What follows is an exchange on Facebook regarding George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence in the Trayvon Martin shooting. It is a perfect illustration of one dimension of the two competing visions for America.
SH: I worry about the popular focus on the details of the Zimmerman case, because it plays into a right-wing narrative: That the facts not in dispute aren’t already dispositive for public policy purposes. (Disclaimer: the details are important for the trial and the jury, but what the public needs to get out of this is that we have created a context that increases rather than decreases violence, does so in ways which implicate racial prejudices and stereotypes, and that we need to pull back from that approach). Zimmerman set out with a gun looking for “bad guys” to defend himself against, identified an unarmed black teen in a hoodie walking home from the store as just such a “bad guy,” pursued the teen despite being told by the police dispatcher not to, and ended up shooting that teen to death. Nothing else really matters in terms of what this incident tells us about our continuing moral failure as a society in regards to both violence and race, and we shouldn’t let anyone sell the false narrative that it does.
MS: The main factor that needs to be decided is if Zimmerman really defended himself or got too heated. This case was screwed from the beginning based on the race issue being presented.
SH: M, I disagree, on both counts. If our laws currently sanction someone going out with a gun looking for people to defend himself against, identifying one such on the basis of his own perceptions (which certainly do seem have been influenced by race in this case, because there’s absolutely no evidence or even suggestion that Martin was doing anything other than “being black” to arouse Zimmerman’s suspicions), pursuing that innocent person, and as a result ending up shooting that person to death, then our laws are in error.
CL: I mean, seriously, what am I missing? Why was this case brought in the first place? Zimmerman is a creepy-ass cracker, but there isn’t enough evidence for a murder rap. I might not be some fancy, big city attorney, but it seems like the local prosecutors had a good reason for not pressing charges.
SH: What you’re missing is that when an armed assailant pursues an innocent individual walking home from the store and shoots him to death, that is certainly prima facie evidence of a crime.
CL: That’s really dumb. It’s conceded that Zimmerman was following Martin around for no good reason. But just because someone is following you around for no good reason doesn’t give you the right to attack him. If we don’t know who attacked who, then we can’t convict. This isn’t complicated.
SH: C, Zimmerman wasn’t just “following Martin around for no good reason,” but was doing so while armed and with the stated intention of finding bad guys. It’s a bit bizarre that you think someone who goes out with a gun and stalks an innocent stranger walking home from the store should get to claim that the altercation he thus incited (if there was one) means that he then acted in self-defense when he ended up shooting his stalking victim to death and thus is innocent of any crime, but that the kid who reacted to being stalked had no right to defend himself against his stalker!!! This is the problem with your underlying ideology: It is an aggressive one, which incites violence, which helps to explain why America has a homicide rate from 2 to 11 times higher than any other developed nation on Earth.
Let me ask you a question, C: If the person stalked had been a white woman, who, spooked by the stalker, grabbed something to defend herself, stepped off the path out of sight, came out and confronted her stalker, ended up swinging at him and making contact, and then was shot to death, would you be as adamant that the stalker was completely devoid of responsibility for her death?
When you go out with a gun looking for bad guys, follow innocent people because you arbitrarily decide that they might be a bad guy, and end up shooting one such person to death, you are damn well responsible for the death of that person whose only crime (if any at all) was to react to being stalked by an armed assailant! That there are people in this country who can’t grasp that is horrifying.
CL: The evidence is that Zimmerman followed Martin — but there is no good evidence of who started the fight. This whole “kind who reacted to being stalked had no right to defend himself!!” line of argument is unsubstantiated. Maybe Zimmerman hunted down Martin and shot him. Maybe Zimmerman followed Martin, Martin didn’t like it and decided to attack Zimmerman, and then Zimmerman defended himself. Zimmerman is guilty of murder in the first scenario and guilty of being an idiot in the second. So far in the trial, the evidence isn’t really helping us figure out which scenario is the real one.
SH: You didn’t answer my question: If it were a white woman who had been stalked by a black guy she didn’t know, grabbed something to defend herself, stepped off the path, confronted her stalker, ended up in that confrontation taking a swing at him and making contact, and then was shot to death by the stalker (who, as it happens, wasn’t just a stalker, but an armed stalker), would you be so adamant that the stalker was or should be completely devoid of any legally enforceable responsibility for that woman’s death? I doubt it.
And what is the only difference between that scenario and the one we are discussing? The races and genders of the stalker and his victim. I even added in arming the woman being stalked with an object, to make her as threatening to her stalker as Martin was to his.
CA: Steve, would you rather police and security personnel not be armed, or not investigate further into something they can articulate to be suspicious? I don’t know what exactly happened in this instance, but it sounds like Zimmerman was a hired security professional whose job it was to provide security in the area he was in. He saw something and/or someone he thought was worth checking out, which was his job. If Martin was innocent and not doing anything wrong I imagine this would have been a quick encounter and brief conversation about how he is in the area for good reason, ie he lives there or is staying with family, and that would have been the end of it. The fact it turned into a brawl for some reason would seem to indicate Martin got caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing by security. Zimmerman did have a gun, and he was out looking for bad guys. Thing is, bad guys don’t usually wear signs indicating to the world that they are bad guys. So police and security contact many, many perfectly innocent people all the time after seeing something that might be suspicious. An innocent person will generally provide a legitimate explanation of whatever behavior was observed that seemed suspicious and the contact is over very quickly. If in the course of determining whether or not someone is innocent or appears guilty of something, Martin attacked Zimmerman, then Martin just committed a crime and Zimmerman has a right to defend himself.
SH: No, he wasn’t “a hired security professional.” He was a neighborhood watch volunteer, which is not a credential, and is not a license to kill. And the whole point is that Zimmerman WASN’T a hired security professional, that he was told by the police dispatcher NOT TO follow Martin, that his actions were those of a private citizen reacting to his private prejudices against the instructions of the actual police, that there is no legal or moral difference between a private citizen that you identify with stalking an unarmed person you don’t identify with and a private citizen you don’t identify with stalking an unarmed person you do identify with, and that when an armed stalker ends up shooting to death the person he was stalking, that stalker is responsible for that death, even if the stalker was a self-appointed vigilante rather than a career criminal, and even if your victim was a black kid in a hoodie rather than, for instance, a middle class white woman. And, again, it is horrifying that there are still so many people in this country who can’t grasp that.
CL: What we have now is something like this:
1. A follows B
2. [[[SOMETHING HAPPENS]]]
3. A shoots B
You seem to know exactly what happened at point 2. I applaud your insight.
SH: One beloved right-wing rhetorical ploy is to filter information being considered in such a way as to arrive at a preferred conclusion (sometimes done by those on the left as well, but with far less of a “cornerstone of the ideology” aspect to it). So, let’s be more complete, shall we?
1) A goes out with a gun looking for “bad guys.”
2) B is a black kid in a hoodie walking home from a store.
3) A sees B walking through the neighborhood and decides, apparently on the basis of 2 above, that B looks suspicious.
4) A calls the police, who advise A not to follow the kid.
5) A tells the police that those “damn assholes always get away with it” (or something to that effect; I don’t have the exact quote in front of me), apparently referring to the black kid in a hoodie walking home from the store, and pursues the kid, with a gun, despite having been told by the police not to.
6) (Something happens)
7) A shoots B.
I have no idea what happened at your point 2 (my point 6). My point is that, while it may have legal relevance because of fucked-up right-wing yahoo laws, it isn’t really relevant to the moral conclusion that A is responsible for B’s death., as a result of the aggressive (and apparently racially motivated) decisions that A made which incited the incident that resulted in A killing B.
Personally, I don’t want racist whack-jobs running around with guns inciting violence, and then claiming that their having shot to death unarmed black kids walking home from the store that they decided to pursue while armed and out looking for trouble was “self-defense,” and I would probably feel even more strongly about it if my skin were darker. But, hey, that’s just me…, and every rational, decent human being on Earth.
What this exchange illustrates is the nature of the two competing ideologies in regards to violence, race, and whether to be a society driven by our fears and bigotries or a society striving to do better than that. The two overarching orientations illustrated here are discussed in greater depth and detail in Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture, and a thorough analysis of the fundamental flaws of modern American right-wing thought is provided in Why The Far-Right Is On The Wrong Side Of Reason, Morality, Humanity and History.
