Sunday, January 20, 2013

My (Imagined) Dialogue with Sam Harris About Regulating Firearms Continues ...

FAQ on Violence : Sam Harris

I have now heard from many people who have never held a gun in their lives, and are proud to say that they never would, but who appear entirely confident in declaiming upon the limitations of firearms as defensive weapons. Before proceeding, perhaps there is general rule of cognition we might all agree on: It would be surprising, indeed, if avoiding a topic as a matter of principle were the best way to understand it.
As I did with his first article on gun control, I'd like to walk through his response to critics where they are germane to my disagreements with him. Much of the criticism he received, apparently, came along some different and dubious lines, so I'll not go looking to try to figure those out.

My chief beef with his first article was his lack of reference to policies in Australia, Britain, and Japan that, based on what I've seen, have resulted in far fewer shooting deaths per capita. He addresses that concern but I want to start first with the quoted bit above. As someone who's never been threatened at gunpoint, I feel like there's a chance my thoughts on the matter might be conflated with someone who thinks that because they never have means they never will.

While I have not been mugged at gunpoint, I have lived in a home that was broken in to and robbed. I came home from school (8th or 9th grade, I think) and found our front door kicked in, the door frame splintered, and our house ransacked. When I walked in, I didn't know if someone might still be inside, hiding in wait, or had just left ...

I was a skinny kid from a working-class neighborhood right next to "the projects." Many of my friends lived in subsidized housing and we all knew about food stamps and the taste of government cheese. I was hassled by bigger, tougher kids a few times, but mostly was able to avoid problems. I saw drug deals, and knew to stay well away from the grungy motel a few blocks away.

Never, not then, and not now, do I think I would have been better off if I, or my mom, had a gun in the house. This is not a matter of my saying "violence only happens to the inattentive, the unlucky, the foolish, and those who put themselves at risk." I know full well that just like my home was robbed when I was a kid, it could happen in this neighborhood.

I have never owned a gun myself. But I've held them, fired them, and -- as a kid, a few years younger than when we were broken into -- lived in house with them. My stepdad was a hunter. He hunted deer and participated in turkey shoots. He kept a muzzle-loader, a compound bow, and a crossbow in the house, mounted to the wall. I fired the muzzle loader and shot a bolt from the crossbow under his supervision. It didn't happen often, maybe only once or twice?, but I also fired rifles with friends of the family in rural New Hampshire. Those guys were serious about their guns. They were also serious about their PBR. I never saw anyone get hurt, and I know there's a certain thrill in firing a gun. But even as a kid, I knew those guys weren't particularly wise.

All this is just to say that I come by my opposition to civilian keeping firearms from a place of less than complete ignorance. I couldn't field strip, clean, and reassemble a firearm but I've seen it done. I've felt the recoil of a shot gun -- damned near knocked my rail-thin 11-year-old self over. I've even shot icicles off a gutter with an air rifle, with "adult supervision."  But I didn't need any of those experiences, neither being robbed nor target shooting, to have a valid opinion. Just because I choose not to own a firearm doesn't mean I'm any less entitled to an opinion about gun ownership, nor does it mean my opinion is any less valid.

So let's talk about whether owning guns makes you more safe, assuming you a responsible gun owner, or at least not a reckless one. Sure, a gun can protect you from the danger that presents itself in front of you and allows you time, even if only seconds, to get at your firearm and fire it. However, it can't protect you from the guy who sneaks up and jumps you from behind. And any criminal who's any good at being a criminal knows that; so, that is how it's going to happen to you. And, when that happens, if you've got a gun on you while you're lying there stunned, bleeding, blurry-eyed, maybe even unconscious, then when that guy takes if off you, you might as well have used it on yourself, or on the person the guy who just stole that gun from you used it on. You can't, you simply can't, secure a gun on your person. If you think you can, that is the first sign you don't have sufficient judgment to be carrying a firearm.

If I thought all, or even most, criminals were idiots who announced their presence, who approached their intended victims slowly, who, as a rule, allowed someone time to get their gun and point it at them, and I could guarantee that my gun could only be fired by me (due to biometrics, and with a fail safe that I couldn't be forced to pull the trigger by accident in tussle) and that it would never result in a miss that injured a bystander, and the bullet would never pass through my attacker and go through a window of a house across the street, and if there were statistics that showed gun owners are safer than non-gun owners -- which there are not -- then I would consider a firearm for self-defense purposes. Why not? If we could be confident we weren't going to accidentally arm a criminal who didn't already have a gun, or enough guns, and if we knew gun accidents were rare, then it would be a considerably easier decision.

