Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Case Against Guns

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 10, 1999

Posted to NewsTrolls February 11, 1999

One of the problems with arguing with the NewsTrolls crowd is that they start from such a wide array of political views. For example, in order to make a case for the regulation of guns, I need to make the case for regulation of anything, for there are some people in this community who believe that government regulation of anything is wrong. And no matter what I say, there are elements within that crowd who are not going to sway on that point. To expect further success, in the area of gun ownership, would be unreasonable.

Therefore I am going to take it as at least a given that one of the proper roles of government is to regulate those things which are demonstrably dangerous to public health and safety. This is why all governments have laws prohibiting the private ownership of nuclear weapons. It is held - reasonably, I think - that the risk to the public of either an accidental or deliberate detonation justifies the restriction on personal freedom.

Laws of this sort become necessary when the consequences of misuse are too great to expect some measure of reasonable compensense. How would we punish a person who accidentally detonated a hydrogen bomb in lower Manhatten? No amount of criminal sanction could ever undo such a deed. We restrict the ownership of hydrogen bombs for the precise reason that we do not want it to be possible for someone to commit such a crime.

Now it is true that there are some readers - such as Jet - who would demur at the though of restricting private ownership of nuclear weapons. He would point out - quite reasonably - that placing such weapons in government hands, rather than individual hands, does not diminish individual responsibility for their use. True, and in the case of hydrogen bombs, I would see this as a good reason for banning them altogether, illegal for either private or public party to possess.

But Jet's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, there is a distinction to be drawn between private and public ownership of nuclear weapons. In the case of public ownership, people who, as it were, have their hands on the trigger, are subjected to a measure of public scrutiny, either through the electoral process, or though the screening of military personnel. I would be the first to agree that such screening is inadequate (and hence, that hydrogen bombs ought to be banned altogether), but it seems clear to me, that some screening is better than none.

Therefore I am going to take it as a given that one of the proper roles of government is to regulate the private ownership of nuclear weapons, and that the reason for such regulation is that the risk of private ownership is too great to allow even the possibility of misuse. If you argue that such a ban ought to extend to public agencies as well, I concur, and need not deny the point to make my case. If you argue that the government ought not restrict the private ownership of nuclear weapons, well, then, I will respect your position, but ask you to defer argument for your lonely stand to another thread.

Of course, not all items in the world are as dangerous as hydrogen bombs. And while a general ban on the private ownership of hydrogen bombs might be in order, it may be arguable that a ban on the ownership of less dangerous items, such as Siberian tigers, would not be in order. Clearly, nobody could devastate a significant portion of New York City with a Siberian tiger. Thus, the potential for widespread death and injury is significantly less.

And in fact, I would consider an outright ban on the ownership of Siberian tigers to be unreasonable, even in the face of the fact that they are unarguably dangerous. But does that mean that I would want everyone to be able to be allowed to own - if not actually own - a Siberian tiger? Well - one Siberian tiger may not pose a threat to lower Manhatten, but I would suspect a million of them would be considered outright dangerous.

Were the public ownership of Siberian tigers to be commonplace, they would be found on every block in the city, stored in apartments and garages, sometimes lost and sometimes let lose. Sometimes they would be used to inflict harm on others - especially burglars - but just as often they would inflict harm on their owners, who through ignorance or neglect, accidentally freed the dangerous animals.

Stories of random Siberian tiger attacks in city streets would be common. Every week, a number of small children would be mauled by the family Siberian tiger. As the death toll mounted, citizens would cry out, almost as one, Something must be done! Just as it is common for towns and cities in more frontier regions to take steps to repel dangerous predators, the Siberian tigers of lower Manhatten would be rounded up and either destroyed or sent to less urban climes.

Indeed, it is arguable that the unleasing of a million Siberian tigers in lower Manhatten would result in a death toll, over time, almost as high as the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Over the decades of predation, the death toll would mount into the tens of thousands. True, the crime rate would probably be reduced - who wants to be a night stalker when Siberian tigers are lurking? - but the cost of such a reduction would be seen as greater than the benefits.

