, or an authoritarian state that uses even more violence to bring order will develop. Either results in the loss of freedoms and rights. So I think that the only reasonable path is to control and limit the legitimate use of weapons in a well-ordered society. If you are no longer in one, then all bets are off and it’s a slide to anarchy and warlords or a fascist society masquerading however it can.

    There’s this thing called the “common weal”, or there used to be. Freedoms and rights must not threaten it, or the conditions for freedoms and rights are threatened also.

  19. #19 Whatever
    April 17, 2007

    I live in a free country, and what that means to me is that I can do anything I damn well please! Provided it doesn’t hurt anybody, and that’s the way it should be in any country calling itself free. Also, I would like to point out that across the board violent crime is down. You are LESS likely to die today than you were 100, 50, 25, or even 10 years ago. Yet we have access to more powerful weapons and drugs than any other time in our history. Stuff’s getting better every day, deal with it!

  20. #20 Matt Penfold
    April 17, 2007

    “You are LESS likely to die today than you were 100, 50, 25, or even 10 years ago.”

    Depends where you live. Some parts of the world you are MORE likely to die.

    “I live in a free country, and what that means to me is that I can do anything I damn well please! Provided it doesn’t hurt anybody, and that’s the way it should be in any country calling itself free”

    You don’t live in the US then. The US government will not let you bet online, or visit Cuba yet neither of those things causes suffcient harm to ban them. In the case of gambling there is a good case to be made that the gambling industry should pay a levy to help provide treatment for those people for whom gambling becomes a problem. In the case of visiting other countries, what business is it of a government where its citizens visits, unless they are enage in criminal activity.

  21. #21 steppen wolf
    April 17, 2007

    Say one state allows you to buy guns. The one next to you has strong restrictions. Mind you, you are in the same country. Now, how hard is it for you to get a weapon from somebody who just had to cross the border(s) – mind you, within the same country?

    I think the principle of “herd immunity” could apply here – i.e. a state that enforces strict gun control (and that is not Virginia’s case to start with), but is surrounded by others that do not have these strict laws, will probably not see a conspicuous decrease in gun crime if most of the gun-related crimes involve intentionality – while, according to the idea of herd immunity, one permissive state in the middle of states with strict gun control might be also “protected”. If one can drive with no passport and custom checks to another state – within the same country – then either all states apply gun control laws, or restricted application of the law is not going to make any difference overall. That, at least, is the hypothesis I would make.

    Something really makes me wonder even more: do you ever hear of this kind of shootings happening in schools worldwide, as much as you hear it coming from the U.S.? Are we sure that, on top of lax gun control, there is a strong “gun culture” or – can I say this? – a generally accepted “bearing arms=individual rights” frame that you will not find in other places (unless you are in a Brazilian favela)?

    Maybe that is something for people to start thinking about. Maybe, if people in the U.S. wanted to start looking at this, in the future we might not hear about horrifying things such as the Virginia Tech killings anymore.

    But again, we are forgetting the weapon producers’ lobby.

  22. #22 bruce
    April 17, 2007

    Whatever: Way to play out a stereotype. It’s no wonder that the rest of the western world thinks America is out of touch with reality.

  23. #23 Colugo
    April 17, 2007

    My post is not about the gun control debate (I favor licensing and registration). It’s about the unsupportable statements that many non-American Westerners as well as Americans afflicted with grass-is-greenerism tend to make when this kind of tragedy occurs.

    Trinifar: “and higher and deadlier crime than any of the “developed” countries.”

    Deadlier, there’s no doubt of that.

    Western countries with higher rates than the US for various categories of crime:

    Robberies per capita: United Kingdom
    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_rob_percap-crime-robberies-per-capita

    Rapes per capita: Australia, Canada
    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_rap_percap-crime-rapes-per-capita

    Burglaries per capita: Australia, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, UK, Canada, Iceland, Switzerland
    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_bur_percap-crime-burglaries-per-capita

    John Wilkins: “it is spreading in part due to the glorification of violence in American-inspired popular culture.”

    It wasn’t American popular culture that told Europeans to pack immigrants into miserable slums, resulting in periodic rioting around Paris and other major urban centers. It wasn’t American popular culture that told white Australians to treat Aboriginal Australians like second class citizens and worse up to the present – or to swarm on and beat Arabs immigrants in a suburb of Sydney just a year and a half ago. Blame America for what America does, but don’t blame America for what you do – your own xenophobia, colonialism, and oppression of native peoples. Your own internal violence, including rape and robbery.

    Yes, America has problems, serious ones. Why don’t Canadians, Europeans, and Australians look at themselves with the same critical eye that they use for America? Or are they afraid to?