Part I: The Economy.
1) Every modern, prosperous, developed nation on Earth, without one single exception, has a large administrative infrastructure and has had a large administrative infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in the production of prosperity. Every single nation on Earth that lacks a large administrative infrastructure is an impoverished nation. No nation without a large administrative infrastructure has ever achieved post-WWII levels of prosperity and economic development. The claim, then, that such a large administrative infrastructure, which the far-right refers to as “socialism,” is incompatible with prosperity, is the precise opposite of what the empirical evidence suggests: It appears to be not only compatible with prosperity, but absolutely indispensable to prosperity.
2) Economic theory and empirical observation make clear why this is so: Due to the consequences of “transaction costs” (the costs of market transactions, such as gathering information or organizing interested parties to act as single market actors in public goods scenarios), government involvement in the modern market economy is a vital component of a robust and well functioning economy, and its absence ensures that centrally located market actors (who benefit from “information asymmetries”) will game markets to their own benefit and to the public’s often catastrophic detriment. The government helps to reduce transaction costs by investing in infrastructure and human capital development that involve a combination of high immediate costs and very long-term though extremely high benefits that is not conducive to reliance on private investment.
3) In the immediate wake of the implementation of New Deal policies, we had four years of historically unprecedented GDP growth, that only declined again immediately after budget hawks similar to the American far-right today pushed through a more conservative fiscal policy.
4) What finally ended the Great Depression and set the country and world on the most dramatic expansion of prosperity in the history of the world was the most massive public spending project in world history : WWII, in which the United States ramped up its industrial engine by producing enormous quantities of sophisticated heavy military equipment that was conveniently destroyed as fast it could be manufactured, demonstrating that even unproductive production can stimulate an economy, suggesting how much more economically beneficial investment in infrastructure can be.
5) Our period of greatest economic growth (the 1950s and 1960s) was also the period of our highest marginal tax rates, when we did, in fact, make massive investments in infrastructure (such as our interstate highways system) and scientific and technological research and development (such as the space program and the government sponsored advances in computer technology, both of which generated a plethora of economically enormously beneficial developments).
6) In the immediate wake of the stimulus spending by the Bush and Obama administrations, declining GDP turned to growing GDP and an accelerating rise in job losses turned into a decelerating rise in Job losses, literally turning the corner from the deepening collapse authored by eight years of Republican economic policies to gradual recovery within months of the resumption of a Democratic administration and sane economic policies.
7) Virtually no economists, liberal or conservative, recommend fiscal austerity during an economic contraction, and yet Tea Party lunatics, drenched in the false belief that a long-term deficit and debt problem is an immediate crisis, insist on policies that virtually every economic model shows actually INCREASES our debt while crippling our economy.
8) The overwhelming majority of professional economists do not agree with the Tea Party economic paradigm, and The Economist magazine called it “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical.” 80% of American economists in a 2008 survey favored Democratic Party over Republican Party economic policies (and that was BEFORE the rise of the Tea Party!).
9) The Tea Party Congressional faction famously blackmailed the country with fiscally and economically nationally self-destructive default on our financial obligations (by threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which has never before been contentious and in most developed countries is automatic), in order to secure continuing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans which even conservative economists called “indefensible.” Even though this catalyzed a damaging downgrading of our national credit rating, they seem poised, in 2013, to repeat the same self-destructive and irresponsible behavior.
10) The two greatest economic collapses of the last 100 years in America were both immediately preceded by the two highest peaks in the concentration of wealth in America in the last 100 years (in 1929 and 2008, respectively), both of which followed a decade or more of the kinds of “small government” policies favored by the right today. Following the 1929 collapse, we learned from our mistakes and used government to create a more sustainable economy. Following the 2008 collapse, the far-right has continued to try to inflict continuing economic harm on the nation, insisting on continuing the same policies which caused the economic collapse in the first place.
11) Yet despite these many compelling facts, those on the far-right not only continue to believe what is contradicted by reality, but are 100 percent certain that their ideological dogma is the indisputable truth, and are smugly dismissive of those who disagree with them.
Part II: The Constitution and the Foundational Values of the Nation.
1) The Constitution was drafted and ratified to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government, after ten years of living under the toothless Articles of Confederation. “The Federalist Papers,” a series of op-ed arguments for ratification of the Constitution written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, largely made the case that an adequately empowered and centralized federal government was essential to the viability of the new republic. (“Federalism” was originally used to designate the political doctrine favoring a strong federal government, but has been converted by the modern right-wing to refer to the political doctrine favoring a weak federal government.)
2) Despite the frequent refrain that government taxing-and-spending is an act of federal tyranny and “unconstitutional,” the fact is that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution grants Congress the unqualified power to tax and spend in the general welfare, the Constitutional provisions limiting that power being the ones that define our electoral process, by which we the people get to decide, through that process, whether our representatives’ interpretation of “the general welfare” is one we the people agree with. So, if “socialists” vote in a “socialist” president who taxes and spends to provide universal healthcare, or to address issues of poverty or disability or other acts of humanity as a people, that is not unconstitutional, it is not an infringement on anyone’s liberty, it is not an abuse of federal power, but is, rather, Congress doing exactly what it was empowered to do.
3) While claiming to be the great defenders of the Constitution, right-wingers are in fact the great antagonists against the Constitution, because they reject the process by which we have resolved disputes over constitutional interpretation for over two centuries (Judicial Review) and fight to reduce the Constitution to a meaningless Rorschach Test which each ideological faction claims to support whatever that ideological faction favors, thus destroying the Constitution as a functioning document.
4) While pretending to be the great bulwark against tyranny, they in fact pose the greatest threat of tyranny and against our rule of law, by insisting that they are prepared to overthrow the government if they disagree with it, and by insisting that their “liberty” requires that we siphon political economic power away from our constitutionally and democratically constrained government organized to serve the public interest and into large private corporations that are not constitutionally and democratically constrained and are organized to serve the interests of the few who own the most shares rather than of the public in general (a transferal of power to corporate interests which is essentially the definition of “fascism”).
5) The claim to be the true representatives of the will and spirit of the Founding Fathers is almost the diametrical opposite of the truth, for several reasons. For one thing, the “Founding Fathers” did not have one simplistic ideological “will” that could be so easily represented. Ben Franklin, for instance, believed that all private wealth beyond that necessary to maintain oneself and one’s family in modest fashion should revert to the public “by whose laws it was created,” by means of very high luxury and inheritance taxes. Thomas Paine believed in redistribution of wealth, through the agency of government, from the more wealthy to the less wealthy. Alexander Hamilton believed in a very strongly centralized federal government. The two things that bound our Founding Fathers together and that, in the final analysis, they universally agreed on is that people can and should govern themselves through the use of their own reason and in service to their shared humanity, and that compromise was an essential tool in doing so, two things that the modern far right most vigorously rejects. In other words, the far right, by idolizing caricatures of the Founding Fathers, does the opposite of emulating them as rational and humane people striving to create an ever-more rational and humane society.
6) While power has indeed shifted from the states to the federal government over the course of our history, at the same time (and in part by that very mechanism), real protections against the potential tyranny of government have grown far stronger than they were even at the time of the founding of the nation, when states’ rights were paramount. As stated above, the first major step in that direction was the Constitution itself, replacing the toothless Articles of Confederation with a federal framework with a strong federal government.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, at the beginning of the 19th century, made another step in that direction, instituting the doctrine of “judicial review,” which gives the Court the last word in legal and constitutional interpretation, thus ensuring that our short and ambiguous founding document has, for functional purposes, a single unambiguous interpretation that we accept as a matter of law.
The next major step was the Civil War, which increased federal power to protect the rights of individuals (in this case, slaves) from the oppression of more local (state) governments and private property owners. The New Deal nationalized our sense of economic purpose and shared fate, and our participation in WWII took that spirit abroad and ramped up our economy even further. The Eisenhower administration taxed and spent with impunity, and put in place an enormously beneficial infrastructure which led to decades of historically unprecedented growth. The Civil Rights movement, Court holdings, and Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts all continued the use of the federal government to protect individual rights against state and private violation. Kennedy used the federal government to land a man on the moon, increasing our technological prowess in ways that have also been highly beneficial. And, finally, the federal government was instrumental in the development of information technologies which have created enormous prosperity.
