One of the points I made at the start of my skirmishes with the American gun rights lobby last year was that I felt the gun culture quite simply cheapened human life. The example I gave was the killing of innocent Scottish businessman Andrew de Vries by a Texan homeowner who mistook him for a burglar, and who took a 'shoot first, ask questions later' approach. A namesake of mine – ie. ‘James’ – took issue with my conclusion the other day at Kevin Baker’s blog, suggesting that if I actually visited Texas I would soon come to recognise that, while people there put the wellbeing of themselves and their loved ones above all else (presumably this is the get-out clause to excuse the de Vries killing), they do care about the value of human life more broadly. Well, it just so happens I know some Texans, and from that I realise that sweeping generalisations are always misleading when applied to individuals, but I do still have serious doubts about the culture that predominates there. The extraordinary rate at which people have been put to death in that state scarcely gives the impression of a society that authentically regards respect for life as its primary value.
A few years ago, I saw a documentary about a woman in Texas who was being ‘trained’ to defend herself with a gun. There was a role-playing scenario in which she was sitting in a car, when a man approached and started talking to her in a seemingly non-threatening way. For a reason that was not immediately apparent, he gave the impression of being about to open her car door, and at that point she abruptly ‘shot him’ in the chest. I naturally expected the trainers to chide her for being far too hasty, and to point out that – even in Texas – you can’t take a life until you’ve established that you’re genuinely under threat. Instead they applauded her. That was precisely what she was ‘supposed to have done’, apparently.
So James has set me thinking more broadly about how much room the gun rights advocates’ ‘companion philosophy’ of individual freedom really leaves for the meaningful valuing of human life. One of the issues I raised with Kevin Baker’s Fan Club the other day in my ten question challenge was suicide, and whether restrictions on gun ownership wouldn’t be an effective way of making it harder for people to take their own lives. This (remarkably) is the only one of the ten questions that anyone has felt able to respond to so far, seventy-two hours into the challenge, and the response came from Kevin himself, in the form of a link to a long blog post he wrote on the subject in 2004. With characteristic theatricality, the post claims to establish indisputable proof that there is no problem whatever – despite this being an issue over which, on further investigation, it turns out there is significant academic dispute. However, when I thought about it some more, the question that really intrigued me was why Kevin would have gone to all the trouble of writing that post six years ago. After all, he believes in the absolute freedom of the individual, with which comes absolute responsibility. If, by any chance, more people were killing themselves because legally available guns make it much easier, why would Kevin care? Under his philosophy, the waste of life ought to be morally neutral, because those individuals have made a free choice. Indeed, you could argue that the fact that suicide was easier for them was a thoroughly good thing, as it facilitated the realisation of that ‘free’ choice. So why is Kevin even intellectually curious enough about whether gun legality increases the suicide rate to write such a long article? Why is it so important to him to "prove" there is no such link?
Even leaving aside the question marks I frequently raise over Kevin’s handling of statistics, it strikes me that there is a whiff of intellectual dishonesty at play here. For the purposes of that article, he is posing – at least tacitly – as someone who accepts the premise of his opponents’ argument, namely that an established link between gun legality and an increased suicide rate might bolster the case for gun control. That’s no problem, of course, because by happy chance – remarkably fortunate that it always just happens to work out this way - he reckons he has the ‘facts’ to demolish any notion of a link, thus achieving the reverse and weakening the case for gun control. But according to the terms of his own philosophy (rather than that of his opponents) it actually does no such thing – it makes no difference to the case one way or the other. Just to clarify whether I was right in this interpretation, I asked Kevin yesterday whether as an absolutist on the question of individual rights and responsibilities, he felt it should even be an objective of public policy to reduce or minimise the suicide rate. Kevin himself did not respond, but a poster called Tam did, and as his comment was “liked” by no fewer than four others I’m guessing it’s fairly representative of the KBFC’s views –
I mean, if someone wants to get all charitable and set up a hotline or ad campaign on their own dime because they're all ate up over the thought of strangers topping themselves, well, that's fine, too, but I don't see why it should be made my mandatory concern.”
