Gun Control 7/30/00

Gun Control, written 7/30/00

I am currently on a mailing list for Penn and Teller fans. It's kinda cool cuz Penn and Teller occasionally show up and answer questions, and they have very strong opinions about many things. One of the recent discussions that flared up was on gun control. Both Penn and Teller came down strongly against gun control, thinking that it was a tremendous constraint on our freedom. Teller even went so far as to point out that the countries where guns are outlawed are totalitarian countries.

Since I tend to lean towards gun control, I started pondering this issue once again. And, as usual, I'm no nearer to drawing a conclusion than I ever am. But I had some thoughts and arguments, and I'm going to write them down for my own benefit. Basically, I'm going to just take a look and chat about each of the arguments presented for and against gun control in this recent debate. We'll start with the pro's, I guess.

Reason number one given is the idea of freedom, as alluded to above. This is the one that makes the least sense to me, honestly. People that claim they need guns so that they can fight off an unjust government seem to be deeply deluded to me. For one thing, guns are not going to get you very far when the government has fighter planes. For another thing, guns are the worst way to fight against an unjust government in today's world.

When we hear about some Montana freemen holding out with their guns against the government, we think of them as being nuts. The same can be said of the Branch Davidians, or the Unabomber. They may be heroically resisting the evil government in their own minds, but they have completely lost the public relations battle of enlisting their fellow citizens from the start.

Over the past few decades, it has become apparent that the most successful way to fight an unjust government is through the use of media. I have read that the most important weapon in undermining the Soviet Union was the fax machine. The Falun Gong in China has very successfully used the Internet to bring attention to their government. Indonesia, Chile, and of course most of Eastern Europe, have managed to escape dictatorships recently via mostly peaceful change. Meanwhile, most conflicts that have devolved into gunfire have _not_ successfully brought down their government, but have only plunged the country into miserable warfare for years.

Admittedly, peaceful rebellion isn't always successful. Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Miloslevic are still in power despite the best efforts of opposition and of the West. But it has also been demonstrated that armed uprising against these despots is even less successful if possible.

The only recent examples of successful armed insurrections I can think of (and, admittedly, my geopolitical knowledge is pretty weak) are cases of invasions, such as Vietnam resisting the US, and Afghanistan resisting the Russians. In that case, the armed might of the masses made a distinct difference. But fighting off an outside oppressor is different from an armed revolution against one's own government. To revolt often requires the help of the military in the form of a coup, and that has often proved to be equivalent to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Maybe I'm a starry-eyed idealist, but I think that convincing others to follow you will always be more successful than forcing them at gunpoint. If they really believe in your cause, they will go to incredible lengths to defend it. I recently finished reading Parting the Waters, an account of the civil rights movement in the US by Taylor Branch, and was pretty floored by what the protestors were willing to endure. And they were successful. Without firing a gun, they won the war of public opinion, and successfully changed the ways of an unjust government.

So the whole idea of needing guns to fight off an unjust government seems like an anachronism to me in this day when one person can broadcast their message worldwide and be heard. One example of this is Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), who has won a Nobel Peace Prize but has been under house arrest for the past decade by the oppressive military government. No, she has not successfully deposed the government yet. But, on the other hand, they have not been able to silence her either. Her power is not from the muzzle of a gun, but from the power of media. The world has changed.

Another argument against gun control is its equalizing power. With a gun, a small woman does not have to be afraid of a large hulking man. The power differential has been levelled. If _everybody_ can be assumed to have a gun, everybody has the power of life and death in their hands, and you treat everybody with the respect that such power deserves. As Heinlein said, "An armed society is a polite society." And this behavior does seem to hold true. I have heard of studies (and I'm sure I could find them on the NRA's website) that demonstrate that heavily armed sections of the US have lower crime rates than others. I know I have read of a county in Alabama where everybody is _required_ to have a gun for home defense, and that county allegedly has the lowest crime rates of the state.

I understand the appeal behind this argument, although actually it applies oppositely for me. As a 6'3" 220-pound male, there are very few people who can physically intimidate me. But I know that my size means absolutely nothing when a gun is brought into the equation. And that terrifies me. As a suburban kid, I have an exaggerated fear of street crime, so it bothers me that even my size and strength will mean nothing if some punk with a gun comes at me. It makes me paranoid.

And yet, I see the other side. I remember being a twerp. Back in high school, when I was 4'11" and 90 pounds, there wasn't anything I could have done if somebody had decided to beat me up. Luckily, they didn't because I was the biggest teacher's pet you ever saw, but the possibility was always there. And I can understand the visceral desire for levelling that power imbalance with a gun.

