Saturday, December 22, 2012

Should I get a gun: when disaster strikes

This is another post in (what is now officially) a series of posts exploring various arguments for gun ownership. Note that's 'gun ownership' not the 'right to own a gun.' In other words, I'm assessing the quality of some common arguments for actually choosing to own a gun, not disputing the right to bear arms itself.

In my first post, I examined three arguments around private citizens owning guns as a means of opposing tyranny and found two of them to be poor and one to be plausible but of questionable applicability in modern America. In the interest of balance, I'd like to address what I think is hands down the best argument for getting a gun and, I would add, the only one that has ever made me seriously think about getting one personally.

Having a gun could be useful (and maybe even necessary) in a post-disaster scenario

I articulated a version of this argument in a Facebook post the other day:
Remember after Hurricane Katrina? The period of crime (including theft, rape and murder) going on when the government essentially ceased to function due to the disaster? Raises the possibility of you being essentially in the Wild West for a period of time with no functioning police protection and some dude and 40 of his closest friends coming by your door suggesting that they would please like your TV, or your car or your daughter...
The disaster in question does not have to be a natural one, of course: it could be the result of, e.g., terrorism, assault by a foreign power or armed revolution overthrowing the legitimate government. It also doesn't have to be reasonably short in time (as was the case post-Katrina), the conditions could persist for weeks, months or longer in the case of the latter scenarios.

I actually think this is a pretty good argument, and also an intriguing one, for a few reasons:

  • It appropriately recognizes the emergency nature of a scenario in which you might need a gun. The breakdown of civil authority following a disaster represents an unusual and unexpected dangerous situation in which the normal police and military protection provided by the government might break down. For reasons I have argued briefly elsewhere and probably will again later at greater length, the government providing this kind of protection (as opposed to armed citizens providing it) under normal circumstances is a really, really, good thing. When they're not available -- as could be the case post-disaster and is in fact the case if, e.g., you live somewhere where police protection is unavailable like rural Alaska -- then conscientious, responsible armed citizens defending themselves could be a very good thing. I'm happy to stipulate that as long as we recognize that armed citizens having to defend themselves is less good than the police doing it under normal circumstances.
  • It references a condition that has actually happened in the United States of America in recent history and could happen again at any time, as opposed to, say, overthrowing a tyrant. The link right there is also interesting because it brings up the fact that in a situation like this, a moral, peace-loving citizen might actually have to defend himself from criminals, armed vigilantes and even corrupt police officers.
  • It is a plausible scenario in which a private citizen might actually need a high-powered semi-automatic rifle with a high-capacity clip. The effective range/lethality (as compared to a hand gun) and ability to fire many rounds without reloading could mean the difference between life and death for a good person defending their home and property against a mob bent on doing harm. As one commenter on a Facebook thread I was on commented, that's why Marines use semi-automatic rifles when clearing houses in Afghanistan instead of hand guns.
Evaluating whether being prepared for the post-disaster scenario is a good reason to own a gun in your particular case is complex, but fundamentally follows the same method I used when evaluating the second version of the overthrowing tyranny argument I analyzed in the earlier post. On one side of the equation, you have to evaluate the combined likelihood of a disaster happening and there being a breakdown (complete or partial) of civil authority in the event that it does and of a gun being useful in dealing with the circumstances.

The fact that that is a compound probability is important: natural disasters, for example, happen with some frequency, but being accompanied by a breakdown of civil authority in which a gun might actually be useful (e.g. looting, civil unrest, etc.) is much less frequent. It happened in Katrina, but my family just came through Hurricane Sandy. The major roads here were impassable and most of the town was without power for over a week. There were rumors of break ins of unoccupied homes (where a gun wouldn't be useful because, of course, no one's home and might even fall into the hands of a criminal if not properly secured), but the police were active and the township authorities were in daily communication with us.

On the other side of the equation, all of that must be weighed against the risks of having the gun in your home. Both sides of the equation need to be localized to your particular situation as best you can, but general statistics and data can be a guide. I'll consider the general statistics on the risks of having a firearm in your home in a later post (I think in the one I plan to do on having a gun for personal protection), but those general statistics clearly support that, on average, having a gun in your home makes you less safe, not more.

So again, you are weighing the combined possibility of

  1. A disaster happening (disasters happening by their very nature being rare);
  2. It being the kind of disaster where there is a disruption in civil authority and/or a significant departure from your baseline (non-gun requiring) level of safety (a subset of disasters);
  3. You finding yourself in the kind of situation where having a gun would be a useful and appropriate tool in defending significant values of yours where the ability to wield deadly force would come into play (i.e. you don't get to just shoot anyone, even people behaving unlawfully towards you, unless they present an actual risk to your life. Police, for example, are not allowed to use deadly force ever when trying to apprehend someone for a misdemeanor, even if they flee or resist)
against the reduction in safety caused by having the gun around in  non-disaster time.

