Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Day of the 'Combat Expert' cometh

Of all the many, many jaw-dropping contributions to the latest train-wreck of a comments thread on gun rights, one by the poster Sandro Rettinger takes the biscuit. It's of course standard fare for the Kevin Baker Fan Club to inform us letter mortals that we simply don't understand that guns are no more dangerous than other "tools for killing" such as lampshades, wedding cakes, event planners, thimbles, etc. (which begs the obvious question of why wedding cakes aren't more than sufficient for 'self-defence' purposes, but I digress). What makes Sandro different is that he styles himself a "combat expert" and deems that anyone who does not share his expertise is not even entitled to express a view on the relative deadliness of guns when compared to other items.

You might remember Prince Philip's spectacularly ill-judged contribution to the post-Dunblane debate on gun control, when he suggested on radio that if the massacre had been carried out with cricket bats, it would have been irrational to ban cricket bats. A member of staff at Dunblane Primary School (and a prominent supporter of the campaign to ban handguns) reacted with fury, pointing out that if Thomas Hamilton had only been armed with a cricket bat, it's quite likely she and other staff could have overpowered him before he'd even got close to killing as many as 16 people. So I put it to Sandro Rettinger that he was even denying the right of this woman, a witness to the tragedy, to hold a view on the topic. Extraordinarily, he didn't demur -

"If she's got all of your experience with the subject, then you're absolutely right I'd say she isn't qualified to hold an opinion on the matter, any more than I'm qualified to have an opinion on how best to design a supersonic airplane.

If recognizing limitations isn't humble enough for your tastes, well, that's just too bad...

And also, no, "having been nearby when something horrible happened" doesn't count as "combat experience". You seem to be under the mistaken impression that everyone's viewpoint has equal validity, irrespective of actual knowledge. Since you've provided no evidence that at the time of the attack, said staff member had any more idea of how to deal with being attacked by a baseball bat than by someone with a handgun, I can't say as I'm especially willing to consider her commentary on the subject as anything more than wishful thinking on her part.

If she wanted to be a truly effective defence for her charges, she'd be demanding to be armed herself, now."


Words fail me. Evidently it's high time we considered dismantling democracy and replacing it with a benign (ahem) dictatorship of the 'combat experts'.

23 comments:

Nate said...

It's of course standard fare for the Kevin Baker Fan Club to inform us letter mortals that we simply don't understand that guns are no more dangerous than other "tools for killing" such as lampshades, wedding cakes, event planners, thimbles, etc.

That's not really our argument. Of course a gun makes you more powerful than a church newsletter or a creme puff. The issue is that the power magnification of a firearm (or any weapon, really) is inherently more useful to some people than to others. A strong and powerful person benefits less from an item that enhances his power, while a smaller and weaker person benefits more from it.

For example, Myke Tyson or somebody as powerful as him wouldn't need a gun to kill someone like me or my wife; he would accomplish it fairly easily without any weapons at all in fact. However, that same gun that would be unimportant to him for a goal of violence would become crucial to me or my wife in our goals of defense, because we are smaller, weaker, and less powerful people.

To illustrate: here are some crude ASCII bar graphs of the relative power levels of these two combatants (a weakling like me, and Myke Tyson), with and without guns:

Both unarmed
         _
         ||
         ||
_       ||
||       ||
Me    Myke Tyson

I don't think it's very controversial to suggest that Myke Tyson would snap me in half like a popsicle stick in unarmed combat.


Myke Tyson has a gun:
         _
         ||
         ||
         ||
         ||
_       ||
||       ||
Me    Myke Tyson

Give Myke Tyson a gun, and he becomes even more dangerous. But it doesn't actually change the outcome; he was winning without the gun, now he merely wins by more. Either way, I'm still dead as a doornail.


I have a gun:
_
||
||       _
||       ||
||       ||
||       ||
||       ||
Me    Myke Tyson

Things turn around completely here. Give me a gun, and my outcome has actually changed; now I best Myke Tyson in power and I'm likely to win, whereas before I almost assuredly lost. The gun completely negates his physical power.


Both have guns:
_       _
||       ||
||       ||
||       ||
||       ||
||       ||
||       ||
Me    Myke Tyson

In the circumstance where we both have guns, the result is again more favorable for the me; instead of most likely losing, I'm now at least on equal footing, even though my success is not as assured as if I was the lone armed combatant.


In short: Where nobody has a gun, the strong will win. Where only the strong have guns, they still win, but by more. Where only the weak have guns, they win. Where both have guns, the situation could go eitherway. Ergo, if you find a way to eliminate all guns from society, the outcome will not be changed for the strong, who will still win without guns. But you will have changed the situation for the weak, who now lose.

And this is of course discounting the messy implementation details, the confiscation procedure, the inevitable black market, etc. Even assuming gun control is perfectly able to eliminate 100% of all the guns now and forever, these are going to be the results. The powerful and violent won't be much hindered because they don't really need guns to win, while the weaker defenders will, because they do.