So is that a prime example of the ‘respect for life’ that James was talking about? If the life of someone in suicidal distress can in theory be saved, that’s OK, just so long as someone else does it and it doesn’t cost us a single penny? To me, this ‘shrug of the shoulders’ philosophy comprehensively disrespects the life of anyone beyond one’s immediate circle, casting it as cheap and unimportant. The same principle applies to health care for the poor – it’s not intrinsically undesirable, as long as no-one else has to pay a penny for it. In fact, I begin to discern a pattern emerging here – the lives of others may in principle be ‘respected’, but only insofar as that respect carries no personal cost to the all-important individual – and that cost needn’t be monetary. In the case of the woman in the Texas documentary, and indeed in the case of the homeowner who shot Andrew de Vries, the cost was merely having to face the risk of the unknown – which included a small risk of coming to some unspecified harm. At the point that this purely theoretical risk became apparent, the life of the other person became instantly unimportant and disposable. This surely must be the most egotistical worldview imaginable – one that elevates the self to such importance that even a theoretical chance of injury or death renders the right to life of anyone else redundant.
Now, I can hear the objection coming straight away – anyone who gets killed in this fashion only has themselves to blame. People are responsible for their own lives, and if they put themselves in danger through their own irresponsibility they deserve no sympathy. So deeply-ingrained is this (frankly callous) attitude that Andrew de Vries was by all accounts even the subject of outright mockery after his death, with suggestions that his actions were deserving of a ‘Darwin Award’ – ie. for helping to remove stupidity from the gene pool. (In truth, the average Scotsman wouldn’t be stupid enough to imagine that anyone would shoot them dead simply for shouting loudly and knocking on a back door.)
Such absolutism on the principle of personal responsibility simply isn’t rationally sustainable. Mr de Vries acted the way he did because he was drunk and frightened, but it’s not hard to think of many other potential reasons why an individual’s actions might be misconstrued with lethal consequences. What about someone with severe learning difficulties, for example? If they tried to open our heroine’s car door unexpectedly, would she stop for a moment to assess the situation before pulling the trigger? On the basis of her ‘training’, clearly the answer is no. So not only does this inhumane philosophy value the absolute safety of the individual more than the right to life of ‘irresponsible others’, it also elevates it above the right to life of some of the most innocent and vulnerable in society, who simply can’t be held responsible for how their actions might be misinterpreted.
So what’s going on here? It seems to me that along with cheapening life to a frightening degree, this philosophy also has another key characteristic – it glorifies the strong, and despises the weak. Strength in this case is not defined as physical strength, because of course it’s been pointed out endlessly that a diminutive woman, for example, or an elderly person with proper training, has strength with a gun in their hand that is equal to that of the most physically powerful. But what is being glorified is a kind of mental strength, and specifically the ideal of ostensibly ‘taking total responsibility’ for one’s own personal safety. What in parallel is being despised is the weakness of dependency – those who ‘need’, ‘allow’ or ‘require’ others to be responsible for their safety, or for 'rescuing' them from suicidal thoughts, at a potential cost to those others. Funnily enough, what enabled all this to crystallise in my mind was spotting a distinct pattern in the torrent of abuse I was receiving over at Kevin’s blog –
“What is it like, James, to be entirely at the mercy of the world?”
“Hey Judy-boy, grow a pair and then you wouldn't be so afraid”
So a fairly standard playground attempt to crank up their ‘manly’ self-esteem by contrasting it with my own ‘wussiness’. But if you look at the context of these taunts carefully, what’s interesting is that it’s generally not my approach to debate that’s being referred to (it would be a stretch to call me weak on that score as I seem to have been one of the few ‘non-believers’ ever to have had the gumption to actually enter the lair) but simply the fact that I’m not prepared to defend myself with a gun. I want my safety primarily protected through public order rather than through direct self-defence, which puts me in a relationship of dependence to others, and to the state in particular. It’s that dependence they despise in me, more than anything else.