Let's say you weigh the evidence and conclude that, for you, the benefits outweigh the risks and you decide to get a gun for this purpose. Given that, I want to talk about a framework for actually enacting that decision. The actual details of what I'm about to describe aren't as important as the approach I want to articulate, which represents the kind of deep, serious consideration that should be undertaken if you (responsibly) decide that you want to take a purposefully-designed killing device into your home.
  • Research various types of firearms to understand which would be appropriate to your actual needs in this scenario. I lack any sort of expert knowledge on this, but, for example, I'm more dubious of the need for semi-automatic rifle (which is designed to be effective over a range of hundreds of yards) if you live in a New York City apartment than if you live in a suburban house. Even given a small risk of your weapon ever falling into the hands of a person who would use it irresponsibly,  I think it is incumbent on you to select the safest, least dangerous weapon possible that would be adequate to your realistic needs.
  • Familiarize yourself with any requirements and restrictions on the use and ownership of firearms that would apply to you in the area where you live and comply with them.
  • Become proficient in the use and maintenance of the weapon you intend to purchase before buying one and bringing it home, for example by learning how to use it under the supervision of a responsible professional instructor/dealer. If you intend on getting a rifle (because you conclude you might need to defend yourself at a distance), training and qualification in marksmanship might, for example, be appropriate. Only after achieving a certain level of proficiency should you purchase the weapon and bring it into your home.
  • Adopt the strongest safety procedures realistically possible in storing the weapon. Again, I don't know what those are, but the principle here is important: you're getting the gun so you can have it for use in a rare, unlikely scenario. Therefore, a high level of security -- even if it entails a certain degree of inconvenience -- seems appropriate. Leaving it loaded under your pillow at night (which not many gun owners would do, I'm sure) is not appropriate to this usage (if it ever is). Knowing nothing about gun security but knowing a bit about electronic security, the principle of multi-factor authentication -- the idea of having multiple security mechanisms of different types (like both a combination you have to know and key you have to posses) -- is a good baseline. I see evidence of gun safes that do exactly that (it would be better if the key was replaced with an electronic key fob mechanism with a rotating code that changed over time that could be revoked or changed if lost, which is a feature I can get on my GMail account, but whatever).
  • Maintain both the gun and your training/skill in using it safely. When you're not actively engaged in one of those activities, keep the gun secured in your highly secure way at all times.
  • Familiarize yourself with deadly force doctrines as employed by law enforcement officers in addition to those that apply to private citizens. Remember, in this scenario you're acting as the police authority in the absence of the real one, and I think you owe it to yourself and the people who could potentially be on the other end of your gun to understand the principles and procedures that guide law enforcement officers in making split second, life and death decisions regarding the use of deadly force.
Now, let's say the disaster strikes. What do you do? When might it be appropriate to use your gun?
  • Consider removing the gun from its secure location only if there is evidence of the breakdown of civil authority and/or (preferably and) elevated levels of criminal activity or risk thereof. The disaster alone is not sufficient. Objective evidence might include not seeing routine police patrols, news reports, evidence of widespread rioting or looting, etc. 
  • If those conditions are present, I think it would also be incumbent to make proactive attempts to contact the civil authorities. Call the local police. Ask if they're still around. If you can't get them (either because communications are down or they're not answering), that's a bad sign...
  • Take strong steps to minimize the need to actually use the gun and inform others of your intentions. Obviously just taking pot shots at anyone who crosses your property line is no good. Putting a sign at the property line for the duration of the emergency that effectively states 'Civil emergency in effect. Trespassers will be shot' (if that worse-case-scenario approach is justified by the circumstances) would be an example. Even if someone does cross the line, firing a warning shot to let them know you're actually armed and serious and giving them an opportunity to retreat is probably morally required before actually using deadly force.
  • Similarly, take proactive steps to determine when the emergency situation is over. Once it is and civil authority is restored, return your gun to its safe place.
I go through this somewhat pedantic and detailed run down not claiming that the specifics are right (they're there mostly for example). I do it because I think the principles are correct and address the minimum set of considerations that would be morally required of someone choosing to own (or if it came down to it use) a gun in a scenario like this.

Friends like these...

Wayne LaPierre, spokesman for maker of poor quality first person shooter games the National Rifle Association, articulated something yesterday that is similar to what I've been analyzing here in suggesting that the solution to school shootings is putting an armed, trained security officer in every school. Said LaPierre: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The media was quick to point out, contra a claim I came across, that armed security personnel don't exactly have a perfect track record in stopping school shootings. As the Huffington Post notes, an armed security officer, Neil Gardner, was present at Columbine in 1999. HuffPo quotes from from the police report noting that
Gardner, seeing Harris working with his gun, leaned over the top of the car and fired four shots. He was 60 yards from the gunman. Harris spun hard to the right and Gardner momentarily thought he had hit him. Seconds later, Harris began shooting again at the deputy. 
After the exchange of gunfire, Harris ran back into the building. Gardner was able to get on the police radio and called for assistance from other Sheriff’s units. "Shots in the building. I need someone in the south lot with me."
Some reactions:

