Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Thoughts on Guns, Part 2

The response to my previous blog post, Thoughts on Guns, was the largest I've ever received. It was also so interesting and thought-provoking that it led to this follow-up.

The responses I received tend to confirm my suspicion that a lot of the acrimony of the debate over guns derives from the fact that the two sides are driven by different, and possibly antagonistic, values: gun ownership proponents (GOPs) are driven primarily by the imperative of individual rights; gun control proponents (GCPs) are driven primarily by the imperative of collective security. Of course, each side claims that its means will lead to the other side's end: GOPs argue that with more individuals carrying, criminals will be deterred, lessening crime overall; GCPs argue that gun control will lessen violence, thereby reducing the need for individuals to carry. The fact that each side can draw on its own statistics, case studies, and anecdotes to back up its claim only strengthens my suspicion that the debate derives more from some emotional bedrock than it does from logical topsoil. Because the two sides in effect speak different languages, they don't understand each other. Because they don't understand each other, they project and demonize: GOPs are fanatics, maniacs, and lovers of violence; GCPs are grass eaters, sheep, and surrender monkeys. And of course each side suspects the other of a maximalist agenda: GCPs seek the abolition of all guns; GOPs want any kind of weaponry to be available to anybody, anytime, anywhere.

Here's a question that might help you figure out where you're biases are. Would you rather live in a society where no one carried outside of law enforcement, or in a society where anyone could carry anything anywhere? Leave aside for a moment the Second Amendment and the practicalities; we'll get to all that. This is just a thought experiment to reveal bias.

While you're thinking, here's a parenthetical to chew on: This thought experiment was what the example of Japan was intended to illustrate in my previous post. I got a lot of mail about that example, most of it arguing for a single cause of Japan's remarkably low crime rates: Draconian gun control; the fact that Japanese think of themselves as subjects rather than citizens (whatever that means); the fact that Japan is a "police state" (if that's so, I don't know what to call North Korea and Syria... but never mind); the fact that Japanese society is inherently less violent than America's. Most of the people advancing these single cause arguments have never lived in Japan; some, I suspect, have never met a Japanese. And coincidentally, each of these single attributed causes had the effect of bolstering whatever argument the person wanted to make...

As my friend The Slugg, who has honored HOTM with the occasional insightful guest column, was taught in military intelligence: first, tell me what you know. Then, tell me what you don't know. And only then, tell me what you think. Good advice for all of us, especially with a debate as contentious as this one. And regardless of what conclusion you consciously or unconsciously hope to reach, ask yourself this: is a phenomenon as complex as crime and violence likely to be attributable to a single cause?

Okay, back to the thought experiment. My bias: I'd rather live in that gun-free world. Personal carry is a huge responsibility and a significant pain-in-the ass. If I could modify the cost/benefit equation enough to feel comfortable avoiding the responsibility and the pain-in-the-assedness, I'd be delighted. I would still use situational awareness as my first, and most cost-effective, line of defense, and I'd still want to carry a knife in case the first and other lines of defense failed me. But if I knew no one else -- that is, no psychotic or criminal -- could be carrying, I wouldn't want to carry, either.

Does that make sense? I doubt everyone will agree with it. Some people would still want to carry to protect against threats other than those that included firearms. Some people would think it's crazy to want to carry even a knife. Some people, not understanding the difference, will confuse the awareness I mentioned with paranoia.

Some of the email I received expressed anger and disgust that I would give up my right and ability to defend myself if the threat were lower. To which I respond, aren't you doing the same thing? Is your house perimeter secured with claymores, razor wire and tank traps? If so, why not? Is it perhaps because you are implicitly balancing the threat with your countermeasures?

As I put myself through this thought experiment, I realized that the exercise was a lot like what I do when trying to calculate the proper level of life insurance to carry. What are the chances that I might die? How much will my family need to live on if I do? How much is it worth paying every year to provide for these possibilities and ensure my peace of mind? I went through a similar process with regard to homeowner's insurance, and came up with policies that made sense for me and my family. Doubtless, different people will decide on different policies, depending on their circumstances and their fears. But this is exactly the kind of calculus that goes on in the mind of anyone who's trying to decide whether to carry a gun: how much do I need it (what is the threat, how likely am I to encounter it)? How much will it cost (the weapon itself, training with it, securing it, carrying it, being responsible for it)? You don't have to be a maniac to ask these questions. You only have to be prudent. And, as with insurance policies, different people will come to different conclusions about their own needs.

