Sunday, 18 August 2013

Gun control

There was a story recently about a gun instructor in Ohio accidentally shooting a student during a class for people applying for concealed weapon permits - it's here.

So I thought I'd grind on for a bit about the gun control issue in the US.

It's hardly surprising that this sort of thing happens - they're terribly dangerous things. As is, say, plutonium, or plastic explosive - which is why most Americans are presumably happy for access to those things to be limited. If the argument is that guns are a necessary tool for preserving a right so fundamental (viz. personal safety) that the state has no business regulating it, I fail to see why gun ownership advocates don't complain about obligatory driving tests - in many parts of America economic freedom is impossible without a car, so why allow the state to regulate and limit access to it?

The answer, presumably, is because they acknowledge that dangerous things and activities need to be treated cautiously for society's collective safety. So why not the same with guns? The silence over driving tests suggests that gun owners hypocritically accept a broad principle that they then claim to reject when guns are at issue.

Actually I'm being disingenuous - I'm well aware the pro-gunner would argue that as citizens' gun-ownership is in itself a regulation on the relationship between citizen and state, the state's vested interest in the matter bars it from acting as a fair broker. 

Fair enough, I suppose. 

But this overlooks the tokenism and plain dishonesty in claiming small arms as an important check on state power - tokenistic because gun owners' tolerance of limitations on other weapons systems (predator drones, high explosives, attack helicopters, etc.) suggests that they accept the principle of non-parity of power between citizens and state, and merely cling on to small arms as tokens of a cherished principle. As firearms kill hundreds every year, insisting that this continue merely to sustain a symbolic value is plainly immoral.

The problem seems to be a bigoted (in sense ‘illogically stubborn’) attachment to the exceptional status of firearms and to the quasi-scriptural legislation that underpins it. Guns guarantee freedom – and the Constitution itself says they do. If we leave it at that (and some seem to) we don’t have to face up to the other possibilities – that guns and gun culture inhibit freedom, that veneration of constitutional freedoms weakens the more important concept of freedom as a broad set of behaviours, and that – just maybe – guns make the American citizenry more not less vulnerable to state repression.

First off: gun culture inhibits freedom, by imposing fear and by reinforcing a need for control.

Keeping a gun must reinforce in the mind of the owner the supposed dangers that led him or her to get it in the first place. It is a reminder of the dangers it protects against, and as such is an engine of self-suggested fear and paranoia. The outside world is dangerous – good job you've got a gun. 

But living in fear is not freedom. 

Gun ownership also enforces the libertarian obsession with the individual's need for control – the idea that liberty entails not merely freedom from undue state interference and outside control, but a devolving of control to all individuals. The state’s power to control is balanced by an apportioning out to citizens their own individual spheres of control and power.

This is pretty uncontroversial, I suppose – it’s what underlies the boast that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. And with gun ownership for all, everyone gets to play Deputy Dawg in their own home. But if we say that liberty is not freedom from control by the powerful, but freedom to control for all, then we end up saying that liberty is a form of control, which seems contradictory. Or at least control (as in domination of circumstances, power, an anxious need to master) is inimical to some of the qualities entailed by liberty (non-determinateness, openness, spontaneity). 

Moreover a notion of freedom based on absolute individual control must tend towards solipsism - the achievement of my personal fiefdom will always be threatened by the fact that everyone else is equally able to create their own fiefdom in potentially unpredictable, destabilizing ways. Therefore while my being free is valid and a good thing, the freedom of others is threatening and bad, creating a false and toxic distinction between me and everyone else. Whence ultimately, perhaps, the lunacy of saying (as some do) that the state has no right to take guns or tax money from me, but every right to execute him as a criminal - 'me' and 'him' become different moral entities.

If guns give individuals the power to protect and control their personal space (their homes, their cars) they also conversely make the space beyond the individual’s control all the more alien, uncontrolled, unpredictable, and terrifying. Hence we can end up with the absurdity of freedom as something worth defending but not worth enjoying. It is, apparently, worth living a life of fear of what cannot be controlled (e.g. the government turning against the people, crime, social decay) because to do so is to be vigilant of the individual’s control of his or her space, and therefore her freedom. But anybody would surely say that a life of fear and anxious need to control is a less than free existence!

Control will always cause fear of what you do not control, and to live in fear is to be unfree. 

If some day the US Federal government does turn against the people, the gun lobby will have the satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’. But is there not a possibility too that once tyranny reigns they will regret having frittered away their precious days of freedom in worry and paranoia?

The only way for the gun-nut's position - 'I protect my freedom by sacrificing it to fear of its loss' - to be non-contradictory is for him or her to use a massively under-defined, impoverished notion of freedom: i.e. the fundamentalist notion that freedom is simply as it is narrowly defined in the Constitution - behaving and living one's life in an unfree way are therefore irrelevant. But isn't it much better to define freedom as a broad culture of behaviours – political, social, cultural, economic etc., including such things as living without fear, living as one chooses to, the absence of circumscription - and also the acceptance of the free, uncontrollable state of other people. But this requires ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender’. And the gun-nut daren't.

The freedom that gun-ownership protects is a freedom so impoverished, bastardized, and radically misconceived that it is barely worth protecting.

Finally, to play the conspiracy theorists at their own game – is it not conceivable that the government is happy to allow US citizens to own guns because the culture of gun ownership not only poses no threat to the government but strengthens it by weakening the collective populace? The backwoodsman’s fantasy is of mounting a last-ditch defence of his house or log-cabin or what-have-you when the feds come for him. But no government was ever brought down by people staying at home. As in Egypt and Tunisia, and Romania in 1989, governments are challenged by defying their control of public space – what chance of this with a populace fixated on defending the parameters of personal space, divided by self-suggested fears, and preferring to live in air-conditioned isolation, guns by their sides to keep the outside world from encroaching?


  1. "in many parts of America economic freedom is impossible without a car (to say nothing of car ownership being as all-American as gun-waving), so why allow the state to regulate and limit access to it?"

    - presumably because widespread gun ownership in America, unlike car ownership, essentially predates the modern state? Discuss.

    Also, read Hobsbawm on the cowboy myth:

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I'm always whinging that people don't comment on my blog, so I should probably reply to comments when I get them, even if it's two and a half months down the line.

      Agreed, but this still leaves the problem of why customs and laws that predate the modern state should be intrinsically more valid. I mean, that may be a good explanation, but it's a good explanation of bad reasoning. This worship of the founding fathers and the determination to mould society for evermore in their shape - let's quit ass-kissing Thomas Jefferson and call this the cargo cult that it really is.

    3. Although I guess a cargo cult centred on Jefferson is better than some of the alternatives:

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.