Saturday, June 12, 2010

The smallest minority : the individual, alone and abandoned

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 –

“Uh, yeah.

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 –


“snivelling coward”

“devastatingly weak”

“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.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pulling an Abbott out of the hat

"This is a stitch-up," said Ken Livingstone in 1992 when he failed to receive enough nominations from Labour MPs to reach the ballot paper for the leadership contest. "They're not content just stitching up who wins, they have to stitch up who comes second as well."

I found myself thinking back to those words last night, because almost every sentence on Question Time and This Week relating to the unexpected last-minute route by which Diane Abbott made the cut featured the words "stitch-up" at some point. That's as maybe, but there can hardly be a more telling sign of just how 'unfit for purpose' the absurdly high nomination threshold has become that it necessitates a kind of "constructive stitch-up" simply to give the wider party the full spectrum of ideological choices in the leadership race that it ought to have had by right. And for all that Katie Hopkins sneered about how David Miliband's helping hand to Abbott was the equivalent of giving a Wimbledon wildcard to any British player who can "just about hold a racquet", in truth Abbott is a more talented politician - in the sense of being more articulate and telegenic - than any of her four opponents, with the possible exception of Ed Miliband. The only reason she was struggling to receive enough nominations was that parliamentarians nailing their colours to the mast in public want to be seen (ideally) to be supporting a winner, and (at an absolute minimum) not to be supporting someone who is bound to be an ideological opponent of whoever ends up as the winner.

If Mike Smithson's theory is to be believed, David Miliband may live to bitterly regret his "strategic magnanimity" of nominating Abbott - but that seems highly unlikely. However, I wonder if Abbott is playing a long game, which might lead to her emerging from this process with the senior frontbench post her talent always warranted. And with her uncompromising views on unilateral nuclear disarmament and civil liberties, that can only be a good thing for progressive politics. She is of course an unreconstructed supporter of first-past-the-post...but nobody's perfect.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A challenge flunked

In my last post, I gave Kevin Baker's disciples an important opportunity. Unlike me, they have repeatedly made the astonishing claim that the righteousness of their philosophy on gun control (or lack thereof) is not merely scientifically provable, but has already been scientifically proved so comprehensively that it is not delusional to pose the question "why isn't being right good enough for us?".

That being the case, it's high time they (as John Major might say) put up or shut up. With such incontrovertible evidence at their fingertips, they should have had no difficulty whatever resolving the series of ten perfectly reasonable and logical objections I raised in relation to statistical evidence purporting to prove a clear social benefit of the general population being widely armed. But were they able to step up to the plate? In fact, did they even go through the motions of engaging with the questions at all? Well...judge for yourself. One link from Kevin in relation to my query about suicide, but other than that, nada - just a million and one ways of changing the subject, descending to the all-too-familiar playground bully-boy tactics by the end of the thread.

Ed's "heck of a" strategy for ignoring the questions was to zone in on my point that the "extraordinary claim" of the gun lobby (namely that the stricter gun laws in the UK somehow put us at more risk than our American cousins, despite the fact that we have a vastly lower gun crime rate) requires extraordinary proof -

"I've seen the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" phrase before. In every case, it has come from someone who has already been shown evidence that far exceeds the evidence for everything else in its category, and yet, it's still never enough. I've reached the point that when I see that phrase used, I pretty much understand it to mean "My mind is made up. Stop trying to confuse me with the facts.""

But of course Ed is conveniently ignoring the observation I went on to make immediately afterwards, which was that while I feel extraordinary levels of proof are required, even something that hits the ordinary standard of proof would be nice to be getting on with. Sadly, in spite of Ed's delusional musings, there has been precious little of that on offer so far. So what would help? Well, how about someone providing serious answers to those ten serious questions? Remember Ed claims to have definitive "facts" on his side, even as he quibbles about the 'proof beyond all doubt' label - so it should be perfectly possible to supply answers demonstrating conclusively that the issues I've raised do not wholly negate the alleged benefits of widespread legal gun ownership (as I strongly suspect they do).

