After my recent post on gun control, Kevin Baker of the blog The Smallest Minority left a comment inviting me to take part in a debate with him on the issue across our two blogs. I was reluctant to accept for two reasons – firstly, I'd only just taken part in a full-scale debate on the matter and it was difficult to see the purpose of instantly embarking on a second one which would probably cover much the same ground. Secondly, having visited Kevin's blog it became clear that the honeyed words in his comment here about the value of such a debate and my contribution to it were somewhat at odds with the rather more caustic assessment of me he had made over on his own patch –
"Not only more free that he's ever imagined, more free than he can ever possibly understand."
It's hard to fathom how someone he regards as being so intellectually challenged in this way could also simultaneously be regarded as someone worthy of entering into intelligent debate with. A suspicious person might almost think I was being looked upon rather more as a willing patsy. He also made a suggestive remark about the conclusions he might draw if I declined this entirely out-of-the-blue invitation from a website which, after all, I'd never even heard of before – "I've invited 'Scotgo,' Mr. James Kelly, to debate the topic of gun control. I hope he is more willing than the last half-dozen invitees." I trust, on reflection, that Kevin as a fair-minded man would accept that there are in fact a million and one perfectly good reasons why someone might be unable or unwilling to accept an unsolicited invitation to do something that at the very least would be extremely time-consuming?
With these severe reservations in mind, I didn't make any commitment about entering into an ongoing debate, but I did offer to write at least one article drawing my thoughts together on the gun control issue, and allowing people to take issue with me if they so wished. So here it is.
Imagine that you are a child being brought up in a very isolated place, your home miles away from any other settlement. The only people you ever see are your parents, who school you at home, and warn you that if by any chance a stranger should come to the door, you should keep a discreet distance from them and avoid making physical contact. Just to be on the safe side, you should also wash yourself thoroughly after any such encounter. They explain the reason – strangers carry germs, and can make you ill. Sometimes very seriously ill, sometimes you can die. Just to drive this important lesson home, they show you photographic evidence of people suffering from TB and other easily communicable diseases. There can be little doubt – these poor people are suffering terribly, and all because they had done something that was so easily avoided. They had just got too physically close to strangers. But if you make sure you don't do that you can keep yourself safe.
So having learnt and understood this valuable lesson, you have no difficulty accepting and valuing your life as it is. The limitations don’t seem that great – after all, with modern technology you can make friends on the internet, and interact with them almost as if they’re in the same room. You realise how minor these compromises are when weighed against the awful alternative you had seen in those photographs.
But as you interact with more and more people and find out more about the world around you, a strange realisation hits you. Other people simply aren't making the same compromise, or taking the same precautions. They're not in a remote room communicating with others remotely, they're out and about in crowded places brushing against people, shaking their hands, sitting next to them for long periods on long-haul flights, sometimes even kissing and hugging them, etc, etc. Are these people completely nuts? Don't they know about the germs and the diseases, haven't they seen the photographs? Don't they realise their behaviour is leaving them totally exposed to this danger? Well, yes they do. And yet they carry on doing it, seemingly without a care in the world. To you, whose way of life had always been defined by the need to protect yourself at all costs against these risks it seems utterly inexplicable.
This (admittedly colourful and extreme) example seems to me roughly analogous to Rachel Lucas' bafflement in encountering a society where it's not simply the case that ordinary citizens are legally thwarted from owning guns for self-defence purposes – for the most part they simply have no wish to do so. After all, she comes from a society where it's taken as a given that people will be constantly aware of potential threats against them and will want to directly protect themselves against those threats, in many cases by owning and even carrying a gun. But upon arrival in Britain, she cites examples where innocent people have been attacked and have been unable to adequately defend themselves. Isn't it obvious, she asks, that these individuals would have been more likely to survive if they'd had a gun handy? On the face of it, the answer can only be yes. So haven't other people in the society around them heard about these attacks, haven't they read the newspapers, haven't they seen the photographs? Yes they have. So don't they want to possess a gun to lessen the risk of the same fate befalling them? On the whole, no they don't. Utterly inexplicable.
