Saturday, June 5, 2010

My response to the KBFC

As is probably obvious if you've seen the last thread but one, the tragic events in Cumbria on Wednesday have led me to get embroiled in yet another exchange with Arizona-based gun enthusiast Kevin Baker and his ever-delightful Fan Club. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon rebutting various points at Kevin's blog, but as has happened on previous occasions his gang seem to multiply with water, so I'm (not for the first time) going to bail out of a trainwreck of a comments thread and instead give my thoughts here on some of what has been said over the last few hours.

Someone calling themselves 'The Happy Rampager' told me this -

"Let’s face it, you’re the type who puts his own satisfaction ahead of other people’s lives. Mine, the 12 dead, everyone in the UK whether they agree with you or not. You also think you can fling mud to hide the fact that you hold other people’s lives in contempt. What sort of person does holding other's lives in contempt make you?"

A comment that's plainly beneath contempt, but it's worth just pointing out the supreme irony of it being said by someone who clearly puts the personal satisfaction and pleasure of owning a gun before everything else, including other people's lives, safety and peace of mind. The 12 people he referred to were gunned down by someone who owned weapons on exactly the same legal basis as he does. It seems quite likely that without a gun licence, Bird would not have succeeded in killing so many, and perhaps would not have killed at all. There is, therefore, at least an arguable case for asking legal gun owners to accept some small disappointment in return for greater public safety and reassurance. Is 'Happy Rampager' prepared to be socially responsible and make that sacrifice? It seems not, and perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise given his deeply unfortunate choice of moniker.

The poster Ken (who has been making some utterly baffling points all day) followed up with this observation about me -

"Why, it makes him a slave who knows he is a slave, can imagine nothing else, and will not rest until everyone else is likewise enslaved (as witness his ill-disguised glee over National Health coming to America)."

I wasn't trying to disguise my glee - yes, I do believe that health care is a basic human right, not just a perk for the well-off. I'm not quite sure what the value of all this high-minded stuff about the 'freedom of the individual' is if someone is too ill to do anything with that nominal freedom. But the Alice in Wonderland notion of being 'enslaved' by a decent standard of universal healthcare is indeed one to conjure with!

On the broader issue of liberty, I wrote at some length last year about what a limiting freedom it is that can only be guaranteed by the constant possession of a firearm, along with non-stop vigilance and the readiness to use the weapon at any time. That really is a counsel of despair, and yet it's precisely the sort of world more lax gun laws would condemn us to, as people would probably have to consider purchasing a gun whether they 'freely' wanted to or not - because they'd need one to protect themselves against all those countless 'decent, law-abiding' gun-owners they'd suddenly be having brushes with on a daily basis. There must be a deeper, richer freedom out there to be won than that.

'Geek with a 45', in response to my suggestion that it is legitimate for the authorities to disarm private gun owners if mandated to do so by democratic legislation, had this to say -

"No, Democracy, in and of itself, is not the highest value. While it is may be necessary for a free society, it is hardly sufficient."

Agreed, the rights of individuals and minorities need to be enshrined, otherwise you can end up with extreme outcomes like a majority ethnic group making a 'democratic' decision to wipe out the minority. But, in truth, Europe on the whole does a better job than the US of protecting the rights of individuals - by far the most important of which is the right to life. No European country other than Belarus takes the lives of its own citizens, whereas unfortunately most US states still have the death penalty on the statute book.

On the issue of guns, there are two potential rights that can be afforded citizens, but that plainly clash with each other - a) the unlimited right to amass tools for the purposes of self-defence, and b) the right not to be attacked, and perhaps even more importantly, not to have to live in constant fear of being attacked by fellow citizens. Which of these rights should be accorded precedence? I'd say the latter, every time.

Ed "What the Heck" Man, at the end of an interminable exchange in which he imagined (bless him) he was toying with me, finally answered my question -

"I never claimed that these items were as quick and efficient as a gun. (Though in this latest incident, it's entirely possible to kill more people in the same time frame using a baseball bat than this guy killed using his guns.)

What they do accomplish is also to multiply force, even if not as much as a gun does. So even if a person doesn't have a gun available, they can (and will) still find a way to kill. Agreed?

