Thursday, April 19, 2007

An alien's view of the 2nd amendment

I am not an American. I have lived in the U.S. for over ten years. I have an American son and an American wife. I have an American patent that resulted from work I did at an American medical school. These are the ramblings of someone who has lived within the system for a long time, but still doesn’t understand parts of it. Prior to moving here, I had heard about the gun debate in the U.S. and I never completely understood it. Now, having lived here for over ten years, I confess I understand it a little bit better, but I am still at a loss, as it seems to be mostly a lot of vigorous hand-waving.

Given the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, I feel compelled to write about the second amendment:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
I haven’t written anything in the last few days because the mass murder at Virginia Tech has been foremost on my mind, and it hasn’t seemed totally related to my blog’s mission. But the more I think about it, I think it is. Half of the gun debate in the U.S. has focused on a largely unprovable assertion:

Keeping the populace heavily armed prevents a tyranny from taking over the government. Guns keep the government honest. Or particularly, that assault weapons, automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons and the vast array of bullets that have been created will keep government honest. As a scientist, I have tried to imagine which experiment I could design to test that assertion, and I confess that I have difficulty imagining a well-controlled experiment that could even ask the question, much less answer it. The best experiments that have been done are other societies. Can a society exist that is not well-armed whose government is still beholden to its citizens? I think the answer to that question is “yes”. The United Kingdom, for one. Canada, for another. But we can say that there are other factors that keep those countries stable, so it’s not exactly a controlled experiment (though I think that saying that sells this country short – Canada can maintain a stable democracy without assault weapons, but the U.S. cannot doesn’t seem to be fair to American society).

Indeed, another argument for arming citizens is to keep people safer. Michelle Malkin for one, has asked the question:
"What if just one student in one of those classrooms had been in lawful possession of a concealed weapon for the purpose of self-defense?"
I wonder. One of the commenters at jonswift* responds:
"I'm sitting in class and I hear about the shooting. I hear the shooting get closer so I whip out my Glock and wait. Someone is running down the hall towards me and I see he is carrying a gun. BANG... got him! But only a few minutes later I hear more shots not too far away. I realize there is more than one gunman...there behind that table... he's waiting to ambush someone else. He hears something and raises his gun but not before I blow his sorry ass away too. As I'm walking over to make sure he's dead... ping! a bullet whizzes by me. I spin around and return fire, shooting wildly in the direction from where it came. DAMN- how many of them are there? I hear someone screaming from one of the classrooms that the shooter is an Asian. Mere seconds later, an Asian female carrying a pistol enters the room I'm in. No way some terrorist bitch is gonna cap me! I empty my clip in her and she goes down. I slowly make my way towards her... she's dead alright... but wait, she looks familiar. SHIT, it's Michelle Malkin, the columnist/comedian. Yeah, this is a great plan Michelle. Let's arm all the students and have them shooting at each other in a moment of crisis and confusion. "
Do we really want to arm everyone for self-defense?

The main argument against weapons being freely available is presented to us in the form of gun murders every year. But proponents of the second amendment will say, “But those people would still have murdered, they just would have used something else”. That might be true. But it seems that it would take a lot longer for someone to kill people with a bat or a kitchen knife than with an automatic pistol. Hell, I don’t think any of the several mass murderers we’ve seen in the last 10 years would have been as successful in their rampages if they’d been using a bolt-action rifle. If someone has intelligence and the intent to kill, they will be successful at some level, but do we as a society have to make it easy for them?

So on the one hand, we have gun advocates arguing that we need guns to keep the government honest. And on the other hand we have people being murdered by gun every year. One of these assertions is falsifiable. I think that the other is not. (Please correct me if I'm wrong - can we falsify the assertion that the American government would become irredeemably corrupt if automatic weapons were banned?)