I hope that if you're a GCP, my insurance analogy helps you understand the thinking processes of GOPs. Again, you might disagree with their conclusions, but once you know where they're coming from, they might seem a little less threatening. And if you're a GOP, I hope the analogy will help you understand the outlook of GCPs. Based on their environment and other factors involved in a cost/benefit calculus, they might rationally conclude that they're better off not carrying or even owning a gun.

And remember, my thought experiment is intended only to illuminate biases and to get people comfortable with the notion that there's an implicit balancing act in such matters. Remember, actually creating a gun-free zone in a country as big and open as America seems like a hell of a challenge to me. If you're a GCP longing for a gun-free world, ask yourself why our efforts at gun prohibition are likely to be more successful than were our efforts at alcohol prohibition, or our current efforts at drug prohibition, or our efforts to keep out illegal aliens. For all the reasons I argued in my previous post, I don't think guns should be easy to get. But if you make them too hard to get, is it possible you'll be keeping them out of the hands of people who could capably use them to defend themselves and others, as an armed citizen might have done at Virginia Tech, which was, after all, a theoretically gun-free zone?

Now let's talk for a moment about the Second Amendment, much cited in the responses to my previous post. The Second Amendment reads:

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

I have to say, I don't understand why so many GOPs cite the Constitution as the basis of their right to carry handguns. The second amendment is unique in the Bill of Rights in including an explanatory clause: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state...". You have to ask, why did the founders include that clause here? What does it mean? If the clause were absent -- if the Second Amendment read instead in total, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," the GOP argument for concealed carry for self protection would be stronger. But the Second Amendment doesn't read that way in total. And it doesn't say, "A citizen's right to protect herself and her family being essential, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." It frames -- in fact, it limits -- the right in question by reference to a militia and the security of a free state. If you don't think the militia reference acts as a limitation on the right, ask yourself: would the scope of the right provided for in the Second Amendment be broader in the absence of the militia reference? Or narrower? (Just don't argue that it would be the same, unless you want to argue also that the clause means nothing, and that the men who drafted it were stupid, weren't experienced lawyers, and didn't appreciate the power of words in a legal document).

I'm also curious about how adherents to an "original intent" approach to jurisprudence approach the Second Amendment. Is the right to bear arms limited to muskets? Or if the intent in question has more to do with the well-regulated militia and free state limitation, shouldn't all citizens be able to purchase, at a minimum, their own RPGs and claymores? What about armored personnel carriers and howitzers? All of which would be more effective against a would-be tyrant than a concealed pistol...

Also: background checks, waiting periods, etc. can't reasonably be said to be a constitutional issue. You might not like them because you think they'll be subject to abuse, but it's hard to argue that background checks etc. in themselves infringe the right in question. No right set forth in the Bill or Rights -- or elsewhere, to my knowledge -- is absolute. The First Amendment guarantees free speech, for example, but commercial speech is subject to less protection than political. And regardless of your right to speak freely, governments can legitimately regulate where and when you speak, by, for example, insisting on a parade permit. You get the idea: the exercise of every individual right must and should be balanced against its impact on society as a whole. I don't see why the right to bear arms should be an exception to this essential rule.

Where would the right balance be? Reasonable people will differ, but novelist Jonathan Kellerman had some interesting thoughts in an excellent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, where he argued that too much individual freedom makes it too difficult to involuntarily commit a psychopath like the Virginia Tech shooter. In other words, in a mental health context, one possible cost of our adherence to individual rights is greater collective danger. And NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's initiative to provide for greater information sharing among disparate law enforcement agencies also strikes me as a sensible way to protect society without unduly infringing anyone's individual rights.

Ah, but if it's too easy to commit someone, or we share too much information, there will be abuses, you say? Possibly, and these are potential costs that must be factored in. But we're still doing a balancing act, as we should be.

Actually, I think anyone who pauses to think about it will acknowledge that the Second Amendment doesn't, and shouldn't, create an absolute right. How many people really believe that children, criminals, or the mentally ill should have access to firearms? How many believe that firearms should be permitted anywhere (planes, government facilities)? Once you accept these limitations on the right, you've acknowledged that the right isn't, and shouldn't be, absolute.

When we're being honest and applying common sense, we all know that giving up a little individual freedom can create greater freedom as a whole. You might wish you had the freedom to run red lights or drive on whatever side of the road suited your fancy, but if everyone did so, the roads would be unusable. By each individual giving up some small measure of freedom, freedom is increased in the aggregate.