Also, I'm no "combat expert" but I have some knowledge of anatomy and weapons, and I know how deadly knives are. Sandro got mad because it became clear in the thread on Kevin's blog that you don't know how much damage a common kitchen knife can do to the human body relative to a gun, and how dangerous it can be even in the hands of an unskilled wielder, yet you argued a position (that a mass killer would not be able to do as much damage in a short period of time with only a knife) which required those pieces of knowledge. It's no shame to admit that you don't know something. I, for example, am profoundly ignorant on most subjects relating to mathematics.

James Kelly said...

This just isn't stacking up, Nate. You're assuming that either you or Mike Tyson has to "win" - in fact, escape is an obvious possibility if he doesn't have a gun, and one that is surely most desirable because it doesn't leave either party dead.

"that a mass killer would not be able to do as much damage in a short period of time with only a knife"

Which is quite simply true - however quickly someone can be killed with a knife, it can only be done at close quarters, which vastly increases the scope for others to escape or to overpower the assailant.

One of the most surreal things about my exchange with Sandro was that he refused repeatedly to acknowledge the blindingly obvious point that the children murdered at Dunblane would have had a much greater chance of survival had Thomas Hamilton not been armed with a gun. He came up with all sorts of increasingly contrived scenarios that culminated in the teacher being murdered first and her body then being used to impassably block the exit, and when I pointed out how implausible that was he started coming out with all this "combat expert" guff, to suggest that nobody without his 'expertise' was qualified to challenge such obvious drivel. As I pointed out to him at the time, one thing that is sometimes considerably more use than combat expertise is a bullshit detector, and mine was functioning perfectly on that occasion.

It's disappointing to see you go down the same road as Sandro towards the end of your comment - your penultimate sentence in particular is somewhat patronising, although having said that I wonder if Sandro would actually agree with it. He seemed dumbfounded (although I think we can safely assume it was a synthetic reaction) that any "non-expert" would dare to even express a view on the subject. That apparently even applies to someone with direct experience of gun crime, such as the member of staff at Dunbalne Primary School that I was referring to. The obvious inference is that gun policy should not be subject to democratic debate or decision-making. Do you agree with that?

On the subject of knives, it's worth pointing out that Sandro also took issue with Kevin in that discussion, because the latter also felt that they were not quite so lethal as guns. (I hope I'm paraphrasing correctly because it's been a few weeks.) So it seems even self-styled "experts" can disagree with each other on such matters, which ought to tell you something rather important. For my own part, I'm under no illusions about how dangerous knives are, which is why I fully support the ban on carrying them on the streets. According to Kevin and co., that's "irrational" of me as well...

Nate said...

however quickly someone can be killed with a knife, it can only be done at close quarters, which vastly increases the scope for others to escape or to overpower the assailant.

While it's true that a person can be shot from a much longer distance than they can be stabbed from, you're making an implicit assumption that an attacker will choose the same manner of attack regardless of his weapon (to say nothing of your assumption regarding the ease of disarming or overpowering a knife-wielder). Were this true, then you're right than a knife would be much less effective because many to most of the victims could simply flee.

But that's not what the attacker will do, since they get to choose the time, place, and manner of the attack. They have the element of surprise and they get to set the scene. If guns are not available, they will not be able to attack from long range. Therefore, they will instead choose an alternate manner of attack that will be as effective and disproportionate as possible given these limitations — for example, trapping unarmed victims in an enclosed place where flight is difficult to impossible, or selecting victims from among those who are perceived to offer less resistance or have less ability to effect an escape.

Basically, the primary advantage of a gun is range — so an attacker is likely to use that advantage should he have one. A knife lacks that range, so the attacker is likely to minimize that disadvantage by using deception, ambush, blocking routes of escape, etc. The point being that since an attacker gets to choose the particulars of his attack, limiting him to more primitive weapons doesn't do a great deal to reduce the lethality or effectiveness of his attacks, not because the more primitive weapons themselves are as lethal as guns (of course they aren't), but because the attacker has all the time in the world to prepare the situation to his advantage so as to minimize the drawbacks of whatever weapons we has. A knife and a locked room is just as effective as a gun from 30 feet away. In fact, it's probably more dangerous.

An attacker armed with a rock can be just as effective at killing lots of people if he's strong, his victims are weak and unarmed, and they have no escape route. Think wrestling coach versus children. No gun is necessary to cause death there! In the absence of a gun, an attacker bent on destruction still has a wide variety of damage-causing methods available. Removing the gun or the knife doesn't stop the attack from happening, it just ensures that the attacker will have to more carefully plan its particulars so he can be sure of achieving the desired result.