As an aside, I think that the debate in the U.S. has focused on “pro” and “anti” weapon control advocates. Is that really true? There is already considerable arms control in the U.S. You are not allowed to own a nuke. You’re not allowed to own a howitzer. Weapons manufacturers aren’t allowed to sell the most up-to-date missile guidance systems to citizens. So really, the question isn’t “should we have gun control” but “what gun control should we have”? From my perspective, any weapon that is honestly used for something else other than killing people (shotguns and rifles, for example) should be legal. Farmers need these to do their job. And most hunters are involved in a perfectly respectable sport (what can I say, I’ll eat just about anything that isn’t endangered). But assault weapons? Automatic handguns? Do we really need this stuff to keep us safe from the government? Because you certainly don’t need them for anything else… In terms of conspiracy theories, this seems like a pretty big one to me. Certainly, I hope that anyone who seriously thinks that their handgun is keeping us safe from the government is also deeply involved in community activism to keep us safe from a corrupt government.

*please note, if you follow the above link that the Jon Swift site is a satire site.



Anonymous said...

I'm a liberal-libertarian American who believes in the right to own guns, and yes, our government is corrupt almost beyond repair (both parties, not just the Bush administration).

Some argue that guns in the hands of the citizens won't do any good because the US military and police would make short work of us if martial law was declared. I don't agree; just look at how several thousand Iraqi guerrillas are keeping the US military pinned down for four years, and they don't even have helicopters or tanks.

The Factician said...

I'm a liberal-libertarian American who believes...

And that is exactly the problem. There is a national religious belief that guns are keeping the American government honest. It is an interesting theory, but there is simply no data to support it.

However there are piles of data to suggest that increasing the number of guns in a society increases the number of accidental deaths and homicides. So on the one hand you have an interesting theory (that would be very difficult to prove one way or the other - I'll concede that it might be correct, but I doubt it). On the other hand you have data suggesting that guns *do* result in large numbers of deaths every year. It seems fairly clear to me which side of this debate should win.

(And Anonymous, I agree that both political parties in this country are intensely messed up. But where I disagree with you is in suggesting that guns are going to do anything other than make things even further messed up).

Laci the Chinese Crested said...

Funny, in all the "RKBA" stuff no one ever mentions the issue of a Standing Army

As in this draft of the Second Amendment from the ratification debates:

That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

Somehow this concept became perverted to mean that individuals had rights to guns, instead of a Swiss style militia. This is too bad as it means the president has a standing army and invades Iraq on false pretenses. Additionally, we have the Virginia Tech shootings.

Both of which were not what the framers intended.

Additionally, we hear about people having concealed firearms could have prevented this.

Now would an armed citizen really have stopped a lunatic intent on committing suicide on a grand scale? I mean Klebold and Harris engaged in a shoot-out with an armed Sheriff at Columbine. That's a real trained Law enforcement agent.

Didn't stop them from killing 13 people besides themselves.

What would some armed citizen do to stop the violence if a trained cop couldn't?

First off, a private citizen does not have all the legal advantages a policeman does when he engaging in his official duties. The private citizen can legally only protect himself if he, his family, or his property is faced with immediate bodily harm. That harm must be resisted with the least amount of force necessary to stop the attack.

So, if someone is coming at you and you could stop that person with something less than deadly force, use of deadly force makes the you the aggressor!

Not to mention if Rambo with the gun there mistakenly hits someone besides the gun toting maniac. Think of the legal liability there!

Hero to zero in nothing flat.

Another problem is that the gun toting civilian could also be mistaken for the shooter and be shot himself by the cops.

Really smart to try and be a hero given both those options.

This stuff is all a smoke screen to stop any serious gun regulation in the USA.

SERIOUS gun regulation, not the crap that's out there right now. Any "pro-gun" type will point out that there are thousands of gun laws on the books, but they don't stop gun crime. That's because they aren't serious or enforceable.

Cranky McAltiebasher said...

I have a slightly different take. (no!)

But first can anyone tell me what an "assault rifle" is? The one people always talk about when they say "But does anyone really need an assault rifle?" I'll give you a hint, it doesn't mean fully automatic. Those are totally illegal without a special federal license, and have been since before WW2. And should be. Not what this is about. If you can't think of (the real) definition, as used in the law, why do you think you have a valid opinion on the topic? Not pointing any fingers. At least look it up and understand what is being debated. Out of the probably 50 people I've talked to about this, only 3 or so really knew what they were. And they were the gunners. For the record, I don't own any myself, although I do enjoy target shooting now and then and I grew up in a house that always had quite a little armory. And my dad made sure everyone knew where they were and how they worked "just in case." Just over 1/2 the homes in this country (less in the city, more in the country) have firearms. Compare the accidental gun deaths figure to other kinds of accidental deaths.
It is true that many people die from gun related accidents every year. By definition, they are preventable. A tiny minority of gun crimes are committed by legally owned guns.