(Yes, I know, the comparison between guns and driving is inapplicable, because driving is a privilege while guns are a right. Okay, let's assume that driving *is* a right. Would you then argue that the government couldn't tell you which side of the road to drive on?)

Now, I understand the reason otherwise reasonable people sometimes advance absolutist arguments. They're afraid (with some justification) that once they admit the right to bear arms, like all rights, is subject to a balancing act, with the individual on one side of the scale and society on the other, the balance will start to be drawn against them. It seems better -- tactically, at least -- to argue that the balancing itself is a Constitutional infringement.

The absolutist tendency extends beyond the Second Amendment. A lot of the email I received in response to my previous post included the following arguments: "Anyone who wants a gun can get one illegally, so there's no point in making guns illegal." "Anyone who wants to kill is going to kill" (the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" chestnut). "Locks only stop honest people."

These kinds of assertions are as self-serving as they are simplistic. There are degrees of motivation in all things, including crime and violence. Some people are so motivated to get a gun that they'll find a way no matter what. Some people are so motivated to kill that they'll find a way under any circumstances. Some people want to break into your house so badly that they wouldn't be stopped even if you secured the place like Fort Knox. But it doesn't logically follow that *all* people are that motivated.

This is why I get so disgusted with the "Guns don't kill people" nonsense. Yes, it's technically true, but so what? I got one email that said, "I've never seen a gun get up and go kill someone by itself." Well, I haven't, either. But nor have I seen a suitcase nuke deliver itself to its target. If you argue that the tool is irrelevant to the act, you'd be comfortable with the same level of restriction on the availability of baseball bats, pistols, RPGs, and suitcase nukes.

In fact, common sense and everyday experience demonstrate that for pretty much every behavior, there is a range of motivation. At one end of the extreme is the person who will engage in the behavior no matter what. At the other end is the person who won't engage no matter what. And in between are all the people who are more likely to engage in the behavior if it's easy enough, and less likely to engage if it's hard enough. There are countless examples of this obvious truth. To use just one: fast food. Sure, a few people are so motivated to eat a Big Mac that they'd drive for hours to find one. For everyone else on the highway, MacDonald's pioneered the drive-through, and the "easy-on, easy-off" location. By making it a little easier for the majority of people interested in a Big Mac to get one, MacDonald's dramatically increased sales. The "easier to do = more of it" rule is is true for all human behavior. I see no logical or empirical reason to believe violence is a unique exception.

In other words, it might be true that the Virginia Tech killer would have gotten his guns no matter what. It might be true that he would have gone on his rampage no matter what. It doesn't follow that this is true for all people who want to acquire guns for murder. All laws are violated some of the time. That in itself is no argument for scrapping laws entirely. Houses will always be broken into. This is not an argument for leaving the doors unlocked.

In other words, the purpose of gun regulation isn't to "stop" attacks, so "we can never stop attacks like this" is a bogus argument. The purpose of such regulation, like that of all regulation, is to make such attacks more difficult, and therefore less common and less destructive. No law in history has ever outright "stopped" anything.

The sensible -- and, for me, compelling -- argument about Virginia Tech is that while not all people will have the motivation to evade gun regulations and other laws to do what the Virginia Tech killer did, some always will. When that happens, the police will almost never be able to respond in time to prevent a slaughter. Only armed citizens on the spot can do that.

At this point, if we're all being reasonable, we can acknowledge that we're engaging in a classic balancing act. How likely are such rampages and other violent crimes? How effective are armed citizens in preventing or mitigating them? What would be the effects on violence if guns were freely available? What would be the effects on violence if they were tightly restricted (remember, tightly restricted doesn't translate into "unavailable to criminals..." see also, Controlled Substances Like Cocaine and Heroin).

Strange, in a sense, that both sides are driven by fear: GOPs, that gun control will prevent them from defending themselves against armed criminals; GCPs, that lack of gun control will force them into defending themselves against armed criminals.

The most interesting thing about this debate, and other contentious ones like it, is that people seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there is, and should be, a balancing act at work. Part of the reluctance, as I argue above, is tactical, in that each side is afraid to concede anything to the other. Part of it is just laziness, because balancing acts require more mental energy than slogans. But I think there's a third factor too -- an emotional one. Maybe the reluctance to balance in part derives from how good it feels to believe your position is absolutely right, and the other is absolutely wrong. How superior I must therefore be to the other sign, not just intellectually, but morally, too! I'm telling you, if a conclusion feels that good, we ought to pause to reexamine it. There's probably more going on than we want to admit.