Think about it from the point of view of a prospective mass killer. Put aside the fact that you're a rational and well-adjusted adult and imagine you wanted to murder as many people as possible and you didn't have access to a gun. Would that really be much of an impediment? Off the top of my head I can think of a variety of horrifying approaches involving motor vehicles, kitchen cutlery, homemade explosives, power tools, and electricity. My apartment building and many others in my area rest on a small number of wooden supports above parking lots; I could probably level the entire thing before nightfall if I really wanted to using only the tools in my closet.

And I needn't point you to the many mass killings that have taken place without guns that were brought up on Kevin's blog. Even if all guns could be successfully eliminated now and forever, I would expect mass knifings and bombings to rise in the absence of any decrease in the number of unbalanced people wanting to commit these acts.

Nate said...

That apparently even applies to someone with direct experience of gun crime, such as the member of staff at Dunbalne Primary School that I was referring to. The obvious inference is that gun policy should not be subject to democratic debate or decision-making. Do you agree with that?

I don't see how it follows that a victim of a crime would gain any particular expertise. I don't mean to belittle her tragedy, but suffering from loss or victimization doesn't give the sufferer special insight about the conditions that caused the incident or what the ideal social policy to prevent it is. In fact, I would say they're usually likely to be more irrational than most since they have a personal emotional experience to cloud their sound judgement. In the U.S., we have an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) who are particularly active about calling for things such as alcohol prohibition, mandatory breathalyzers in all cars, mandatory installation of devices that allow police to remotely disable cars, etc. Their tragedies have blinded them to the potential negative consequences of their proposed solutions. To them, eliminating drunk driving is so important that no other consideration are important.

Of course, I don't think these people ought to be banned from political discourse—just that their ideas should to be seen for what they are: emotional reactions to tragedy that may or may not have a rational connection to reality and will probably not take into account other points of view.

James Kelly said...

"Removing the gun or the knife doesn't stop the attack from happening, it just ensures that the attacker will have to more carefully plan its particulars so he can be sure of achieving the desired result."

Or, just as likely, the attacker was looking for an opportunistic mass killing that didn't require such complexity, and would settle for killing two, three or four people rather than seventeen or thirty-five if that was all that was easily available. The Dunblane massacre was a very good example of an attack that was ridiculously easy to carry out - Hamilton was able to simply wander into a school gym and start firing. Nothing was ever likely to stop him. It must therefore - at the very least - be an open question whether he would have bothered with a more complex option had guns not been available to him. After all, if he'd possessed Bin Laden-style cunning and patience, he could in theory have concocted a plan to kill thousands, but he didn't. He simply killed as many as he could by the route of easiest opportunity. Without guns, such an approach would almost certainly have resulted in fewer deaths - and it's at least arguable that he'd never even have gone on a killing spree in the first place had he needed to get over the greater psycholgical hurdle of slaughtering children by hand, rather than remotely.

"just that their ideas should to be seen for what they are: emotional reactions to tragedy that may or may not have a rational connection to reality and will probably not take into account other points of view"

I can't resist pointing out that also rather neatly characterises what Sandro said - a transparently emotional argument, a squeal of pain (ie. how can these people want to take our precious guns away?) tarted up as "superior expertise".

Nate said...

I think you're very significantly underestimating the carnage that can be caused with other commonly available items such as cars and knives. Hamilton had a car; what would have stopped him from driving it into a crowded street or a small building and then getting out and stabbing the survivors or trapped pedestrians?

This is what a Japanese man did in 2008, killing seven and wounding another ten. So far this year, a number of mass killings with knives have left 21 children dead and 90 injured in China.

It strikes me as cold comfort to the victims that the most you can promise them is that people who may want to murder them will be limited to inferior weapons and may "settle for killing two, three or four people rather than seventeen or thirty-five".

James Kelly said...

This is what a Japanese man did in 2008, killing seven and wounding another ten.

Straight away, it strikes me that it's quite telling you've come up with an incident in which fewer people died than is often the case in gun massacres. Yes, I'm sure you can come up with the odd extreme example, but just how common are knife massacres that kill 10+, 15+, 20+ people, in comparison to gun massacres that do the same?

"It strikes me as cold comfort to the victims that the most you can promise them is that people who may want to murder them will be limited to inferior weapons and may "settle for killing two, three or four people rather than seventeen or thirty-five"."

I don't see why, if it's going to save many of their lives. In contrast, what comfort does your side offer them? That they're far more likely to face maniacs with guns in the first place, but that's OK, beacuse as long as they own a gun, carry it around with them at all times, are trained to use it to a high degree of proficiency, and are blessed with a temperament that allows them to keep a cool head when faced with imminent death, they might possibly be able to fend off such an attack. Is it any wonder the member of staff at Dunblane Primary School was more attracted to the first approach?

Nate said...

See, to me, it's just not significant that knife massacres kill fewer people than gun massacres. I mean, bomb attacks kill more than both; what's your point?