But we know accidents aren't rare. You saw what happened on Gun Appreciation Day, right? (See my last post, if not.)

There's a story coming out of Albuquerque this morning that may be illustrative. As I'm writing this, there are virtually no details apart from a teenager killed a family in their home, a home which had guns in it.. Don't know the relationship of the teenager to the the people he killed, don't know if the guns were brought into the home by the killer or were the property of the family that was killed. Either way, it seems those guns didn't make anybody safer. I'm assuming the kid who did the shooting wasn't victimized by that family and ending some terrible nightmare of abuse, but whether he was or not, he had other options besides two adults and three children.

With rare exceptions, murders don't happen like they do on TV procedurals. Strangers don't generally roam around invading homes, sticking people up, and shooting them. Sure, it happens, but it is far more common that the murders with firearms happen within families. The murderer almost always knows the victim. Drugs, alcohol, a history of physical or emotional abuse ... some of these things are almost always involved. Adding guns to the mix of anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, or whatever is going on in the head of someone who gets mad or sick enough to kill, sort of obviously doesn't make sense. Does it?

Mr. Harris dismisses the findings of studies about violence in Britain, Australia, and Japan because, apparently, not all violence stopped. He looks at the data and finds that while fewer people are murdered with firearms, there are still high levels of assault. He makes a valid point about assault being pretty traumatic for the victims, a point well-taken, and sees a reality about violence that he concludes means the regulations in those countries weren't worth it. Look, I get that violence is inevitable in society. I'm just not persuaded guns make people safer. I don't deny the reality that sometimes people do defend themselves with a firearm, and have prevented harm to themselves or others, but I don't see this as reason to ignore the larger public health perspective, where those rare. isolated incidences are drowned in sea of murder, suicide, and accidental death and injury.

Finally, the last germane point Harris makes is those countries that banned firearms didn't have the history of firearm ownership we have here. We are awash in a sea of guns; there are something 300,000,000 firearms owned by private citizens of U.S., I read somewhere recently. Harris doesn't see any way to undo that.  He asks if he is a defeatist: "Am I simply guilty of a failure of imagination?"

Well, not to put to fine a point on it, yes. If you can't imagine a successful campaign collect and dispose of nearly all the firearms in circulation, then you're not trying hard enough. Will there still be bad guys with guns, no matter what? Yes. But there will be fewer of them. That is indisputable. We don't need a perfect elimination of firearms to have a success, we just need to get rid of most. The police, the FBI, the ATF, I'm not suggesting we disarm and disband those agencies. Let them deal with the bad guys with guns. Citizen vigilantes, on the whole, suck at it.

We used to have slavery in this country. It was Constitutional to enslave other human beings. Let that thought rattle around your mind for a moment. Think hard about what that meant. Now remember: we ended that.  Was it a perfect end? No. But did we do the almost inconceivable and fix that? Yes. It was bloody, and it nearly tore the nation apart, but we did it and it was worth it. Would the Confederacy have eventually ended slavery on its own as the rest of the modern world left it behind? Maybe.

But maybe not.

I'm not suggesting gun ownership is an evil of the same magnitude as slavery, but look up how many American civilians have died of gunshot wounds since the founding of our nation vs. how many Americans have been killed in all the wars we've fought combined. You might be surprised. It's a problem worth doing something about. And, just as gun ownership isn't the same same as slavery, neither is the solution to the gun problem in this country as messy as the solution to the problem of the Confederacy was. Despite the big talk and aggressive posturing of the gun lobby and a few wackjobs, disarming the nation would not require another Civil War.

So, to bring it back to Mr. Harris. Would it be unjust to ban civilian ownership of firearms and force him to relinquish his guns, putting himself and his family at increased risk from the the theist extremist who make death threats against him?  I don't believe it would be.

Here's why: the FBI and the police have an obligation to give him special attention because of the nature of the threats he has received.  The risk to himself and his family can be mitigated by society. If one of the extremists who has made threats against his life could get a hold of a sniper rifle and assassinate him from a distance, none of his firearms would protect him. He would be more protected by a ban on sniper rifles in civilian hands than he currently is with his handguns and rifles. I don't dispute there are very specific circumstances under which he could defend himself with a firearm; I maintain he, and society, would be better off if no civilian were allowed to have firearms.

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