Randy Johnson said...

I don't know what the answer is either. I don't currently own a gun, but have in the past. When I owned one, I made sure I was proficient in its use, but rarely used it even for target practice. I would rather live in a society without guns, but you can never put the genie back in the bottle(i.e. drug control and prohibition as you mentioned).

Liam Sweeny said...

A very insightful post. In fact, the very nature of our constitutional system is a balancing act. As we live in a federal system, we have two independent, yet linked aspects of government (Federal vs. State) and the wording of the Second Amendment was really geared to address this. The Anti-Federalists wanted to ensure that a Federal Government could not grow so strong as to suppress the quasi-autonomy of the individual states. So the Second Amendment was, as you said, about securing the freedom of states through not infringing their right to arm their militias.

The underlying component of gun violence in our country is not necessarily access to guns, but in the glorification of gun use in the media. Not that this is a single-cause blame game thing; there are many factors, but we live in a society where a gun is not merely seen as a killing implement, but as a source of personal power. Getting ourselves weaned off of that perception would go a long way towards decreasing gun-violence. As far as gun-control measures, they'll only be effective at the federal level, as state-level differences are easy to exploit.

Anonymous said...

this is a really interesting post.
like most issues, there are no black and white answers.the virgina tech shootings in my opinion was not about gun control per say, i believe that it was about bullying and mental illness.for me,what happened there was sending a message to the world.
we must treat everyone with a measure of respect and dignity.every time we hurt someone, abuse others, we all lose. i've lost a child so i understand the grief, ive suffered depression and i understand the stigmas.if someone really wanted to get their hands on a gun, they can. gun control or not.i think the more important issues at hand are being lost in this gun control debate.

Anonymous said...

"Shall not be infringed." is what gun ownership proponents latch onto in their minds. It tells them that their guns can NEVER be taken away from them, and no "bleeding-heart liberal" can change that.

It all really boils down to a society's mindset and the way it raises its members. Japan has an extremely low crime rate, as you may know, with it's most dangerous city being Osaka, with violent crimes at a wopping 3.5 per 10,000 people. Take this and compare it to St. Louis, MI at roughly 1,400 per 10,000.

Perhaps we could learn a few things from Japan.

-Eric Roach

Anonymous said...

Yes, you argue "both sides" very reasonably, but the problem is there are more than two sides.

You said: '"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state...'. You have to ask, why did the founders include that clause here? What does it mean?"

I'm glad you asked. Our founders had just won a revolution, an armed conflict with their own government. An unarmed America would not have won that war. A "militia" is an armed body of citizens, and the founders included that clause because they wanted to make sure that, should the new government they founded ever become tyrannical, the people of this country (the militia) would be able to rise up and overthrow it, the same way they just had. They considered "the security of a free state" dependent on the people's ability to defend themselves against their own government, should the need arise. Without the right to bear arms, our "free state" is in danger of becoming a dictatorship.

The first thing William the Conqueror did was disarm the population. The first thing Hitler did was disarm the population. These are just two examples of many. Over and over, history has shown us that an unarmed society is a society at risk of losing its freedoms.

Our right to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government is the "third side" -- and the only side that really matters. When Hitler comes to your door with a pistol and tries to force you into an internment camp, believe me, you'll be wishing you had a gun to defend yourself.

An armed society is necessary for revolution. We should all be grateful our founders were foresighted enough to envision the possible corruption of the government they were creating, and we should fight every effort to undermine their intentions.

Anonymous said...

How you define "militia" can affect how you interpret the Second Amendment.

The article Second Amendment: A Militia Review" has a good explanation of what a militia is considered to be in a legal sense.

The federal government recognizes State Defense Forces under 32 USC 109 which provides that State Defense Forces "may not be called, ordered, or drafted into the armed forces" (of the United States), thus preserving their separation from the National Guard.

Although every state has laws authorizing State Defense Forces, approximately twenty-five states, in addition to Puerto Rico, currently have active State Defense Forces, each with different levels of activity, state support, and strength.

There are other considerations when thinking about self-defense with or without a weapon.

For example, in Arizona v. Youngblood, "the court held that unless the defendant can show bad faith on the part of the police, failure to preserve potential useful evidence does not equate to a denial of due process under law".

Defending yourself in court can be difficult if the police fail to preserve DNA (or other) evidence that could show you're not guilty of a crime.