The challenge remains open - I'm naturally not holding my breath.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why 'being right' isn't good enough for them - a cut-out-and-keep guide

Nate has been debating with me in a very measured way on the issue of gun control over recent threads, but nevertheless a point was still reached in the last thread that seems to have come round with uncanny regularity every time I've had exchanges with people who share his views. (Indeed, to adopt the cynical, inward-looking, in-joke-rich vocabulary so beloved of the posters over at Kevin Baker's blog, I could perhaps say that this represents the standard stage #17 of the life-cycle of any encounter with the Baker Fan Club.) Nate had linked to an FBI study purporting to show that 108,000 crimes in a year were prevented due to the private ownership of firearms, and claimed that this disproves my suggestion that handguns have no meaningful function other than to kill and cause injury. I responded with a series of questions that went to the heart of the credibility of any conclusions that could be drawn from the study -

1) How many of the attempted crimes allegedly foiled were actually genuine? This is the most obvious question to ask about a self-reporting survey in which the respondents' word is simply "taken for it", ie. the figures do not appear to be based on police records or any other documentary evidence. As the supposed methods for foiling crimes include something as vague as "scaring people off" with a gun, it does not inspire huge confidence that the alleged crime victim will always have got to the point of objectively establishing that a crime is actually occurring - they may in some cases simply have convinced themselves that this was the case.

2) How many of the attempted crimes were serious and how many were petty? Obviously hugely significant given the claim that Nate is making - that 108,000 'crimes prevented' can be meaningfully weighed against 12,000 people per year murdered with a gun.

3) How many of these crimes could and would have been averted anyway, without the use of a gun? Again, this fundamentally challenges the credibility of the conclusions Nate feels able to draw from the report. It stretches credulity to suggest that a significant number of these 108,000 incidents would not have been stopped by another method - in the UK, members of the public without guns prevent both petty and serious crimes every day of the week.

4) How many of these alleged crimes would have been attempted had it not been for the prevalence of guns in American society? There is absolutely no meaning in suggesting that legal firearms helped you prevent a crime, if the general legality of firearms caused - either directly or indirectly - that crime to be attempted in the first place.

5) How many guns start off as legal but end up being held illegally? This is related to the above point, because if the wide legal availability of (and therefore demand for) guns leads to a massive increase in the number of illegal weapons in play for criminal purposes, it follows almost inevitably that a proportion of the 'crimes prevented' with guns would not have been attempted in the first place had a gun ban been enforced. This is one question that I actually found a partial answer to by reading other sections of the report Nate had linked to, and I think this extract speaks for itself -

"A major theme highlighted in a 1986 survey of incarcerated felons was that theft was an important means of obtaining firearms for those with criminal intentions: 32 percent of surveyed felons had stolen their most recently acquired handgun. Based on the NSPOF, an estimated 0.9 percent of all gun-owning households (269,000) experienced the theft of one or more firearms during 1994. About 211,000 handguns and 382,000 long guns were stolen in noncommercial thefts that year, for a total of 593,000 stolen firearms. Those estimates are subject to considerable sampling error but are consistent with earlier estimates of about half a million guns stolen annually."

6) How many of the 'crimes prevented' can be put down to the values of a paranoid, brutalised society which teaches its children that the next threat is always round the corner, and that 'freedom' can only be won down the barrel of a gun? This is obviously a more intangible point, but it's nevertheless important because Kevin Baker in particular has spoken at great length about how differences in culture can massively affect outcomes in terms of crime. The weaponisation of society is clearly a significant factor in the prevailing culture, thus offering another plausible reason for theorising that a gun ban could have ensured that many of these crimes would not have been attempted in the first place - further calling into question Nate's assumption that these were 108,000 incidents that would have been crimes had a gun ban been in place.

7) How many people were unnecessarily killed or injured by someone 'defending themselves'? This is a question that particularly troubles me given the rather broad definition of legal killing the US authorities seem to use.