In the meantime, the Civil Rights amendments to the Constitution and the Court’s interpretation of the Bill of Rights have led to an extraordinary extension of our liberties and of the vigor of their protection. The Bill of Rights came to be applied as a bulwark against state and local as well as federal intrusions of individual rights and liberties. The provisions came to be read with increasing rigor, requiring ever greater due process protections (which the faux-liberty-loving right have generally opposed with equal vigor), discovering a penumbra “right to privacy” that isn’t actually explicitly stated in the Constitution, and, in general, providing ever increasing protections for individuals against governmental exercises of power.
But rather than rejoice in this advance of liberty and prosperity, the right imagines that any intrusion on private property interests and their hoarding of private wealth is the real affront to individual liberty and human rights, just as their slave-owing ideological forebears did.
Part III. Morality, Humanity and Self-Congratulatory Historical Revisionism.
1) Right-wingers dismiss the plight of the poor, most of whom work long hours in low-paying jobs, as a function of their own defects and laziness, and insist that it is morally unacceptable for us as a society to assume any shared responsibility to address social issues such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, the special needs of the disabled, and unnecessary and unjust human suffering in general.
2) They do so despite the fact that every other developed nation on Earth has done a far better job than us of reducing poverty, reducing economic inequality, and reducing the myriad social problems associated with poverty and economic inequality.
3) They revise history so as to define every historical movement that is now broadly condemned to have been “left-wing movements,” such as their conversion of Nazism –a political ideology and regime which hated communists, labor unions, intellectuals, journalists, the poor, and “foreigners” living within the country, favored policies which concentrated wealth and power into constitutionally and democratically unconstrained corporate hands, and relied on an ultra-nationalism stoked up with lots of jingoism and “patriotic” rhetoric and imagery– into a left-wing movement, and their main argument why this is so is because “National Socialism” has the word “Socialism” in its name (much as the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, a Soviet client state, must have been a Democratic Republic, since it’s right there in the name, right?).
4) They revel in the (accurate) facts that the Republican Party freed the slaves while the Democratic Party was closely associated with the KKK, always implying that that alignment continues today. They neglect to mention (or recognize) that, in the wake of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which LBJ (a Democrat) was as closely associated with as Obama is with The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), southern whites (and northern white racists) abandoned the Democratic Party en masse and migrated to the Republican Party, which is why implicit and explicit racism now resides almost exclusively in the Republican Party, with the map of Tea Party strongholds closely corresponding to the map of the Confederacy, and with so many Tea Party policy positions containing so much implicit racism (e.g., voter suppression laws, opposition to any form of affirmative action, hyperbolic disdain for the first African American president, contempt for Latin American migrants, etc.).
Part IV: Guns, Violence, and a Reactive rather than Proactive Society.
1) The United States has the second highest homicide rate among 36 OECD nations (beaten only by Mexico, which “benefits” from a constant flood of our firearms crossing the border to fuel their problem), from 2 to 25 times the homicide rate of 33 of the 35 other OECD other nations.
2) In both domestic comparisons of homicide rates across all jurisdictions and cross-national comparisons of homicide rates in developed countries, there is a positive correlation between per capita legal gun ownership and homicide rates.
3) The overwhelming majority of firearms used in the commission of crimes in The United States are put into circulation by initially being legally purchased in those states with the laxest regulations, and entering the black market from there, through which they are distributed to all locales in the country due to the complete absence of any obstructions to the transportation of good across state and municipal borders.
4) As a statistical fact, a legally, privately owned firearm is many times more likely to be involved in EACH of the following than to be successfully used in self-defense: suicide, accidental shooting death, mistaken shooting death (not an accidental discharge or hunting accident, but an intentional shooting at an innocent person mistaken for an intruder or a threat), crime of passion and use as part of a cycle of domestic violence.
5) As a statistical fact, a firearm in the home has a greater likelihood of being the instrument of death of a member of the household or of an innocent visitor than to be used in self-defense, and the owner of a firearm is more likely to be the victim of gun violence than a non-owner of a firearm.
6) We, as a nation, have the highest absolute number and highest percentage of our population incarcerated of ANY nation on Earth, making us in a very literal sense the least free nation on Earth.
7) This high incarceration rate is in part a function of a right-wing retributive orientation, which believes that the world is neatly divided between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and that if the good guys are just better armed against the bad guys, and lock the bad guys up or execute the bad guys, we’ll be a more peaceful and law-abiding society as a result.
8) The right, in other words, believes that the more we threaten one another –with decentralized deadly violence, with incarceration, with capital punishment– the more we will reduce violence against innocent victims, despite the empirical evidence that the opposite is true.
9) When an unarmed black teen walking home from the store (Trayvon Martin) was shot to death by an armed vigilante out looking for people to “defend” himself against (George Zimmerman), the right tried to dismiss this as irrelevant to the question of whether being an armed society of fearful and angry people out looking for people to “defend” themselves against is really such a good idea. They insisted that if it was legally self-defense in the moment of the use of deadly force (as it may or may not have been), then there can be no basis for criticizing the policies and ideology that encouraged the creation of the need to use deadly force, neglecting to recognize the fact that the entire encounter was a function of Zimmerman choosing to go out with a gun and look for people to “defend” himself against, and neglecting to notice the implications of his choosing to “defend” himself against an unarmed black teen walking home from the store. Following this incident, numerous right-wing posts on Facebook showed “scary” black criminals as some kind of a justification for whites going out with guns, pursuing unarmed black teens, and shooting them to death.
10) Those societies that have a more proactive and less reactive orientation –that recognize that we affect the propensity and ability to commit violent acts by the cultural milieu that we create together, that recognize that taking better care of one another and providing more social justice and less destitution, and making access to instruments of deadly violence less rather than more easy , by reducing the flood of instruments of deadly violence and the idolization of instruments of deadly violence which in part define our society— have far lower rates of deadly violence than we do, far lower rates of incarceration, far lower rates of poverty and other social ills, healthier and (according to self-report survey studies) happier populations.
11) Unfortunately, the far-right in America insists that to recognize our interdependence, to be an aspirational and hopeful rather than fearful and angry society, to be proactive and caring rather than reactive and retributive, would be an affront to their “liberty,” and thus opposes such progress in an obviously preferable direction, a direction which is more humane and productive and life-affirming.
Part V: Their Ideology’s Historical Predecessors.
1) The abuse of the concept of “liberty” to mean the liberty to benefit disproportionately from an unjust system which results in a grossly unjust distribution of wealth and opportunity, the identification of the federal government as a threat to that “liberty” and a tyrant because of it, is an ideology that has existed as long as our country has existed.
2) This conflation of the concepts of “liberty” and “property,” and the related reduction of “liberty” to a socially irresponsible license to exploit and oppress others for one’s own benefit, was originally the ideology of Southern Slave owners, who insisted that their liberty to own slave was being threatened by the tyrannical federal government, an ideology explicated in John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty,” in which he argued that the “minority” (southern slave owners) had to be protected from the majority who were trying to infringe on their “liberty” to own slaves.
3) It continued to be used by Southern Segregationists, who argued that any attempt to end Jim Crow and ensure the civil rights of discriminated against groups would be an infringement on their freedom.
4) In fact, when LBJ was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the result was the movement of racists from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, where they now reside.
5) Rand Paul said that he would not have been able to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The abolition of slavery (even to the point of having to use years of military force) and the passage of laws protecting African Americans and others from discrimination in the public sphere were both federal governmental exercises of power.
6) The Right currently favors Jim Crow-like voter suppression laws based on a discredited pretext, dismisses as irrelevant the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store by an armed vigilante out looking for people to defend himself against, opposes laws which address a historical legacy of an inequality of opportunity in America which disproportionately effects those categories of people who have been most historically discriminated against, speak in words and tones highly reminiscent of our nationally embarrassing McCarthyist witch trial era, and, in general, demonstrate that they are simply the current incarnation of an old historical perennial.
