(At last, the long-promised Überpost!)
Last year I wrote some more posts in my ongoing series on the topic of the British gun control experience. It would be misleading to call these particular posts a “debate” as no actual exchange on the topic took place, but there was another party involved: James Kelly of the blog Scot goes Pop. If you’re new to this, or you need to get up to speed, it started with a blog post (no longer available) over at Rachel Lucas’ place. Rachel, a Texan, recently moved to London because her significant other had transferred there on business. Rachel kept reading stories in the media there about people being attacked and sometimes killed, and could not understand the British attitude that supports universal victim disarmament. The comment thread to that post was quite long, and one commenter – James – was willing to engage the rest of us in defense (no pun intended) of that disarmament.
I can’t link to everyone else’s posts, but I can link to mine and James’ to this point if you’d like to get caught up:
My response to that last: Of That, I Have No Doubt
I followed on a few weeks later with Cultures: Compare and Contrast, a piece apparently too much for James’ brain as he declared it “incomprehensible, logic-bending, pseudo-scientific ‘analysis’” in his counterpiece, Culture : the root cause of voodoo statistics and the sudden urge to write 10,000 word dissertations?
James has posted a few more times since then, but these posts cover the majority of the topic.
In the comments to The only freedom I’ll ever understand, however, James wrote this:
The difference in this debate is that I have been arguing on the basis of what I believe to be true, and doing my best to explain why I believe it. Kevin, by way of contrast, claims to be able to literally ‘prove’ his case beyond any doubt whatsoever by recourse to detailed statistical data.
Not exactly. The difference is, I believe that statistics can disprove one philosophy, but not the other. James seems to think so, too, because in one of his later posts, he asks for statistical proofs! However, I did state in my invitation to debate that this was about the philosophies.
And I think James has a point: There’s a time to do extensive research, footnotes and statistical analysis, and there’s a time to expound on philosophy. I’ve started and restarted and re-restarted this essay about a dozen times now, wanting to get it right. This time I just may get it.
Back in the 1950’s, there was a radio show called This I Believe. NPR picked up on the idea decades later:
During its four-year run on NPR, This I Believe engaged listeners in a discussion of the core beliefs that guide their daily lives.
This blog has been a seven-year exploration of the core beliefs that guide my daily life, and I think this is the appropriate place to drop the statistics for a change and declare “This I Believe.”
I believe that most human beings are born morally neutral and develop their personal ethics, their moral code, from the culture they mature in. This is not, however, universal. There really are those people who, for whatever reason, end up at the outer edges of the bell curve regardless of culture. Those who populate the extremes are – by definition – extremely rare, but those one or two standard deviations off of average are – also by definition – not. The extremes may be due to genetic flaws or brain damage or abuse or who knows what, but the ones a standard deviation or two off of norm for any major culture are generally part of a sub-culture.
However, under the veneer of culturally-inculcated morality, most human beings remain morally neutral. Many can (and do) abandon what their culture teaches them in times of stress or moments of opportunity. The atrocities of history teach us this, if we’re willing to face up to it. As I have written previously:
“Never again” is the motto of the modern Jew, and many others just as dedicated. But “again and again and again” seems to be the rebuke of history.
Despite this part of humanity’s history, the record also shows us that mankind is capable of feats of greatness. Further, human societies – and even individuals – are capable of both at the same time.
By holding these beliefs, I am a believer in the “Tragic Vision” of humanity, and all that belief entails.
I believe, in agreement with Ayn Rand, in one fundamental human right: the right to ones own life, and that all other “rights of man” are its consequences or corollaries.
I believe that John Locke was correct when he named three corollaries of that right as “life, liberty, and property,” and that Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant rhetorician when he substituted “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.
And I believe that any purported “right” that demands something of another is no right at all.
I believe that I am not responsible for the acts of others except where I directly induce or coerce those actions, nor are other people responsible for my acts except where they as individuals have induced or coerced me.
I believe that I am not responsible for your safety. The police are not responsible for your safety. That’s your job. You have no “right to feel safe.” Such a right would put an obligation upon others that cannot be fulfilled. You have a duty (should you choose to accept it) to protect yourself and a duty to help protect the society in which you live, but those duties carry with them a certain amount of unavoidable risk. Dealing with risk is one thing adults do.