You keep focusing on the number of people killed in these incidents while minimizing what in my opinion is the most important part: the people committing the deeds. The key ingredient that makes a mass killing a mass killing is not a gun or a knife or a barrel of gasoline or a truck full of fertilizer, but a crazy person who wants to use them to kill strangers and then finally themselves. I mean, the compass I've been using to draw perfect circles has such a sharp point that it could easily pierce several inches into flesh, and it's more concealable by virtue of not being an obvious weapon. This thing is a drawing tool in my hands, but it would become a terrible weapon of surprise in the hands of a crazy psychopath. Now sure, a gun in that nutjob's hand would be even worse. No question there. But so would a cricket bat. Or a motor vehicle. Or a homemade bomb.

To focus on the weapon and all but ignore the desire of its user to commit mass murder of strangers is, to me, to miss the most significant piece of the puzzle. These are not normal people we're taking about; they're selfish sociopaths who have renounced civilized society and decided to live out their last minutes or hours inflicting bloodshed on innocents.

I mean, whether it be with a knife, a gun, or a bomb, you still have an incredibly dangerous situation of a person who has decided to commit mass murder of strangers. Now, the outcome will certainly be affected by personal factors, available resources, understanding of tactics, expertise with tools and weapons, and so on and so forth. Maybe a mass knifing will result in fewer casualties than a mass shooting. But a mass bombing will result in more casualties! To me, the weapon chosen seems insignificant compared to the psychological change that would make a human decide to turn his cognitive power to figuring out how to commit homicide on complete strangers.


That they're far more likely to face maniacs with guns in the first place, but that's OK, beacuse as long as they own a gun, carry it around with them at all times, are trained to use it to a high degree of proficiency, and are blessed with a temperament that allows them to keep a cool head when faced with imminent death, they might possibly be able to fend off such an attack.

First of all, you're vastly overestimating the skill required to use a firearm in self-defense. It's really not that hard, honestly. The simplicity and lethality that make guns good for murder make them easily good for defense and deterrent.

I guess it all comes down to your view of the average person. If your assumption is that anyone could be a hothead, an irrational lunatic, or a potential mass killer, then I can see how it would make sense to keep everything as safe as possible and ban the dangerous objects.

And to me, it actually is a comfort because I am a very individually-oriented person. I feel better when I can tell myself than I have some ability to affect my fate then when society tells me it has made me safer. That's just a personal thing, I guess.

Nate said...

My last comment seems to have gone missing. It was up for a bit, but now I don't see it any longer! Could this be glitch on your site?

James Kelly said...

Unfortunately Blogger introduced a rather over-zealous spam filter a few months ago, which seems to quarantine comments at random.

"I mean, bomb attacks kill more than both; what's your point?"

It's tempting to ask what your point is - do you think I'm any more relaxed about people carrying bombs around than I am about them carrying guns around? Yes, bombs are even more deadly than guns, and chemical weapons are deadlier than both. I think it would be a rather good idea to restrict access to all three as far as practicably possible.

I don't really know what to say in response to the suggestion that the number of people killed isn't the most important part of the equation - to me, it just self-evidently is. If you're arguing that the evil intent of the perpetrator may be just as great regardless of the number of deaths, I wouldn't disagree - but that's an abstract point, which the courts can consider in determining a sentence. Before we get to that stage, real lives lost or saved do matter. They matter enormously.

"It's really not that hard, honestly."

Under the unimaginable stress of being suddenly thrust into a life-or-death scenario? I have my doubts.

"If your assumption is that anyone could be a hothead, an irrational lunatic, or a potential mass killer, then I can see how it would make sense to keep everything as safe as possible and ban the dangerous objects."

As I pointed out to Epsilon on the other thread, that argument cuts both ways. If your contention is that the overwhelming bulk of humanity is essentially trustworthy, then carrying a gun around with you everywhere as if you are constantly under mortal threat is ludicrously disproportionate - rather like refusing to step on board a passenger plane without a parachute.

Incidentally, your view of your fellow man is curiously at odds with what Kevin said in his last-but-one post in this debate - he felt that it was those of us on the left who have an unrealistically rosy view of human nature, whereas those on his side of the argument were more hard-headed about it. But I take on board what you say about not necessarily being a fully-paid-up member of the Kevin Baker Fan Club.

"And to me, it actually is a comfort because I am a very individually-oriented person. I feel better when I can tell myself than I have some ability to affect my fate then when society tells me it has made me safer. That's just a personal thing, I guess."

But it's a form of comfort you impose on others - or, more accurately, if other people don't want to carry a gun around with them, you have no comfort to offer them (cold or otherwise) in the face of the greater peril a gun free-for-all would leave them at. It's a question I've posed before - what meaningful scope does this philosophy of individual freedom allow for people to make the free choice not to have anything to do with guns? I presume your response would be that they have that choice, but must accept the risk. Another prime example of how 'personal freedom' so often equates to the right to make nominal but ultimately meaningless choices.