You can consider it one more argument for "situational awareness". If possible, it would be better to be some place where there could be multiple witnesses to the fact that you were defending yourself.

Anonymous said...

I am a GOP, and am glad to hear a little bit of rational thought regarding restriction rather than abolition. Your argument reads a lot like a law breif, do you have legal training?

dkgoodman said...

I'm deeply disturbed by how difficult it has become to discuss any topic rationally. The art of compromise and open-mindedness and respect for the opposition seems to increasingly fade as time goes on. Any sign of weakness is pounced upon, and the gotcha considered a wonderful tool.

On a widespread basis, this can be attributed to the mechanics of persuasion, of a desperate need to demonize the opposition and rally ones followers. But I observe it even in a discussion between two individuals.

I think it's somewhat a result of inadequate education in debate and argument and critical thinking. Schools don't seem to do a good job of teaching students to analyze situations and respond to them.

I also blame laziness for this lack of finesse in debate. People don't have the time or take the time to learn the facts of each side, so they rely on emotional responses they can't justify or explain. Their opinions are in lieu of thought rather than a result of it. This is why they are more persuaded by an emotional argument than a logical one. Their decisions come from an emotional place rather than an intellectual one.

Anonymous said...

A thought provoking read.

Following the Virginia Tech Killings there has been alot of debate on this matter.
In Switzerland every household has a rifle, gun crime there is practically non existent and there are certainly not the types of gun crime that the USA witnessess.
The difference is the GDP, where the standards of living are high for all the members of society there is little need for people to rob and kill in what can be boiled down to estrangement or seclusion over money or status.
The USA has too much of a divide over the haves and the have nots , that causes the right to bear arms a complication.

Anonymous said...

My reply regarding the emotional bedrock and the logical topsoil of gun control attitudes is that this dual facet of the human is properly noted: man has to balance his reasoning with his emotions.

That said, I would interject another facet about humans. A gun-free world is never possible on planet Earth, because humans have a genetic behavior to kill (as so well displayed in the John Rain novels).
This killing instinct is such a long recognized genetic trait that the Christian's codified its threat into a Commandment: You will not kill. The Muslim Sect is more realistic in that it rationalizes killing and hence condones killing in the process.

So if one faces the reality that killing if a genetic behavior since everyone has that capacity, then gun ownership is a necessary self-defense too.

My reply to the thesis that everyone should give up a little individual freedom to create a greater freedom for the whole society has a mathematical rebutal.

Mathematics refutes the verbal argument that subtracting can have a resultant that is greater than the parts. Sometimes words sound true until they are translated into simple mathematics. If you subtract, you cannot have a result that is increased. The result of any subtraction is always less.

So deprivation of individaul freedoms cannot result in greater freedom in a society. In fact, freedom subtracted is the road to a communistic society.

Adam Young

Anonymous said...

Hi, Barry --

Altho you provide e-mail access, I've tried three different times to yak with you and the Hot Mail doesn't allow me to send it to you. So, I'm using this window to get a suggested topic to you.

On April 20th, 2007 at 6:10 p.m. pacific time, NEWS HOUR with Jim Lehrer announced that the State legislators of Vermont passed a resolution to Impeach both Pres. Bush and V.P. Cheney for the fiascoes of the Iraq War and for the relentless abuses against the laws of the Constitution.
Then the host announced that four additional States will pass the similar resolutions in the next week. One of the four is the State of Washington.
You can verify this news by going to:

What do you think of this State strategy to embarass the Federal Leadership of both Houses of the Congress to get the ball rolling to remove the President as a tactic to end the senseless slaughter of our Fathers, Sons, Brothers, & Sisters?
To me, it only points to the frustration of the voters at Pres. Bush's motto: My Way or No Way.
Thanks for considering this news item for an essay.
Adam Young

Loudernhel said...

"the pain-in-the-assedness"

Can I use that?

I'm going to make all my right wing redneck gun nut friends AND all my grass eating pinko surrender monkey friends read this blog.

Nice job Barry.


David B in Oregon

Anonymous said...


This may be my favorite post of yours I've ever read, and not simply because I agree with much of it . . . you've balanced on a delicate edge and did so with ideas and humor and smarts, great, just awesome.

And you made the right points, too.

As for myself (since in a way, you're inviting us all to participate in this thought experiment) I am someone who has spent time in Japan (not as much as you) and also someone who had firearms as a kid, not any as an adult, and as an adult (and bouncer) have had a firearm pointed at me with animosity. More than once.