I have stated previously:
I believe that there are three things crucial to the rise of individual freedom: The ability to reason, the free exchange of ideas, and the ability to defend one’s person and property. The ability to reason and the free exchange of ideas will lead to the concept of individual liberty, but it requires the individual ability to defend one’s person and property to protect that liberty. The ability to reason exists, to some extent, in all people. (The severely mentally retarded and those who have suffered significant permanent brain injury are not, and in truth can never be truly “free” as they will be significantly dependent on others for their care and protection.) The free exchange of ideas is greatly dependent on the technologies of communication. The ability to defend your person and property – the ability to defend your right to your own life – is dependent on the technologies of individual force.
From this observation grows my belief that Mao was right when he observed that “all political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” but I take a different lesson from this than he attempted to teach: I believe that if individual rights are to be protected, whether from individuals with criminal intent, or governments with tyrannical or even beneficent intent, enough individuals in a free society must possess weapons and the willingness to use them to say “NO!” and make it hurt if and when necessary. Done properly, the mere threat is deterrence enough.
I believe author Robert Heinlein was right when he wrote:
Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.
I believe that the purpose of government should be the protection of the rights of the individual, but it very seldom is and never stays that way. I believe Thomas Paine was correct when he wrote in Common Sense:
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!
I believe that, as members of a society founded on the concept of defending the rights of individuals, we yield certain rights that are unquestionably ours “in a state of nature,” but the right of self-defense isn’t among them. Self-defense and the tools of that defense are, as Oleg Volk points out, a human right – another corollary of the right to ones own life. I believe that instead of yielding our right to self-defense to the State, we extend to the State the power necessary to assist in our defense, while recognizing the State’s inherent limitations in exercising that power. Again, in belonging to a society that defends our individual rights, the corresponding individual duties that go with those rights expands to include the protection of the society in which we live, best expressed by Sir Robert Peel’s Seventh Principle of Modern Policing:
Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
Incumbent or not, however, I believe that duty must be voluntarily accepted, and cannot be forced on any individual.
I believe the gun isn’t necessarily civilization, but it is most definitely responsible for the existence of modern democracy.
I believe that our ancestors in Britain once properly understood this, having learned it as the yeomanry with their longbows, for it was they who first codified this knowledge into law.
I believe they have since lost this understanding.
I believe 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski was right when he wrote:
The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed – where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.
I believe the Geek with a .45 was dead-on right when he said:
In a truly civil society peopled primarily by enlightened, sober individuals, the carriage of arms might be deemed gratuitous, but it is nonetheless harmless. In a society that measures up to anything less than that, the option to carry arms is a necessity.
It’s a cultural thing.
While nearly everyone is capable of reason, not all utilize their full capacity for it. When all of this started, James characterized his culture this way:
. . . Rachel Lucas’ bafflement in encountering a society where it’s not simply the case that ordinary citizens are legally thwarted from owning guns for self-defence purposes – for the most part they simply have no wish to do so. After all, she comes from a society where it’s taken as a given that people will be constantly aware of potential threats against them and will want to directly protect themselves against those threats, in many cases by owning and even carrying a gun. But upon arrival in Britain, she cites examples where innocent people have been attacked and have been unable to adequately defend themselves. Isn’t it obvious, she asks, that these individuals would have been more likely to survive if they’d had a gun handy? On the face of it, the answer can only be yes. So haven’t other people in the society around them heard about these attacks, haven’t they read the newspapers, haven’t they seen the photographs? Yes they have. So don’t they want to possess a gun to lessen the risk of the same fate befalling them? On the whole, no they don’t. Utterly inexplicable.
As I recall, Rachel was noting that the comments to the original story reflected a significant loathing of the concept of having a firearm or other weapon for personal defense by the majority of commenters. Not only did many commenters not want weapons for themselves, they were fully supportive of the laws that prevent anyone from being legally armed in their own defense, and yes, to most Americans (especially most Texans) that’s, well, “baffling” is an understatement.