Nate said...

It's tempting to ask what your point is - do you think I'm any more relaxed about people carrying bombs around than I am about them carrying guns around? Yes, bombs are even more deadly than guns, and chemical weapons are deadlier than both. I think it would be a rather good idea to restrict access to all three as far as practicably possible.


But what do such laws actually accomplish? Bombs and bomb-making materials are quire restricted in every country that has seen bombings, and it didn't seem to stop them. I'll reiterate my point that when you have a lunatic who wants to mass murder strangers, they're going to find a way, often regardless of the law. Murder itself is illegal, too, and that alone doesn't seem to do much to stop these things. The approach in my opinion is not to focus on their weapons, but on how to prevent or halt their actions.


As I pointed out to Epsilon on the other thread, that argument cuts both ways. If your contention is that the overwhelming bulk of humanity is essentially trustworthy, then carrying a gun around with you everywhere as if you are constantly under mortal threat is ludicrously disproportionate - rather like refusing to step on board a passenger plane without a parachute.

I live in a state that does not permit me to carry a gun, but if I did, I would not do so because of the fear of mortal danger around every corner or inherent in every pedestrian, but because even though a criminal attack is very unlikely, it can happen, and I'd prefer to be prepared for the unlikely than simply try my luck. I mean, I don't drive with a spare tire because I'm terrified that every highway is full of nails and broken glass, but because I'm cognizant of the fact that blowouts can happen anywhere, no matter how unlikely they are on average. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, right?


what meaningful scope does this philosophy of individual freedom allow for people to make the free choice not to have anything to do with guns?

It doesn't. Similarly, nobody has the choice to not have anything to do with black people, automobiles, pedophiles, ugly houses, gays, high credit card interest rates, or white supremacist websites. That's the world we live in. To state the right to be free from any of those things would imply that the government must levy its compulsive force to prevent those things and people from existing, lest my rights be violated. Where does it end? Every statement of such a right inherently requires the violation of some other right enjoyed by someone else. How can you possibly balance the competing interests under such a philosophy?

The right to live in a world devoid of X is essentially the right to force everyone else in the world not to do or be X. This is appropriate only where X is itself a violation of your rights. For example, I don't have the right to attack you because that would itself be violating your rights. But merely owning firearms violates nobody's rights. Now, shooting you is a different story entirely, but merely having guns isn't.

And though you're going to say that my owning guns raises your likelihood of being shot, that's irrelevant for the purpose of rights. I mean, the right to a speedy trial, to confront one's accuser, and for one's property to be free from unreasonable search and seizure unquestionably result in many criminals going free and thus many innocents being harmed by those who really should be behind bars. But that's irrelevant for the point of discussing rights (a point I feel many conservatives miss when the subject of crime comes up). Many of our rights can result in offense or injury to others. The right of the intolerant bigot so spew hatred and vileness against my ethnic group offends me. The right of criminals to not self-incriminate puts me at heightened risk of crime. Such is life.

James Kelly said...

Murder itself is illegal, too, and that alone doesn't seem to do much to stop these things.

I'm struggling to accept that. The phrase "getting away with murder" has resonance for a good reason - if there really were no penalties attached to it at all, it beggars belief to suggest that it wouldn't be happening far more often. The same applies to theft and any number of other crimes.

As for what a gun ban "accomplishes", we're in danger of getting into a statistical quagmire again - but I can tell you what I firmly believe it achieves. Fewer guns in the UK relative to the US = far fewer gun homicides. Is that difference made up for by other types of killing? Quite simply, no. Kevin of course thinks that can be entirely explained away by "cultural" factors - I find that wholly unconvincing.

"The approach in my opinion is not to focus on their weapons, but on how to prevent or halt their actions."

The word 'halt' presumably refers to on-the-spot self-defence, which as you know I think is a hopeless approach, a bit like trying to bail water out of a boat as the hole is getting ever bigger. But 'prevent' is more interesting - that seems to hint at pre-emptive measures, and for the life of me I'm struggling to guess what they might be. We know, for example, that those who believe in absolutist personal freedom don't think that society has any collective responsibility to tackle the root causes of crime, such as poverty, or poor mental health.

"Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, right?"

I don't agree. I can't think of any downsides to carrying a spare tire 'just in case it's needed', but I can think of plenty to carrying a gun - not only in terms of the extreme care you have to take at all times to keep it secure, but also the dangers to everyone around you if you fail to do so. That's magnified thousands of times over if carrying a gun is the norm for most people.

"what meaningful scope does this philosophy of individual freedom allow for people to make the free choice not to have anything to do with guns?"

Judging by your response, I should have chosen my words with much more precision - I was referring specifically to the freedom not to own a gun, or to have any training in gun use. Which brings me onto...

