Thursday, December 11, 2008

Uncle Sam is packing heat!

This post started off as a response to James Elliot's post In Defense of the Self and the Second Amendment but I rambled so much I decided not to clog up his comments section. I do go a little off topic here but I know you love it (I don't know who you are but I know you love it!!!)

While I liked the post and indeed would feel fairly comfortable about the presence of large numbers of guns in my environment if all gun owners showed the same consideration as James has; gun control is only sought because large numbers of people don't treat firearms with any kind of respect. Freedom, personal and otherwise can and does exist in the absence of the second amendment. While it is certainly true that an individual can use other weapons of their own construction or even their physical body to attack others, guns allow an immediate and wholly disproportionate increase in one individual’s ability to coerce others. Guns are very simple to use, you can argue about their effective use but I suspect most people would not dismiss even an untrained child holding a loaded gun. It is very easy to kill someone with a gun, or even kill lots of people. I haven’t studied the American constitution or its amendments in great depth so correct me if I am wrong here but the amendment only seems to say that the people have the right to “keep and bear arms“. It doesn’t seem to address what kind of arms so it is open to debate in either direction. Presumably at the time it was referring to firearms then available but times have changed. Is it my constitutionally protected right to own a tank or a fighter jet or a nuclear weapon? I am assuming not. We can and must amend our rights in reasonable response to changes in technology or economic realities. I am guessing there is other legislation that prevents an ordinary citizen from owning a nuke. The common sense reason for preventing a private citizen from owning things like tanks and F-22s is that they are too dangerous. The question then becomes one of degree. What kind of “arms” are too dangerous for private citizens to own? Is a pistol ok; what about an M16 or go a little further to an M60? Is a .50 Barrett sniper rifle too much? What about RPGs and Racket launchers?

We must have some restriction on what arms a person has the right to bear. The second amendment seems fairly broad in those terms. It is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that guns in general (particularly modern guns) are too dangerous for general civilian ownership. The matter is certainly worthy of debate. On the point of self defence, a lot of private citizens in the U.S. own guns but the U.S. has the highest rate of gun death of any first world country. It is not unreasonable to assume that more guns will likely lead to more gun deaths, either as a result of accidents or of people simply making use of the greater availability of guns when settling disputes. Given the fact the many democratic nations have managed to remain free despite great restrictions on individual gun ownership and the fact the more guns just don’t make people individually safer, I am not sure either argument really holds much water. In the colonial times of the birth of the U.S. I’m sure it made perfect sense. I am Irish and in Ireland not even the police have guns. While gun related deaths are on the rise and I’m sure that eventually the police will be armed (I think they already should be) I doubt that arming the general public with a wide variety of firearms from pistols to assault rifles would do anything but raise the level of gun death. Despite the fact that I quite like guns personally and would love to own a few, I don’t really consider it a particular violation of my rights that I am not allowed to have one or at least not an unjustified restriction. The truth is that if I am allowed to have one, everyone around me is, at the very least, potentially much less safe; be it through my incompetence or my malice. That might even be considered an impact on the rights of those around me but that might be taking it too far?

In general Americans make a big fuss about liberty on this issue. I consider Ireland to be as free or freer than the U.S. at this point. I can ridicule our prime minister in public if I want to without being confined to a “free speech zone” or being investigated by any number of secret police like organisations. The police in this country seemingly have a harder time invading my private space than they do in the U.S. and the thing I am most thankful for is the notable absence of the huge number of government organisations that exist in the U.S. like the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the N.S.A., the D.I.A, the D.H.S. and many more; all removed from the already present local police and their own special divisions like S.W.A.T.
For a nation that prides itself on liberty and individual self-reliance there seems to be an almost paranoid quality in its approach to defence, national and personal.
Simply being allowed to own guns will never be a safeguard of freedom. In my opinion, the best safeguard of civil liberties and freedoms in a modern democracy is a free and objective press. Fox news and the slow and continuing slide of American press into that mode of highly partisan news reporting is a far greater threat in terms of your government becoming authoritarian than any restrictions placed on your rights to own guns. The G. “dubya” B. administration alone has demonstrated the means by which a democratic government restricts the freedoms of its citizens. It is not with tanks and bullets but with bills and legislation. A slow shifting of the boundaries of civil liberties heavy with terms like patriotism and freedom. America is no longer a land of patriots and it is well on it’s way to becoming a land of sycophantic nationalists. There is no better way to gain control over people than by getting them to think it is a good idea and of benefit to them and their security. That political objection can be effectively defeated by simply calling it “unpatriotic” or “un-American” is truly frightening. That the majority of votes cast on the patriot act were cast without the voter even having read it is not only frightening; it is dumbfounding.
It is such an obvious abuse of the democratic process but it was done in a reactionary “God bless America” moment so it was ok. Any country willing to abandon it’s democratic principles in the face of a relatively minor crisis (as opposed to say large scale invasion) is not really a true democracy at all. It is a democracy of connivance as much as conviction. It is like a man with a gun not interfering with your freedom only because things happen to be going the way he wants. I find it strange that American labels the invasion of a foreign country as an act of ‘defence’. The most powerful military an economic power on the planet invades a country about as geographically removed from it as possible and with absolutely no hope of mounting any kind of military threat to the U.S. and does to keep America safe and free…….WTF???? There is a pervasive idea amongst American soldiers and the America populace in general that a soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is defending the freedom of the U.S. This is complete horseshit. This is complete and utterly obvious horseshit. GWB and his henchmen have made good use of this culture of paranoia and persecution and have actively sought to exaserbate it for their own ends. But I digress !

