Thursday, January 3, 2013

Riddle Me This: A Response to Sam Harris's Thoughtful Piece on Gun Ownership in America

The Riddle of the Gun : Sam Harris
Fantasists and zealots can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. On the one hand, many gun-rights advocates reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public. On the other, proponents of stricter gun laws often seem unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm. Between these two extremes we must find grounds for a rational discussion about the problem of gun violence.
Anyone who's visited this blog before has certainly noticed my decidedly pro-gun control position over the years. In all the time I've been railing against "gun nuts," "cowards," and "fools," I don't think I've seen one article, and certainly not a comment here (most certainly not on facebook, where the comments against gun control, at least in my circle of acquaintances, have been of the hysterical "Obama wants to take our civil liberties away!" or willfully ignorant "It's not the gun's fault, we should just pray for the victims, anything else is knee-jerk, bleeding-heart, reactionary nonsense!") that made a good faith effort by a gun owner to understand the concerns of those of us who choose not to carry or own guns, or to deal honestly with the facts we have about gun violence and the efficacy of gun control legislation in other countries ... until now. I feel obliged to respond to +Sam Harris in the same spirit of openness to opposing opinions, and consideration of the evidence presented for his position.

Walking through his essay, I'm willing to grant the assumptions and position of the opening paragraph, quoted above. If I'm a fantasist about stricter gun laws, I want to get to the bottom of my erroneous assumptions. I do understand why a good person would want to have ready access to a loaded firearm for defense of their home and family, and I think many of the same stripe and inclination as myself understand it as well. If I were a young lady living alone, I would certainly consider getting trained to use, purchasing, and keeping a handgun secure in my home -- biometric safe under the bed, something along those lines.

Mr. Harris's observation that America's powerful gun lobby and the primacy of guns in American culture must look like a form of collective psychosis appears uncontroversial to me, though I expect it will to the members of our collective with psychotic tendencies. Is that too harsh?  Let's not call people "psychotics" then only because they don't see our national obsession with guns as psychotic. Whether we call them "rugged individualists," "survivalists," or "libertarians," I think we need to make something of their collective indifference to moral reasoning of the majority of the world, if only to point out that we're probably not going to get anywhere trying to reason with people who don't think there's a problem. It would seem to me, a necessary precondition for taking part in the debate and being a voice worth listening to, that you must agree the current situation with regard to regulation of guns is unsustainable, and immoral, because of the tremendous harm people with guns are doing to themselves and other people, purposefully and negligently, in the absence of common sense reforms.

It should be no surprise that the first place I take issue with Mr. Harris comes with this statement:
I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I consider myself an "otherwise intelligent" person (college educated, generally well-read, scored high on standardized tests, performs to an employer's satisfaction in a demanding job requiring analytic skills, attention to detail, creative problem solving, negotiation, cross-cultural coordination of efforts, etc.) who has considered the pros and cons, in a manner I have determined to be a sane approach, and had vindicated as such by other members of society who are also not suspected of being insane. I arrived at the conclusion myself and my family are sufficiently safe from violence without needing to buy a gun. From my determination, I extrapolate to the larger population that many (not all) in roughly the same circumstances, ought to reach the same conclusion. I live in a modest suburban subdivision, near low-income housing (a few minutes walk), a few miles from a police station, in an area where there have been break-ins. I acknowledge that, especially by world standards, this is a pretty privileged position, but I suspect we'd be labelled something like lower middle class. This background is to give context to my analysis. Yes, there is some crime in my neighborhood, the odd break in or car vandalized, but not much. (I'm more worried about the possibility of stray bullet from the nearby shooting range than I am someone deliberately shooting at or in my house.)

So, what's my beef with his statement? I think the beliefs of people who have concluded most sane people don't need a gun are grossly distorted in the Straw Man construction he presents. It would be more accurate to say we believe that for most sane people the ability to install a home security system, call 911, count on the vigilance of neighbors, and be a vigilant neighbor who reports suspicious vehicles, unknown persons skulking about in the yards of neighbors, etc., are sufficient protection against violence. We, at least I, don't think people living in "bad" neighborhoods should have the same expectations; we recognize that there are folks more vulnerable than ourselves, with a greater expectation of danger, who legitimately feel more threatened. We are open to the idea there is a need in some cases for greater self-defense capabilities.  However, we are extremely suspicious of the idea an AR 15 with a high capacity magazine (I hope I'm not getting my self in trouble here with unfamiliar terminology and weapons capabilities, but we'll come to that shortly) is the appropriate self-defense mechanism ... for any civilian. Ever.