"But merely owning firearms violates nobody's rights."

Not so. The right to have nothing to do with guns is a perfectly meaningful freedom in the UK, but in a society where guns are ubiquitous, it's closer to being a nominal freedom. People who dislike the idea of owning guns nevertheless find themselves chained to them because they feel their safety or peace of mind would be compromised otherwise.

"Every statement of such a right inherently requires the violation of some other right enjoyed by someone else. How can you possibly balance the competing interests under such a philosophy?"

Not only can it be done, but in many instances it has to be done, because some rights are not only in conflict, but are utterly incompatible. A good example is abortion - some say a woman has the absolute right to control her own body, some say the unborn child has the absolute right to life. The law in practice doesn't choose between those two incompatible rights, but strikes a compromise between them. Perhaps you feel that the state shouldn't be intervening at all in such matters and should just let events take their course - but isn't that flatly contradicted by your view that the state should intervene with punitive action to protect your 'right' to private property, should it become necessary?

Oh, and equating guns with an ethnic group is pushing it a bit. Intolerance may always be bad thing when applied to people - it's somewhat less clear-cut when applied to inanimate objects.

Nate said...

Not so. The right to have nothing to do with guns is a perfectly meaningful freedom in the UK, but in a society where guns are ubiquitous, it's closer to being a nominal freedom. People who dislike the idea of owning guns nevertheless find themselves chained to them because they feel their safety or peace of mind would be compromised otherwise.

If people have the right to live free of guns because guns compromise their safety or peace of mind, then doesn't that imply that they have the right to live free of anything at all that compromises their safety or peace of mind?


Not only can it be done, but in many instances it has to be done, because some rights are not only in conflict, but are utterly incompatible. A good example is abortion - some say a woman has the absolute right to control her own body, some say the unborn child has the absolute right to life.

Now we're getting somewhere, and this is the crux of the issue right here. In my opinion, 99% of legitimate rights are not in conflict with other people's rights. Abortion is one of those sticky situations where each option violates someone's rights so government MUST balance the competing interests, and I don't think the debate surrounding it will ever disappear for that reason.

But abortion is the exception. Building codes, for example, are on one hand a violation of property rights, but on the other hand, whose rights are violated if they didn't exist? Their absence leads to no direct, compulsive force being levied against another. No violation then. While you can make the reasonable case that building codes are necessary for improving public safety or enhancing property values or simplifying insurance systems or any one of many other noble goals, you can't argue that not having them is violating anyone's rights; building a shoddy structure does not levy compulsive force against anyone and hence it is not a violation of a right.

I can think of a zillion other examples where people's rights are violated to further some social interest, not because they were actually committing violations of the rights of others. Drug prohibition and bans on suicide (assisted or otherwise), for example, are clear violations on the most basic right to determine what happens to one's own body. Were these acts violating anyone else's rights? Of course not.

Now, people who disapprove of those things will state their feelings that decriminalizing them will lead to more of their presence in society, they'll corrupt the children, they'll reduce people's feelings of safety and well-being, and all matter of other things that sound a lot like your opposition to gun ownership. My problem with your line of reasoning regarding this interest-balancing game is that it can go wherever anyone wants; there are no rules or structure to it. Without a guiding principle such as "people can go about their business until they levy compulsive force against another", you're left adrift, forever trying to balance A against B, X against Y, without any sense of which side has the real claim to a violation of their rights and which side has the false one.

If people have the right to live in a society with characteristics X, Y, and Z, then they can claim to lawfully and morally violate others' rights who detracting from X, Y, or Z. But while it may be X, Y, and Z for you, I may prefer A, B, and C. My co-workers may prefer D, E, and F. Who wins? Should rights really be subject to this kind of public opinion? Should a person's rights be violated simply because a plurality desire it today?

James Kelly said...

"If people have the right to live free of guns because guns compromise their safety or peace of mind, then doesn't that imply that they have the right to live free of anything at all that compromises their safety or peace of mind?"

I clearly do think they have the right to (within reason) live free of guns or anything that has a similar impact on their safety, but once again I don't think I've got over the point I was trying to make. I was talking about the conditions that are necessary to allow them to make a meaningful choice not to personally own a gun or to undergo gun training, or frankly even to have to consider anything of the sort. The end result of the ubiquity of guns is people's lives revolving around the absurd little objects whether they like it or not - that's a kind of tyranny in itself. I sometimes wonder if people who live in such jurisdictions realise that opting out of all that isn't (or needn't be) a complete fantasy.

"Building codes, for example, are on one hand a violation of property rights but on the other hand, whose rights are violated if they didn't exist?"

It'd be perfectly possible to ask - whose rights are necessarily violated if they do exist? Property rights are an ideological construct every bit as much as the rights you dismiss.