Moreover, were somebody to propose that Siberian tigers be imported on a masive scale as a means of private protection, they would quite rightly be ridiculed. No city administrator would sign into law a measure which allowed - much less encouraged - the use of Siberian tigers for personal defense. No politician would ever be elected on a pro-tiger platform. The public, along with its elected representatives, would argue that Siberian tigers are far too dangerous to the public safety, and that their ownership, if not banned outright, ought to be heavily restricted by law.

In general, when an item - either on its own, as in the case of the hydrogen bomb, or as an aggregate, as in the case of Siberian tigers - is deemed to be excessively dangerous to the public safety, then governments ought to ban, or at the very least, severely restrict, ownership of that item.

And in fact, when we look at the array of items that it is possible to own, we find that government has in fact imposed a corresponding array of regulations on ownership, varying from none (as in the case of lolipops, milk cartons, or household furntiure) to limited (as in the case of dogs), to restrictive (as in the case of cars, alcohol, explosives, or pornography) to comprehensive (as in the case of hydrogen bombs).

We could debate at length the merits of any particular set of regulations. But if it is agreed (or stipulated, as above), that government ought to regulate some dangerous things, then such arguments boil down only to the question of (a) how dangerous is the item in question, and (b) how restrictive should legislation be regarding items which are that dangerous. We could use existing laws as a starting point for such a discussion, and with the exception of the issue at hand, a reasonable starting point.

I have already described above how dangerous I believe Siberian tigers are, and I have argued above that the ownership of Siberian tigers ought to be restricted, in fact is restricted, and would continue to be restricted were such a measure put to any electorate.

I now want to argue that guns are as dangerous as Siberian tigers, and in the same way.

A single gun, while significantly dangerous, particularly in the hands of a deranged or irresponsible person, is nonetheless not a general threat to public safety. True, a single gun could cause a lot of death and injury, but it by itself could not dramatically affect the social order or general public peace of an entire nation. However, unleashing a million guns in lower Manhatten would have - and I argue,has had - roughly the same effect as unleashing a million Siberian tigers in that urban area.

At first glance, the statistics appear to support this contention. In a much cited study by Kellermann and Teay, it is argued that guns kept in the home are 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than an intruder. The National centre for Health Statistics reports that Every day, 15 American children are killed with guns, and that U.S. children are 12 times more likely to die by gunfire than children in 25 other industrialized countries combined. And comparisons with other countries seem to point to a relation between guns laws and gun slayings.

This appearance is misleading. Not all studies support the conclusion that guns are dangerous. A number of the studies cited in Gary Kleck's comprehensive work show no co-relation between guns and crime rates, and J. Neil Schulman's site argues in some detail that guns do not even pose a significant risk of accidental death. David B. Kopel disputes a number of the statistics cited above, noting that "the overall fatal gun accident rate for the American population has been declining faster than the rate of most other types of accidents".

As Schulman concludes,

  1. Restricting firearms does not reduce the homicide rate. Look at Scotland and Washington D.C.
  2. Proliferating firearms does not increase the homicide rate. Look at Switzerland, Israel, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and the concealed- carry-weapons licensees in Florida.
  3. Civilians carrying firearms are more safe and effective at deterring crime than are professional police.

Quite so. The argument against guns must run deeper than mere statistics, and indeed, if founded on statistics, would eventually founder.

Consider again the case of Siberian tigers. Were ownership of these pets legalized, as I suggest above, the crime rate would drop. Moreover, as people adapted to an environment where Siberian tigers were common, the incidence even of accidental deaths would decline over time. People would learn better to handle Siberian tigers - especially in nations with high military populations where tiger-ownership was encouraged and tiger-training was essential - and people would learn to protect themselves from tigers, either by purchasing their own tiger or by staying out of places where tigers might likely be found.

Indeed, it would be arguable - and probably argued - that the rise in crime which would result from the criminalization of Siberian tigers would cause more deaths than the current rate of tiger-related crimes.

Yet no society would legalize Siberian tigers, even knowing that it could adapt, and even knowing that some country has adapted, and even knowing that there would be a reduction in crime. Why?