I favor gun control. I don't believe we necessarily need to ban all guns (though I like your gun-free zones, like cities) . . . I believe shotguns and the like are necessarily in certain areas, especially areas with wildlife.

So I don't think all guns should be banned. I just believe that one should have an operator's license, much like with a car, and the item should be controlled simply because the purpose of the item is to do damage, and laws are put into place to protect us from doing damage, unlawfully, to each other. Like speed-limits and drunk driving laws, we need laws as guidelines for what is and what isn't allowed.

It only makes sense. It can limit the amount of damage that ill or lawless people can do. It will never make us all safe, but neither will we be if everyone has guns. We'll be safer if one can't buy a Uzi on the street.

And the bigger question which needs to be answered, when speaking about the right to bear arms, is . . . are all arms considered equal?

We all know that they're not. That's why not just anyone can buy dynomite. It's why it's illegal to build a bomb in your backyard.

Firearms should be the same.

It should be acknowledged that there is a difference between a single shot four-ten and an automatic rifle or a semi-automatic glock.

I think that, until we can dialogue about that, it's going to be difficult with the pro-gun lobby.

Anonymous said...

I'm another who doesn't know how the ongoing debate on guns can ever end to the satisfaction of both (or either) sides. A gun-free society would work for me, no question about it, but it would have to work for the rest of the planet, not just the rest of the country. As long as any sector of the population wants something another sector has, land, oil, the perception of safety, the need for weapons will prevail. Gunpowder was most likely developed in those far off centuries as a 'protection against foreign intruders'.
At the risk of stepping on a soapbox, I'd suggest that other issues factor in to 'the need to carry or not carry'. Think economic distress, the tendency these days to react before thinking, an educational system that sometimes pushes kids through without caring about the skills they need to learn, the glorification of violence in the media(be it video games or Die Hard movies or the repeated showing of the Cho video) and more.
We grow up conditioned by our parents, our peers, and our society as a whole to believe certain things are acceptable, including the amassing of weapons, in the name of self-protection.
Guns frighten me (long story, childhood trauma) but that isn't the issue. To me the issue is that more people need to adhere to training and security checks when obtaining weapons. Learn to carry responsibly and use only when no other means of protection will do the trick. Oh... and please respect my right to ask you to leave your weapon at the door (or in the car) when you visit me.
Thanks for posting on this, Barry. The issue will never disappear, but discussion is always good.

PS. Got the e-mail on your latest. My Portland connection will be waiting :o)

Anonymous said...

Barry, I appreciate the effort you put into your blog! You boil down ideas that would take me untold pages to express. I agree with every statement of your latest post, except the second to last sentence. Thanks for taking the time to write about politics. See you in Boulder!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the previous coments. Don't want to be influenced. I spent 20 years in the Army. I don't own a weapon, but don't hold a grudge against those that do. You have the right.

David Terrenoire said...

I missed the first go-round on this but I've read both posts and most of the comments and I agree completely with your assessment, Barry, that this is a balancing act.

I own a GI 1911 and shoot a few times a year. (I'm the only former enlisted man to get an invitation to shoot against 20-30 graduates of the military academies every year, and I'm proud to say I usually place in the top five.)

But I also think licensing, meaning a thorough training in safe handling, should be required before you can own a pistol.

All the comments and your posts all come back to the big question asked in Bowling For Columbine. Why is America an inherently violent country? It's not the number of guns. It's something deeper.

I believe it's the climate of fear that politicians and media stoke to their benefit. If we're constantly being told to be afraid of the other then we'll spend our energies watching that redneck with the flag decal on his pickup, or that pinko faggot with the anti-W on his Volvo, rather than on the developer who just got a sweet deal on state land or the defense contractor who landed a no-bid contract to supply boots to the grunts.

Think of how virulent and nasty some blogs can get (not this one, thankfully) with people so quick to call their neighbor a traitor, or their co-worker a Nazi.

It's an old ploy. Keep people afraid and they'll let you get away with anything if you promise them safety.

It's that climate, combined with easy access to deadly force, that explains part of it. Not all of it, of course.

Hell, if I could explain that, I'd be rich and living on the beach instead of struggling to write this next goddamn book.

Anonymous said...

To Adam Young - in the case of subtraction, one might take into account the size of it as well as the fact of its being a subtraction. You will have to balance your freedom to choose which side of the road to drive on against your freedom to drive to work with a reasonable chance of avoiding a collision. You cannot reasonably expect both. My feeling is that the second freedom is larger, therefore I would substract the first freedom and would end up with a larger overall amount of freedom.

