Saturday, 15 December 2012

Do the means justify the ends for the right to bear arms?

Joker (Batman)
Photo by Joe Fakih Gomez
Given the recent tragedy in Connecticut, where 20 children were brutally murdered, and given that it followed so soon after the theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (32 dead), the 2009 immigration services shooting in Binghamton, New York (13 dead), the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting (6 dead), and so on, the debate about gun control once again comes to the fore.

Some argue that we should not discuss this while mourning, but if this keeps happening, will we ever not be in mourning? A better viewpoint, in my opinion, is wondering how many people have to die before we start asking if there's something we can do about it. If people are dying from salmonella or E.Coli, we immediately demand better food safety, but we're curiously silent about gun safety. The issue is so politically explosive that neither Romney nor Obama were willing to discuss it in the recent presidential election, despite there being multiple high profile assaults with guns during the campaign.

Sadly, the conversation gets derailed over whether or not we should have this right rather than asking what the right itself means. I've written elsewhere about why Americans demand their right to bear arms, but aside from explaining this right to those who are unaware of the cultural background, there's not much I can contribute to this debate. In fact, I won't even try. "And ne'er the twain shall meet" pretty much sums up the problem.

So rather than ask "what should we do", I'll follow along the path of my wife, the political advisor, and ask "what can we do".

When discussing politics, there's a fair amount of debate regarding whether the ends justify the means. It's a fair debate, too. Would it be acceptable to disenfranchise a few people if we had a demonstrably better country for it? Some might reasonably say "yes". Would it be acceptable to disenfranchise everyone if we had a demonstrably better country for it? Some would still say "yes", but most, I suspect, would not. The right to vote is sacred.

However, let's invert the question. Do the means justify the ends? At first this seems non-sensical,  but it makes perfect sense. Even if the vast majority of Americans voted for a constitutional amendment to overturn the second amendment and we had the necessary states ratify the amendment, people still argue strenuously that taking away guns would lead to civil war. Mind you, it's not just the NRA and like-minded folks who argue this; Americans who would love to ban all guns in the United States often admit that this could lead to widespread violence when the government shows up to take people's guns. Even if you feel that guns should be taken away, how many people would have to die before you agreed that it's not feasible? Do your means justify the ends?

So here's an interesting graph, courtesy of the Washington Post:

Image courtesy Washington Post. Claimed under Fair Use laws.

Note that while the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the "No guns, period" option, most Americans support various laws to try to manage this right. Before you cry "you can't take my guns", I have a question to ask: do you think our Founding Fathers, when asserting our right to bear arms (and the legally savvy know that there's a boatload of issues with the 2nd Amendment), would have included nuclear weapons? No? I should be reasonable? Well, how about sarin or anthrax? Those are arms.

Heck, even the "no guns" crowd agrees that exceptions could be made for hunters or for farmers protecting their livestock from wolves or other predators, so on both sides, we have reasonable room for backing away from the most extreme positions.

So in looking at the chart above, we find that the majority of Americans demand their right to bear arms and would not limit individual gun owner but would support:
  • Background checks
  • Banning semi-automatics
  • Banning high-capacity clips
  • No guns for felons, mentally ill
  • Require gun registration
I'm not arguing for or against any of those positions above, but we need to start talking about the problem and looking for solutions. The United States is far and away the most violent of the major industrialized nations and our gun crime is out of control. There are those who argue that this is the price we pay for a free society and I can only respond: voting rights. If enough people vote in support of the notion of balancing responsibilities and freedom, then managing this right becomes "the price to pay for a free society".

Frankly, I think that's a price I'm willing to pay.

I don't claim to have the answers, but entrenched positions on either side aren't helping America. It's like being an alcoholic: first you have to admit you have a problem.

Update: to those who respond that none of the items in the above list would stop the mass killings, I ask: "what would you suggest, then?" If you say there's nothing we can do about it, then  you're suggesting America is helpless. Is that really what you meant to say? If you don't think the US is helpless, then give some damned suggestions and start participating in the discussion rather than trying to shut it down before it even starts.


  1. I would like the USA to start with your list:
    Background checks
    Banning semi-automatics
    Banning high-capacity clips
    No guns for felons, mentally ill
    Require gun registration

    But I wonder, how friendly would the Americans act when police or other security people come at their door to collect the semi-automatics, and the high-capacity clips? How friendly are they going to react to have to participate in gun registration and background checks, and sometimes even a mental sanity check? I am afraid for the worst.

    I had small discussions about this and other things with American gun owners. The discussions end quickly, because most of the time they get aggressive very very fast. And accuse me of being a f**king European bleeding heart liberal.

    I do agree that these 5 things are the least the Americans should do. And a bit more, if possible... like limit the number of guns per gun owner. How it's done... well, to quote Churchill: "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

    I am quite sure a lot of people will be killed before these 5 measures will finally be put into law, and a lot of other people will be killed to uphold these laws.

  2. In practical terms the police, national guard, or military will never go door to door collecting clips and automatics.

    Probable scenario:
    The law banning will be passed. The owners of the devices will have a window of time to turn them in to the authorities. Most likely there will be a "buy back" where people who voluntarily turn in their weapons receive some level of cash compensation. Ownership will become illegal and those who continue to possess will face the penalties.

    1. Michael, why do you write "probable"? I don't think this scenario is that likely (on a national level) and I do think that many owners would simply not turn in their guns. Further, there is a good chance that there would be serious violence associated with this. Why not compromise and have something "better" instead of nothing at all?

  3. As a general point I worry quite a bit about the "mentally ill" label that always gets trotted out when this sort of thing happens. Statistically mentally ill folk aren't any more prone to violence than the rest of the world ( Yet it's always reported when one of these things come up. Millions of people are mentally ill. They're not more dangerous than any other human. Implying that they are fuels the bigotry and discrimination some friends of mine have to deal with.

    1. Um, well, ah ... damn it. You're right. My apologies for that. I could simply say "I'm just repeating the poll results", but that's not an excuse.

    2. People search for explanations - so it's understandable. But it's extraordinarily pernicious.

      It's like the UK papers in the 70s and 80s. Always "a black man did ", but if it was a white person race never mentioned.

  4. I recommend a relatively recent podcast by Dan Carlin on this issue. Basically he argues that none of the measures you mentioned would be effective:

    1. Again, I don't argue for or against any of those (thanks for the link, btw). Instead, I argue that we should at least talk. I don't see that happening, though.

    2. "A better viewpoint, in my opinion, is wondering how many people have to die before we start asking if there's something we can do about it. If people are dying from salmonella or E.Coli, we immediately demand better food safety, but we're curiously silent about gun safety."

      So this statement gives me the impression that you are arguing -for- a particular thing, that thing being a conversation about gun safety.

      I happen to agree with the original commenter and the thoughts shared by the podcast host. That podcast is on-point IMHO.

    This link is to a Forum that happens to be covering this topic at the moment. (I've posted a few times, but I don't recall whether one has to formally join or not.) One of the lines of discussion is the relationship between US domestic violence and US international violence. That's where the rubber meets the road.

    Two years ago (December 2010) I posted my personal opinion on the topic of "Bearing Arms" in my small Caribbean island. It has some general relevance, I think. Even big cities and big countries are made up of small communities.