To be fair, I think Harris is correct to point out that there are many of us on the increased regulation side of the argument who support a complete ban on firearms, but it's not clear if Harris is saying he's surrounded by folks who support a ban vs. heightened regulation, so I think he's doing his argument a disservice by implying everyone, even if intelligent in other matters, is dumb when it comes to gun control.

Perhaps that's a minor quibble where I could be less sensitive, so let's move on. Harris says a little later:
But, unlike my friends, I own several guns and train with them regularly. Every month or two, I spend a full day shooting with a highly qualified instructor. This is an expensive and time-consuming habit, but I view it as part of my responsibility as a gun owner.
That sounds great, but am I a cynic for imagining almost nobody trains with as highly-qualified instructors, goes to the same expense, and spends that much time getting training in not only how to point and shoot, but simulating crisis situations where's there's darkness, unknown number of hostile intruders, having been woken from a sound sleep, or other "real world" type scenarios one might face in the extremely unlikely event they ever actually need and can get to their weapon? Harris here is describing how we'd like all gun owners to treat the responsibility of owning a firearm, but which of us is a fantasist when it comes to how the majority of gun owners treat their responsibility?

Skipping ahead, Harris says:
However, it seems to me that there is nothing irrational about judging oneself to be psychologically stable and fully committed to the safe handling and ethical use of firearms—if, indeed, one is.
Well, it seems to me, the folks who are stockpiling weapons after a massacre are not in a position to be judging for themselves whether they are psychologically stable and fully committed to the safe handling and ethical use of firearms -- because running out to buy more guns after a massacre is perhaps the surest sign you are an unstable, ethically challenged, fool.

My (nearest) local gun shop. Always busy.
A daily reminder that my side of the argument is has already lost.
Again, I feel like a bit of a quibbler, because I think Harris and I arrive at the same conclusion: it makes sense and is in the purview of society to say, "In order to own a gun, you must be registered, you must be trained, and you should lose your right to own a weapon if you are irresponsible with it." We suspend drivers' licenses all the time, irresponsible gun owners should be held to no less stringent a standard. If you're going to start throwing around labels like "fantasist" though, I think you need to be conscious of when you look like one. (And, it goes without saying, if the vast majority of gun owners do take the time and expense to stay trained by qualified instructors and are subject to testing in order to keep their registered weapons, then I need to take my lumps and admit if I'm wrong. But show me, with facts and credible data that I'm wrong, don't just tell me what highly trained marksmen all the gun owners you know are.)

So, now we come to a really thorny ethical question:
Like most gun owners, I understand the ethical importance of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them. I suspect that sentiment will shock many readers. Wouldn’t any decent person wish for a world without guns? In my view, only someone who doesn’t understand violence could wish for such a world. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene.
Did your Straw Man Detector just go off again? Mine did. Again, pro-regulation arguments here are being presented as reducing to "ban all the guns." Even though I personally support a ban on firearm ownership for all civilians, I would be quite happy to just see regulation, registration of all guns, certification of all gun owners, insurance requirements, and accountability for gun owners whose guns are lost or stolen and then used in a crime. I could live with just some, not all of those. We can agree that violence is a fact of life and the "good guys" need a way to stop the "bad guys" from running roughshod over the rest of us, good, bad, and in between, without needing to imagine a world without guns.