Getting back a little on topic, the goals and ideals of the founders of the U.S. were in my opinion noble and worthwhile particularly so in the time they were living. I think their ideas were progressive and well intentioned. Modern laws and rights do not have to continuously replicate or maintain old laws and rights to successfully replicate the intent and the ideals and there might well be situations where maintaining obsolete notions is actually counter to those ideals. Whether or not gun ownership falls into that category is definitely debateable. It is absolutely true that as of this moment American citizens have the constitutional right to bear arms. That says absolutely nothing about whether or not they should have that right.


James F. Elliott said...

Hi Chimp,

A couple of points:

-Finland has an extremely high per capita gun ownership rate without concomitant rises in gun-related deaths or crimes. Other factors certainly lead to America's gun-crime rate, not just the availability of guns.

-Nothing in what I wrote takes an "absolutist" stance on gun ownership. Reasonable restrictions, including on types of firearms owned, are possible. While I would love to have a Barrett .50 cal, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a line of argument premised on self-defense that really justified it!

-I agree that we Americans have an interesting line between paternalistic authoritarianism and the assertion of our own manly independence when it comes to security. What it comes down to, though, is this: I don't want to live in a CCTV society like England, and I don't want to live in one where the tools of authority are the only ones with the weapons. Citizens with weapons could have made a difference in the Mumbai attacks. They would have made no difference on a 9/11 or 7/7 style attack.

The Celtic Chimp said...


-I didn't mean to suggest that gun availability was the sole reason for the high rate of gun death but as a simple point of logic, if there are fewer guns around they can't be used to kill people. I think people would still kill each other but most other means are much more hands-on. It takes a lot more intent to stab someone to death or keep beating them until they die than to point and gun and pull the trigger. A gun provides a more abstracted means of killing. Killing becomes very easy, very quick and a lot less dangerous for the attacker. In other words. The relatively large abundence of guns can't be helping the situation

-I suppose it is a matter of deciding what is "reasonable"

-I agree that armed citizens would have made a difference in the mumbai attacks but I'm not sure it would have been a positive one. Given the simple fact that neither the terrorists or the citizens would be wearing any kind of distinguishing uniforms, the result could be civilians shooting at each other or being shot at by the police and army.

I don't have any particular problem with CCTV so long at it is resticted to public places and it generally is.

Suggesting that the tools of authority are the only ones with weapons seems to overlook the fact the the tools are citizens too, with families and a vested interest in maintaining freedom. The British army seems less brain-washing of its troops too than the U.S. I would feel more confident about a british soldier rejecting an unethical command than an american one. That is not to suggest that americans are less ethical in general only that the military in america seems to indocrinate its troops more. Admittedly this is just an impression I get from the various programmes and interviews I have seen with members of the two militaries. Even in the states though, I think a government trying to gain the support of the military to seize authoritarian power would face extreme resistence by the military.

Danny Boy said...

A .50 cal rifle does not have any self-defense value, but I don't think it should be banned (restricted perhaps, but only slightly). It's been available for decades, and I know of only one incident, off the top of my head, where it has been used in the perpetration of a crime (assassinating several policemen or soldiers in Britain by the IRA).

Criminals generally won't use it because it's very big, very heavy, and the bang is so loud that you'd be spotted easily in urban areas. They won't use it in supermarket robberies, bank heists, kidnappings, carjackings, muggings, rapes, or most other crime. The only credible use of the .50 by a criminal would be for assassination, and its really only marginally better than hunting rifles, which are more readily available.

Civilians do own, and have used, the .50, mostly for target shooting. A few have used it for hunting (overkill?). The .50 just looks scary. I don't think we should ban it just based on aesthetics.

The Celtic Chimp said...


You're absolutely right to suggest that the .50 cal is simply too impractical for most criminal purposes but then so is a tank. Its impracticality may make it a very unlikely tool for a criminal to use but I'd still rather my neighbour didn't have a .50 cal sniper rifle or a tank. You are correct too about the IRA. They had it in the back of an estate car and would lower the tail and shoot from inside the car in a prone position. A terrifying weapon in that scenario. Some people may argue that assault rifles have self defence value but honestly if you are so paranoid about attack that you think an assault rifle makes for a sensible home defence weapon I think you are already showing signs that you might not be the best candidate for gun ownership. Would you object to my owning claymore mines or a rocket launcher if I lived next door you? What about the militia morons who dress in camo and march around with their M16s. Those guys are not at all living in reality. I really would prefer if people like that had a very hard time getting a hold of guns.