To put the answer slightly dramatically: people would not want to live in a society where they, and not the tigers, are living in cages.

Two examples, from personal experience, illustrate my point:

  1. A number of years ago, I was driving through Montana in a shiny new rented car. It was about seven in the morning and I was running low on gas, so I pulled off the interstate to grab some coffee and some fuel. To be sure, I was a sight: long hair ragged and dirty, flowing beard unkempt, a dirty t-shirt, stained jeans. I had been driving all night so my eyes were bloodshot and my face pale.

    As I settled into the cafe to have a coffee while I waited for the gas station to open, the local mechanic (also having his morning coffee), made sure - discretely - that I saw the pearl handle of his revolver. Immediately - for me - what started as a nice coffee and refreshing break turned into a confrontation; the mechanic had sought to scare me and he had succeeded. No doubt he was also scared of me, and felt comforted by the fact that he could defend himself. But as we had our little armed stand-off, each of us retreated into a shell, the nice conversation I was striking up with the waitress terminated, an otherwise friendly encounter turned into a confrontation between enemies.

    As I pulled out of the little town, having obtained (and paid for) one coffee and a tank of gas, it occurred to me that the mechanic's sense of security was an illusion, that were I a drugged up crazy in search of a little mayhem, that I would have been similarly armed, and would not have waited for him to show me the shiny pearl handle of his revolver. I would have shot first, and the mechanic would have died, his weapon unused.

  2. A friend and I were returning from Hamilton to Edmonton by way of the 'southern route', which takes us through Detroit, Chicago and the Twin Cities. Passing through Gary, Indiana, we were low on gas and so pulled off the highway to refuel.

    It was like entering a war zone. The gas station was near the exit, so we pulled in. Paul pulled out the nozzle and began to fuel - only to see that he had to pay first. The gas bar was like a fortress: a steel grate slid open and he passed his money into a small compartment. The attendant, behind bullet-proof glass, pushed out his change and switched on the pumps.

    As I looked around the slums in that late summer evening, I watched small groups of people walk furtively through the street. They glanced apprehensively in our direction, and also carefully at each other. A group of kids, no more than ten or twelve years old, congregated to one side of the gas bar, looking for all the world like they were a small militia unit.

    We wasted no time leaving the Gas Bar and the city of Gary, Indiana.

Perhaps Americans do not see their own country the way outsiders do. Perhaps they are used to the Siberian tigers in their midst, so much so that most of them seem to have one, and everyone suspects everyone else will unleash a tiger at any instant. But America from the point of view of an outsider is a nation of walled cities (or at least, gated commnities), no-man's-land, hostile encampments, fear, and apprehension.

Even were crime in America lower, even were guns only a minor cause of accidental death - and we would bandy the statistics about - it seems to me that the imprisonment of an entire society seems to me to be far too high a price to pay for that.

For, in the aggregate, guns are as dangerous as Siberian tigers, and just as it would be an intolerable threat to public safety to allow tigers to roam in society at large, so also it is an intoleable threat to allow guns to flow through the community. For even if guns reduce crime, and even if people have learned to thrive - or at least, survive - in such a society, the ongoing existence of such a threat forces people to live in fear of their neighbours and fellow citizens.

For such a society to retreat from its precarious existence and into the realm of civilized intercourse, nothing less than a complete transformation would be required. Not easily will Americans part with their weapons - as in any armed stand-off, the person who puts down his weapon first is defenseless in the face of a hostile enemy. Probably the only solution for the United States is a gradual weaning, one which foussed as much on healing the sickness in society as it did on disarming hostile camps.

But nations can be disarmed. It was done in Nicaragua, and is being done in Northern Ireland, and continues as an evolutionary process in such countries as Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand. But such a disramament is possible only when a substantial proportion of the population rises up and states, No! We will be prisoners in our homes no more!

In the United States, that could be a very long time. More's the pity.


(Note: these resources represent both sides of the debate. Although nothing like a comprehensive collection, they are a sampling of some of the more cogent essays and articles).

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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