7) When confronted by those who disagree with them, people they constantly vilify and refuse to engage in any constructive national discourse with, they react with great hostility, their primary argument generally being that the act of presenting the factual and logical and moral errors in their ideology to them is an insult that cannot be tolerated.
Part VI: Their Short-Sighted, Socially Disintegrative and Globally Destructive Ideology.
1) Those on the far-right dismiss as a bastion of liberal bias precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze and contemplate information, thus insulating their dogma from any intrusion of fact and reason. (It’s no wonder, then, that only 6% of American scientists self-identify as Republican, and only 9% as conservative, compared to 55% as Democrat and 52% as liberal. 14% identify themselves as “very liberal,” over 50% more than those who identify themselves as merely “conservative.)
2) By doing so, they are able to dismiss scientific insights into the potentially catastrophic impact we are having on global natural systems through our unchecked accelerating exploitation of Nature in service to our immediate appetites and avarice, an exploitation which is converting us from fellow symbiotes in a sustainable biosphere into deadly parasites killing the host on which we are feeding.
3) Consistent with the general tone and tenor of their entire ideological package, this rejection of methodological thought and short-sighted commitment to immediate self-gratification, at the expense of others, at the expense of our planet, at the expense of our future, is an expression of a primal unmindfulness rather than the more mindful engagement with the world that we are capable of. It is a vestige of primitive inclinations rather than a progress into a more fully conscious existence on this planet. It is the rejection of the shared human endeavor that had begun to define us, a shared reaching for what we are capable of creating together, a shared commitment to reason and humanity.
This is, of course, a very partial list of the logical, factual, and moral fallacies that define the modern Far-Right. It is a single folly comprised of innumerable dimensions, including the failure to invest in children and families and communities, to value the health and welfare of our population, to have compassion and respect for those who migrate towards opportunity and do our hardest and least pleasant jobs for us for the lowest wages. It includes the disdain for gays and lesbians and transgender people, for Muslims and atheists and all those who differ in any way which triggers any number of deep and hateful bigotries. It includes the movement for an American Theocracy similar to those in the Middle East, in which Fundamentalist Christians strive to turn the state into a vehicle for their tyrannical religious fanaticism.
All of these multiple dimensions of far-right-wing folly and barbarism are part of a single, coherent package, an ideology of fear and hatred, of a variety of in-group/out-group biases and bigotries, an ideology which insists that we must not govern ourselves in ways which promote human welfare but only in ways which react brutally to the failure to do so, an ideology which eschews more effective and less costly preventions in favor of less effective and more costly reactions to problems left to fester and grow. It is an ideology which refuses to allow us, as a society, to invest in our future, to recognize our interdependence and our responsibilities to one another as human beings, and to work together intelligently and humanely in service to our collective welfare.
They’re on the wrong side of fact, the wrong side of reason, the wrong side of morality, and the wrong side of history. And they’re smug about it. We, as a nation and a world, do need a moderately conservative voice to be a vital participant in our national dialogue, but we all need to subordinate such ideological leanings to a shared commitment to being rational and humane people, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. While all of us fall short of that commitment to some degree and at some times, when factions form that demonstrate a consistent determination to be the diametrical opposite of rational and humane participants in a shared national endeavor, those factions become the problem we must solve rather than participants in our effort to solve it.
The following is an (edited) exchange that occurred on a thread following a Facebook wall post of a video of a woman whose parents were shot to death by an attacker, supposedly as a direct result of her inability to carry a handgun herself, testifying to Congress against gun regulations years ago. The original poster and most participants on the thread were congratulatory of the oration and convinced that it was a compelling argument against gun regulation. (I will give Jim -whose last name I deleted out of respect for privacy- kudos for his civility in the discussion, something I should have done in the course of that discussion.)
Steve Harvey: This is the perennial problem with your entire ideology, and not just as it relates to this issue: You don’t understand the effects of different levels of analysis (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), or the different applications and relative weights of anecdotal versus statistical evidence. Let’s take the latter issue first.
Using anecdotal evidence similar to that presented in this video, I can argue against public service messages encouraging the use of seatbelts because I can relate an incident in which it was the wearing of a seatbelt rather than the failure to which led to a passenger’s death in a crash. It has happened, and the story can be told, hundreds of times in fact.
But the statistical fact is that it is far, far more likely that not wearing a seatbelt will lead to a death that would not have occurred had the seatbelt been worn. Just as, statistically, legally obtained, privately owned firearms are many, many times more likely to be used in EACH of the following: suicide, accidental or mistaken shooting, felony, crime of passion, escalation of an altercation resulting in the death or injury of an innocent person, provocation of an armed assailant who would not otherwise have fired on and injured or killed the victim.
In cross-national comparisons, there is a clear correlation between rates of deadly violence and laxity of gun regulations. Your ideology is based on the belief that the height of human civilization is a state of mutual universal threat of deadly violence, an approach which has defined many historical milieus, and has always resulted in higher rates of deadly violence than centralized pacification of force. Examples are international relations (endemic warfare), 19th century Appalachia (endemic feuding), and Somalia today. You argue the virtues of a primitive and violent approach to civilization that all history and all reason militate against.
And then you’re smug when you abuse anecdotal evidence, as it is so often and so easily abused, in the pretense that it is an actual argument supporting your position. Either get a clue, or learn how to defer to those who have one. Most Americans are sick and tired of being burdened with the insistence of irrational, fact-allergic fanatics that we live in an insanely violent nation, far more violent than any other developed nation. Most Americans believe that it is unnecessary, that we can do better, and that we owe it to the innocent victims and their survivors of our off-the-charts rates of deadly violence to address the problem in all of its dimensions, becoming a rational and humane people at last, like the rest of the developed world.
Those who insist that we must not include gun regulations in the mix of how to address this problem have the blood of innocent victims on their hands, including the blood of those 20 small children in Newtown. And if that is where your priorities lie, then shame on you. Shame on you.
Jim: Hello, Steve. You make a very good argument. Having said that, I ask you. Picture this, you, your wife and your children have just walked out of a very nice restaurant, headed towards your car, when you see this thug headed straight for you at a fast pace. He flashes a pistol as he approaches, in a moment you realize he means to cause harm to you and your family. Now I ask you: Would you rather have the opportunity to defend yourself and family with that .380 auto you have tucked in your waistband or would you rather defend yourself by spouting off the more “civilized” approach of explaining to him why you don’t carry a gun? I personally, lead a very peaceful life, but I am not naive enough to not realize that when I am met with force, that I must be prepared to answer it with force. Particularly when it comes to defending what’s dear to my heart. I wish you well. -Jim
Steve Harvey: Again, Jim, you want to reduce an issue of social policy to a carefully selected scenario that scrubs out most of the relevant contextual information. If we can implement policies that reduce the likelihood of my family being placed in such danger, that is preferable to a policy which increases the likelihood but arms me to deal with it, the latter resulting in a far higher rate of violent death than the former.
It’s like asking, “But Steve, if there were a nuclear missile heading toward Denver, wouldn’t you want to have your finger on the trigger of a ballistic missile that might be able to detonate it before it reaches any population center? So, therefore, don’t you think that everyone should have personal access to nuclear armed warheads?” No, I don’t.
Jim: Well, you make a very good point. Except. In the real world. The world that is today’s world, I believe that my scenario is very realistic. I don’t think that it in any way promotes violence when law abiding people choose to carry a weapon for protection. The pacifistic approach that I am getting from you is sad. Stand up for your rights. Think on this, when an atheist is faced with certain death…he’ll pray to God. When some thug kicks in the door to your home, you’re going to call the police…someone who has a gun. Then of course you too will be praying that they get there in time to protect you! Now that, Steve, is what today’s world is about. -Jim
Steve Harvey: What you think isn’t as important as what the evidence indicates. In a comparison of developed nations, we have both by far more lax gun regulations than almost all others (Switzerland and Canada provide more complex possible exceptions, though it depends on how you look at the nature of the regulations), and by far higher rates of deadly violence (2 to 11 times the homicide rate of every other developed nation on Earth, with the average tending toward the higher end of that range). Your policy increases the threat to all of us and increases the rate of accidental and mistaken shootings (as well criminal uses of firearms) far more than it increases the rate at which people successfully defend themselves against such attacks. Facts are an inconvenient thing for ideologues, but our public policies should be based on facts, not arbitrary fabrications that serve a blind ideology. I have no interest in your caricature of reality; I’m interested in rational and humane self-governance.