First, as I noted in a Facebook comment
back at the time of Columbine, most police departments (including Littleton), officers and security personnel were trained to handle mass shootings in progress like hostage situations: establish a perimeter, help the innocent and wounded and wait for the SWAT team to show up. That changed post Columbine to what's called the 'Active Shooter Protocol' in which any law enforcement or security personnel on the scene immediately converge on the location of the shooter and attempt to neutralize him. There is strong evidence from many subsequent mass shootings that mass shooters -- unlike say terrorists or hostage takers -- tend to surrender or take their own lives when confronted by law enforcement. That was the case in Newtown, for example.
I suspect the author of the HuffPo article and others know this, and not including that relevant fact in the reporting is disingenuous. Doing that does not contribute to an informed debate on the issue. Even if you think the police in schools thing is a bad idea, and even if Wayne LaPierre is an odious human being, omitting relevant facts so you can more easily dismiss what might be a reasonable position out of hand is a poor and dishonest rhetorical technique. Also, even if the track record of police in schools on stopping mass shootings isn't perfect, that isn't the right thing to consider. The right things to consider are 1) if having police in schools is better on whole than not having police in schools and 2) if it is, is it a good thing to implement as a matter of policy?

Secondly, as I noted in a subsequent comment
Also, hitting a target at 60 yards with a hand gun while taking fire isn't a sure thing by any means. All of... [the above] helps contextualize why the officer in the story fell back and called for backup and why neither he nor [an]other officer who was close by pursued the shooters into the building. That's exactly what they would have been trained to do at the time and would never happen today.
Well, would never happen today if it was a trained law enforcement officer.... seems more likely that it would still happen today if it was -- and I'm just speculating here at random -- a schoolteacher or an everyday citizen with a gun as opposed to someone with modern police training.
In other words, at Columbine, the trained security officers acted in a manner consistent with their training, even if the methods of training have now changed. The best methods the professionals currently have call for the good guys to rapidly converge on the shooter, at great personnel risk, and try to stop him, possibly in the face of superior firepower. That's an extraordinarily brave and difficult thing to muster the courage to do and I'm sure to actually do successfully. It strikes me as quite a big thing to ask of school personnel or the general public, and so I'm skeptical of that as matter of security policy and would reject it if put forth as the sole or ideal solution. I'm not about to ask a teacher to risk her life like that, nor would I be comfortable staking my child's (or any child's) life on her ability to do it successfully, even if there are some who are willing to try, as the heroic and unarmed principal at Sandy Hook did.

To be fair, Mr. LaPierre is not calling for that. He's calling for trained professionals. Police officers not only train and practice frequently to handle these situations, they have also accepted the professional responsibility for defending the general public and the risk of harm or death that comes with it. However, even if the police are willing and able to face those situations bravely and with full knowledge of the risks, that doesn't mean it's a good thing if they actually have to. I don't want cops being shot at by bad guys if it can be avoided and I don't take the prospect of a police officer losing his life while protecting me (or my child) against a bad guy with a gun lightly.

If Mr. LaPierre is right that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, that seems like a persuasive argument for asking the question of how to prevent bad guys from using guns against good people in the first place. Newark Mayor Cory Booker articulates some 'common sense' gun control measures that mostly seem to me to be reasonable, prudent and respectful of the general right to gun ownership framework I talk about here. He also claims they are supported by the overwhelming majority of the public and NRA members. He is quick to point out that none of those measures would likely have prevented a mass shooting like Sandy Hook, but I think most of us would prefer that criminals shoot less innocent people in general.

It is my opinion that common sense gun control is good but not sufficient and that the deeper roots of the gun violence -- particularly mass shootings -- are cultural and require long term cultural change and solutions, as well as an honest examination by gun owners and non-gun owners of the risks and drawbacks of gun ownership in individual cases within a framework of protecting the right to bear arms. If Mr. LaPierre is going to repeat the tenuous claim that a cultural fixation on violent videogames contributes to actual gun violence, I have a hard time understanding why a cultural fixation on the actual guns isn't an appropriate candidate for examination.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Should I get a gun: opposing tyranny

This is the first in (maybe) a series of posts exploring various arguments for gun ownership. Note that's 'gun ownership' not the 'right to own a gun.' In other words, I'm assessing the quality of some common arguments for actually choosing to own a gun, not disputing the right to bear arms itself.

The general class of arguments I'm addressing here is based on the notion that firearms in the hands of private citizens are a useful (and perhaps even necessary) tool for opposing or preventing the establishment/growth of tyranny. I think we all can agree tyranny is bad and a good thing to oppose.