8) How many guns being used for defensive purposes have been wrested away and used by an attacker? In these instances people arming themselves with a gun have simply put themselves and others in far more danger.

9) How many accidental shootings have there been from guns that were used carelessly, or not stored properly? Not related to crime, but these numbers would clearly offset any benefit Nate is claiming from gun legality.

10) How many suicidal people have found a quick and easy way out due to having a gun handy, when otherwise they might have stopped to think for longer and found a better solution? Similar to number 9, and again I actually found an answer to both of these questions in the report -

"Of 1,356 accidental deaths by gunshot in 1994, 185 involved children 14 years old and younger. For each such fatality, there are several accidental shootings that cause serious injury. Guns were also the means of destruction in 19,590 suicides, 210 involving children 14 or younger."

In other words, twice as many deaths by gun in these categories than even the sky-high homicide-by-gun rate.

All of these questions are, I think, perfectly logical, and to be frank it's not possible to make much sense of the study without answers to them. But although Nate (to be fair) addressed some of them later, his first reaction was instead to call into question my reasons for asking them -

"What I see is a lot of sound and fury to try to rationalize away a dangerous study that would tear a hole in your core belief than guns are useless tools of thugs and murderers. In your haste to protect victims of gun violence, you try your best to ignore the many examples of people who protected themselves with guns. Again, you can't just sweep them under the rug.

Although I myself am not of this mindset, this is why people accuse you of impure motives: you sympathize with the victims of gun violence but not with the ones who failed to become victims because they protected themselves with a gun. You exhibit herculean effort to convince yourself that all the people who protected themselves with guns are non-existent, incorrect in their judgement that they needed guns, or just made things worse."

Now again, to be fair to Nate, this is a model of impeccably measured debating compared to what I've experienced from many (probably the majority) of Kevin's disciples. However, the content does follow a very familiar pattern - what I'd call the "why isn't being right good enough for us?" pattern, in honour of one of Kevin's trademark cries at moments of particular self-awareness-deficiency. What tends to happen is that the individual in question produces a piece of statistical evidence purporting to show that more guns save lives, or that gun bans fail to save lives, or whatever. Having done so, they declare the matter proved beyond doubt, and sit back to admire their handiwork. When legitimate objections are then raised about the credibility of that evidence, or questions posed about whether it really proves what is claimed of it, the response is not to engage with those questions or supply answers, but instead to indignantly insist that the point has been proved and to assign some significance to the fact that I have not simply conceded this 'indisputable' truth. In Nate's case, he is merely suggesting in his measured way that I am a little blinkered, but unfortunately the more common reaction is screams of "Liar! This proves that he's not arguing in good faith", etc, etc. To be fair, this reaction is in a way not surprising, because there is presumably a great deal of emotional investment in statistics which they badly want to believe constitute unchallengeable proof. But that doesn't make the response any more legitimate.

I went on to point out to Nate that my basic proposition is a very simple one - that the UK has a gun crime rate that is vastly lower than America's, and a general homicide rate that is also much lower. The suggestion from the other side is not merely that our much stricter gun laws have got nothing to do with that (which would be startling enough), but that they are in fact somehow putting us in more danger. That is an almost jaw-dropping, logic-defying belief to hold, and there's a saying in scientific circles that extraordinary claims require extraordinary levels of proof. Frankly, what has been on offer so far hasn't even met the standards of ordinary proof - in almost every case, holes can be found very easily. For instance, Kevin often prays in aid an alleged "convergence" between the British and American murder rates, in spite of the tightened UK gun laws in recent years. He reacts with utter incredulity when it's pointed out to him that this trend might well be caused by other variables that have nothing to do with the gun laws, and that indeed it's perfectly conceivable that the gun crime rate would now be higher still in the UK had it not been for the bans. Frankly, his response is astonishing - for how else can he possibly explain away the much higher baseline gun crime and homicide rate in the US as compared to the UK other than by assuming that these other variables must be hugely important determinants of crime rates? It's nothing short of magical thinking on an industrial scale to present to the world the proposition that Britain's historically lower gun crime/homicide rate has nothing at all to do with gun restrictions, and yet that the supposed current (and very limited) 'convergence' between the two countries somehow must have absolutely everything to do with gun restrictions.