Again, I refer you to the essay I linked to above (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). It addresses all of your points, and does so very decisively. I am standing up for my rights: My right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, of which I can be deprived not just by a government, but also by a government’s failure to exercise its Constitutionally defined police powers. Your policy increases rather than decreases the threat to my, and my daughter’s, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Therefore I stand up against it, with great passion and conviction, not as a pacifist, but as a rational and humane person who looks at the evidence and bases his positions on it.
In making arguments, there are three dimensions to be attended to: Logos, pathos, and ethos. What is the most logical position? What position appeals to the emotions? And what position is most humane and right? When you can align all three of those, you have a good argument. When you use one to obfuscate failure on the other two (and especially when you use any to undermine logos), you have a very bad and very counterproductive argument.
Logos: Cross-national statistical evidence strongly demonstrates that more stringent gun regulation leads to reductions in deadly violence. (Intranational evidence has to take into account an unobstructed internal market, and the ease with which arms bought in one location are transported to another within a country, looking at where arms are bought as well as where they are used.)
Pathos: 20 dead first graders; major mass shootings occurring with increasing, troubling frequency; the horror of violent death and the loss of loved ones.
Ethos: We should not strive to achieve some sort of balance of violent supposedly “good guys” (like the one who shot an unarmed black teen walking home from the store) and violent “bad guys,” but rather a reduction in deadly violence, in the notion that deadly violence is the answer, and the accessibility of the means of deadly violence.
It’s time for more “real Americans” to be rational and humane people, because that’s the “real America” that most of us want to live in.
Jim: Let me ask you, do you think that more stringent gun control will take guns out of the hands of criminals? That’s a very naive thought. Secondly, it seems that you have already decided the case with Treyvon Martin. Witnesses have already stated that he was on top of George Zimmerman beating the hell out of him. Self-defense? The courts will decide. Basically, you are a pacifist. Although you do make a good argument, I can find just as many well written and articulate arguments that would negate your statements. Basically, what it comes down to is that as an individual you make a conscience decision to either exercise your right to protect yourself or depend on others to do that for you. AKA. Government. I, and many others like me don’t want to depend on our government to take care of our needs. Personally, history shows, they do a lousy job of it! Obviously, Steve, you have made your decision, and I have certainly made mine. -Jim
Steve Harvey: Jim, let’s start with Trayvon Martin. Actually, all I did was state an undisputed fact, which you find inconvenient enough to confuse with anything under contention. There is no dispute over the fact that Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That simple fact makes the incident sound as bad as it is, whether self-defense was involved or not, because the fact is that there would never have been any need for Zimmerman to defend himself had he not instigated the encounter in his quest to assertively find people to “defend” himself against.
The courts will decide if it was self-defense at the moment it occurred, not if the need for self-defense was created by the orientation and philosophy you are now advocating, which is clearly the case. If Zimmerman had never pursued that unarmed kid walking home from the store, creating an altercation that would not otherwise have occurred, Zimmerman would never have needed to defend himself from that kid.
it’s a bizarre and horrifying ideology that says it’s okay to go out with a gun and pursue an unarmed kid who you assume might be a threat (possibly affected by racial prejudice), and then defend yourself with deadly force when that unarmed kid defends himself against you, the armed pursuer, but that the kid had no right to be concerned about being pursued in the first place! The bottom line is, the shooting death of that unarmed teen walking home from the store never would have occurred had Zimmerman not been out assertively seeking people to defend himself against. The fact that the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store does not trouble you is part of the horror many of us feel at the resurgence of your disgusting ideology.
And that is exactly the point. Your ideology increases the rate of violence, by being committed to violence in such a deep and pathological way. People eager to go out and defend themselves against threats end up being intentional or unintentional instigators of violence, as Zimmerman was, without a doubt, in that case. Your ideology creates or increases the violence it purports to defend against.
The mass shootings are frequently committed by mentally unstable people who otherwise are not “criminals.” They acquire their weapons legally, or from someone they know who acquired them legally, and would not have been well equipped to acquire them illegally, which is a function of having the connections and criminal knowledge necessary.
Furthermore, weapons aren’t dangerous to innocent people only in the hands of “criminals.” Accidental shootings, mistaken shootings, suicides, crimes of passion (by otherwise law abiding people), escalations of violence in an altercation or home invasion (a home owner confronting an intruder with a weapon is four times more likely to be shot and killed than other home owners in a home invasion scenario), are all far, far more common than the successful use of a firearm in defense of person or property. The price the rest of us pay for your illusion of increased safety is the reality of increased danger to ourselves and our children.
The Zimmerman-Martin incident demonstrates that innocent people have as much to fear from the so-called “good guys” as from the “bad guys.” That’s because we all have much to fear from violent people who are primitive enough to believe that violence is the best and highest possible solution to violence. Most of us know that that’s absurd, and most of us don’t want to live in that kind of a primitive, archaic world.
Furthermore, no one is arguing for a gun ban. We are only arguing for reasonable regulations on military grade arms and accessories, whose sole purpose is to maximize the carnage done to human beings in mass slaughters. And you folks are so insane that you try to prevent that discussion from happening by skipping straight to the straw man argument that you have a right to guns no one is taking away from you.
As for my supposed “naiveté”: Since every single other developed nation on Earth has managed to accomplish what you claim we can’t, and since there are in fact ways of doing it (control the manufacture and distribution of bullets, for instance, without which the weapons are just very awkward and unwieldy clubs), the answer to your question is: Of course we can reduce the ease of accessibility of arms and accessories. There’s no doubt about it.
You address my arguments by claiming that there are just as good ones supporting your view, though you can’t provide them. That’s a backdoor attempt to raise irrationality to a par with reason, by refuting reason through the claim that reason is no better than its absence, since any position, in your view, can be argued rationally. In the real world, that’s not the case; some arguments are better than others, and that’s why people who use fact and reason professionally overwhelmingly reject your ideology, which generally runs counter to fact and reason. (It’s one incarnation of a right-wing two-step I’ve often seen: Rely on the relativistic claim that all opinions are equal to insulate yours from fact and reason, and then in another context claim that yours is irrefutable truth, because to think otherwise would be to commit the error of relativism!)
In fact, your ideology has identified and dismissed precisely those professions that use disciplined methodologies to gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information as bastions of liberalism, never pausing to ask why it might be so that precisely those professions that systematically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information would be bastions of liberalism, and what lesson that fact might hold for you.
Again, I’ve addressed all of your points in the essay I linked to (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). Every single one of them. And just repeating debunked arguments doesn’t make them any stronger, or any less debunked. You make very clear which of the two narratives I describe you are committed to, and I make very clear why and how it imposes tragic costs on all of us.
Jim: Now that was a mouthful! Steve, while you command a mastery over the English language, all I can hear is, blah, blah, Liberal, blah, blah, BS. It’s not for lack of intelligence. You just simply believe you’re right-I believe I am. I think our President is hell bent on making people dependent of Government. You believe he is the anointed one. I see him hell bent on destroying America and systematically taking away our rights. You think “it’s all good”. I hope the evil lurking in the shadows never makes itself known to you…you will not be prepared to meet it. -Jim
Steve Harvey: All you hear is “blah blah blah blah” because I’m making actual arguments, citing actual statistics, and applying actual reason to them, and that, to you, is anathema. Your response is devoid of fact, devoid of any reasoned argument of any kind, filled with irrelevant noise (we weren’t discussing, and I made no comment about, our respective opinions of the current president, for instance), and regresses to a mere series of sounds signifying your blind ideological conviction. And THAT is both the difference between us, and the defining distinction in the political divide in America today: Irrationality in service to primitive, tribalistic impulses, v. reason in service to humanity. (See Un-Jamming the Signal.)
You want to reduce public discourse to a competition of arbitrary opinions, treating evidence and reason as irrelevant. (In this case, in fact, both reason and the majority of Americans are up against an inhumane and irrational position backed by a powerful, predatory industry and its organizational lobbyist: The gun industry and the NRA). I want us to govern ourselves as rational and humane people doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world.