That comment thread ran to nearly 300 posts if I recall correctly, and the lone voice in defense of the UK’s victim disarmament policy was James. He took a lot of abuse. He was at the same time both a stereotypical representative of his side of the argument and a unique one. His arguments were stereotypical, but he remained engaged. He did not take his ball and leave, and he did not descend into insult. (At least not unsubtle, deliberate, blatant insult. Much.)
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for many arguing my side, though I’m used to that.
James eventually got around to posting about his experience at his own blog, and there I invited him to debate the topic. James was reluctant, at one point saying:
. . . the cultural differences on the gun issue are massive and probably unbridgeable. We’re barely even speaking the same language on the topic.
As once observed by someone, we’re two nations divided by a common language. More than that, we don’t think the same way. (Culture, again.) We use the same words but those words too often have entirely different meanings. And we absolutely do not see the same reality around us. He eventually accepted my invitation, but on reflection I think that neither one of us received what we expected, though we each struggled mightily to fit the other into the boxes we’d mentally constructed.
For me, it seemed just another experience in “Deja moo”: I’d heard this bullshit before. And it was, for me, such obvious bullshit that doubtless James had to understand it, and was therefore being disingenuous.
But no, he was perfectly serious. He had earlier written (and I had dismissed):
Even as I speak, other posters on the blog are busy archly agreeing with each other that I am ‘dishonest’ and comparing notes about exactly what point in the discussion they had first realised I wasn’t ‘arguing in good faith’. One of the posters even noted Ms Lucas’ patience for allowing the discussion to go on – the implication being that my ‘behaviour’ was so beyond the pale that she had been extremely generous in even permitting me to have my voice heard. Since I was, in fact, being very honest and arguing from deeply-held principles throughout this is obviously rather hard to swallow . . . .
At one stage I tried to introduce an alternative concept of personal liberty (one, which as it happens, I genuinely and passionately believe in) that doesn’t define itself so narrowly as being entirely dependent on the capacity to defend yourself with a gun – that, it was immediately pointed out to me, was a “bridge too far”.
The sometimes bemused, sometimes angry ‘does not compute’ reaction I stirred up was so intense that I began to realise that the posters on that blog simply have very little exposure to the type of arguments I was – for the most part in a fairly restrained manner – putting forward, even though millions of people in their own country (let alone beyond their shores) would broadly agree with me.
What I should have understood from this is that he’d had very little exposure to the pro-gun side of the argument, and couldn’t accept that we were sincere. Instead, I took him as just another of the people I had been arguing with for nearly a decade.
That “bridge too far” James referred to? It was this:
I think this is another crucial aspect of the cultural difference between the US and countries like Britain with strict gun controls. You see, I believe in liberty as well – and the cornerstone of that is the freedom to live and the freedom from fear. Freedom that can only be safeguarded by a gun in my hand and the sharpness of my physical reflexes is a very poor quality, one-dimensional freedom. The widespread possession of deadly weapons by others is therefore a severe infringement of my personal liberty. And, yes, I am being utterly serious.
(My emphasis.) And it’s not just firearms that infringe on his “freedom from fear”:
I’m one of those idiots who think we’d all be a lot safer without so many knives around. And it seems the police in the UK (not a bunch of woolly liberals on the whole) agree with me, as they’ve fairly regularly held knife amnesties with the intention of making the streets safer.
At the end of the day, it’s a legitimate philosophical difference – am I safer with there being far fewer guns around to shoot me with, or is the proliferation of guns a price worth paying as long as one of those guns is in my hand and I’m trained to use it? I prefer the former option, and I suspect I always will.
As I have noted, I’ve started and restarted this essay probably a half-dozen times, because as I want to get it right. I understand, even more deeply than I did before, that James is not reachable. He has “reasoned” as far as he’s going to, his conclusions are intractable, and all evidence (voodoo statistics) will be dismissed or massaged to fit his worldview.
Nate of Guns and Bullets wrote a post on this topic, and in the comments to one of my posts (gone for the moment thanks to Echo), Nate said:
Accepting that the underpinnings of a deeply-held political position are complete bunk is not an easy thing for most people to do, and again, this is why Kevin is wise to point out that he’s not trying to convert James.