Agents of the tyrannical government may show up at my door and I want to be able to defend myself and my family

First of all, let's be clear: the United States in 2012 is not, as some but not all proponents of this view assert, a tyranny. Even if you think the government is too large, overstepping its proper function or excessively authoritarian -- and even if you think it is becoming increasingly so -- we are not, by any objective measure, an actual tyranny at this time. We are, at present, a fundamentally free and democratic society, even if you believe we are headed down a path towards dictatorship and even if the free and democratic government engages in some (or even many) actions that are improper.

In a free and democratic society, you don't have the right to oppose the government with force (and it is proper for the government to prevent you from stockpiling offensive weapons for purposes of doing so). You do have the right to disagree with the government's policies, write about them, attempt to convince others, petition the government, protest and otherwise engage within the democratic process to work to improve things.

You also don't have a right to selectively choose which actions of the government to obey and which to oppose by force (actually, you don't get to oppose any by force). So even if you are opposed to Obamacare, and even if you decide not to obtain health insurance for yourself in contravention of the individual mandate, and even if the government then sends agents to your house to force you to comply, you don't get to shoot them. That does not constitute a legitimate exercise of the right to bear arms or to self defense with your firearm, that constitutes criminal behavior. Again, you can oppose the law and work for its repeal, but taking shots at G-Men, no way.

Now, let's pretend that you wake up tomorrow morning and find yourself under the rule of an actual tyrannical government. Like Galactic Empire tyrannical. You have no democratic recourse to improve the government. You cannot escape (either to another country or by hiding in the hills). Suddenly, you see the Secret Police coming down the street to arrest you and your family for thought crimes and place you in a concentration camp.

Vote for these guys, it is your... destiny

In that scenario, it is 100% moral and legitimate of you to attack the agents of the tyrannical government with your fists, rocks, knives and any firearm you might own as a matter of self defense. The Secret Police are criminals coming to deprive you of your right to life, not agents of a legitimate government. You have a right to defend yourself just as you would against a murderer wielding a knife.

Understand, however, that in this scenario, your right to bear arms is effectively a right to choose how you're going to die. You can either surrender and die in the gas chamber or fight and die in a flurry of tyrannical government bullets (either now or when they come back later in greater force if you succeed in fighting this particular batch of agents off). If you choose to fight it out, you might take a few Secret Policemen with you, and I think it's fair to call that 'opposing the tyrannical government.' But, in a bigger sense, your gun isn't doing anything meaningful to oppose the government politically or militarily. It's giving you the opportunity to die on your own terms. Very brave, undeniably heroic, kind of a poor reason to own gun, in my opinion.

I want to be able to participate in an organized, armed resistance against a tyrannical government

This one is more plausible. It's not necessarily asserting that we have a tyranny now or advocating for some weird Alamo-like last stand. It's pointing out that if we ever come under the rule of a tyrannical government, freedom-loving armed citizens could band together, offer resistance and contribute to the overthrow of the tyranny. It's happened before. If enough righteous citizens don't have access to firearms prior to the establishment of the tyranny (which will presumably repeal the 2nd Amendment in the course of coming to power), this citizen resistance won't be able to happen.

Let's leave aside the question of whether a subset of the civillian population armed with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and handguns could offer effective resistance against the US military (for the record, I don't think that's as implausible as some people do: armed rebels overthrew a well-established dictatorship in Libya -- albeit with outside help -- when the government had military-grade weapons and fighter jets). Let's also leave aside the question of whether such a citizen uprising could happen without relying on a pre-existing civil defense/militia/military structure (American Revolution, French Resistance in WWII). For the sake of argument, let's grant that if tyranny were established, having an organized, armed citizen resistance would be a good thing and that it would require individual citizens to have amassed weapons in their homes in advance.

Having stipulated that, this post is about evaluating if this armed resistance against tyranny argument for owning a gun is a good one. To do so, we need to evaluate the value of a gun in prepping for the armed resistance and how likely it is that the tyranny we would be fighting against will come into existence and compare that against any other risks that might be associated with owning a gun during the time period in which you would be keeping the gun in your home waiting for the need for resistance to arise.    Gun ownership for this purpose would seem to make sense when the risk-adjusted value on the left side of the equation outweighs the actual risks on the right. So is that the case in the US in 2012?

There are real risks to having a gun in one's home, some of them even quantifiable (having a gun in the home increases the chances of someone in the home being the victim of murder or of committing suicide by a statistically measurable amount, for example). It is much more difficult to calculate the odds of America descending into actual tyranny in a given timeframe. Realistically, the overnight Galactic Empire scenario isn't going to happen and surely, as has been the case throughout history, there would be a gradual descent into tyranny or dictatorship. Perhaps this has already started.