Here's the extension of that argument that I have trouble with. I support the manufacture of guns for the military and for law enforcement, but this means I can't raise a militia to oppose my government and the police if I need to overthrow tyrannical rule. You guys have me dead to rights on that one. Here's my answer, take it for what it's worth: that ship has sailed. We ceded the ability to oppose unjust rule by force a long time ago. We could all have houses full of guns and still be defenseless because we can't get the drones, tanks, missiles and all the other weapons the federal government could use against us. Mr. Harris and I are in agreement here, it would seem. He writes:
 ... the idea that a few pistols and an AR 15 in every home constitutes a necessary bulwark against totalitarianism is fairly ridiculous. If you believe that the armed forces of the United States might one day come for you—and you think your cache of small arms will suffice to defend you if they do—I’ve got a black helicopter to sell you.
Perhaps the more practical concern should be whether we need to be protected from the police. (Let's ask Ice Cube?) There I'm at a bit more of a disadvantage and I admit it. A corrupt, criminal police force could trample my rights, unjustly persecute, jail, and do all manner of horrible things to me, or to any of us if we couldn't fire back.

So how do we protect ourselves from the tyranny of the federal government and those (minority of) police as bad as the criminals they are supposed to protect us from?  We could arm to the teeth and fight it out. Or, we could be responsible citizens and vote in local and national elections based on informed opinions garnered from a free and independent press. I've said it before and I'll say it again, our best defense against tyranny is the rule of law and an open, accountable political class.

At the national, state, county, city and town level, we need to have the information we need to make informed decisions about who to elect to public office to protect our interests. The greatest threats to our liberty are corrupt, beholden elected officials -- and I'll be blunt here, I mean virtually all Republicans and far too many Democrats. Not giving another inch to oligarchs out to bust unions and subsidize profitable industries is where we should be drawing the line. A gun will not protect you from a politician who wants to tax you to subsidize an industry that wants to move jobs overseas. But a vote can do that. Our ability to speak freely and associate freely is only hampered in an armed society -- Tea Partiers threatening to, and actually bringing guns to political events, anybody?  Those freedoms, along with a quality secular education and free press are our greatest protections. A gun might, just might, protect you from a burglar, but it is not going to do you a lick of good against an entire political party out to destroy the social safety net or practice willful denial about climate change.

But let's go back to the perceived danger of a world with too few guns. Harris presents several facts about guns, gun safety, and the relative dangers of things like swimming pools and the improperly washed hands of doctors and nurses. I've seen the statistics before and I don't take issue with them. We're looking at the same data, but arriving at different conclusions. There are facts about guns and regulation that I was extremely surprised to not see reference to in the essay though. I did a control-F search for Japan, Australian, and variations on the UK, Britain, England to make sure I didn't miss them and those countries which have enacted strict regulations and seen a dramatic decrease in gun violence without (as you might surmise reading about the rash of knife attacks in China which Harris does helpfully allude to) a corresponding increase in knife, bayonet, sword, nunchuck, toaster-in-the-bathtub type violence we might expect to fill the void left by the ready availability of guns in those countries. To not address those facts about guns and regulations is striking. I can't help but wonder if it was just fatalism, the belief that our society is too gun crazy, too bristling with weapons already, for those sorts of regulations to work here?

Because I can never resist a reference to The Maltese Falcon, I'll do my best Sam Spade voice and wonder aloud why we let these cheap gunsels hang about in the lobby, heaters bulging in their pockets? The Wilmers of the world can have their coats pulled down around their elbows, and their guns taken away from them. We might need armed police to do finish the job if we can't just trick them in to walking in front of us, but I bet it could be done.

Harris makes a strong argument for handguns being as much, if not more of a public safety issue than "assault rifles" and the like. I'm perfectly happy to let him be persuasive in that regard. An outright ban, which he argues couldn't work, I'd argue would never be perfect, but could do a lot of good -- as it has done in other countries. If there is evidence to contradict the relative merits of the policies enacted in the UK, Australia, and Japan, I am interested in seeing it. Arguments that highlight the dangers of handguns are not something I'm motivated to dismiss.

There's some further  discussion in his essay of light vs. heavy bullets, fast-loading revolvers and high capacity clips, hunting rifles being as good for killing people as any other kind of gun that support the argument against simply trying to control what are perceived to be the most deadly types of gun, partly because of their demonstrated efficacy in killing schoolchildren. Whether those arguments actually support an all out ban as opposed to half-measures, or whether they support trying to be more creative in regulating ammunition and the types of controls we might  put in place on the manufacture, sale, registration, and ownership of guns is largely irrelevant. Either way is fine with me.