So I'd offer this advice to the KBFC - if you're determined to base your case largely on statistical evidence and want it to be taken seriously by those who do not hold your views (whether opponents or neutrals), stop reacting to legitimate questions with mockery, indignation or outright anger, and instead start answering them. You are the ones that have made the extraordinary claim that your philosophy is literally provable beyond doubt - well, even providing some ordinary proof for that extraordinary claim would be a start. That means proof that will stand up to scrutiny, not assertions that can only be defended with synthetic indignation, mockery or outright abuse. For the record, most of the questions I asked about the FBI study remain unanswered, although as I said Nate did tackle some of them -

- Gun suicides: 19,895/year (and yet Japan has more than 30,000 suicides with virtually no guns)
- Accidental deaths: 731/year
- Unnecessary killings in the name of self defense: included in homicide.
- Legal weapons becoming illegal: I don't particularly care. It is my belief that if someone wants something illegal enough, they will get it. Heck, drugs are totally banned in this country and it hasn't helped a darn thing; any teenager can get whatever he wants. I believe it's the same with guns.

I'm glad he didn't make the direct claim that Japan's suicide rate proves that easy availability of guns is not a problem, as of course that conclusion would not be supportable. There are many variables that affect the suicide rate - the pertinent question is, would the US suicide rate be lower if suicide wasn't made so easy for so many? Could a chunk of those 20,000 deaths be prevented by simple gun control legislation?

The point about unnecessary killing in the name of self-defence being included in the homicide figures is in my view totally unsatisfactory. We've talked at great length about the tragic case of Andrew de Vries, the Aberdonian businessman who knocked on the back door of a house in Texas in 1994 to seek help, and was shot dead by the homeowner who mistook him for a burglar. This was clearly an unnecessary killing in the name of self-defence, and yet it was not included in the homicide figures. It would not surprise me at all if there are many other cases that would fall into the same category.

Nate's most complacent response is of course on the issue of legal weapons that become illegal, and the shocking figures on the theft of legally-owned firearms are testament enough to that.

Finally, Nate also raised a specific question on the previous thread about Switzerland - I can do no better than quote from Political Betting the words of Nick Palmer, until very recently the Labour member of parliament for Broxtowe, and (I believe) a former Swiss resident...

"On Switzerland, the position is not quite as implied by Plato and Richard Dodd above. It’s true that males of military service age are reservists and expected to keep a rifle at home. However, it is illegal for them to store ammunition for it - this would be issued to them in emergency. Despite that, the proportion of murders that are committed with guns is significantly higher in Switzerland than in most other countries in Europe, presumably because it’s easier to get ammo in Switzerland than an illegal gun elsewhere. Becuase crime rates in Switzerland are in general very low anyway, the rate of gun murders doesn’t stand out, but it’s clearly proportionately higher.

Coming closer to home, the death rate in Nottingham from crime has dropped heavily since the 5-year sentence for carrying handguns was introduced. While gang members have taken to carriyng knives instead, the rate of collateral killing in gang clashes has fallen (because you can’t kill a lot of people at once with a knife).

I don’t think there’s much doubt that widespread availability of guns produces more gun crime. Whether you conclude that tighter restictions of gun ownership should follow is a separate argument, but it evades that argument to suggest that there is no effect."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Response to KBFC, part 2

OK, as promised, here is my response to some of the many points that were raised towards the end of the earlier thread on gun control.

6 Kings said -

I would bet that having some of us armed citizens as neighbors and friends would give you an idea how this worldview you have is skewed.

Well, that all rather depends on whether one of them does a Derrick Bird and turns his weapons on his neighbours and friends. These incidents involving legal gun-owners may be rare but the fact that they stubbornly keep happening poses a significant problem for your whole argument. Even worse, Bird was by all accounts a fairly decent, rational person until very close to this incident. Tragedy only ensued because he snapped while in legal possession of deadly weapons.

