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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Battle Arms - First Rebuttal - Iron Blogger Libertarian

The Challenger presents the classic arguments against an armed populace - murders, accidents, suicides, etc. are no doubt horrible costs. But the question isn't "are there costs?" - there certainly are - but rather "are these costs justified?"

My core argument is that individuals have the need & right to self defense to protect their life / liberty / property within society.

1) Human nature is central to the debate

Ralph argues that this is out of scope -

While I find these propositions quite interesting, I feel they are better suited for a theological or philosophical discussion as opposed to a political discussion on gun laws. I certainly have my opinions regarding the inherent nature of man but this certainly isn’t the time or place to discuss them.
Unfortunately, this issue goes to the heart of whether there's violence modulo arms. Madison famously observed -
What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
Questions of what can, can't and must be regulated begin with a strong theory of what men would do heeding purely their own interests and impulses. Violence is classically the first issue that introduces governance - it's literally what makes life nasty, brutish, and short.

Human nature is central because it forces us ask - however pithy the phrase - whether guns or people create violence. The answer has profound policy implications.

The challenger does implictly possess such a theory - that human violence can be directly reduced by targetting arms. In essence, that arms are no good other than to incite or exacerbate violence.

2) Human nature causes violence, not guns

Far from being the scientific quackery the challenger contends, there are strong, well-accepted results which indicate, alas, that Violence is a fact of life - regardless of the presence of arms.

culture and socialization play important roles in encouraging violence... [but] ignoring the powerful biological and evolutionary forces at work is "the single most useless--and dangerous--approach one could take in trying to explain human violence."
We're stuck with this stuff folks. In certain powerful social conditions, you can escape it temporarily - for ex., Japan -
Of course, many societies have far lower [crime & violence] numbers. Japan is a fine example. I'm sure if the United States had 2000 years of a culture whose prize assets are conformity and submission then our numbers would be a lot lower. Alas, we are not that society. Thank God, we are not that society.
Until we create these conditions here, or genetic engineering directly eliminates this violence, we're left with the unpleasant tension of domestic detente. Those outliers who escape the socialized suppression of violence are, in the end, held in line by the threat of reciprocal violence from either cops prosecuting on behalf of victims or their fellow citizens refusing to become victims in the first place.

We likely agree that, for better and for worse, American society allows and even encourages all sorts of outliers. The Japanese will have to take a more aggressive stance towards crime as their youth begin to encourage more outliers.

3) Given human nature, the challenger presents false choices

The challenger's rhetoric asks judges to choose between -

  1. A non-violent society created by removing guns
  2. A violent society with guns
Let's be clear, I WANT to live in the first world. His arguments emotionally resonate and there's a certain satisfaction from blaming gun vendors rather than something as squishy as human nature -
It is a culture of fear that must be created in order to sell more guns. The more that people fear, the more guns they can sell.
In a society that admonishes "be all that you can be", "do what feels right", and encourages "self-esteem" over "repression," there's a fundamental dissonance from arguing "fear humans (sometimes)."

Unfortunately, we're faced with a "bad vs. worse" situation where the options actually are -

  1. A violent society which tries to remove guns
  2. A violent society with guns
Depending on government's effectiveness, the first option at best removes the equalizing aspect of guns in phyiscal confrontation. The strong can once again physically abuse the weak (rape, assault, robbery, etc. and eventually murder by other means - knives, bats, wet noodles, etc.) until the cops show up. The overall violent crime rate in the UK - cited below - gives us some idea of what this world might look like. One small vignette from across the pond-
"My wife woke up screaming and then I woke up. The man then ran downstairs and went out through the kitchen door." Mr Caeiro, who is 5ft 6ins, rang 999 to report the break-in and was told by police that because the intruder was no-longer believed to be in the house they would be there in 15 to 30 minutes...I opened the back door ... then this man attacked me with a metal bar. "He hit me on the shoulder and I was knocked back into the kitchen. The door opened and the man tried to come inside.
At worst, given the over 200M guns in circulation, and to use a pithy phrase, only the outlaws will have guns. Here, admittedly at the extreme, the world might look like Russia which has an ostensible handgun ban but possesses a murder rate 5x the US's. The armed criminal amidst unarmed, law-abiding individuals is literally a kid in a candy store.

4) An armed society is not an anarchy

The challenger argues an armed citizenry destroys the rule of law -

By advocating and encouraging citizens to own handguns and assault weapons, we are implicitly encouraging them to be judge, jury and executioner. What place does this have in a civil society? They have a term for this. It is called anarchy...Guns designed to kill people have no place in civil society.
Based on the challenger's sources, there are already some 233M guns within the US. 40% of US households possess. And yet, we're far from being an anarchy and true vigilanteism is an absurdly rare phenomena. The reason? It's well understood that the only legitimate gun use against a person is in self-defense - a basic "gun law" that a 5 yr old can derive. Shooting someone outside of self-defense carries rather stiff penalties - anecdotally, gun owners are far more likely to "lock 'em up & throw away the key" for gun crimes than non-gun-owners.