But what bothers me is that the power of the gun is almost trivialized by this argument. It is seen as a way of getting even, a way of equalizing things. I tend to see the holder of a gun as having the power of life and death. This is an awesome power, and with that power should come an awesome responsibility. And this is where I think that regulating guns is important. It's too easy to pull a trigger and end a life. Others in this discussion noted that more people are murdered with knives each year than with guns. But to kill somebody with a knife requires a confrontation, a willingness to get in close and commit the act and deal with the blood. Killing with a gun somehow distances one from the entire affair.

The example I like to use of a self-regulating system is that of martial arts, at least as popularly depicted. An expert martial artist probably has the ability to kill, or certainly severely injure, those who he chooses. But very few people fear that he will lose his temper in an argument and kill. The reason? To become an expert martial artist requires learning self-discipline and self-control, and so at the same time he was learning the ability to kill, he was also learning the necessary qualities to control that ability. This is an idealized version, of course, but it's a system that makes sense to me.

How can this idea be applied to gun control? Well, in an ideal world, it'd be bloody impossible to use a gun. It would require years of training. Of course, it'd kind of defeat the purpose of the whole equalizing scenario.

Back in the real world, many have proposed a licensing system where those who want to own guns have to take training in their care and use. A similar principle has been applied to driving cars, also instruments which can be used to kill.

The question then becomes, who does the licensing? The obvious answer is the government. This doesn't go down well with the freedom and libertarian crowd. Penn pointed out that in such a licensing system, you can be sure that the government would find a way to keep guns out of the hands of people they disapproved of. And that is certainly a danger.

On the other hand, a good friend of mine recently observed that, though he had strong libertarian/anarchist leanings, he had to admit that he just didn't trust his fellow man enough. He wanted the government available to protect him from wackos and predators. And I think I agree. I'd love to live in an ideal world where no government was necessary and people pretty much behaved decently towards one another. But I don't live in that world. And I would rather put the power of licensing into the hands of the government, which can be influenced by its own set of rules, than having to establish a trust relationship with everybody I come in contact with.

Hrm. I hadn't really thought of it that way before. In a non-regulated armed world, I would have to trust that each person I come in contact with had the self-control not to use their gun on me. I would basically have to individually certify each person as to whether I trusted them enough to be near them while they had a gun. And that's hard to do when you consider the ridiculous number of people one comes into contact with during the day. In a regulated world, I trust one entity, the government, to do the work of establishing whether somebody is entitled to have a gun. It offloads that responsibility to an entity that can handle it. Admittedly, the government might not be trustworthy itself, but there are other methods of dealing with that as discussed above.

Basically, it comes down to whether I trust the government more than I trust all of my fellow humans. And perhaps it is pessimistic and small-minded and elitist of me, but I don't really think that highly of most of my fellow humans. I can at least influence the government.

You know, wouldn't it be cool if the NRA was given the job of licensing gun owners? After all, they talk a lot about how they are all responsible gun-owning citizens who are unfairly blamed when some wacko mows down a restaurant. So if they weren't intent on fighting the government every inch of the way, it might be interesting to make them the regulators and see what happens. It'd be in their best interest to deny licenses to those who were likely to cause trouble, because they would have nobody to blame but themselves. But they also would have the motivation to give out as many licenses as they could to those who could handle the responsibility of owning a gun to promote their agenda. It could be interesting. And heck, they certainly have got the money to run such a scheme. Just divert like 1% of their lobbying funds :)

Gosh, this wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped. Guess I'll have to write another one soon to make up for it :)

Addendum 8/11/00

I read a weekly News-of-the-Weird-ish column called This is True. The author recently published a web page claiming that the press coverage of gun control is pretty one-sided. Which I can't really deny. The study cited sounds pretty interesting - I may have to track it down. His responses also tended towards the pro-gun side - he published several of them on that page.

After a quick google search, I turned up both sides of the story. The study, written by John Lott, has been published on the web, as well as an expanded version in book form. Unsurprisingly, the anti-gun side has published a web page refuting these claims. This was just the first page on google that popped up - I skimmed a few others as well. The Amazon page has a link to a review in the New England Journal of Medicine that is harshly critical of Lott's work as well. I skimmed a more detailed response, which has the added bonus of a response by Lott, and subsequent refutation of that response.

It seems like both sides can manipulate the statistics to say what they want. If I wanted to get deeper into this, I'd probably have to read Lott's work, and the refuting literature, and compare them both. But that doesn't really interest me right now. I will say that it seems like Lott has made a lot of hay out of this issue: he's a celebrity, quoted by people everywhere. Which isn't a bad thing. But it might also induce him to overlook some of the objections that are quoted by the handgun control people. Allegedly, he deals with such objections in his book, detailing the number of times he's called up a gun control advocate and had them hang up on him when they had no refutation. Too many factors I don't know.

I guess I'll stick with my knee-jerk emotional reaction :)

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