Vinod's Blog
Random musings from a libertarian, tech geek...
Thursday, December 18, 2003 - 07:05 AM Permanent link for Guns

I'm going away for a few days on a holiday trip so I thought I'd post something controversial and see what commentary it stirs up.     I generally try to avoid the gun control debate because:

  • it's just so polarizing 
  • there are others who give it a great treatment (here)
  • there are other subjects where I can provide more value add 

I'm a centrist when it comes to guns but, as with all polarizing debates, if you express an opinion, you're automatically tossed into a bucket with the most lunatic fringe either opposition can find.  My personal position is far from Janet Reno's but also far from the Minnesota KKK.  I can live with more gun regulation than your run-of-the-mill Libertarian but probably not as much as your standard Democrat.

This polarization does NOT make for healthy political debate.  

You can guess my leanings but I'm going to avoid directly foisting my opinion.  I'd like to instead select a single angle of attack out of the many on the issue -- Self Defense -- and frame the discussion into 3 summary, axiomatic questions.  This is my attempt to boil away the complexities & propose a couple, simple questions I consider central, divisive and thus illustrative about why & where people agree / disagree with gun logic.

I am NOT trying to directly address these root differences; I'm trying to tease out the philosophic undercurrents beneath surface divide around guns.  So, in logical order:

  1. Is Violence a fact of nature?

    Do you believe that nature is violent?   More importantly, do you believe that HUMAN nature contains the seeds of violence?   Or do you believe in a noble-savage world where violence, if any, was somehow inculculated into the human as a result of adverse socialization (presumably by gun lobbyists)?   If you believe socialization has reduced violence, what happens when humans who are somehow outside of its bounds (criminals, fascists, Islamo-fundamentalists, etc.) come into contact with individuals who choose to live within them?    Can advocacy groups successfully directly target Violence?  

  2. Is Violence sometimes your only tool for dealing with Violence?

    Are there situations where your only solution for escaping from violence is to credibly threaten reciprocal violence?   Or even preemptive violence?  Is the "cycle of violence" therefore perenniel and a Tragic aspect of the Human condition or can it somehow be stopped by one side unilaterally renouncing violence?   From a game theory standpoint, which is the more stable solution from external, violent shocks - a collection of mutually deterred individuals or a collection who've unilaterally renounced violence?

    What would have happened to Gandhi if he'd opposed Saddam, Stalin or Hitler rather than the British? Is the relatively peaceful existance San Franciscans experience maintained through a domestic detente or through collective agreement? Is it a natural, universal, evolutionary end goal or is it the active product of an unseen confluence of factors -- current & historical -- that have provided us a life somewhat devoid of day-to-day contact with the agents of violence?    

  3. Can individuals be trusted to use Violence appropriately?

    Or, can we rely on an agent of the state actually being there in all situations where an individual may encounter violence? If the individual is forced to deal with violence on his own, can he be trusted to make effective choices in his use of counter-violence?  Will individuals generally accept the responsibility required by lawful violence (for ex., criminal prosecution if that violence is abused)?

Strategically, gun control advocates can / need to "win" only one of the questions to "win" the overall debate while the framework burdens gun rights proponents with the need to prove all 3.

Folks who oppose guns 'fall off' this logic train at different points.   Many SF'ers, for example, don't believe that violence lurks under the surface of everyday life and truly consider violence artificial to Nature (or perhaps they don't want to believe it?).   Others may accept that Violence Happens but don't believe that it is occasionally ultimately solved only through the unpleasant tension of deterrence.  As with many socio-political situations, they seek "a 3rd way" that is somehow neither forceful nor capitulating and avoids tension.  And finally, being the good Urban Elitists they are, many SF'ers just don't trust the Common Man.   

I'm expressly NOT invoking other decision frameworks or angles of attack - for ex., strict utilitarianism.  The utilitarian framework lies beneath arguments like "guns should be banned because XXXX people were killed by guns whereas only YYY guns were used defensively"; or the infamous myth "a gun in the home is X times more likely to be used against yourself / a family member".  

We don't make decisions about other individual rights like free speech or civil rights on a strictly utilitarian basis (for ex., "the world would be a better place if the KKK weren't allowed to speak & recruit").   I assert that dealing with the threat of violence (self-preservation) at the individual level is at least as native and merits similar philosophic treatment.  At the very least, the utilitarian angle can quickly denigrate into statistical barrages levied by both sides and is just plain difficult to debate.  Others do it better.

I'm also NOT invoking the "check the power of the government" decision framework (for ex. "If the government is the sole agent of violence, can it ALWAYS be trusted to NOT abuse its bounds?").   It is a framework I whole-heartedly believe in BUT it's harder for me to boil it down into the simple rhetorical framework like the one above.  People like Bill Whittle are exceptionally eloquent on this angle.

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