Monday, November 15, 2010

Whittle in the dark

An anonymous poster has responded at some length to my thoughts on Bill Whittle's video about gun rights, so I thought I'd reply in a fresh post. I had taken issue with Whittle's suggestion that a gun ban in the US would punish law-abiding people, by pointing out that the authorities would simply be taking guns away from people who would otherwise be breaking the law. The anonymous poster had this to say in response -

"Um, in actual fact they're not, these laws are not (and will never be) enforced against the major criminal gangs like MS13 or the Latin Kings that reside in the larger U.S. cities, for obvious reasons. No, they're aimed at those people that the lawmakers imagine they can coerce easily into compliance."

Which may or may not be true, but it's gloriously irrelevant either way. The point I was making was a very simple and - as far as I can see - irrefutable one : Mr Whittle cannot credibly claim that people who seek to hold onto illegal weapons are "breaking no laws". That fact does not change however selectively or unsatisfactorily the law is enforced.

I had also talked about the desirability of gun rights advocates "fronting up" to the terrible loss of human life that flows from their absolutist philosophy of personal freedom. This was the anonymous poster's reaction -

"That would be 'the personal freedom to defend one's own life (as well as others lives')'. Which makes your position one of 'people must have their freedom to defend their own lives interfered with and thwarted, in the name of 'protecting lives' (yeah, if I pretend to be interested in protecting lives I will haz the moral high ground not them!)'."

I'm intrigued by this notion that I'm not actually interested in protecting lives. Isn't the constant refrain from the Kevin Baker Fan Club that I'm a "wussy", ie. that I'm scared of guns? Now, why would that be the case unless - whether rationally or irrationally - I genuinely felt that guns put lives at risk? They really can't have it both ways.

I, for my part, have no problem accepting that many gun owners earnestly believe they are protecting themselves, but I've also explained at length why I'm convinced that belief is, indeed, totally irrational. But even if it wasn't, I would absolutely think that it was appropriate to interfere with this particular aspect of certain individuals' freedom, in the interests of protecting the public as a whole. I consider myself a libertarian (not in the American sense of the word), but the basic principle is that freedoms can only be absolute insofar as they don't harm others or interfere with their freedoms. There is ample evidence that the freedom to own firearms does both, and in any case it simply isn't an important enough freedom when weighed against the immense public good of a lower homicide rate (thus protecting the right to life), and an enhanced freedom from fear. The idea that the right to own one specific luxury item should be regarded as being on a par with a fundamental right like free speech is risible. As I've pointed out umpteen times, few gun rights advocates would seriously argue that everyone should have the right to own semtex, or smallpox samples, or nuclear weapons. So if you concede that the right to possess dangerous items is not absolute, what makes guns so special? It comes across as more of a fetish than anything else.

Next, I had quoted from the abstract of an academic study which concluded that -

"States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide."

The anonymous poster said this -

"One wonders how the researchers arrived at that figure. Did they, for example, check only those homes that had seen a homicide take place, for evidence of (legal*) gun ownership, or did they endeavour to find out how many of the approximate 47-53 million households that have legally owned guns on site, to see how many homicides took place with (legally*) owned guns?"

What peculiar questions, given that the answers (which are mainly in the negative) are there to be found in the short quote I gave. Clearly the researchers were not distinguishing between murder victims on the basis of whether they were gun-owners, or between murders that were committed with legal guns and those that weren't - and nor should they have been. The object of the exercise was to assess the effect of gun laws (or, strictly speaking, the rates of gun ownership) on the overall homicide rate. I don't actually believe for a moment that having a gun at home is much of a deterrent to crime, and in a sense the studies I've cited bear that out - unless criminals have some kind of sixth sense about who does and doesn't possess a gun, why would any murders be attempted at all in a state with lax guns laws? And yet they are, to a frightening extent. But even in the unlikely event that it could be shown that gun-owners do somehow enjoy a magical exemption from the general trend, the overall homicide rate would still be the only relevant issue from the point of view of public protection - unless of course our poster is suggesting that everyone should be pressured into owning a gun, which wouldn't be terribly consistent with a philosophy of personal freedom.