Ultimately I am not sure of my postion on gun ownership. I can understand and even agree with the arguments for and same with the arguments against. I think realisticly, a pistol is about as much as anyone really needs for self defence and I think the whole second amendment argument is a little silly. It may be on the books now that you can own a gun but the constitution is not a holy document. It can be amended again. The question is not "do people have the right to own guns" it should be "Should poeple have the right to own guns"
Sometimes the 'founding fathers' in the U.S. are held up almost to the level of divinity and the constitution to be almost a holy document. Important, yes. Very important, yes. Beyond question or change, certainly not.

Danny Boy said...

My point with the .50 is the irrational fear with "scary looking" guns. Why fear it? We both agree that it is an impractical weapon for criminals. So why prevent people from owning it? Chances are, they'll use it for target practice, which they already do in the US. It's a bad weapon for hunting small to medium size game, and IMO, too powerful for big game. But if they want to ruin a lot of meat just to make them feel more manly, let them be.

A .50 is not an assault weapon. It does not fire full auto (the recoil would be insane), and most soldiers won't carry it to battle (too heavy). Like most hunting guns, it's more of a precision weapon, albeit with a really big bullet.

As for tanks, I don't want them near my house. They would damage the pavement, they are probably very noisy, and they might be environment-unfriendly. But I won't ban them from civilian use, as long as its weapons systems are nonfunctional. Which reminds me, isn't there an eccentric Brit who drives around London with a yellow tank? Should the government confiscate his tank? Or prevent him from operating it in public roads? Or force the guy to render it inoperable completely (thereby making it one huge lawn ornament)?

M16s are selective fire (that is, it can be switched from single fire to full auto) guns, and are therefore illegal. In fact, most "M16s" in civilian use are just AR-15s, which are just glorified hunting rifles. As are the "AK-47s". They're single fire rifles that are manufactured to look like their military counterparts. Without the selective fire capability, they are no more lethal or potent than hunting rifles. With the AR-15, the bullets (5.56mm / .223 Rem) are even smaller and less lethal than most hunting rifles. In fact, it's not even allowed to be used to hunt deer in certain jurisdictions (too weak/small to humanely kill deer in one shot). Just like the .50, they just looks scary.

I'm a liberal so I'm not too enthused with the militia-wannabes toting their scary looking "M16" clones. They could just as well be carrying a deer rifle and my opinion about them are just the same. They're still wannabes. But would I prevent them from having guns in the first place? Not unless they're clinically insane (even wannabes are minimally rational not to fire guns indiscriminately), previously convicted violent criminals, or currently involved in crime. Being subversive is one thing, actively fighting the government with live fire is another. (Living in the Philippines, with two main insurrectionist rebel groups, I know the difference between the two.)

Just as selective fire guns are illegal for civilian use, so are landmines or rocket launchers. Most gun owners don't want them legalised either. As are cannons, howitzers, and machine guns. They're ordnance, not arms (a distinction that clarifies what the 2nd amendment allows the people to "keep and bear"). The history of American jurisprudence also makes the distinction. And, AFAIK, selective fire rifles are considered machine guns and are thus excluded in the 2nd amendment. Which is actually of little concern to us, since we're both not residing in the US.

The US constitution can be changed, but should it be in this case? Guns will not go away, the cat's already out of the bag. Disarming the people would affect law abiding gun people more than criminals. Criminals won't suddenly stop using guns, they don't follow the law anyway. It'll in fact help them, since their victims won't have guns anymore. According to violent felons interviewed in jail, they are more afraid of facing an armed civilian than facing the police. They've also been discouraged from targetting potential victims if they suspect that the victim owns a gun.

That last point is a benefit of legal gun ownership to people who do not like guns. It's called the halo effect. In a society where there are people who carry guns, with no discernable way of figuring out who is or isn't carrying, the criminal is at a disadvantage. You may choose never to own a gun, but if a criminal doesn't know that, he might assume that you do (perhaps based on your looks, social status, profession, or even the way you walk) and move on. In a society where no one owns a gun, a criminal would feel safer accosting any random victim. In gun-free Europe, I was almost mugged in a Paris subway and physically harrassed in Venice. In Manila, where crime rates are much higher, petty criminals target women and lower income people (those who are less likely to own a gun). Just by being a middle class young male, I am less likely to be a target, and I rarely carry my gun. The halo of gun ownership makes me an un-enticing victim to an opportunistic scoundrel.

The Celtic Chimp said...


I didn't know it was select fire capabiity that made certain guns illegal. I enjoyed the notion of a full auto barett :) Imagine picking up a .50 cal machine gun and firing from the hip, lol.

The 5.56 round is a smaller round but that hardly makes it anything like harmless.

The distinction between 'arms' and 'ordnance' is an arbitrary one, could another such distinction not be made to outlaw most forms of guns?

theObserver said...

"I didn't know it was select fire capabiity that made certain guns illegal. I enjoyed the notion of a full auto barett :) Imagine picking up a .50 cal machine gun and firing from the hip, lol. "

Off topic but we need to talk about your wanton and uninhibited use of 'lol'. I wager you no longer even feel ashamed at your indulgence in geekiness.

I blame myself for letting a few slide over the last few weeks.

The Celtic Chimp said...


Can I claim that it is my lazy preference for brevity that makes lol a better choice than any other written expression of mirth?