On to other things.

We can gain information about the falsifiability of the "totalitarian" belief by looking at other countries. Not just now, but in the past. Can you think of any totalitarian government, ever, that encouraged it's citizens to own personal weapons? I can't off hand, but I could be wrong. Check out Nazi Germany's take on gun control. 1. Registration 2. Confiscate
The fact that many countries are disarmed and aren't totalitarian (now ;) ) does not change the fact that a dictator needs a defenseless
population to stay in power.

I thought it was a good point about the insurgents in Iraq. But remember the troops are our brothers, sisters, friends. They are, essentially us. If it really hit the fan, would they really open fire on us? Or would they shoot their CO and join us? I don't know the answer. No one does, really. But I'd like to think that somewhere up the chain of command an order to attack US citizens would be "misfiled" or something.

2nd Amendment: Is it reasonable to assume that if the Founding Fathers wanted that version of it, they would have used it? (I agree about the standing army, BTW. Only useful for foreign adventures, not deterrence.) Since they didn't keep minutes of their meetings for the most part, it is really impossible to tell what their actual intentions were. We can read the private papers and correspondence of individuals, but that isn't what they all thought. The entire Constitution was a series of compromises that left no one really happy, but more or less addressed the basics. But the Bill of Rights is a list of things the Gov. isn't allowed to do. Like infringe on speech and religion, unwarranted search etc. Does it seem reasonable that in the document about the restrictions of federal power they direct the establishment of a national militia?

For that matter, why should it matter what their intentions were? They were just men, after all. They had no possible way to anticipate modern firearms. Or the Internet, Stem Cell Research, television, cellphones, wiretaps etc. for that matter. We need to worry about what the best thing for us now is, not what would have been the best thing 200 years ago would have been.

I'm pretty sure that allowing everyone to carry a concealed handgun would be the most colossal fuck-up in the history of this country. Many people are not stable enough to be considered a safe risk.

I don't have any answers. But everyone needs to stop thinking ideologically and come up with a viable solution to this problem, one that allows reasonable people to own the firearms they want, and protect the safety of everyone else. As long as guns exist, people will be injured and/or die from them. That is what they do. They poke holes in things. People are notoriously susceptible to holes poked in them. As long as cars exist, people will die from them, and bathtubs, and kitchen knives and motorcycles. Things that aren't designed to kill, do. People will die. I'm not trying to be callous, but it is true. It is too bad. Maybe some day we will cure death, and all these issues will vanish. Hell, my feces could start to smell like bakery-fresh cinnamon buns, too, for all I know.

We need to realize we are (still) a free country, and we have to figure out the right balance between freedom and safety. I come down on the personal freedom side. But my freedom does not give me the right to infringe on your freedom. As long as there are choices to make, people will at least some of the time make bad ones. And that is how it should be. We should take responsibility for ourselves. Not all problems are solvable by legislation.

Oh, violent crime statistics more closely correlate to poverty than gun ownership. Maybe if we solve our social problems like ignorance and poverty and hopelessness our violent crime rate will go down.

Maybe after this senseless tragedy, if someone sees someone else being picked on, they will intervene. Or befriend the geeky loner down the hall in their dorm. Maybe the born agains are right, and Jesus will come back and fix everything.

I hope not, I'd have some 'splainin' to do.


The Factician said...

Thanks, Cranky. I like your post, though I disagree with a few of your points. I like to argue with folks who are being reasonable and civil.

I also grew up on a farm with guns. For those folks, it's a tool to do business with (business, meaning killing predators and pests, not business in the Sopranos sense). I would never push to outlaw bolt-action rifles and shotguns. I tend to think of those more as tools than as weapons.

First off, you say that gun deaths account for a very small percentage of the guns that are in the country. That is only a useful statistic if you accept that having guns solves any problems. We accept automobile deaths because we enjoy the freedom that automobiles bring. Some people say that guns also bring freedom, but I stress that that assertion is very difficult to prove. If one in a million people who ate chewing gum were to die, we would quickly outlaw chewing gum, because it provides no great boon to society. It has to be a cost/benefit calculation.