Where Harris makes a damning point about liberal criticism, and there's no dodging it, no getting around the fact I'm as guilty as any liberal on this front, is we seem to barely know what we're talking about when we call things by the wrong name, use the correct terminology in the wrong manner, and generally sound like ignoramuses on the topic upon which are pontificating. From reporters on down to lowly bloggers, we all have a responsibility to do our homework and get our facts straight. Credibility matters.

As an aside, I remember being scorned for using the word "gun," instead of "rifle" by an acquaintance who had been through basic training. "This is my rifle, this [grabbing crotch] is my gun," I was informed. The former is for shooting, the latter is for fun, he went on to clarify. Duly noted.

While I'm copping to weaknesses in my presentation, I need to face this criticism head-on as well:
Needless to say, it is easy to see how things can go badly when anyone draws a firearm defensively. But when an armed man enters an office building, restaurant, or school for the purpose of murdering everyone in sight, things are going very badly already. Imagine being one of the people in the Houston video trapped in the office with no recourse but to hide under a desk. Would you really be relieved to know that up until that moment, your workplace had been an impeccably gun-free environment and that no one, not even your friend who did three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be armed? If you found yourself trapped with others in a conference room, preparing to attack the shooter with pencils and chairs, can you imagine thinking, “I’m so glad no one else has a gun, because I wouldn’t want to get caught in any crossfire”?
After Aurora, I immediately thought of a darkened cinema and what might have happened if a couple of movie-goers had been armed. Is it crazy to think that in the heat of the moment, one might mistake the other for an accomplice of the shooter and kill someone who was only trying to help, or be shot themselves? Perhaps I did take an excessively pessimistic point of view when thinking about the likely outcomes. Harris makes the case in a way I hadn't considered, or had reflexively dismissed. I admit the scenario of the conference room Harris imagined gives me a pause. However, on a day to day basis, if you knew you had a co-worker who had served multiple tours of duty and seen combat, how would you feel about going to work everyday and sitting in a conference room with that person knowing they had a gun on them all the time? A lot would depend on how well you knew them and how that person carried himself. Sure, in the million to one scenario where a lunatic comes in and starts shooting, it'd be good to have him there ready to return fire ... but isn't it more likely you'd be concerned by the holster under his suit jacket day in and day out, that you'd feel uncomfortable if he lost his temper? If he served multiple tours and and saw combat, maybe lost friends, experienced horrors a civilian (outside of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virgina Tech, etc.) could imagine, would you be comfortable asking how he coped with the stress of those memories? Would you want to know? Would it never occur to you he might be the guy loses it one day and shoots up the office? Who the hell brings a gun to a conference room full of project managers, developers, and analysts anyways?! You work for financial firm, not a Colombian cartel!

Recently, one of the buildings leased by the company I work for was shot at. It's not a building I've ever been in, but it's just down the road. A disgruntled employee who had just been let go flipped out at work and, while it hasn't been proven that person did the shooting, it was that same night that a few rounds were fired into the office. It was after hours and nobody was injured, but think about it for a minute. Do you have someone in your office who's a little off? Not someone you fear, necessarily, but someone who just throws that vibe? Imagine that person with a handgun in her purse at her cubicle, or imagine he's got one in his car and just got disciplined by his manager, maybe unfairly. Still think it's a good idea for your co-workers to be armed?

There's a car in the parking at work with a Confederate flag vanity plate. I don't whose car that is, but I sure as hell hope that asshole doesn't have a firearm.

After all that, it seems I've ended up in generally the same ballpark as Mr. Harris. I bristle at some of his characterizations, but recognize I make others bristle as well. In fact, my main area of disagreement boils down to my understanding of the effectiveness of the sorts of gun controls enacted in other countries that Mr. Harris finds impossible to consider here. He seems to think liberal proponents of gun controls are fantasists. I think he's seriously underestimated the depth and breadth of the majority of gun owners irresponsibility, probably based on his own considerable willingness to be a responsible gun owner.

[Update 1/8/2013: Harris responds to critics, including the chief beef I had with his argument. Will take up the counter arguments as they apply to me in a follow-up post.]

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