Ayn Rand provides four characteristics for identifying dictatorships. Perhaps these aren't the only ones, but they seem useful and plausible:
There are four characteristics which brand a country unmistakably as a dictatorship: one-party rule—executions without trial or with a mock trial, for political offenses—the nationalization or expropriation of private property—and censorship.
The first two are, I think, demonstrably not present in 2012 America, nor is the fourth, and no one in mainstream politics is talking about establishing them. The third, expropriation of private property, is less clear. There are certainly examples of the government engaging in imminent domain seizures of property, and one could plausibly argue that certain tax policies amount to redistribution of wealth or confiscation of property. Certainly this is not as widespread or severe yet as it was in periods preceding the establishment of actual dictatorships (in, e.g., Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia).

It's hard to weigh this, as I said, but I don't think it's reasonable to conclude that the equation is at or close to the tipping point yet.

An armed citizenry prevents (or slows) the establishment of tyranny

This one is more subtle. The claim here is that armed private citizens act as a sort of practical or political check on tyranny. The government would be more tyrannical, this argument goes, if it didn't have to worry about private citizens with guns being able to oppose it with force.

The better version of this argument identifies specific acts or policies of a tyrannical government that an armed private citizenry might oppose. Examples of this include the seizure of private property or individuals without due process of law, forcible conscription into the armed forces, arrest or execution of innocent individuals for political reasons and persecution of minority groups. This argument is lent much credence by the numerous examples of dictatorships that made moves to limit weaponry in the hands of private citizens prior to committing acts like those.

That argument ignores the numerous free and democratic countries that have enacted stricter gun control measures than the US, for example modern Japan and Australia without the establishment of dictatorships. It also ignores the fact that there is longstanding cultural tradition of free, limited, democratic, non-authoritarian government premised on the recognition of individual rights in America, unique in the history of the world and absent in the historical examples of dictatorships that preemptively disarmed their citizens (the transition from pre-Nazi to Nazi Germany is a notably interesting and complex case). And while there are limited historical examples of the US government engaging in those practices (most notably slavery but also interment of people of Japanese origin during WWII and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War), they are remote historically and/or were emergency measures during wartime and the long term trend with regard to these things is actually away from tyranny, not towards it. Parenthetically, I'd also note that in America, there is a stronger history of those sorts of offenses being perpetrated by armed citizens acting improperly in a quasi-governmental capacity than by the actual government, as evidenced by things like lynch mobs, frontier justice, blood feuds, posses and armed 'militia' groups acting in contravention of legitimate governmental authority.

The weaker version of this argument is more general. It posits that the presence of armed citizens has a less specific, fourth branch of government sort of check and balance effect on tyrannical government. What data we could put forth on this doesn't speak well for this argument. Both the absolute and per capita rates of gun ownership in this country are presently at all time highs, rising, and approaching a ratio of 1 gun per citizen. I would argue -- as would many, I suspect, who put forth this version of the argument -- that America is demonstrably less free (and becoming increasingly less so) than it was, say, 100 or 200 years ago. So the long term increase in gun ownership is actually negatively correlated with freedom. Or, to state it another way, more guns apparently equals more tyranny. (To be clear, I don't think there's actually a causal relationship there, just a correlation ultimately caused by deeper factors that underlie both phenomena).

Others who hold this position concede that America is becoming less free but argue that it would be doing so faster were it not for the armed citizenry. I think a variety of competing cultural factors -- most significantly a longstanding cultural respect for individual rights and freedom coming up against more recent socialist, collectivist and anti-democratic ideas -- are responsible for the rate at which tyranny increases. I suppose it is possible for gun ownership rates to be a factor, though they would pale in comparison to long term cultural and intellectual trends. Moreover, the burden of proof is on the part of the person advancing the 'guns slow the spread of tyranny' argument, and so absent a coherent argument supported by data (for example a statistical regression analysis that isolates the gun ownership component from other factors), it is proper to regard that claim as arbitrary.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Police in schools food for thought

Some back of the napkin math:

There are 98,817 public schools in the US. The average annual salary of a police officer is $47,500. Applying a liberal 35% factor to fully load the salary for benefits, etc., let's call it $64,000. There are 9 months in the school year.

To put one officer in each public school in the US would cost $4.7 billion per school year. I use one officer as the number because some friends and I uncovered a claim yesterday (not yet confirmed) that having even one armed, trained police officer in a school reduces the chances of a mass shooting to near zero.

For comparison, the entire Transportation Security Administration's (TSA's) annual budget is $8.1 billion. The current Hurricane Sandy relief bill before Congress is for $60.4 billion. The $4.7 billion would have paid for six and a half days of the Iraq War.

As an aside, the annual budget of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for 2012 was $2.4 billion, half my police in schools number. Many Americans (myself included) believe that it is improper of the government to criminalize drugs or wage a war against them. Few would disagree that is proper for the government to protect schoolchildren from criminals.

My posting the above is not meant to imply it is the definitive solution to the problem of school shootings. It is not even meant to imply that having police in schools is a good idea. I am predisposed towards thinking it is a good idea and certainly think it is a vastly better idea than arming school teachers. I post it mostly to put numbers in perspective as we debate whether certain solutions are good ideas and if others are good ideas but too costly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Still creepy but...