When faced with someone intent on committing violence, how do you stop them? (Remember, you've already agreed that violence comes from the individual's intent, not the gun.)

That point has already been dealt with on the previous thread. Without a phenomenal number of private citizens undergoing a phenomenal level of training, it is simply not very likely that just any old bod with a gun is going to stay cool enough to bring such a frightening and totally unanticipated situation to a clean end. It may even make matters much worse, and lead to more lives being lost. But even accepting your flawed premise for a moment for the sake of argument, your fellow poster Matt gave the game away - he claimed that, in America, people are stopped from committing these massacres "ALL the time". Whereas this was only the third incident on this scale in the UK in the last twenty-five years. Quite clearly, quick 'stops' to these situations on most occasions would not be sufficient to offset the number of lives lost as a result of the hugely greater number of gun attacks occurring in the first place.

Britt said -

"You banned all handguns in 1997. Yet there are still handguns in the UK. In fact, there is more handgun crime every single year. Explain that Jimbo. Handguns banned means zero handgun crime? Right?"

No, it means fewer handguns, and less handgun crime, than would have been the case had the ban not been implemented. That is not the same thing - as has been repeatedly pointed out to Kevin - as saying the level of handgun crime has fallen in the UK since the late 1990s.

Scott Ganz -

"James Kelly demonstrates this mental hitch rather well, focusing entirely on THREE incidents of legally-owned guns being used in atrocities while THOUSANDS are murdered in less sensational ways."

This (ie. the disproportionality point) was something else we went into last year, and it was one of the few points that Kevin made that gave me some pause for thought. However, having reflected on it, the view I came to was that even if only a small number of lives can be saved, these incidents still justify relatively draconian gun laws because the right to own a luxury item like a gun simply isn't important enough. It's not like the brutal logic of weighing up the mind-boggling number of traffic deaths in a year against the huge benefits to society of easy travel.

There was, predictably, quite a reaction when I pointed out that the right to proportionate self-defence is enshrined in law in the UK.

Ken : You lie.
Kevin Baker : No, he doesn't. Well, "enshrined" is a complete fabrication . . .
Ed : You know, I could have sworn that you were arguing for banning shotguns and .22's. Furthermore, I could have sworn that we were challenging you on imposing that desire on others through government force. Are you now changing your tune on that?

Don't be obtuse, Ed. The comment from Kevin, meanwhile, is slightly baffling - the law does indeed provide for proportionate self-defence, and it's as "enshrined" as any law can be in a country that does not have a written constitution.

And back to Ken again. He asked me why, if I believed so strongly that private gun ownership was undesirable, I didn't simply unilaterally go and confiscate people's guns, without any need for legislation. (What a fascinating insight into the mindset of the KBFC.) I pointed out that I believed in democracy and the rule of law, as opposed to 'might is right' and the imposition of one's will by force. But it turns out that Ken doesn't seem to see any distinction whatsoever between democratically-mandated action by the authorities (eg. the collection of taxation), and an individual arrogantly taking action by himself -

"How is any action on the basis of "Do this or I'll imprison/kill you" appropriate? To say that it's okay for the (G)overnment is to say that some people are more equal than others and enjoy prior claim to the property of their lessers. On moral grounds, taxation under coercion is most certainly theft.

Ability is certainly heterogeneously distributed, but on what basis can the legitimate claim that 'Government Agent over there is a better person than regular people, and therefore enjoys a prior claim to my life and property?'"

But, Ken, as I've already pointed out, it's only in your country (well, yours is the only major one in the western democratic world) that the government reserves the extraordinary right to literally take the lives of its own citizens by judicial means.

UPDATE (couldn't resist this one) :

Carnaby : With the conclusion that we ought to increase the restrictions on legally owned firearms. Well, given that logic, how do we solve the following problem here in the USA: you're (anyone) far, far more likely to be shot in the US by a black person than a white person. Furthermore, you are far, far more likely to be shot by a black person using an "illegal" gun than anyone using a "legal" gun. Your solution, James?

A massive policy effort to raise the educational and living standards for black people up to the national average, and then the differential will disappear over time. Unless you're about to tell me that black people are somehow innately more prone to violence. Of course, rational gun control laws would reduce the problem in itself, without the slightest need for racial discrimination in its implementation.