"Without a guiding principle such as "people can go about their business until they levy compulsive force against another""

Oh, guiding principles are good - but it's quite possible to construct one with a more meaningful threshold of harm than "compulsive force". That probably excludes about 99.9% of the harm human beings inflict on each other, sometimes quite knowingly. For instance, you could smoke in front of a colleague day after day, knowing you are potentially damaging their health - but that's OK because they're not "compelled" to put up with it. They have the "choice" to resign the job, lose their livelihood to get away from your smoke. And then when they ultimately get sick, their rights haven't been infringed at all.

Nate said...

I clearly do think they have the right to (within reason) live free of guns or anything that has a similar impact on their safety, but once again I don't think I've got over the point I was trying to make. I was talking about the conditions that are necessary to allow them to make a meaningful choice not to personally own a gun or to undergo gun training, or frankly even to have to consider anything of the sort. The end result of the ubiquity of guns is people's lives revolving around the absurd little objects whether they like it or not - that's a kind of tyranny in itself. I sometimes wonder if people who live in such jurisdictions realise that opting out of all that isn't (or needn't be) a complete fantasy.

I still don't see how this logic couldn't effortlessly be applied to automobiles, or fireworks, or kitchen knives, or concealable cameras, or model rocket engines, or defective sewer systems, or anything at all that may happen to be viewed at the time as having "a similar impact on their safety". Haven't you just sketched out a framework by which the plurality or majority (depending on the details) can ban anything at all that they view infringes on their right to safety or security or piece of mind?

Property rights are an ideological construct every bit as much as the rights you dismiss.

If you see property rights as artificial in nature, can I ask what rights you do consider natural? Or are they all constructed and thus subject to governmental limitation? If so, can I ask what exactly is the point of having rights, then?

That probably excludes about 99.9% of the harm human beings inflict on each other, sometimes quite knowingly.

What's your threshold for "harm"? If I get into a screaming match with a deeply unpleasant person who impugns my dignity and humanity, I may feel very much harmed indeed, but surely my rights haven't been violated. And if your going to draw the line at physical harm then I don't see how my principle is inappropriate. The biggest violations of people's rights during the last century, for example—war and genocide—fell exclusively under the umbrella of my principle. more than 300 million people fell to violent force imposed by governments deliberately killing the citizens of other countries and often even their own.

I don't see how the smoking example holds. It seems very much compulsive to me. What's the real difference between deliberately blowing toxic smoke at someone and sprinkling rat poison on their clothing? The important part for me is the knowing and deliberate aspect. Smoking in the abstract doesn't harm me; smoking in such a way that I am directly exposed to the toxic by-products does.

James Kelly said...

"I still don't see how this logic couldn't effortlessly be applied to automobiles, or fireworks, or kitchen knives, or concealable cameras, or model rocket engines, or defective sewer systems, or anything at all that may happen to be viewed at the time as having "a similar impact on their safety""

But none of them do, with the exception of cars (which we've discussed before) and possibly defective sewer systems - and in the latter case I'm surprised anyone in their right mind wouldn't want to do something about it!

"What's your threshold for "harm"? If I get into a screaming match with a deeply unpleasant person who impugns my dignity and humanity, I may feel very much harmed indeed, but surely my rights haven't been violated."

No, they haven't. The threshold is considerably higher than that. And if I was being cynical I'd suggest you were trying to force me to choose between two fairly ludicrous extremes! You talked about balancing interests earlier, so let's start with an example along those lines. After the Dunblane massacre, the balance of interest lay between public safety and the right to enjoy sporting activities (the self-defence argument was never taken seriously in the UK). Framed like that, the choice was a no-brainer - the extreme harm that had been shown to be caused by gun legality plainly outweighed the benefits of the freedom that was being lost.

"If you see property rights as artificial in nature, can I ask what rights you do consider natural?"

But the whole concept of 'natural rights' is ideological. Of course I accept the principle of property rights - I'm just pointing out that I don't accept the premise that your cherry-picking of human rights carries any sort of self-evident truth to it.

James Kelly said...

Just to expand on that a bit further while I'm thinking of it - my view is that you're defining "compulsive" unrealistically narrowly, notwithstanding your surprising answer on smoking. One of the reasons I brought that subject up again was that you had previously said that a ban on smoking in public places was an unwarranted infrigement of personal freedom, on the grounds that others always had the option to move away and avoid the smoke. But as I pointed out at the time, if you're talking about buses, or every pub in a town, that 'choice' isn't all it's cracked up to be - it gets to the point where there isn't a lot you can do with your life if you don't want to be subjected to passive smoking. I'd suggest that if someone is 'constructively' being compelled to breathe in the smoke because the alternatives are so limited, that is an infringement of their rights every bit as much as a literal compulsion.

Another good example would be the "shoddy structure" you mentioned - that becomes an infringements of rights if there is no meaningful choice but to take your chances with it, ie. if most structures availaible to you are like that, or indeed if no-one has warned you it is dangerous.