I’m not unaware of the world’s dangers: I was an enlisted soldier in the Army infantry, have traveled all over the world and lived in some hot spots, did urban outreach work with heroin addicts, have taught in tough inner-city high schools, have done nonprofit work inside detention centers, and taught, among other things, college criminology classes. I know about the world, but that knowledge simply doesn’t lead to your conclusion that the ubiquitous mutual threat and availability of deadly violence is good for society. In fact, it strongly militates against that conclusion, which is why law enforcement officials overwhelmingly disagree with you.
The most dangerous and ubiquitous of evils in America is not lurking in the shadows, and it has once again just made itself known to me. I will continue to meet it, prepared, as I am, with knowledge, comprehension, and a commitment to humanity.
Part I: The Battle Of Narratives
There are two competing narratives at work in the gun control debate (narratives that, in general form, define many of the debates dividing the political “left” and the political “right”). One narrative views the world as a dangerous place, with bad people who do bad things, and that therefore an armed populace needs to be ready to stop those bad people before they can do bad things. Another narrative views the world as not just a dangerous place, but also a promising place and a complex and challenging place, a place where the number of bad people, and the degree to which they are equipped to do bad things, can vary according to the arrangements by which we coexist. In the latter narrative, the former narrative is seen as a facilitator of violence more than as a bulwark against it, a set of memes which increase rather than decrease both the reliance on and recourse to violence as a fundamental defining characteristic of our society.
The first narrative seeks a static equilibrium in which bad people are counterbalanced by good people equally well armed. The second narrative seeks an evolving condition through which both the inclination toward and means to commit acts of violence are gradually reduced through policies which address both the causes of those inclinations and the instruments through which they are realized.
More fundamentally, the first narrative is locked into a status quo rooted in mutual fear and antagonism, whereas the second narrative is reaching for paradigm shifts based on addressing underlying causes and reducing violence by proactively addressing the human physical and socio-emotional needs of our populace to a greater extent.
We are, in fact, by far the most violent developed nation on Earth, as measured by homicide rates. We are also by far the most violent developed nation on Earth according to several other measures, such as gun laws which are based on a paradigm of readiness for violence, capital punishment and in general a very retributive penal system, violent video games and movies, and a too frequently militaristic orientation toward the world.
The adherents to the first narrative want to deny any causal relationship between our lax gun regulations and our high murder rates. I want to emphasize that regardless of whether such direct causal relationships exist, a subtler and more systemic relationship certainly exists: We are a violent culture because we are a violent culture. In other words, our dramatically higher rates of acts of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations are rooted in our dramatically more pervasive attitudes favoring violence in comparison to other developed nations. And, arguably, the rise in (generally non-lethal) violence that those other developed nations have experienced in recent decades is attributable to the export of some of the products and modalities of our globally hegemonic violent culture.
There is much we need to do to address our culture of violence in America. I have frequently said, throughout all of the discussions in the wake of repeated mass public murders, that the most fundamental factors and challenges do not involve guns: It is more about becoming a society that is more able to lift one another up and less eager to knock one another down, a society that looks for ways to take care of one another rather than for rationalizations not to, a society that addresses problems more by preventing their growth than be reacting to their presence.
What concerns me most about the very strongly positive attitudes toward firearms expressed on many blogs and message boards are the attitudes themselves, a belief that instruments of violence are the defining tool of civilization, and a belief that the best we can do is to impose on one another the constant, ubiquitous threat of mutually available deadly force.
The social order based on mutual threat is not an optimal social order, because it leads to more violence than a social order based on centralized pacification of mutual threat. In 19th century Appalachia, there was little formal government or police, so the inhabitants forged a social order based on mutual threat of retaliation for doing one another wrong. It worked when it worked, but gave way to spiraling descent into generational violence whenever it broke down. The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is one example.
International relations is another. It is an order based on mutual threat rather than centralized government, and it is a more violent order, with more breakdowns in the peace, than that of a political unit with a functioning government. That’s the purpose of government; that’s what it can be used for: To remove the need to create a precarious order based on the threat of mutual violence, and replace it with the knowledge that mutual violence isn’t acceptable.
Yes, those laws have to be enforced. But using the degree to which any government inevitably fails to (because there is always a failure rate) as a justification for giving up on government as the pacifying agency of a society, and returning instead to the more precarious and less effective paradigm of mutually threatened deadly violence, is a regress away from being a functioning society.
We can’t solve our problems or grow as a society into something ever-better simply by pitting the “good guys” against the “bad guys” in a societal wide gunfight. We have to pit ourselves as individuals and as a society against our own demons as human beings, our own foibles. And that requires thinking in different ways, on different levels of analysis, with greater aspirations and more commitment to the possibilities.
Part II: The Abuse of the Second Amendment
1) Discussion of the meaning of the term at the time of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution (such as in Federalist Papers #29 by Alexander Hamilton) clearly defined “a well-regulated militia” as a state militia rather than as any gathering of individual gun owners. The Constitution itself, in Article II, Sec. 2, Clause 1, states that “The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual service of the United States.” In other words, militia are seen as organized at the state level rather than as being any group of citizens who choose to bear arms together. Also, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 15, the Constitution states, “The Congress shall have Power To …provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions….” In other words, the Constitution expresses in plain language that it envisions the purpose of an armed militia to be the suppression of insurrections, not the equipping of them. The notion that the Second Amendment is intended as providing a right to rebel is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous; the foundational law of a nation cannot and does not, ever, include the provision “but feel free to ignore the law, or arrogate to yourself final judgment on the meaning of the law in deference to your own manias, if you disagree.”
2) By one historical analysis, the “well-regulated militia” language referred to, in part, the state and local militias southern states relied on to suppress slave uprisings. Since the south feared that the growing abolitionist sentiments of the northern states would lead to the use of the federal government to deny the southern states this indispensable recourse to violent preservation of their inverted understanding of what “liberty” means, they made the inclusion of the second amendment a requisite to their ratification of the Constitution.
3) Even disregarding that particular historical analysis and accepting the conventional mythology instead, at no time previously in our history has the Second Amendment been interpreted to provide the absolute individual right to own and carry any firearms any time anywhere that our current gun idolaters insist it grants them.
4) The language of the Second Amendment is clearly ambiguous, and the emphasis on a “well-regulated militia” clearly leaves room to regulate gun ownership. While there is a great deal of right-wing sophistry dedicated to redefining the word “regulated” in the Second Amendment so that it no longer means “regulated,” the fact is that the plain language of the Second Amendment endorses the concept of regulation.
5) The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, not any and all arms in any and all times, places and circumstances. Just as the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anywhere, any time, and for any purpose (it depends on the forum, on whether unfettered speech can impede the purpose of that forum, and whether the speech is malicious and harmful), so to it is well within the discretion of local, state and federal governments to limit what kinds of arms can be borne, where and when they can be borne, and for what purpose they can be borne (recent incidents of gun idolaters brandishing their arms in restaurants and at kids’ ball games, causing patrons to flee and the game to be cancelled, is an example of how the unfettered right can be used for malicious purpose without necessarily firing a shot or explicitly threatening anyone).
6) Such ambiguities in Constitutional provisions are made functional through a process of legal interpretation and the institution of judicial review, by which the courts (and ultimately The Supreme Court) has the final word on legal interpretation. In the absence of judicial review, the Constitution would be reduced to a meaningless Rorschach Test on which each ideological faction superimposes its own ideological preferences and, through lack of any system for resolving such disputes, destroy the Constitution as a functioning legal document.
7) Even the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court, in holding for the first time in American history that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right, emphasized that the Second Amendment does not confer an absolute right, and that it does not prohibit reasonable regulations of firearm ownership and possession.
8) By no reading of the Constitution, past or present, at any time in our history or by the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court, are such marginal restrictions as universal background checks or bans on high capacity clips (laws which got three Democratic state senators recalled, in an abuse of the recall by our fanatical gun idolaters) a violation of the Second Amendment or in any way unconstitutional. Declaring them so is akin to declaring “unconstitutional” a teacher’s request of a student to stop disrupting a high school class with constant loud yelling of obscenities and other verbal misbehaviors, since it is a governmental action limiting a person’s speech. None of our rights are unlimited in that way, and no rational person believes they are.