No, he’s trying to convert me. And it worked; two years ago when I was just beginning to learn about guns, stumbling on this site was enormously helpful in learning the nitty-gritty specific facts of how and why each gun control policy and law was ineffective and counter-productive.
So keep it up, Kevin. Use the facts and kill ’em with kindness.
I shall. That is what I try to do here.
Nate stated in his piece:
(T)his debate isn’t really about guns; it’s about what kind of society we want to live in; one where we’re responsible for ourselves, or everyone around us.
James was being honest when he repeatedly said that statistics wouldn’t faze him. Because the truth is, when it comes to conflicts of visions like individualism vs collectivism, it’s not about the facts. Each of us arrive at our conclusions due to intensely personal and emotional events, and we only later dig up facts to support our views.
Mr. Kelly is convinced that only by disarming his neighbors can society enhance its collective “freedom from fear,” and any attempt to illustrate to him that his simple and obvious solution is wrong is an exercise in “voodoo statistics” or is “incomprehensible.” It has to be, because to acknowledge a flaw in one’s basic philosophical premise means questioning the entire philosophy. As Nate noted, few people can do that.
Mr. Kelly epitomizes what Thomas Sowell describes in his book A Conflict of Visions as a believer in the “unconstrained vision.” Like William Godwin, Mr. Kelly’s worldview tells him that people are (or should be) perfectible, and that the intention to benefit others is “the essence of virtue,” regardless of the actual outcomes of ones actions. As Sowell illustrated, followers of the “unconstrained vision” believe that there is a solution to every problem if we just put our intellects to it. To once again quote:
In the unconstrained vision where the crucial factors in promoting the general good are sincerity and articulated knowledge and reason, the dominant influence in society should be that of those who are best in these regards. Whether specific discretion is exercised at the individual level or in the national or international collectivity is largely a question then as to how effectively the sincerity, knowledge, and reason of the most advanced in those regards influence the exercise of discretionary decision-making.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Kelly sees himself as one of those “most advanced” in knowledge, sincerity, and reasonableness. In short, his position is morally superior to that of those insisting on retaining a right to what he describes as “luxury items.”
Let’s spend a bit of time exploring Mr. Kelly’s worldview and self-image to further illustrate this. Bear with me, it’s not a frivolous exercise.
First, James is a member (or at least supporter) of the Scottish National Party, described by Wikipedia as “in the mainstream social democratic mould” in nature, “center left,” and “(A)mong its policies are a commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, progressive personal taxation and the eradication of poverty, free state education including support grants for higher education students . . . and is against membership in NATO.” Second, James is an ardent opponent of the death penalty. In fact, James claims:
In terms of issues which I could have imagined myself getting into conflict with American right-wingers over, the death penalty would have come top of the list by some distance. That is a subject I feel extremely passionately about and always have done. Indeed, I’m entitled to a vote in American federal elections and I always go out of my way to vote for candidates who are opposed to the death penalty (which led me, against almost every instinct in my body, to vote for Ralph Nader ahead of Barack Obama).
Oh, how he suffers for his beliefs, but his sincerity is unquestionable!
I’m only speculating on this point, but I somehow doubt that his argument against capital punishment has anything to do with the fact that governments use such power badly, and thus shouldn’t have this particular one. No, I get the feeling it’s a “sanctity of life” issue with James, or a “poor, misunderstood criminal” thing. In fact, let’s look at Thomas Sowell on the topic of those of the unconstrained vision’s understanding of crime:
The underlying causes of crime have been a major preoccupation of those with the unconstrained vision of human nature. But those with the constrained vision generally do not look for any special causes of crime, any more than they look for special causes of war. For those with the constrained vision, people commit crimes because they are people — because they put their own interests or egos above the interests, feelings, or lives of others. Believers in the constrained vision emphasize social contrivances to prevent crime or punishment to deter it. But to the believer in the unconstrained vision, it is hard to understand how anyone would commit a terrible crime without some special cause at work, if only blindness.
Within this vision, people are forced to commit crimes by special reasons, whether social or psychiatric. Reducing those special reasons (poverty, discrimination, unemployment, mental illness, etc.) is therefore the way to reduce crime.
The unconstrained vision sees human nature as itself adverse to crime, and society as undermining this natural aversion through its own injustices, insensitivities, and brutality.