But dependence is everywhere, and always has been. Even in the individualists’ paradise of Texas, there are people who cannot meaningfully take responsibility for every aspect of their own lives, because of sickness or frailty, of either the physical or mental variety. Perhaps people who glorify strength imagine that they can draw a black and white distinction between the minority who must be taken care of, and the vast majority for whom absolute responsibility must apply. But the inconvenient reality is that we live in a world of shades of grey. The ‘strong’ in January can be a little weaker and more dependent in July, and stronger again by December. Which brings me neatly back to the issue of suicide. One very good reason (although simple humanity is an even better one) why we all should take a collective responsibility for helping those at risk is that it could be us – as an individual - next. Depression, like any other illness, is no respecter of a self-perception of strength – it can strike anyone at all, at any time. And when that happens, what a cruel irony it will be if it‘s the cult of individualism that leaves that desperate individual alone and without support when he or she needs it most.
We are all bound to each other, and we all influence each other’s fate for good or ill. It's standing together that keeps us strong as individuals, because the slack can be picked up by society at moments of personal weakness. Absolutist individualism simply doesn’t work, because ‘individual responsibility’ when taken to an extreme is deeply irresponsible in its practical effects. And it’s not only the weak whose lives it destroys (sometimes literally). Examples –
‘Taking responsibility for your own protection’ by having a gun at home puts others at risk. It’s not just the sporadic instances of legal gun-owners committing massacres (although those incidents stubbornly keep happening), but the fact that in the US legal weapons are stolen on an industrial scale for use in crime. There seems to be two standard responses to this – one is Nate’s reply that he doesn’t care, because the criminals would get their guns somehow anyway. The other is to blame the individual gun-owners for the irresponsibility of not storing their weapons as they should (and as they, ‘responsible’ gun owners, do themselves). Simply not good enough. The first response is magical thinking to swat away an inconvenient truth, and the second is an absurdity, because everyone knows that if you place trust in a large number of people (literally millions), some are bound to let you down. Both responses are an evasion of the collective responsibility of those who allow such a system to cause this profound harm – and any evasion of direct responsibility is a sign of weakness, not strength.
And what about the inevitability that a large number of ‘defensive’ weapons in the homes of private citizens will lead to accidental deaths? Again, the only response seems to be to vilify the individual gun-owners for their irresponsibility, thus pathetically evading society’s collective responsibility for a system that makes such tragedy inevitable.
So, to sum up, if someone is thinking about committing suicide, that’s up to them, and has nothing to do with society abandoning them. If a child is accidentally killed with a gun, that’s his or her parents’ responsibility, and has nothing at all to do with society’s recklessness in allowing (and indeed encouraging) countless equally irresponsible parents to own a gun. And if half a million legally owned weapons are stolen every year in the US by criminals, leading to untold death and misery further down the line, we don’t care.
What makes these evasions so irrational is that those who espouse such a philosophy are putting themselves at more risk through their own contribution to society's collective irresponsibility, and not just the ‘others’ who matter less. As we know, Americans’ greater capacity to ‘defend themselves’ is a worthless mirage, with a homicide risk more than two and a half times greater than their ‘helpless’ British cousins. No individual's resourcefulness can ever sufficiently outweigh the external factors that largely determine their level of risk. So what is actually being valued is a perception of strength and control, rather than the substance, while what is being vilified is similarly merely a perceived helplessness and dependence. In truth, we are all helpless and dependent on others to a degree. Personal initiative in regard to self-defence might give us a sense of control over our own destiny, but if the cumulative effect of millions of people relying on the same approach is to put individuals at far more risk, who are we actually kidding? There is no strength in self-delusion. There is, however, considerable strength in the individual being prepared to be hard-headed, and accept the loss of an illusory - if comforting - sense of control, in pursuit of a collective approach that is actually more effective. And in doing so we create a society which recognises the inescapable reality that, like it or not, we are bound to each other, that we are responsible in some measure for each others’ fate, and that the lives of all of us, strong or vulnerable, are of equal value – a principle that isn’t suspended at the point at which someone knocks at the back of our house or vaguely moves their hand towards our car door.