Since I wrote this post (which you should read before you continue if you haven't already), I've had a number of very interesting discussions, chiefly (and somewhat surprisingly) on Facebook of all places. They haven't changed the essence of my position in the original post, but they have caused me to want to clarify a few things and in a few cases have caused me to evolve my thinking on some of the details.

The title of the original post

In the '...and we should tell gun people we don't think they're cool' part of the title of the post, the antecedent of 'they're' is ambiguous. Is the 'they' guns or is it gun people? In fact it was guns. I was not attempting to imply that all gun people as a group are not cool, not ok or deficient as human beings


The main thrust of the post hinges on the claim that guns and various specific categories of activities, viewpoints and individuals associated with them are creepy. Though I think it's reasonably clear what I mean by that term in context, let me clarify. I use 'creepy' to denote something that I find odd, off-putting, suspicious and, as a result, probably best to avoid when possible. Some examples of things I find creepy are old abandoned mental hospitals, Ke$ha and people who would download this app.

My labeling something or someone as creepy should not be interpreted as a moral condemnation. It means that the creepy thing makes me uncomfortable and I deem it worthy of at least a moderately elevated level of attention when I'm in its presence for fear of some actual negative consequence materializing. I am not condemning all gun owners as morally or intellectually bankrupt. I am not suggesting their rights should be taken away or that they should be placed in concentration camps. I am suggesting that people with an affinity for death machines should face about the same level of baseline social sanction as a man who would download an app that simulates a pretty girl staring at him while he works.

The notion that guns are creepy in this sense is something we should recognize and should serve as the start of -- and a persistent background to -- the consideration of a number of issues around guns in our culture. From that starting point, we can discuss the fundamental right to bear arm; the legitimate roles guns have; if, when and how their use should be regulated; and whether it is a good idea for a particular person or class of person to choose to exercise their right to own one.

I can't believe that anyone -- including gun enthusiasts -- would find the notion that guns -- devices that are specifically designed to kill and maim -- are creepy to be controversial, but there is a persistent element in the party line pro-gun rhetoric that the mere notion that guns are creepy in this sense is not only preposterous but that articulating it represents both gross ignorance and an assault on gun ownership. A good example of this is the comment by a gun enthusiast in this article by my friend Louis Hochman that guns, when properly handled, are no more dangerous than socks. If you really put guns in the same class of benign objects as socks, then you're also creepy.

The main argument in the original post is that 1) we should recognize this 'creepy principle' and attach to creepy things like guns an appropriate level of social sanction; 2) there is a lack of recognition of the creepy principle in the mainstream pro-gun positons that is, itself, creepy; 3) those articulating pro-gun positions should face a burden of overcoming the 'creepy principle' and associated social sanction. I think those conditions are necessary (though by no means sufficient) to properly and responsibly frame a debate around guns. To cede to the pro-gun person that guns are fundamentally like socks (or cars, or baseball bats) does not accurately reflect the nature of guns and sets the discussion off from the wrong starting point.

Comparison to racists

In a couple of places in the original version of the post, I used the examples comparing racists and gun people. For example, in one place I said the following:
And while you have a right to do all those things [i.e. things I associate with the darker side of gun ownership] -- just as a racist has the right to write hateful garbage -- I'm going to voice my disapproval of your exercise of those rights and encourage other like-minded individuals to do the same.
I regret that comparison of the type of gun owner I was describing, which, seen in context, is a hypothetical super creepy one, to racists. Super creepy gun owners are super creepy. Not all gun owners are super creepy, nor are many even creepy at all (their guns and significant elements of their culture are). Racists are vile and evil. Creepy is not the same as evil. That's an unfair and unjust comparison.

Also, upon reflection, it's not really supportive of my overall position, which is about creating an appropriate level of social stigma around creepy gun culture in the hopes of marginalizing it and pushing the more reasonable gun owners at the margins away from the creepy positions. My hope is that this will reduce the overall presence of creepy and poorly considered gun ownership and lionization in this country, both of which I believe contribute to mass shootings.

I have removed the statements in question from the post, with apologies.

Right to own a gun

As I think was abundantly clear in the original post, I am not suggesting that the right of  private citizens to own guns should be taken away. My position, which I think is consistent with that of the Supreme Court and the majority of Americans as evidenced by polling data, is that individuals should have the right to make a decision about whether or not they want to own guns within a framework that recognizes that possession of certain classes of weapons by civillians constitutes an objective threat of force and are, therefore, proper things for a government to regulate or prohibit. When making those evaluations, as I noted in a Facebook comment
I don't see anything objectionable about actually examining the safety considerations raised by [particular classes of weapons] and making a determination (through socially objective legal means) about whether such use is to be permitted. It might be reasonable for different communities to develop different standards around that at different times and that's fine.
Tactical nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, tanks and bazookas constitute examples of things that clearly fall within the class of objective threats of force if owned by civillians anytime anywhere. A handgun or bolt action hunting rifle kept in the home clearly do not. Walking through the forest carrying the hunting rifle during hunting season clearly does not. Walking through Times Square carrying the same rifle does.