9) In any case, when discussing these issues, we should always discuss legality, reality, and morality, not just one to the exclusion of the others. The ideal we are challenged to approach is the perfect alignment of the three. The quasi-sacred status of the Constitution means that when people cite it, and particularly the Bill of Rights, they do so as if that answers all three questions automatically. In truth, it only answers the question about current legality, not about morality (what really best serves our shared humanity) or reality (what a pragmatic recognition of the current social institutional landscape recommends). Citing The Second Amendment, regardless of its interpretation, does not prove either the morality or the practicality of our gun culture and the laws which help to perpetuate it; it is only a discussion of legality, and, as popular sovereigns, it is always our responsibility to question whether current legality aligns well with reality and morality or not.
Part III: Why the “Defense Against Tyranny” Argument Has It Backwards
1) Neither violence nor the general threat of tyranny are likely ever to cease. But we can affect the RATE at which violence occurs, and the DEGREE of the threat of the imposition of dictatorship, and, in fact, in the modern context, BOTH are reduced by a less rather than more heavily armed population.
2) The right-wing belief that an armed population reduces the chance of dictatorship is questionable, since armed factions can as easily band together for the purpose of overthrowing the rule of law and imposing their own dictatorship as for the purpose of preventing a government that has no need to use such force from doing so.
3) The political economy of developed nations has developed in such a way that the means of exercising power, and the benefits of that power, are much less dependent on the overt use of force against one’s own population, and much more dependent on the continued peaceful rule of law, than in any previous era.
4) In other words, it’s really not in “the government’s” interests to fundamentally change the current status quo, and the current institutionalized rule of law.
5) The very notion of “the government” is a bit of a fiction, especially in a modern democracy; it’s really a large, complex institution comprised of numerous people and branches with frequently conflicting interests, held increasingly in check by a combination of size, non-monolithic interests, and a complex web of civil restraints. The notion that these millions of people, or even hundreds of very centralized and influential actors will at any time in the foreseeable future have either the desire or ability to conspire to overthrow the system from which they already enormously benefit, in a political culture in which it would only serve to bring infamy and resistance down upon them and would almost under no circumstances succeed in actually improving any aspect of their lives by any measure, is a very large stretch of the imagination.
6) The notion that a heavily armed faction of grease-painted citizen-fanatics, not so steeped in the reality of our political economic landscape, not so socialized into the pragmatic demands of the governance of a modern nation, might engage in activities which harm people and threaten our rule of law, is not at all a stretch of the imagination (in fact, there are numerous examples of it occurring in relatively recent history).
7) Of the two threats to the rule of law in America, to our continued liberty and prosperity and security, it is beyond apparent that the by-far larger threat comes from the armed ideological fanatics, steeped in fictionalized nationalistic narratives, vicariously reliving the overly-sanctified centuries old birth of our nation due to a lifetime of political indoctrination that gradually detached them from any strong tether to modern reality.
8) I would much rather take my chances with the population of current and future political office-holders who have no need or benefit from recourse to violent suppression of the American people, than with any number of potential armed citizen factions whose ideological zealotry and fanaticism could at any time get the better of them and lead to unnecessary and counterproductive armed insurrection, destroying the nation they claim to wish to defend.
Part IV: Why the “Can’t Keep Guns Out Of The Hands Of Criminals” Argument Is both Defeatist and Empirically Refuted
1) I don’t accept the notion that, when confronted with a social problem, we should ever start off with the assumption that there is something physically possible that we are not able to accomplish. When Apollo 13 was stranded in space, the NASA engineers poured everything onto the table, and figured out how to get the job done, and, against overwhelming odds, did get the job done. Starting any policy debate with “it can’t be done” is not who and what we have ever been, nor who and what we should be now. We might, after very careful and thorough analysis, decide that the costs outweigh the benefits, but that should come at the end of a process rather than be mobilized upfront to preempt that process entirely.
2) Almost every other developed nation on Earth has succeeded in doing what these nay-sayers insist we are incapable of. If they can do it, we can too. And they did it without undermining the protection of basic liberties like freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the right to privacy and due process.
3) While we try to tackle this challenge, we can fairly effectively regulate the production and distribution of rounds for specific types of firearms that we decide are not in our public interest to be easily available to anyone at any time. Without those rounds, the firearms become just unwieldy clubs.
4) In Australia, a rugged individualist, frontier society somewhat similar to the US, when strict gun regulations were enacted several years ago in response to a mass public shooting there, the arguments against it were identical to the ones we hear in America today. Even so, Australia has seen a marked and sustained drop in their homicide rates every year since enacting these strict regulations, and even many of the former naysayers now admit that they were wrong.
5) The real measure of comparative homicide rates shows that the assumption that guns can’t be kept out of the hands of criminals, or that the balance of gun ownership when regulations are imposed favors criminals, is erroneous, since, those countries with stricter regulations have lower homicide rates while those with laxer regulations have higher homicide rates.
6) Anecdotal evidence about high murder rates in cities with strict regulations is often mobilized as “proof” that regulations don’t work. There are several fallacies to this argument:
- It relies on cherry-picked evidence, ignoring, for instance, cities with strict regulations and low murder rates;
- anecdotal evidence never trumps contradictory statistical evidence; for instance, citing all of the cases in which wearing a seatbelt caused rather than prevented a death in an automobile accident does not change the fact that it is statistically far safer to wear a seatbelt than not to wear one;
- in a country with no internal barriers to the movement of goods across state and municipal lines, local regulations are undermined by laxer regulations elsewhere, an observation underscored by the fact that the overwhelming majority of firearms used in the commission of a crime anywhere in the United States are originally put into circulation by being legally purchased in those jurisdictions with the laxest regulations; and
- this anecdotal argument confuses the causal relationship, neglecting to note that the stricter regulations are generally caused by the problem of comparatively high homicide rates, thus requiring a comparison of homicide rates in that locale prior and subsequent to the passage of the restrictions in order to make any meaningful argument, rather than a generic reference to “high murder rates” in a vacuum.
Part V: Why The “Increases Personal Safety” Argument Has It Backwards
The statistical evidence very compellingly suggests that owning firearms makes people less rather than more safe. For every successful use of a firearm by a civilian to defend person or property, EACH of the following uses occurs numerous times: accidental shooting, suicide, crime of passion, use in escalation of a fight or in “mistaken” self-defense, commission of a felony, and, most ironically of all, the person trying to defend self or property getting shot him or herself.
An armed homeowner who confronts the intruder is four times more likely to get shot in a home invasion incident than an unarmed homeowner. A gun owner is more likely to be killed by gun violence than a non-gun-owner. A gun in the home is more likely to be the instrument of death of a member of the household, of or a friend of a member of the household, than to be used in self-defense.
And what was the outcome in the most recent notorious case of an armed “good guy” trying to protect his neighbors’ property from the “bad guys”? He ended up shooting to death an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That kind of “safety” we can all live without, because far too many end up not living as a result.
Again, the fact is that we have the highest private gun ownership rate in the world and the laxest gun regulations of any developed nation, and have the second highest homicide rate of 33 OECD countries, 2 to 25 times higher than that of all but two. Both intranationally (across US jurisdictions) and internationally (among developed nations), gun ownership rates are positively correlated with homicide rates.
The proliferation and lack of regulation of guns increases homicide rates. A gun in the home increases the danger to the people living in it and visiting it. Ownership of a gun increases one’s odds of being shot to death. The gun-idolaters are not increasing our safety with their mania, but rather decreasing it, dramatically.
Part VI: Possibly the Two Dumbest Slogans in Political Discourse
1) “Guns don’t kill; people do.” By this logic, it shouldn’t matter whether terrorists or rogue nations gain access to nuclear weapons, because, after all, “nuclear weapons don’t kill; people do.” Of course, we all recognize that tools and technologies do, in fact, matter. The modern world would look no different from the premodern one if that were not the case, and there would be no reason not to sell nukes at corner stores to whoever wanted one.