And James’ own words:
Scotland does have a huge knife violence problem. I’d have to disagree with you, though – part of the solution is to get as many knives as possible off the streets (and from what I can gather, that’s a crucial part of the police strategy). But there are all sorts of other sides to the equation as well – the biggest thing that would help would be the alleviation of poverty, although of course there are sharply differing views about how that might be best achieved.
My own view (and note that I don’t claim to be able to prove it) is that Brazil and Mexico are not more like the UK largely for one very simple reason – a greater rate of poverty.
Carnaby : With the conclusion that we ought to increase the restrictions on legally owned firearms. Well, given that logic, how do we solve the following problem here in the USA: you’re (anyone) far, far more likely to be shot in the US by a black person than a white person. Furthermore, you are far, far more likely to be shot by a black person using an “illegal” gun than anyone using a “legal” gun. Your solution, James?
A massive policy effort to raise the educational and living standards for black people up to the national average, and then the differential will disappear over time. Unless you’re about to tell me that black people are somehow innately more prone to violence. Of course, rational gun control laws would reduce the problem in itself, without the slightest need for racial discrimination in its implementation.
Like gun bans, it’s blindingly obvious to James that poverty is the driving force behind crime, everywhere. He might want to talk to Richard Cohen about that. We’ve had a decades-long “massive policy effort” the intent of which was to “raise the educational and living standards for black people up to the national average.” Like gun control, it has failed utterly at its stated goals. The actual outcome has been a larger population living in poverty than we started with, and a poverty rate that’s just about flat. Among that population are more broken homes, more fatherless children and a homicide rate six times greater than that of the rest of the American population.
But correlation isn’t causation, and its implementers meant well and that’s what really matters. And if they failed, it wasn’t because the philosophy was wrong . . .
To go even further, that his is the obviously morally superior position is illustrated by this excerpt:
…people will construct the most astonishingly complex defensive arguments just to avoid having to let go of their familiar certainties, whether those certainties be that cruelty to animals can always be justified because life wouldn’t be so easy without it, or that wealth inequality is justified by differential intelligence, or that there was no immorality in the mass slaughter of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (because it was the US that dropped the bombs, and the US doesn’t do genocide). The more well-rehearsed these complex arguments become (and the defence of the Hiroshima atrocity is a good example of one that has become extraordinarily well-drilled)
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were genocide and indefensible! Once again, don’t confuse him with facts and “voodoo statistics.” (Oh, and there’s apparently no justification for wealth inequality either. Where have I heard that before?)
So, we have established that James Kelly cares about his fellow humans and wants nothing but the best for them: he wants everyone to be safe, free from fear, have an equal share of the wealth, etc. But it’s the reactionaries that prevent his personal vision of utopia from coming true, people who “construct the most astonishingly complex defensive arguments just to avoid having to let go of their familiar certainties”, people who are willing to carry weapons and use them against their fellow-man.
In short, people like those who read this blog. People he terms the “Kevin Baker Fan Club.”
Mr. Kelly’s entire argument is that the number of weapons is what dictates the level of violent crime. If gun crime is increasing in the UK, it’s obviously because there are more guns, despite the UK enacting every gun law that our gun
ban control safety groups want to enact here, up to and including complete bans on legal possession of whole classes of firearms. If knife crime is up, it’s due to more knives (not weapon substitution). But when the US adds 3-4 million new guns each year and our gun crime goes down, then what?
We hear crickets from Mr. Kelly. Or further insistence that things are still worse in the US! As he himself said:
If I could make sense of much of it, I might be provoked into breaking my word and responding directly to some of Mr Baker’s points, but frankly I can’t (doubtless a lack of intellectual capacity on my part).
He said it, I didn’t.
It all hinges on CULTURE, that question of “what kind of society do you want to live in?” Do you want to live in one where you get to decide whether to exercise your duty to protect yourself and your society, or one where your superiors tell you that they’ll handle it, you’re not qualified, while not telling you that they’re generally not capable?
I know what my choice is, and I know what James Kelly’s choice is. If you live in the U.S., your choice is still, for now, up to you.
(Hey! Less than 5,000 words!)