Phew. And, that ladies and gentlemen, was my response to a small selection of the points raised by the KBFC!

Friday, June 4, 2010

No knee-jerk changes, absolutely - but the Tories' instincts are in the wrong place on gun control

So now we know - extraordinarily, this was yet another massacre perpetrated with legally-owned weapons. So, for all the protestations from the usual suspects about how it's the illegal guns that are the problem - nope, gun control laws really do make a difference. If Derrick Bird had not been licensed to own a shotgun it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that many of his victims would still be alive.

There was remarkable consensus tonight on Question Time on the issue of possible further tightening of the law, with Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru making the point that shotguns are in a different category to handguns as they are a legitimate tool for people who work in rural areas. However, I was mildly encouraged to hear the coalition's (as I suppose we must now call him) David Willetts hint that the door had not been completely closed on further legislation, if after a period of reflection it is deemed necessary. David Cameron had earlier given a very different impression when he suggested that the problem here was not the weapon, but the fact that someone had just 'snapped' - a factor that cannot possibly be legislated for. Now, where have I heard that counsel of despair before? From a purely practical point of view, the idea that Bird's 'snap' would have had such lethal consequences - and on such a scale - had he not been a licensed gun owner is simply not credible.

Quite honestly, it should be no surprise to anyone to discover where the Tories' instincts are on this subject - although the post-Hungerford and post-Dunblane legislation was passed on their watch, it was overwhelming public opinion that had left them with little choice. Not that London Labour were any quicker to act on the scourge of airguns, of course. Let's hope that the Calman recommendations on devolving control of airguns to the Scottish Parliament are included in the legislation to be tabled in the autumn - and it wouldn't be a bad idea if responsibility for all gun control was transferred at the same time.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

One more tragedy too many

What a truly horrendous day it's been. I'm usually able to retain a sense of distance when I hear about tragedies on the news, but as with Dunblane fourteen years ago, this sort of incident seems different somehow. It brings home once again the devastating capacity of a gun to snuff out multiple lives in a matter of minutes or seconds, in a way that few other weapons can match. Not for the first time, the oft-heard line of defence that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' rings sickeningly hollow tonight. Derrick Bird simply would not have succeeded in killing as many people with a lower grade of weapon, no matter how murderous his intent. As a poster on a Dunfermline Athletic forum rather pointedly put it -

"Not to persecute anyone, but I have never heard of any spree-killings carried out with anything other than a gun or guns. I'd love to hear about any pool cue massacres that went unreported."

Of course it remains to be seen how Bird obtained his weapons, but there does seem to be one clear pattern in the limited number of these massacres we've seen in the UK - they tend to be carried out by 'ordinary' people, in other words not the sort who would be likely to have easy access to illegal stockpiles of guns. The idea that gun control laws have no impact at all on the likelihood of these incidents occurring is therefore very difficult to sustain. It's far too early to judge whether a further tightening of the law would have made a difference in this case, but the notion that more legal gun ownership would have helped matters I just find utterly incomprehensible. It may seem bizarre to us in the UK that anyone would advance such an argument, but as I discovered last year, it's a frighteningly common attitude beyond these shores.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Earth calling Chekov, Earth calling Chekov...

I'm afraid doggedly referring to Scotland as a 'region' a minimum of fifteen times a week is not going to magically make our nationhood go away. Even most Scottish Tories got over that particular hang-up a few decades ago!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alistair Carmichael : was he even Clegg's third choice for SoS?

It's hard not to feel extremely sorry for David Laws given the circumstances of his case, although I've been slightly baffled by the suggestions in parts of the Tory/Lib Dem blogosphere over the last thirty-six hours that there was no cause for him to even consider his position. On the face of it, he was quite simply caught bang to rights breaching the expenses regime. Anyway, he's now fallen on his sword, and the dynamics of coalition politics mean that the ripples have hit the Scottish political world straight away. Has Danny Alexander just made history as the shortest-serving Scottish Secretary of all time? No idea, but must be close.