The issue of whether certain classes of weapons that fall in between bazookas and hunting rifles should be subject to restriction or regulation is one that requires, among other things, specialized knowledge both of the weapons and of conditions in a particular time and place. As such, I think it is best left to local authorities to decide within the above framework. I tend to think that if a type of weapon (or weapon component or type of ammunition) is only legitimately used for offensive actions against people -- for example (I'm pretty sure) a fully automatic machine gun -- it is probably an appropriate candidate for regulating or restricting its civilian ownership (because private citizens don't have a right to engage in offensive military or police actions). But I don't claim to be an expert, nor am I particularly interested in debating or advocating for specific gun control regulations. Nor was this the focus of my argument in the original post. In fairness to gun owners, I think that many anti-gun types are insufficiently informed to meaningfully participate in this part of the debate. I think I am better informed than most and continue to take steps to become better informed but still don't think I am qualified.

So, to state it another time, I don't want to take your right to own a gun away. If the question is do you have a right to own a gun (within the above framework), the answer is an unequivocal 'yes'. If, on the other hand, your position is that the right to bear arms creates an unlimited right for you to own any kind of weapon you want anytime, anywhere provided you don't use if for criminal purposes, then I disagree with you. I also find people who hold the position that it is, in principle, a violation of individual rights for the government to prohibit you from owning an F-15 or RPG creepy.

Should you, in fact, own a gun

With that out of the way, we can ask a different question, which is should you, in fact, choose to exercise your right to own a gun given your particular circumstances. To be clear, I don't get to make that decision for you, nor does the government or any other private individual except you. But if you share your reasoning with me and I judge it to be unsound, it is legitimate for me to say so. If my verdict is 'I don't think your reasons for getting a gun are very good' or 'a fact you stated is not correct' or 'your logic is flawed', I'm allowed to render that verdict -- and you're free to disagree with it. But it seems to me that rendering a verdict on the question 'do you have a good argument for your owning a gun' is distinct from my answer to 'do you have a right to own a gun'. If I render a verdict of 'no' on the first question, that doesn't automatically entail a verdict of 'no' on the second any more than me rendering the verdict that the dress you're trying on makes you look fat is equivalent to me being some sort of weirdo who is saying you should be prohibited from buying clothing (or that your clothing should be confiscated by the government or that you should have to run around naked). More deeply, just because you can own a gun doesn't automatically mean you should own a gun. Just because you can purchase that dress doesn't mean that you necessarily should purchase it.

Seems obvious, but I have yet to engage a pro-gun person who gets these points fully and consistently. Instead, the right to own a gun is treated as an irreducible primary: that the fundamental rights to gun ownership and to individual freedom render a debate about whether your reasons for actually choosing to exercise your right to own one taboo. I disagree. We can discuss your reasoning and if it turns out it's sound, great. If it turns out it's unsound, then it's unsound. Same as the dress... well, maybe not the same, because dresses aren't specifically designed to kill people.

In general, we think people should have reasons for taking actions -- even when it is fully within their rights to engage in that kind of action -- and if they don't they are acting arbitrarily, capriciously or irrationally. I think you should have a good reason for crossing the street. For crossing the street, 'I feel like going for a stroll now' is, I think, a more than adequate reason. I think for choosing to own a killing device slightly better reasons are required. I think good reasons do, in fact, exist in many cases, and in other cases they don't. If you don't think good reasons are required for owning a gun or that it is unfair to examine the soundness of various arguments for owning guns in particular cases or in general, that's also creepy. I'd also add that your failure to navigate this relatively simple matrix of reasoning also makes me slightly suspicious of your reasoning and decision-making abilities, which would seem to be particularly relevant skills when it comes to handling firearms.

As I think more about these issues, I may choose to post further thoughts. In particular, my positions on specific cases of and arguments for gun ownership are becoming more informed and I may post on them soon.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guns are creepy and we should tell gun people we don't think they're cool

UPDATE: after reading this post, I recommend that you read this one, which expands upon and clarifies several parts of it based on discussions and further thought following the original post.

What happened in Newtown, Connecticut has left me deeply saddened. In the media and on my own Facebook feed, there's a heartening and moving sense that something needs to be done and a sense of shared mission and commitment in actually doing it. There's also a sense that people of good will need to do something now before the moment is lost.

A lot of the suggestions about what that something should be focus on what to do politically: banning assault weapons, closing background check loopholes, restricting the number of guns an individual can own, etc. It's not my place to tell anyone whether they should spend their time advocating for these worthy and reasonable things. What I do want to do is talk about another side of the issue, both because I think it's important to understand if you want to advocate for these policy measures and because I think it translates to a something that every single person of good will can do right now.