Nate said...

As usual, this really boils down to how you define the scope of a right.

You said accept the principle of property rights. So do I. But evidently we define the scope of this right (and indeed, all rights) very differently. For example, you say that you support both property rights and building codes. This seems contradictory to me, as building codes are tangible infringements on people's property rights.

So, you support property rights, but not when property owners want to build structures without inspections. You've also said in the past that you support environmental legislation. So now it becomes that you support property rights, until the owners want to build uninspected buildings or burn trash. And so on and so forth. Basically, you support property rights, but you also support an ever-expanding number of specific infringements on them, and you furthermore support an ideological construction of the concept of "rights" that allows for virtually unlimited future encroachment.

How can the right to property really even exist when it is subject to continual diminution over time as opinions regarding what people should be able do with their property evolve? When a right becomes subject to public opinion and political curtailment, it ceases to be a right and becomes just another legislatively-granted or -removed privilege.

James Kelly said...

"and you furthermore support an ideological construction of the concept of "rights" that allows for virtually unlimited future encroachment."

"Encroachment" on what? It can only be on your own ideological construction of rights. The concept of you "owning property" has no meaning without legal back-up - a hundred different people could claim to own the same field on different idiosyncratic interpretations of what constitutes their "natural rights". But you know you own the field, because you have the legal documentation, and others respect the law (and if they don't will be compelled to do so, as you've already declared appropriate). When you're so reliant on the law to safeguard what you hold most dear, it seems distinctly peculiar to suggest that the the law has no business placing even the slightest conditionality on property rights.

"When a right becomes subject to public opinion and political curtailment"

Does democracy have any role to play here at all? Is it just "here are your natural rights, and here are your guns to defend them"? Even in your country there's a democractic process (albeit a labyrinthine one) by which constitutional rights can be altered.

Nate said...

You seem disturbed by the idea that human rights rights would be partially or mostly off-limits to democratic alteration. But in point of fact, that's precisely what they're supposed to be. By way of illustration, my country has a long history of trampling on human rights until they're explicitly codified as such, precisely to remove the issue from legislative consideration. For example, now that we have the thirteenth amendment, boom, no more slavery. Prior to that, it was up to the political process of congress and the various states. Now that option has been removed and subject to an impossibly high standard of review. Technically, this means that democracy has little to no role to play in the issue now, and the Southern states sure were angry when it first happened; their democratic will had been overruled. But in the case of democratic will being in favor of a violation of a fundamental human right, isn't that a good thing?

Here's what it comes down to: if a right is endlessly malleable by politicians according to public opinion, then what's the difference between it any any other legislatively-created privilege? Why bother labeling as a right that which can be altered or abolished if a majority wish it tomorrow?

James Kelly said...

You seem disturbed by the idea that human rights rights would be partially or mostly off-limits to democratic alteration

No, I'm not. What I'm 'disturbed' by is your implication that the few very narrow rights you care about should be so wholly off-limits that it's completely impossible for other important rights to be even thought about, lest they should interfere with what you call your 'natural rights' in even the most peripheral way. You don't think those should be merely 'partly' or 'mostly' off-limits, otherwise you could have few complaints about the way things are done in any liberal democracy.

"But in the case of democratic will being in favor of a violation of a fundamental human right, isn't that a good thing?"

Broadly I agree with you, but it can't be an absolute principle, otherwise you'd be left with constitutions that don't evolve with the times in a rational way. (I'd suggest that's exactly the problem with the Second Amendment - it's a historical relic.) That's what constitutional amendment procedures are for - a higher threshold than a simple plurality, but a lower threshold than completely untouchable. In a nutshell, a balancing of principles, or a shade of grey. Isn't that the problem here - you dislike shades of grey, and prefer absolutes?

Mike W. said...

If people have the right to live free of guns because guns compromise their safety or peace of mind, then doesn't that imply that they have the right to live free of anything at all that compromises their safety or peace of mind?

Exactly. Under Mr. Kelly's "logic" I have a "right" to live free from young black men, since statistically young black men commit the overwhelming majority of violent crime in this country and thus, "compromise my safety."

It is of course absurd to claim that I have such a "right." but that was my point, to show how absurd Mr. Kelly's claim is.

James Kelly said...

"Under Mr. Kelly's "logic" I have a "right" to live free from young black men, since statistically young black men commit the overwhelming majority of violent crime in this country and thus, "compromise my safety.""

No, you don't have that right, Mike. I'm afraid under my logic you'll just have to resolve your 'issues' - and they are clearly numerous - for yourself. Without the aid of a gun, mind.

"It is of course absurd to claim that I have such a "right." but that was my point, to show how absurd Mr. Kelly's claim is."

I'm sure you'll make a "point" one of these days, Mike, although heaven only knows what it'll be. But, rest assured - we all admire your enthusiasm.