Secondly, you say that Germany went to Nazism shortly after disarming the populace. I can't make many useful contributions to that, because I don't know enough about the rise of Nazism in Germany. Nonetheless, I would hardly call that a causal relationship given the number of other countries in Europe that are still democratic despite generations of gun control. They haven't become dictatorships (yet) but we can say that about the U.S. as well. We haven't become a dictatorship (yet). What does that prove?

And finally, your point that violent crime is more closely correlated with poverty - you're absolutely right. But poor people with bazookas are going to be able to wreak a lot more havoc than poor people with baseball bats. Let's solve poverty *and* get rid of weapons. Both noble goals, I think.

Cranky McAltiebasher said...

I hope I remain reasonable and civil and fun to argue with. :) I really do enjoy your blog. Your prose is clean, elegant, and your points are well thought out. I agree with you on 99% of everything I have read here. (Unless you posted something about how cool it was to kick puppies or something I missed. ;) )

Just to be clear, I was being a little snarky when I added the (yet). I don't believe that jack booted UN troop will start rounding up Americans the second we are disarmed like many of the paranoids in the pro-gun movement. And I'm not even in the movement.

Jefferson's personal writings indicate he thought that this new government of his might need to overthrown every 50 years or so to keep corruption down. This seems savagely paranoid to me, but no one had ever attempted this style of self government before, and I guess he had this in mind for a worse case scenario. Thankfully it didn't come to that.

I think it might a cultural thing. I come from Massachusetts, which is widely regarded (by rightwing blowhard radio hosts) as the most liberal state in the country (unless they are complaining about Hollywood) and it is very difficult to legally own a handgun. I would need to get my chief of police to give me the forms and sign off on them before they get submitted to Boston. Wait. Hopefully in a few months, it will get processed and approved. Say I didn't get along with him for some reason. Maybe I accidentally ran over his dog 20 years ago, or something equally petty. He would be entirely within his rights to simply refuse me. He could also approve one of his friends who beats his wife has a nasty temper, drinks a lot and hates gays. I would have no recourse, legally. There are no guidelines, just his whim. Some chiefs refuse anyone they haven't known 20 years, some approve anyone without a swastika carved in their forehead. Contrast this with a state that has a "right to carry" law. That states that if you meet the criteria (varies, but usually no violent or drug crimes, or felonies, and psychiatric problems) you can not be arbitrarily denied a permit. More in the spirit of egalitarianism, no?

You are correct when you say that we already have gun control. The question now is how much. Should handguns be illegal? I personally don't think a ban on handguns is the answer. Drugs are illegal, murder is illegal. Both happen. The only thing making something illegal accomplishes is letting the state punish people for doing it. (no!) It doesn't make it physically impossible. Every type of harm you do to another person with a handgun is a felony including carrying one in the commission of a crime it was not used in. With the exception of an accident or self defense. And you might be liable for negligence if it was an accident (unless you are the VP ;) ) These are federal crimes. They are rarely prosecuted in a federal court, especially if the person was convicted in state court for the crime. Why? Why not put the bad people in federal prison for an extra 10-15 years and get some of the predators off the street? Why should the rights of totally law abiding citizens be infringed when already existing laws go unenforced? The current debate about "gun control" is really a debate about private ownership of firearms. Including the ones you regard as tools. The "assault rifle ban" is the left's version of the right's "Partial Birth Abortion" reframing of a topic. They are both feet (foots?) in the door(s) for a much larger agenda that is not openly discussed. (a conspiracy? ;) ) Soccer Moms (and Dads) have this huge drive for "safety" issues. If the simplified version (tv, radio, the talking points) of a debate is about "safety" then a large number of people are going to be automatically for it regardless of the contents of the bill or it's wider implications. Mandatory helmets for kids on bikes laws, mandatory seat belt laws, public surveillance etc. Ditto for moral issues. Gay marriage, drug use, pornography, and other consensual activity. Personal responsibility is abandoned for government regulations. Maybe reading 1984 in high school made me paranoid, but I am against most direct interference in private lives. Indirect, sure. Foods and drugs should be tested for safety (more than they are), factories should be monitored for working conditions and for their pollution output, etc.