  24. #24 Clark Goble
    April 17, 2007

    One thing to consider is that the Salt Lake City shooting a couple of months ago might have been a worse tragedy had an off duty police officer not be able to pin the suspect down with fire in a hallway. He was heading to a crowded restaurant with few exits on a second floor. That gave enough time for the police to arrive.

    I’m not saying this justifies concealed cary permits (although they are common in Utah). Just noting that having someone around who is knowledgable and armed is helpful in cases like these.

    Matt (#17), there are many gun safes you can buy with rapid access. They have a keypad and you hit the “chord” and the door pops open giving access to the firearm. However in your home you’ll typically hear something and have time to obtain the firearm. There is typically no excuse to have an unlocked gun, although I confess I kept mine unlocked back when I was single. But there weren’t any children going to be looking under my bed for stuff.

    The idea that everyone having a gun will lead to gangster warfar is silly. In the western United States basically everyone has a handgun in small towns but violence is rare. I’m not saying that justifies a lack of gun control because it doesn’t. However the fear mongering on both sides is unfortunate. There are simply other social phenomena at work that makes some societies violent.

    Ian (#16), to be frank, while training is essential if you plan to own a firearm it’s not *that* complex. Unfortunately many law abiding people are probably better trained than many police officers in gun safety and use. I know of one local firing range that banned officers from one police department due to their poor marksmanship and even worse safety considerations.

    Matt (#15), in general a robber would prefer to rob an unarmed house than an armed house. It’s simply safer. But you are right if they are hell-bent on robbing you and they know you are armed they will prepare for that. The question is how common that scenario is. While I agree that many gun-rights folks bring up fairly rare events to justify gun ownership, foes tend to do the same.

    As for why the US is more violent, obviously guns are but one part of the equation. To reduce the discussion of violence purely to guns is to ignore quite a few other variables: many of which are almost certainly more significant. It’s unfortunate that the other social differences are so often ignore in these discussions.

  25. #25 Whatever
    April 17, 2007

    Yeah, were all just a bunch of immature jerks who cant seem to get our act together. If only our country would just stop being stupid and align it’s political views to whatever country your from. Also, I thought that the American stereotype was the one were we go around telling everybody else to follow our moral standard and do what we told them. So how the hell is being an atheist who thinks people should be able to do, say, and believe anything they want provided they don’t hurt anybody a stereotypical American? And no matter how I came off in my previous comment I don’t think America is the greatest thing that ever happened to the world and that we can do no wrong. Whether you like it or not though, the world is getting better everyday, people are safer, longer lived, and happier than ever before. Sure it’s not perfect and there is still a lot of work to be done, but just once I’d like to turn on the news and hear someone say that everything was hunky dorey, that would be nice. Just once.

  26. #26 Antonio Manetti
    April 18, 2007

    The idea that everyone having a gun will lead to gangster warfar[e] is silly.

    I would hate to be in any public venue, like say, a soccer stadium (or football stadium if you prefer) where everybody else was packing. Considering the killing power of modern weaponry, the more such arms are deployed in any public setting, the greater the likelihood that someone will run amok with dreadful consequences.

    People are fleeing Iraq for just this reason. Better to seek safety than cower like a prisoner in some fortified enclave.

  27. #27 Ian H Spedding FCD
    April 18, 2007

    Matt Penfold wrote:

    A question. In a household for a pistol to be safe it must be locked away. If it is not then owner must accept culpability for any misuse even if they were not directly involved. But locking a gun away means it is not availible when it might be needed.

    As ‘Clark Goble’ has pointed out, there are technical solutions to the dilemma of storing a gun safely while still having rapid access to it and anyone wanting to own a gun should have to show police that they have made such provisions before they are granted a licence to own one. A second requirement before getting a licence should be showing membership an approved shooting range. A third requirement before getting a licence should be mandatory training courses in correct and safe handling of any firearm.

    The purpose is to allow recreational or sporting use of guns to those who want to while ensuring public safety. The best solution, I think, would be approved and regulated gun clubs.

  28. #28 John Wilkins
    April 18, 2007

    And guess what – this is exactly what we do in Australia now, after the Port Arthur massacre.

  29. #29 Ian H Spedding FCD
    April 18, 2007

    John Wilkins wrote:

    There’s this thing called the “common weal”, or there used to be. Freedoms and rights must not threaten it, or the conditions for freedoms and rights are threatened also.

    Is the “common weal” of a society anything other than the aggregated rights and freedoms of the individuals who comprise it?

  30. #30 John Wilkins
    April 18, 2007

    That’s a matter of political philosophy – I myself am an individualist in matters politick, but the philosophical interpretation chosen doesn’t affect the necessity for the weal (which I am informed is an old word for “good”) being respected.

  31. #31 Clark Goble
    April 18, 2007

    Antonio given that most people have absolutely no desire to “pack” I think you have nothing to worry about. As to some people packing I can but say that in the western United States that’s fairly common and no problems have occurred.