Stephen Parrish said...

A friend shared a quote that won't stop rattling around in my head. He attributes it to Benjamin Franklin:

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."

Anonymous said...

"Yes, I know, the comparison between guns and driving is inapplicable, because driving is a privilege while guns are a right."

I agree with your basic position. I do think, however, that based on how the second amendment reads, it could be argued that guns are not a right, at least not an individual right. As you point out, quite correctly, the needs and rights of society trump individual rights, with a sane balance between the two. I think the intention of the amendment is clear, the protection of state security, not the inalienable right of every single individual to walk around with an Uzi. Is it necessary for every individual to have a gun in order to protect state security? Obviously not. The argument of the NRA, etc. is specious if only for the reason that their position ignores the first sentence of the second amendment.

Jonathan Dlouhy

Axel said...

All the points debated on the blog miss the central one ... at least insofar as I understand my 2nd Amendment-partisan friends. Personal safety from stret violence and random craziness is really a side issue. To them, the right to bear arms is the only way to secure all the other rights guaranteed by the constitution: it's the final check in the system of checks and balances. The government can only intercede in our lives so far; any final attempt at tyranny will be met with the muzzle of a gun. Or ten thousand guns. The right to bearv arms is the public's best defence against a rogue government. If the Japanese had been armed, the internment camps would have been impossible. If the Jews of Poland had been armed, the Holocaust could not have happened. That's the argument. When I suggest that my friends are a tad paranoid, ("It can't happen here.") they smile at my naievte. When I suggest that a ragtag 'militia' of gun-happy patriots wouldn't stand a chance against the military might of an American government determined to wipe them out, they just smile and say "Look at Iraq". Those ragtag insurgents are doing a pretty good job. Insurgents always win -- we won the Revbolutionary War. Now we're the redcoats. Any internal military action would face the same insurmountable difficulties. As Rick Blaine remarks to Major Strasser in 'Casbalnaca' "There are certain parts of New York I wouldn't advise you to invade."

Anonymous said...

You seem to be working towards an economic decision, which this really is. If someone wants to kill someone else, and only they have a gun, it is much cheaper and easier. If someone wants to go on a killing rampage, and a large enough group of the general population has guns, the cost rises dramatically. Living in Japan (or Australia) is certainly safer until guns eventually start leaking to the general society. Then it's more "economic" for enough of the general population to have guns to deter crime against those that do have them.

Levitt write about this in Freakonomics, and his blog draws some interesting conversation.

Anonymous said...


By Maj. L. Caudill USMC (Ret)

Human beings only have two ways to deal with one another: reason and force. If you want me to do something for you, you have a choice of either convincing me via argument, or force me to do your bidding under threat of force. Every human interaction falls into one of those two categories, without exception. Reason or force, that's it.

In a truly moral and civilized society, people exclusively interact through persuasion. Force has no place as a valid method of social interaction, and the only thing that removes force from the menu is the personal firearm, as paradoxical as it may sound to some.

When I carry a gun, you cannot deal with me by force. You have to use reason and try to persuade me, because I have a way to negate your threat or employment of force. The gun is the only personal weapon that puts a 100-pound woman on equal footing with a 220-pound mugger, a 75-year old retiree on equal footing with a 19-year old gang-banger, and a single gay guy on equal footing with a carload of drunk guys with baseball bats. The gun removes the disparity in physical strength, size, or numbers between a potential attacker and a defender.

There are plenty of people who consider the gun as the source of bad
force equations. These are the people who think that we'd be more civilized if all guns were removed from society, because a firearm makes it easier for a [armed] mugger to do his job. That, of course, is only true if the mugger's potential victims are mostly disarmed either by choice or by legislative fiat - it has no validity when most of a mugger's potential marks are armed. People who argue for the banning of arms ask for automatic rule by the young, the strong, and the many, and that's the exact opposite of a civilized society. A mugger, even an armed one, can only make a successful living in a society where the state has granted him a force monopoly.

Then there's the argument that the gun makes confrontations lethal that otherwise would only result in injury. This argument is fallacious and specious in several ways. Without guns involved, the physically superior party inflicting overwhelming injury on the loser wins confrontations. People who think that fists, bats, sticks, or stones don't constitute lethal force watch too much TV, where people take beatings and come out of it with a bloody lip at worst. The fact that the gun makes lethal force easier works solely in favor of the weaker defender, not the stronger attacker. If both are armed, the field is level. The gun is the only weapon that's as lethal in the hands of an octogenarian as it is in the hands of a weight lifter. It simply wouldn't work as well as a force equalizer if it wasn't both lethal and easily employable.