The history of guns in this country and our relationship to them as a people is long, complex and unique in the history of the world. The right to bear arms is tied up with the concepts of freedom, personal liberty and the role of government for a significant number of people in this country. Legislators and courts, while allowing for certain restrictions on it, have firmly established an individual right to bear arms for personal defense (not just as part of the militia, sorry guys). We can debate if that's a good thing, but it is what it is, and nothing is changing it in the short term.

In addition to the legal history, we also have a bizarre cultural history with guns, and so gun ownership is also tied up with concepts of individual, family, regional and cultural identity for lots of people. If you want a taste of this mentality, check out this New York Times article, which describes how local residents in Newtown recently opposed a measure to restrict the hours during which gun ranges could operate as a tyrannical, anti-American assault on their personal liberty.

I understand that lots of people take pleasure in gun ownership, gun collecting, "sport" hunting, target shooting and lots of similar activities. And you know what: I'm not going to talk about your right to do those things. You have the right. The Constitution says so. The Supreme Court says so. Fine.

What I am going to say is I find your culture creepy. I hope to stigmatize it so much that the more reasonable among you are shamed into abandoning it, because I don't think it has a place in our society.

We stigmatize geeks in this country for the crime of watching Battlestar Galactica. We stigmatize young women for being interested in science and young men for not being interested in sports. We even stigmatize gamers for playing videogames in which they control pretend people who use pretend guns to pretend kill other pretend people. I think it's time we expressed disapproval of people who exercise their right to -- and in many cases glorify -- the civillian ownership and use of death machines.

Guns are death machines. They exist to kill things. Kill them dead. Irreversibly. There are circumstances in which that's appropriate: for example when a criminal or foreign invader is initiating a life-threatening assault against a victim. I don't mean that to be an exhaustive list, just a clear and I hope uncontroversial example. I'm happy to discuss under what other circumstances it's appropriate. But let's not forget that the taking of any life -- even when justified -- is serious and irreversible.

There's an immense, dark power involved in ending a life, and guns exist as instruments of that power. I respect that power. I fear that power. I am deeply, deeply grateful to live in a society where we have a government and laws that constrain that power and place it under some measure of objective control.

And I guess on a psychological level -- if I am to indulge in psychologizing -- I understand why someone might embrace, fixate on, want a share of or even fetishize an object that embodies that power. But you know what: that's really creepy and those are not the kind of people I want to associate with. 

"I am a private citizen and I want to have a gun in my suburban house for protection" -- It's 2012 and you live in Connecticut, not 1883 Wyoming. We have effective police and military protection for you. Those forces have been trained and put in place to handle your protection and are governed by objective laws and procedures to insure the appropriate use of force, including deadly force, in pursuit of your protection. Frankly, I'm a little concerned about the potential for mistakes and abuses of this power by trained and authorized professionals. The idea of private individuals wielding such power outside of those objective controls and the risks your ownership entails scare the crap out of me.

"I like hunting for 'sport'" -- I find the notion of taking any life -- including the life of an animal -- for pleasure distasteful. Killing living things for fun has no place in any society I want to be a part of.

"I like target shooting" -- If you enjoy the skill of shooting, maybe try something like an Olympic air rifle or an electronic system or maybe even a video game. And if you specifically get off on the fact that you're using something that can actually kill people, you should stay as far away from other people as possible.

"I find these [objectively hateful] people hateful. I hope someone shoots them for protesting at the funeral of those poor kids." -- Dude, I find those people really objectionable, too, but please find a more constructive way to express your (justified) outrage. Suggesting that murder with a firearm is an appropriate response to hateful speech is reenforcing the notion that gun violence has a place in our societal discourse. It doesn't.

I suspect that most people of conscience feel similarly. Guns have a role to play in our society, but the fact that they're needed to play the role -- and they undeniably are -- is something to be regretted, not celebrated.

Before any law is passed, before any case is decided, before any petition is written, there is something you can do. The next time someone puts forth one of the above statements, disagree. Leave no ambiguity in removing your sanction -- whether explicitly by agreeing with them or implicitly by saying nothing -- from the idea that gun culture has any place in your culture. Let them know that you find that culture -- and by extension the people who support it -- alien, frightening and off-putting. Don't invite them into your home, don't invite yourself into their's -- especially if a gun is present.

You're not going to convince any NRA Executive Board members to change their positions any more than you could convince a card-carrying member of the KKK to change his views on race. But you might startle a few people at the margins into realizing that views they once thought were mainstream aren't and that there are interpersonal and social consequences for holding them. By working to marginalize those views, you'll also be laying the groundwork for the cultural change that will enable the political changes you support (and may even be working for). And both of those are very important first steps.

Again, please consider reading the companion post to this one, too.

EDIT 12/17: Fixed some typos and added the link to the Times article.