"You will appreciate how one method gives us a very skewed picture that is nonetheless politically useful to the gun ban nuts, whereas the other method demonstrates how rare murders actually are in households with (legally*) owned guns, which puts the lie to the notion that ownership of a gun leads people to murderous outbursts."

I might 'appreciate' that if our poster had actually produced the slightest scrap of evidence that there's any truth in it. I doubt any such convincing evidence exists. In any case, the problem of legal gun-owners themselves committing murder is just the tip of the iceberg. Lax gun laws also cause the following problems that lead to entirely avoidable deaths : legal weapons falling into the hands of criminals in huge numbers, an increased rate of suicide and accidental death, the clumsy or over-zealous use of guns in the name of 'self-defence', the use of guns as a first resort when other means of self-protection (eg. escape) might be much more effective, and a brutalised culture in which gun violence is 'normalised'.

(* I stress 'legally' because if these researchers are including murders committed with illegal guns into their research, as justification for restricting the freedom to protect one's life for people who do not own guns illegally, then that would be seriously unjust, would it not?)

No it would not. See above.

I had also expressed my scepticism at Whittle's view than guns make people "equal". I noted that it really depended on who was holding the gun at any given moment. This was the anonymous poster's reaction -

"Well that indicates that you would be OK with, say, a person confronted by someone intent on their murder, 'holding the gun' at that given moment, which is not the case as you have indicated elsewhere. Rather, your attitude is that as far as you are concerned, there is no way in hell people about to be murdered should be able to prevent their murder by the use of a gun, and to hell with anyone who might find themselves in such a situation."

Hardly. I'm not in favour of anyone being menaced with guns, which is why I'm rather keen on gun control laws that lessen the number of such incidents - as the stastical evidence I've quoted amply demonstrate they do. Is the average rational person really supposed to accept that a much greater likelihood of being attacked with a gun in the first place is a price worth paying for the knowledge that if they purchase a gun, and if they are trained to use it with a high degree of a proficiency, and if they carry it around with them at all times, they might possibly be able to fend off such an attack? Good luck with that one. As I've observed before, it's an astonishingly self-centred world view - as long as the people who happen to like carrying guns around with them feel more safe and empowered, to hell with (to use the poster's own words) the consequences for everyone else. And the irony is that their own sense of security is entirely misplaced - a gun free-for-all puts everyone at more risk.

Lastly, the poster wasn't impressed by my suggestion that Whittle's real message was that "if you want to be equal in his world - more pertinently, if you want to avoid being considerably less equal than you otherwise would have been but for the fact of widespread gun ownership - you have literally no choice but to own a gun".

"His world? Sorry, Whittle isn't personally responsible for the world having people in it who see others as prey, to be abused, robbed, raped and murdered at will."

No, he's not - and at no point did I claim he is. But gun rights advocates (in the jurisdictions where they hold sway) are ultimately reponsible for the ease with which such people are able to arm themselves with deadly weapons. And the consequences of that? I can't really put it better than Mr. Whittle does himself -

"America suffers an appalling number of handgun deaths each year, perhaps eleven thousand of them."


  1. OK, James, my long-awaited Überpost is finally up. My apologies for taking so long.

  2. I'm intrigued by this notion that I'm not actually interested in protecting lives.

    You're not, nor are other gun control advocates.

    "But gun rights advocates (in the jurisdictions where they hold sway) are ultimately reponsible for the ease with which such people are able to arm themselves with deadly weapons. And the consequences of that

    By that same measure then YOU are responsible for every single person injured, killed, raped, robbed, burglarized or beaten because the policies you support stripped them of their means of self-defense.

  3. "You're not, nor are other gun control advocates."

    Justify that, please? Anyone can make a sweeping assertion.

    "By that same measure then YOU are responsible for every single person injured, killed, raped, robbed, burglarized or beaten because the policies you support stripped them of their means of self-defense."

    Hardly, if fewer people are actually being killed, raped, robbed, "burglarized" or beaten as a result of gun control.