What it seems to boil down to is that you fear people and no matter what circumstances are, keeping people unarmed allows you to feel safe.

I'm delighted that you have such a rosy view of human nature, which begs the obvious question - if people are essentially trustworthy, who do you need the gun to defend yourself against? It's clearly surplus to requirements - throw it away, man, it's far too heavy to be lugging around on a hot day.

There is no endangerment of fellow citizens. Where do you get this information? Do you think that normal people get around a weapon and suddenly murderous thoughts occur? More people carry every day and there continues to be fewer and fewer incidents of crime and an infinitesimal number of permit holders that are in trouble with the law. You have no basis for this other than your 'feelings' and Hollywood movies.

Don't take this personally, but I've always much preferred European cinema to Hollywood films, so you're on the wrong track there. My 'information' is derived from indisputable fact - that three massacres have occurred in the UK in the last twenty-five years, and that all three have been perpetrated with legally-owned firearms. There's actually no mystery about why this would be the case - as previously mentioned, the most dangerous scenario of all is when an ordinary person snaps very suddenly, in a wholly unanticipated way. If the law can make it less likely that such a person will have the means to kill at that crucial moment, the law can save lives.

Missed by a mile. Nothing can guarantee equality of outcome. Show me how equality of opportunity puts the weakest in a worse position? That isn't logical. There are hundreds of stories that show this to be false and you have nothing to stand on with this statement.

And I can present you with one very big story that demonstrates my point eloquently - nothing less than the national story of your own country. The most meritocratic country in the world, and yet with some of the most shocking and disgraceful inequalities in the western democratic world. You're right, nothing can literally guarantee equality of outcome, but that doesn't mean it's not an ideal we shouldn't be striving to get as close to as practicably possible (especially when it comes to something as important as public safety) - equality of opportunity simply doesn't do the trick, and never has done.

Not everyone, you have shown this yourself, wants to arm themselves. That is perfectly fine but forcing disarmament for those that are comfortable and want/need that security is terrible, especially because your 'feel' it is better that way.

And this simply highlights the importance of my previous point - the 'equality of opportunity' that some people will take up of owning a gun will create a much greater 'inequality of outcome', ie. a much more dangerous world in which more weak and vulnerable people are in fear and peril.

Nate : You keep talking about how important it is that people feel safe. Feeling safe and being safe are two very different things; you can feel blissfully safe in a very dangerously erroneous manner, and you can be terrified of perceived danger that doesn't exist.

You've been very good about answering my hypothetical questions, and I thank you earnestly for that. I'd like to ask another. Purely hypothetically, and assuming that you could have only one, which would you prefer, feeling safe or being safe?

The straight answer is being safe, but of course it's a wholly false choice and both are vitally important in a civilised society. Frankly, it would be a bit hard to claim that the other side in this argument are not themselves preoccupied with 'feeling' as well as objectively being more safe - we constantly hear about the feeling of security and empowerment that carrying a gun bestows.

But your postulate is that more guns equals more crime, right? So then, as we here in the United States amass even more guns year by year (around the order of 12 million annually), our levels of crime should rise, no? Since we now have millions and millions more guns than we did in, say, 1980, then we should have a higher level of crime now than we did then, right?

My guess would be that there's a saturation point beyond which having even more guns around can't really make matters much worse. And, yes, I do say guess - unlike Kevin Baker and several others I have never had the conceit to say my 'philosophy' is literally provable beyond all doubt. It's an observation I've made before, but if a neutral in this debate were to witness a no-holds-barred exchange consisting of nothing but detailed statistics, the only conclusion they'd come to is that neither side is capable of scientifically and definitively proving their case by statistical means - there are too many variables at play in the numbers. People will jump one way or the other based on common sense and force of argument, and I do think from a UK perspective our relatively low gun crime rate as compared to the US does for most people amply demonstrate the wisdom of our much stricter laws.