Things I am not saying: Guns are an unequivocal good. Everyone should own or carry a gun. Everyone should be allowed to own or carry a gun. Kids shouldn't wear helmets. You shouldn't wear a seatbelt.

Things I am saying: The vast majority of legal gun owners are responsible, law-abiding people who would never commit a violent crime. It is relatively simple to get a gun on the black market. "Personal responsibility" is given lip service by both major parties, will little real value placed in them.
Disarming honest people and not dishonest people is not likely to decrease crime. Federal gun laws are mysteriously rarely prosecuted.

I don't agree with your "chewing gum" analogy. Off the top of my head; Cigarettes, alcohol, motorcycles, harmful altie treatments, hang gliding, parachuting, mountain climbing, bungee jumping, Fox news. None of these has a benefit to society. (except natural selection, and in the case of Fox News keeping Bill O'Reilly away from reasonable people) Benefit to society cannot be the only reason to allow an activity. If someone wants to ride a motorcycle, even though they are more likely die or be injured than if they were in a car, fine. They provide no benefits to society. (except looking cooler) Even though more of my tax dollars would have to go to our medical system to help pay for their rehabilitation than if they drove a Volvo. Cigarettes provide absolutely no benefits to society (except looking cooler. ;) ) and kill many many people. Same with all those other things I mentioned and many more I didn't.

The ownership of handguns has a value. They are used for hunting, self defense, recreation (target shooting, socializing) and varmint control. Re: Socialization, see the Cowboy Action Shooting Society. *L* I love those guys. ( I have also gone to Renaissance Faires, SCA events and Civil War reenactments. Something about people who idealize the past fascinates me.) Banning an activity that is safely enjoyed by many people is not a good idea. Many gunners are already more than a little paranoid about "gun grabbers" as it is. It's an emotionally charged issue. When gunners hear people talking about gun control, they hear that they are not personally responsible people and are a menace to society. They often (over)react emotionally. This is one reason they are all commonly called "gun nuts." Not to say that some of them aren't totally paranoid nut jobs who think the black UN helicopters are mutilating their cattle. But most are extremely reasonable, friendly, generous people. There is simply no valid reason to keep them from owning whatever style of firearm they choose because criminals shoot people with illegally obtained handguns. Disarming these people will not dramatically reduce either crime or most gun deaths.

How about this as a compromise. A federal gun license, with strict criteria, but not so strict it would disallow reasonable, competent citizens who enjoy them or participate in a hobby which uses them. Strict enforcement of the already existing laws, which make it a federal felony to commit any crime with a gun. (Why aren't they serious or enforcible? 15 years in a federal "Super Max" prison is pretty serious to me. And they are not unenforcible, just not prosecuted. How about a law that says conviction in a state court of a crime with a gun automatically caries a federal conviction as well, if you are worried about the cost. Sentence to be carried out consecutively, not concurrently. I don't think this would be double jeopardy, but I'm not a lawyer. I just play one on the internet. ;) )

That way criminals are punished, kept in jail longer, and there is an additional disincentive for gun crime. Reasonable people get to keep their hobby. Additionally, how about a moratorium on showing the name, picture or writings of any of these spree killers in the media. Many of these vermin seem like attention whoring copycats to me. "They'll all be talking about me now!"

Would that fix everything? No. There would still be tragedies like VT. Just fewer. Banning private ownership of firearms (which is really what gun control means, just like partial birth abortion bans means eventual absolute abortion bans) would not entirely eliminate them. Mexico would start up some metal shops and knock off cheap, dangerous, unreliable firearms and smuggle them into the country. How much cocaine is produced domestically? Not only is that illegal, but billions are spent on the War on Drugs every year. Yet cocaine (or crack) is ubiquitous. Seriously. I don't choose to poison myself that way (I don't even drink, myself) but I know I could find some, if I wanted to. Probably with 3 phone calls. And I live in a small affluent town with almost no (non-consensual) crime. You could too, if you tried. Know a musician or high school student? Even if they don't personally indulge, they know someone who does. Banning something does not make it unavailable, just illegal.

And that is my 2 cents for today.

P.S Maybe if poor people had bazookas we would have a minimum wage that a person could live on without donating blood. ;)

[note: not advocating personal ownership of bazookas]