5) Culture determines crime rate, not guns

I wanted to avoid the statistics game but, mea culpa, I invited it by citing my own. Sigh. Few things drag down a debate like dueling & constantly reinterpreted statistics. Nevertheless, let me take a few moments to hack up the challengers attempts to connect the gun rate directly to the crime rate -

  • British Crime Rates - The challenger cites radically lower gun crime rates in Britain vs. the US. However, when merely measuring gun crime, there's a certain tautology that a society with theoretically zero guns will have fewer gun crimes. Although there's a point to be made that gun crimes still exist in the UK, the real story, however, is overall violent crime rates -
    Twenty-six percent of English citizens -- roughly one-quarter of the population -- have been victimized by violent crime. Australia led the list with more than 30 percent of its population victimized.

    The United States didn't even make the "top 10" list of industrialized nations whose citizens were victimized by crime.

    The percentage of the population that suffered "contact crime" in England and Wales was 3.6 percent, compared with 1.9 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Japan.
    The British example instead demonstrates that the risk of disproportionate response is useful for reducing even non-mortal crimes like rape, assault & robbery.
  • High Gun Rate EU Nations -- These nations have crime rates similar to their low gun rate neighbors -
    The Swiss, New Zealanders and Finns all own guns as frequently as Americans, yet in 1995 Switzerland had a murder rate 40% lower than Germany's, and New Zealand had one lower than Australia's. Finland and Sweden have very different gun ownership rates, but very similar murder rates. Israel, with a higher gun ownership rate than the U.S., has a murder rate 40% below Canada's.


  • Canada has a relatively high gun ownership rate (21M Guns / 30M people) but a much lower crime rate.

  • Registration vs. Fewer Guns -- The Time Magazine article the challenger cites as proof that "gun control" discusses registration rather than limits to the number of guns in circulation. Citing registration is ambiguous because it *does* implicitly acknowledge that there are useful, legitimate reasons for an armed citizenry - certainly not the big picture argument the challenger sought.

  • Intra-US differences -- even within the US, socio-economic conditions within different communities create vast differences in violence & gun ownership. Slicing geographically, you could look at some northern states -
    States such as Vermont, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Montana, where gun ownership is at least twice what it is in Canada, have murder rates as low as one-half that in the provinces which are their immediate neighbours.
    Slicing ethnically (and rather controversially...) -
    Homicide Offender Rate/100,000 by Race in US (2000):

    3.4 - White
    25.8 - Black
    3.2 - Other

    ...if you remove homicides committed by blacks, you get a US homicide rate of only 2.6/100,000, lower than Germany (3.27) and France (3.91)

    And yet, Blacks own fewer guns than whites -
    Despite being victimized by crime at several times the rate of whites, only 30 percent of black adults own guns, compared to 43 percent of whites.
6) Defensive gun use is a real phenomena

My case is fundamentally based on guns being used defensively. Since we've opened the stats Pandora's Box, it's probably time to provide one here.

Counting defensive gun uses (DGU) is hard - how do we tally "crimes that didn't occur?" Nevertheless, estimates range from the almost laughably high 2.5M DGU's a year down to a more believable 100,000 DGU's a year.

Clearly, even the low estimate dwarfs the 11,000 firearm homicides cited by the challenger.

7) Social utilitarianism is not the final decision rule

The dueling statistics debate above can quickly fall into the trap of utilitarian decision making sidestepping the important factor of Individual Sovereignty.

Let me explain by example - if there are "too many" swimming pool accidents (1000 children killed annually!), do we ban swimming pools? Statistically, the 8M pools in the US have the same mortality rate (1K/8M = 0.013%) as firearms (30K/230M = 0.013%). To make the comparison more true, leave out homicides / suicides which likely aren't factors in pool deaths & focus just on gun accidents (~800/yr) --> you're literally safer from accidents with a gun in the house than a pool in the backyard!

Clearly, noone advocates a ban on swimming pools by somehow computing the "good" from pool ownership and weighing it against the bad. We instead trust individual adults to manage these risks and make their own personal cost/benefit analysis about pools - despite 1000 of them every year making a poor choice with heart-wrenching results. Why do we allow this? Because they are adults. Sovereign adults.

Similarly, from the standpoint of a single sovereign individual, given -

  • the intractable violence in human nature
  • killing or the threat thereof sometimes providing the only defense & having a powerful effect even on non-mortal crimes
  • the state being neither physically capable NOR legally required to serve you in the moment of need
  • tools (arms / guns) which can be effectively employed by any individual
Why shouldn't I have the choice of providing my own, personal, last line of defense regardless of how others may have screwed up theirs?
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