Last, and in every sense least, I turn again to 'The Happy Rampager' -

Simple. Because you didn't answer the question I put to you. You know, the one about whether, in the face of the clear failure of banning guns for self-protection, you would rather any of the victims would have used a gun to stop Bird from killing them, or whether you would rather they died because it's more important to you that they be disarmed.

You didn't answer because your answer would have been the latter. It's more important that people be disarmed, and if their disarmament leads to their death, you couldn't give a s***.

Congratulations on a landslide victory in the Stupid Comment Of The Week Award. This was an instance of disarmament leading to death, was it? Remind me - at what point was Derrick Bird disarmed of the legally-owned weapons with which he went on to kill twelve people?

Where is the campaign for private citizens to have the right to possess nuclear weapons?

The discussion on gun control on the thread before last took an unexpected turn, with JP Scholten asking whether it would not be logically consistent for gun rights advocates to concede that all countries should have the right to possess nuclear weapons. After all, one of the points that is repeatedly made is that guns are necessary to 'even the score' - the weak and the vulnerable, the argument goes, can only properly defend themselves against the physically strong with the help of a firearm. By the same token, JP Scholten asks, how are weaker countries supposed to defend themselves against the might of America by any other means than nuclear firepower? Presumably, Kevin Baker and his disciples would not be terribly comfortable with the idea of America being 'stopped' at all (especially at the possible expense of their own lives), but given their moral certainties it's hard to see how they could credibly take issue with the proposition that countries should have the right to defend themselves by any means that prove necessary.

Now, this is indeed a fascinating question, and Nate gave a very interesting and surprising answer (essentially that all countries bar a few should be entitled to a nuclear capability). But I think there's an even more fascinating question to be asked, and indeed I asked it of Joe Huffman last year - isn't the logical conclusion of the gun advocates' philosophy that any weapon, regardless of its potency, be available to ordinary people? To spell it out, doesn't it follow that private citizens should be permitted to possess nuclear weapons? That might seem an absurd suggestion at first glance, but unless someone can provide a serious answer to it, it seems to me that it in fact drives a coach and horses through one of the articles of faith of the American gun rights fundamentalists - namely that a government that deprives its citizens of the right to possess any given weapon will eventually turn that weapon on its citizens, who will be left defenceless. So, obvious question - come the presumably inevitable day that the US government turns its stockpile of nuclear weapons on the American people, how will the Second Amendment and the right to retaliate with puny guns be of any help?

Whenever I've asked this question in the past, all I've heard back is that such a scenario is a "grandiose fantasy". That's as maybe, but it's also a scrupulously logical extension of the fundamentalists' own philosophy. So does anyone have a more satisfactory answer? I take it no-one is going to be crazy enough to actually welcome private ownership of nuclear weapons, since a touching faith in the general goodwill and trustworthiness of 'decent, law-abiding citizens' isn't going to be good enough when it would only take one rogue individual to cause the deaths of untold millions.

Lesson - there isn't a state in the world that doesn't restrict its citizens' right to own weapons, and it's impossible to credibly argue against the rationality of that principle. Negative freedoms must have their limits, otherwise by the wonders of modern technology everyone would end up dead. The only question is how far those restrictions should go - but that's not a question that will appeal much to those who don't like to view the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Does Miss Nash cut a dash?

In his Saturday post over at Political Betting, David Herdson has pointed out that the new 'Baby of the House' Pamela Nash achieved almost exactly the same share of the vote in Airdrie and Shotts that her predecessor John Reid managed in 2005 as a senior Cabinet minister. Herdson's suggestion is that if the public are demonstrably prepared to put their faith in such an untried young candidate, perhaps political parties should do so more often as well. Now, I have no particular axe to grind against Ms Nash (yet) as I literally know nothing about her other than what she looks like, and it may well be that the public would have every reason to put their faith in her. But one thing I'm almost certain of is that they didn't, or at least not in any meaningful sense. It's the classic 'monkey in a red rosette' scenario - if anything, the result told us more about John Reid's lack of a distinctively personal vote.