Being inclined to believe in fate, moments like this always make me slightly nervous. There's no immediately obvious reason to think that Michael Moore is any less likely to deliver on the enhancement of Scottish self-government than his predecessor, but I can't help wondering if we might one day look back on this as some kind of 'accidental turning-point'. The first question that formed in my mind was - what on earth was Alistair Carmichael doing in those pre-election Scottish "leaders'" debates if he wasn't even Nick Clegg's second choice for Secretary of State? I could understand him initially being leapfrogged by Alexander, in the sense that Clegg clearly wanted one of his closest confidantes at the cabinet table, but the appointment of Moore just looks like a calculated snub for the man who performed so creditably in those debates. Perhaps the public should have been informed that the Scottish Lib Dems were in fact being represented by Clegg's preferred candidate for Deputy Chief Whip.

Leaving aside the impact on Scotland, I wonder if there may be a silver lining to all this. However talented Laws is, he also just happens to be the Lib Dem MP ideologically closest to the Tories, so his appointment to such a key position didn't inspire much confidence that the 'social liberal' wing of the party was going to hold much sway within the coalition. As Danny Alexander doesn't seem to have much political identity of his own beyond being a leadership sychophant, it's impossible to say definitively that this mini-reshuffle marks a slight shift away from the right, but his contribution to BBC Scotland's recent programme on the welfare system did at least give the impression his instincts on social justice and the protection of the vulnerable are in the right place. Or at least they were at the time of filming - it's funny what a difference a ministerial title can make.

I even painted my toenails for you, I did it just the other day

Well, owsabout that for a prediction, then? I had to rub my eyes in disbelief at the way it worked out - what with all the pre-contest uncertainty, I thought the odds were heavily against picking the right winner, let alone the top three all in the correct order. Admittedly, I seem to have had something of a blind spot about the Icelandic entry, but all in all I think I'm entitled to say (not for the first time) - eat your heart out, Keith "The Oracle" Mills!

It's obviously a fantastic outcome for the contest to have such a genuine international hit take the crown, although for me it's tinged with a couple points of regret - a) it would have been a real breakthrough moment for Eurovision if a song like Turkey could just have gone one better, and b) I had been looking forward to a photo-finish in the voting for the first time in a few years, but instead (to everyone's huge surprise) we had yet another runaway winner. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it should have been obvious that Lena's fame across the continent would sweep her to an easy victory - but then people thought the same about Tatu (among many others).

It was, shall we say, an interesting experience for me watching the contest this year, because I was with two people who took an instantaneous and highly personal loathing to Lena, that frankly bordered on the homicidal. The ubiquitous words "Allemagne, douze points" were greeted on each and every occasion with groans that were probably audible from Germany itself. During the reprise of the song at the end, they turned to me and said "so what do you think of it, then?", and I had to sheepishly say "I didn't think it was that bad, to be honest...". My middle names are 'Moral' and 'Cowardice'.

I can of course completely understand why Lena would seem a bit irritating to some, but one thing I can't really relate to is the moaning about her singing in an exaggerated English accent. Why would that be intrinsically any more objectionable than the countless continental European singers who routinely adopt an American twang when they perform in English?

A few other random thoughts :

Exactly as I observed last year, the victory of a western country is masking the fact that the reintroduction of the juries has completely, spectacularly, utterly failed to resolve the problem of political voting. It's maybe diluted it by about 20% at best. The amount of obviously political voting for Russia in particular was as obscene as ever. I'm struggling to see what the solution is, though, because presumably eliminating televoting altogether has now become unthinkable, while the public would feel conned if their voice counted for less than 50%.

The genie's probably out of the bottle now, but I still think the two-hour televoting window is a terrible retrograde step for the credibility of the contest. I promised myself I wouldn't do this, but as I'd more or less made up my mind to vote for Portugal, I went ahead and made the call before they actually performed. I can't have been alone in doing that, and it really makes a mockery of a competition that in the past has always hinged on the live performance of each song.

On the other hand, although the organisers will be mortified by it, the 'pitch invasion' during the Spanish entry at least reminded us that, for all the new-fangled computer technology and backing tracks, Eurovision remains a completely live event with the welcome potential for unscripted catastrophe. Although this incident was a first for the main contest, something very similar happened in the Lithuanian national selection four or five years ago - except on that occasion the intruder remained on stage for half the entire song, and for good measure the performer's microphone stopped working as well. Bona fide TV gold - and if anyone ever manages to track it down on YouTube there might just be a fun-size Aero in it for you.