But of course, the reason why people in Britain don't want to carry guns even though there are hypothetical situations in which they might 'need' them is exactly the same as why people get physically close to others even though they might pick up deadly germs. It's not that they're fools or that they haven't spotted the risks – it's just that they choose not to allow their way of life to be defined by those particular risks. I was mercilessly mocked the other day for suggesting the cornerstone of true personal liberty is the freedom from fear. This was a childish fantasy I urgently needed to grow out of, I was told – freedom from fear is a literal impossibility, because it is a simple law of nature that we are all at constant risk. But this is to completely misconstrue the point I was making. Women who walk the streets without the gun in their handbag that they might 'need' to defend themselves against a potential assailant, or just anyone who shakes hands even though there's a small chance it might make them ill...all these people in a small way have achieved that freedom from fear I was talking about. Not because the risk, the source of the fear isn’t there any more, but because they’ve recognised as rational people that it's an acceptably small risk and that their lives therefore don’t need to be defined by that fear. Isn't there freedom in not feeling you need to be practically chained to a gun, in the same way there's freedom in not feeling compelled to avoid shaking hands with others?
Ultimately life is chock full of eminently avoidable risks – but for the most part those risks are small and the available protective strategies are extreme. A woman can significantly lessen the risk of being raped if she never allows herself to be alone with a man – similarly a man can lessen the risk of a devastating false rape allegation by never allowing himself to be alone with a woman. You can avoid drowning by never going near the sea. You can ensure you survive a sudden nuclear war by living in a bunker. Few people would think these steps were worth it, even though they are all perfectly effective, practical strategies to deploy against genuine risks. Why not? Because the sacrifice is too great, the richness of potential life experience missed out on too worthwhile. So instead we all at times make ourselves vulnerable when we don't have to – that's the only way we can truly live. The more we feel able to do this the richer life is, and the more free we are. That's what I mean by freedom from fear.
But of course for this to work people need to know that the risks we're talking about genuinely are acceptably small. It's not rational to feel 'free from fear' to walk in the woods if in reality there's a 90% chance you're going to be eaten by a wild animal. But this is where gun-owners whose way of life – admittedly only to a degree – is defined by their fears have got themselves and the society around them into a terrible bind. Because the actions they are taking to alleviate that fear are in fact increasing the level of risk from one that would otherwise be acceptably small to one which is perhaps not. Think about those unfortunate individuals in Britain who Rachel Lucas observed would have been safer with a gun – if it was possible to look at those situations as entirely self-contained, she might be right. But the inevitable implication is that if those particular individual citizens have a gun, so do millions of others. The UK would have transformed itself from a largely non-weaponised society with what is still a much, much lower level of gun violence than the US to a highly weaponised society with...well, I don't think it's really too big an assumption to suggest our level of gun violence would be bound to increase dramatically. And with the greater risk to individuals' safety comes – ironically – the greatest curtailment of personal freedom, one which the 'right' to carry guns is a very poor substitute for. If guns became so suddenly ubiquitous, isn’t there an inexorable logic to every household needing to have one to protect itself from those other 'defensive' weapons that are suddenly absolutely everywhere? What about my timid elderly aunt who lives alone and would probably faint at the thought of having to learn how to handle a gun – is she going to be told she simply has to get into the 'real world' in the same routine way she's currently told she needs to make sure her locks are secure? Won't she be terrified by the sudden cold message that her personal safety is no longer measured by the efforts of the community around her to collectively be secure but instead by her own (perhaps very limited) proficiency with a gun? Where's the freedom in that?
So there we are. I haven’t even covered a fraction of the areas I was planning to, but that'll do for now. I’m not promising there'll be a follow-up article (or a response to any 'verbose rebuttal'), I'll just see how I feel. In any case, I'm sure I've come up with enough serf-like compelled helplessness in the preceding few paragraphs to allow the fun and the relentless mockery to get well and truly underway. And that's what it's all about at the end of the day, isn't it lads? Enjoy!
UPDATE (Friday, 1am) : Kevin (perhaps wisely) suggested to me yesterday that I shouldn't respond directly to points made in the comments section. I've found, however, over the last few hours that I haven't been able to resist the temptation. And after seven solid, rather mentally exhausting days of participating in exchanges on this topic, I now feel definitively it's time to stop. I'm an occasional blogger, largely on the subject of Scottish politics (and to Montague Burton's annoyance sometimes the Eurovision Song Contest as well) so in contrast to Kevin and others it's very difficult for me to envisage maintaining an indefinite dialogue on this one particular issue. I'll be interested to read Kevin's rebuttal, and although I won't be entirely surprised if it makes my blood boil in some way (or even in a whole multitude of ways), I don't plan to respond to it. Thankyou to everyone who has left comments and feel free to continue doing so (although please note automatic moderation will kick in after a week).