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.