Tools and technologies, by increasing the convenience of accomplishing an act, and increasing the effects of the act being accomplished, amplify both the frequency and intensity of acts committed by people. We travel farther and faster, communicate farther and faster, calculate more and faster, build more and higher, and kill more and faster, as a result of having tools and technologies which facilitate these actions.
If the tool is irrelevant, if only the intention of the people wielding it counts, then why do those who make this argument feel such a need to protect their own access to this tool? If a knife or club kills as well as a gun, why not use a knife or a club yourselves and stop making such an issue out of your right to own guns? The reason is simple: Those who are adamant about their right to own guns know that guns are more efficient tools of deadly violence than the alternatives available in their absence, and they want to have tools of deadly violence as efficient as anyone who might confront them has.
When you inject an overabundance of particularly efficient, convenient and easily misused instruments of deadly violence into the mix of human fallibilities –aggression, anger, rage, fear, panic, carelessness, bad judgment, stupidity, jealousy, greed, depression, despair, mental illness, militant fanaticism, vengefulness, bigotry, overconfidence, insecurity, pettiness, false certainty, immaturity, machismo, vigilantism, hero complex, petulance, and numerous other very normal defects abundantly distributed throughout the human population– you get exactly what we have gotten: A far higher rate of deadly violence than we otherwise would have. Empirical evidence confirms what common sense suggests, and anyone who squints really hard not to see it shares in the responsibility for US intentional homicide rates 2 to 25 times higher than those of other developed countries (not to mention our far higher rates of accidental shootings, frequently involving children).
Yes, guns don’t generally kill without some form of human involvement. But since we can’t eliminate all of the human defects listed above, and since their presence ensures a continuing significant rate at which humans are inclined to inflict, intentionally and unintentionally, deadly violence on other human beings, reducing the convenience and efficiency with which it can be done is a rational policy choice, one which has well-served the rest of the developed world.
Can we please put to rest this incredibly stupid slogan, already?
2) “Gun regulations are useless, because criminals won’t obey them.” Right. Criminals are criminals because they disobey laws. So, does that mean that our laws are useless, since criminals just disobey them anyway? Why have laws against murder, theft, rape, extortion, kidnapping, or anything else for that matter, since criminals just disobey them anyway?
Because we pass laws to make it harder for criminals to commit certain acts, and easier for agents of the public to prevent them from committing certain acts. And ease of access to firearms increases the ease of committing certain criminal (or accidental) acts, including acts of violence, many of which are committed by people who weren’t criminals until the moment they were committed, often because the ease of access of firearms increased the likelihood that a spontaneous act of deadly violence would be committed. The question, when passing a law, isn’t “will the people who are inclined to break this law obey it?” but rather “is this a law that is useful to the general welfare, all things considered?”
The argument that could be made (though I think it is still a bad one), is that gun regulations are particularly hard to enforce. in reality, they’re not. Universal background check law is virtually self-enforcing, the ones who must obey or violate not being “the criminals” who would buy guns despite being prohibited from doing so, but the sellers who are obligated to run a background check before selling to them. Bans on certain kinds of firearms and accessories, similarly, are either violated or complied with by venders, who are not “the criminals” who can be assumed to disobey laws.
Yes, there will be a black market, but one characterized by less ease of access, far higher prices, and diminished supply. That’s how laws work. Those who argue that outlawing anything for which there is any significant demand doesn’t work must, by logical extension, oppose the outlawing of child pornography, but we all know that the outlawing of child pornography is both necessary and useful. Just as is the outlawing of certain military grade weapons and accessories.
Conclusion: The War of All Against All or the Establishment of a Civil Society
There is a battle of narratives in America, with one narrative championing an irrational, counterfactual, and violent ideology, and the other opposing it in service to humanity. The former is rooted in fear and loathing; the latter in hope and aspiration. The former views the height of civilization and human consciousness as something defined by hostility and a mutual readiness for violence; the latter defines it as an articulation of realism and idealism that does not ignore the reality of violence but does not surrender to it as the apex of what we should aspire to. The former contributes to cycles of violence by inviting overreaction and error by the ostensibly well-intended, as well as by increasing the ease of access to instruments of deadly violence for those who misuse them. The latter seeks to reduce the ease of access to instruments of violence, and to promote a focus on the reduction in the underlying causes of an overzealous recourse to violence.
Embedded in this conflict of narratives is the awareness of, versus non-awareness of, a basic element of our shared existence: our fundamental interdependence. Yes, we value individual liberty, but individual liberty is something that emanates from, and has meaning only in the context of, a recognition of interdependence. Our Founding Fathers well understood that, drafting a Constitution inspired by such awareness, and dedicating much of The Federalist Papers to proto-game-theoretic arguments about the need to create a viable agency of collective action. See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for a more detailed discussion of this dimension of the issue.
There is something almost surreal about being in a developed modern nation still trapped in such a primitive and underdeveloped political division. That there are many in this country who aggressively insist that we must be a nation based on and committed to mutual violence, thus unsurprisingly resulting in our having a homicide rate seven times higher than the developed country average, two to twenty five times that of any other developed nation except Mexico (which “benefits” from a constant flood of our arms across their northern border), is simply mind-boggling. And yet that is the situation that we are in. May the sane among us prevail.
Statistics on greater likelihood of privately owned firearm injuring or killing an innocent person than being used in self-defense: http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNSTAT.html
Correlation between easier access to arms and higher homicide rates, both internationally and domestically: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/
More on correlation: https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/fireviol.txt
Controlled statistical research showing the positive net effects of the DC gun regulations: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199112053252305
Study showing efficacy of certain gun regulations: http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2016/03/most_gun_restrictions_dont_wor.html
OECD Homicide Rates: https://www.quandl.com/collections/society/oecd-murder-rates
Two classic statements of the above thesis: http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ and http://www.americanheritage.com/content/america-gun-culture
A recent article on the compatibility of gun regulations with the Second Amendment: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/17/the-second-amendment-is-all-for-gun-control.html
Evidence refuting the claim that armed citizens reduce the risk of gun violence to innocent people: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gun-science-proves-arming-untrained-citizens-bad-idea/
(For more on this topic, see A Gun Control Debate)
For those who are ready for the debate on how to become a kinder, gentler, and less tragic nation (including but not limited to a discussion of the role of our current paradigm regarding firearms), please visit the robust discussion taking place on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page under the post of the gun wrapped in an American flag. http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence
Here’s the story: http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_21118201/unknown-number-people-shot-at-aurora-movie-theater
The first priority now, of course, is taking care of all the people affected by this, showing support, being there for those who need it. Everyone able to offer that moral or material support should do so.
Our second priority is making sure that it never happens again, or happens with far less frequency. We shouldn’t fall into the habit of thinking of this as “an isolated incident,” and treat it the way we might treat a natural disaster, as if it just happens from time to time, and merits mourning but no changes in how we frame our shared existence. Rep. Rhonda Fields, who of course lost her own son to violence, was just on 9-News reminding us that we have to work to ensure that this DOESN’T happen, that we are not a society in the grip of random violence.
And the obvious way for us to stop being such a violent society is for us to stop being such a violent society, in thoughts, in beliefs, in ideology, in how some of us fetishize instruments of destruction, and in actions.
There will be those who insist that it is “wrong” to use this as a catalyst for discussing the underlying social problems involved, but if we don’t draw attention to them in the moments when their consequences explode upon us, then they are more easily minimized by those so inclined in times when their consequences are more remote from our thoughts.
Kyle Clark on 9-News just suggested that we all say or do something nice for someone today so that that ripples out and creates a more caring and mutually supportive society, and Kyle Dyer added that we should do so every day. They’re right; we make our culture and our society through our thoughts and actions. But we shouldn’t live dual lives, one defined by trying to be nice to those around us, and another defined by callousness and a lack of compassion in how we arrange our shared existence.
We need to work to become a different kind of society, a society that believes it’s important to reduce the levels of violence that we suffer, a society that is defined more by how much we care about and support one another than by how much we fear and loathe one another, a society that believes in BEING a society more than it believes in some moral imperative of mutual indifference. We all, as members of a society that participates in the creation of the culture in which we live, share some portion of responsibility for every event of this nature that occurs, either for what we’ve done to cultivate such a violent culture, or for what we’ve failed to do to cultivate something more rational and humane.