When I carry a gun, I don't do so because I am looking for a fight, but because I'm looking to be left alone. The gun at my side means that I cannot be forced, only persuaded. I don't carry it because I'm afraid, but because it enables me to be unafraid. It doesn't limit the actions of those who would interact with me through reason, only the actions of those who would do so by force. It removes force from the equation... and that's why carrying a gun is a civilized act.

Anonymous said...

The comment from the above Marine hit many of my points on the head.

Working in a gun store for a year or so showed me some of the problems with the background checks. I had an guy, fresh out of the Air Force for 8 years come into buy a over-and-under shotgun for shooting trap. The FBI NICS program flagged him and said the sale could not be approved. After months of digging, he found out it was because he had verbally assulted a man in a bar 7 years prior, who was anti-military.

Now this man may never own a firearm.

Then again, there were people who would come into the store, that seemed like the people you wouldn't trust parking your mother in laws car. They could pass the NICS check instantly. No hold or delay even. Some of those, I chose not to sell to on principle of my gut instinct said not to, and that was my right.

I could go on and on, but as you've said Barry, things turn into a vicious cycle.

I have been to Japan, and was romantically involved with someone who still lives there. She had been assulted and raped multiple times in Tokyo. I'm sure part of it could have been being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but after meeting some of her friends, and getting to know them, many of her friends had been through the same thing. None of it had been reported.

The same thing happens here, but I do not believe it is nearly to the degree that it happens in Japan. I would not say that Japan is any safer due to having no guns.

I wasn't uncomfortable there being unarmed, as my martial arts experience, and the fact I had taken one of my combat folders with me, gave me enough satisfaction I could defend myself, and the people I was with.

Therefore, I agree that being in a culture with very few firearms, makes me see the need to have one to defend myself, much less.

If I could have though, I would have most certainly carried as I do here in the United States.

Also, the thought of only having law enforcement and the government being the only ones armed, sends shivers down to my spine. If we reached that point here in America, there is no doubt that I would be moving.

drmagoo said...

Thank you - a very interesting read. Personally, I could never side with the GOP's because I refuse to look at the world through a veil of fear - I don't feel like I need to spend that much energy protecting myself or my family from someone who's trying to hurt me.

It also gets to a bit of perceptions of human nature. If you think that people only do the "right" thing (ie, not killing you or taking your stuff) because they're worried about the consequences (going to jail or getting shot themselves), then more people should have guns, to increase the chances of punitive consequences for actions.

Jack O said...

Barry, this is about the 5th time I've read through these posts over the last year (since discovering your blog). I keep coming back and recommending them to friends on both sides of the argument. I was wondering if you might consider updating them in light of the killings of first grade children and their teachers in Newtown, CT? Unfortunately for me, this time I know personally two people who lost children in this attack, which has made it even more painful. Having a balanced, well thought out discussion on this topic will be crucial in the coming months. We will also need to add in questions about mental illness and possibly the media's responsibility in inflating the killer's notoriety. I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks Jack. I linked to this piece on Twitter, and expect I'll have occasion to do so again and again in the future. And you're right, couldn't hurt to update it, though sadly I think it'll continue to apply for a long time to come.

Unknown said...

I find that I agree with this second post a lot more than with the first.

But as before, there is one thing that I do not agree with. You posed a rhetorical question regarding why gun control should work out better than prohibition of alcohol or drugs. And although it was rhetorical, I still would like to answer it.

The simple reason is that guns are harder to build.

Every person with some basic understanding of chemistry and access to some basic components can make drugs. A lot of people have distilled booze in their bathtubs. Those are simple processes. In the case of alcohol, it can be legally bought in large quantities almost everywhere.

So for drugs and booze the first creation is simple. They then only have to be smuggled in, which is quite simple, too.

Guns are a different matter. There is no simple way to produce them. You need a lot of engineering skills from different fields and some pretty sophisticated machinery to make anything that actually works.

So the moment you start to tightly control guns, the prices will skyrocket. Production is extremly expensive, acquisition in other countries is difficult and of course every smuggler will want a nice profit margin.

This is why a gun ban is more likely to succeed than a drug ban. In Japan we have the best example of this. The ban on guns works, the ban on drugs does not.