GUNS as FREEDOM and FREEDOM FROM GUNS
In the wake of the shootings
at Monash University in Melbourne, it is interesting to see the Australian blog reaction. Across the ideological spectrum the responses I've seen have generally (generally) called for more control, not less. Once again it highlights the cultural differences between my homeland and my current place of residence. It also highlights the fact that American groups, like the NRA, who constantly use Australia as an example of their so-called slippery-slope argument--that regulation leads to confiscation--are simply being dishonest. The argument doesn't arise, as confiscation is not an issue. Australians, by and large, wanted gun control; they supported the buy-back scheme (confiscation, if you prefer); and they re-elected the government that instigated their wishes. American gun advocates should be more careful how they use overseas examples.
As Jason Soon points out
If I were an American I would take a more nuanced position on gun control than the one I am taking here in agreeing with John (i.e. a ban on all private ownership of handguns) but because the circumstances there differ in two respects -
i) there is already a tradition of widespread gun ownership that has to be taken into account because it would mean a greater circulation of guns among criminals, which might have the sorts of consequences discussed in the Lott and Mustard study if a ban were enforced. Which is not to say that an effective ban which significantly diminished the circulation of firearms would be impossible with sufficient political commitment. Fortunately we need not worry about these matters - the genie has not yet been let out of the bottle in Australia. I have never seen a real gun in my life and would like to keep it that way;
ii) there is obviously a constitutional issue that all good liberals must take account of. Again, there is fortunately no such complication in the Australian system. And we are not any less freer (sic) than Americans because of it, though we are undoubtedly more secure in body and property.
In fact, the Australian government is speaking once again
about tightening gun laws and once again has clear public support, even if the Victorian Government is reluctant. Handgun ownership, in particular, needs to be addressed and was a weakness in the legislation passed in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting. (Link via Bargarz
, another Ozblogger in favour of gun control.)
John Quiggin notes: "[T]he Monash killer was, until yesterday, a perfect example of the 'ordinary law-abiding gun-owner' represented by bodies like the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia." Thus, even ownership regulation is insufficient and there should be an outright ban, with a few specific exceptions. "When the SSAA has worked out a foolproof plan to keep potential murderers out of their ranks, I'd be happy to give their guns back." Ken Parish
comes to a similar conclusion.
Ken, in fact, takes a closer look
at some of the statistical arguments, including attempts by American John Lott to inject himself
into the Australian argument. Ken's post is a useful debunking of some of the facts that are currently being pedaled by some Australian bloggers, such as Zem
. It's worth a read.
Jason Soon's instinctive attempt to contextualise his response within Australian
experience is worthy of mention.
On the other hand, we have influential people here in the US who consistently argue from an American perspective in assessing gun laws in other countries, all the while, of course, being annoyed when those in other countries dare to apply their
standards to America. Thus Glenn Reynolds endorses Natalie Solent's complaint
that some British arguments
ignore legitimate American concerns and actual conditions:
Briefly, here my main complaint: nowhere is there any attempt to describe the rational, statistical and historical arguments against gun control. The whole BBC diagnosis - I use the word advisedly - is in terms of the US psyche. In terms of "a splinter embedded in the US psyche", actually (in the sidebar here), in case the careless reader does not get that we are talking about a mental problem here. There are plenty of factual arguments against gun control that have nothing to do with anyone's psyche, but the BBC ignores them. John Lott's book More Guns, Less Crime is extremely well known in the US and is, I would say, the biggest focus of head-to-head statistical debate between the two sides; you won't even hear the subversive title quoted by the BBC. Lott claims, among other things, that spree killings take place disproportionately in places such as schools where the murderer can expect to find unarmed victims.
Even if we allow for what I'd say is way-too-uncritical reading of Lott's
material, Solent's are probably reasonable concerns. But the argument has to cut both ways.
Reynolds doesn't seem to realise this. He also links approvingly to this piece
about British attempts at gun control and shows once again that he doesn't like others doing to him what he claims the British are doing to the US, complaining about "an almost pathological hostility to the very idea of self-defense, and an idealization of "professionals" as a source of protection."
In fact, as in Australia, it is not a pathological hostility to self-defense, as Reynolds condescendingly says, as a vast and general mistrust of living in a society full to overflowing with guns. Some people don't like it and are happy to see their governments try and do something about it. Different countries with different historical conditions have, not surprisingly, come to different conclusions about how they want to deal with guns. Reynolds can't see past his own blinkered views about what constitutes the correct relationship between a people and its government (see here
for some further thoughts on this).
Reynolds has even recently argued
that something like the Second Amendment of the US Constitution should be incorporated within universal human right's law.
The argument is spurious beyond belief. Using examples like the genocides of Rwanda and Somalia he suggests that, "Given that the traditional approaches of conventions and tribunals have failed miserably, the human rights community should be prepared to endorse a new international human right: the right of law-abiding citizens to be armed."
Such "arguments" might not answer the perennial question as to why other people seem to "hate" Americans, but it might help answer the generally more pressing one as to why many people get annoyed at Americans. Put briefly, some of us would like to see Americans stop trying to universalise practices just because they like how they work in their neck of the woods.
The silliness of the argument is shown when we apply Reynolds' conclusions based on African examples to a country with completely different circumstances, like say, Australia or Britain. Even if we concede his main point and allow that an armed population might have prevented massacre in the African examples (although we should seriously consider, as Reynolds does not, the possibility that guns would have added to the death toll), to simply reduce the reasons for genocide to the lack of armed civilians is extremely misleading. To even imply, as Reynolds does, that the African examples were simply a case of an armed government turning on an unarmed population is itself spurious. But to then universalise from such examples borders on dishonesty.
Ultimately, Reynolds endorses the conclusions reached in a Washington University Law Quarterly
article: "a connection exists between the restrictiveness of a country's civilian weapons policy and its liability to commit genocide."
Well, as long as you take nothing else into account, I guess. On this logic, governments in Australia and Britain are on the verge of unleashing genocide. If your reaction to this is, oh come one, Rwanda and Somalia are completely different cases, then you've understood my point against universalisation.
Given Reynolds' usual contempt for the United Nations, one wonders why he is willing to encourage its adoption of such an approach or why he is even interested in how they conduct their business. Could it have anything to do with the fact that an individualist right to bear arms enshrined in international human rights law would provide good support to attempts to get the US Supreme Court to interpret the Second Amendment as an individual right? If so, his argument is not just silly; it is cynical in the extreme.
The reaction of another Australian blogger illustrates a further point. Economist Alex Robson
also quotes favourably
the previously mentioned article from Reason
. The article, in part, says this:
Gun regulations have been part of a more general disarmament based on the proposition that people don't need to protect themselves because society will protect them. It also will protect their neighbors: Police advise those who witness a crime to "walk on by" and let the professionals handle it....
But modern English governments have put public order ahead of the individual's right to personal safety. First the government clamped down on private possession of guns; then it forbade people to carry any article that might be used for self-defense; finally, the vigor of that self-defense was to be judged by what, in hindsight, seemed "reasonable in the circumstances."...
To which Alex appends: "So much for Jason Soon's "essence of the rule of law".
Not unlike American gun advocates, Alex seems to see this less as an issue about guns per se and more about arguments to do with individual rights versus the role of the state. Any regulation is opposed simply because of what Jason Soon, in a great later response
, calls "knee-jerk libertarianism". It's a good description.
The individual rights' arguments in regard to guns founder in the same way that so many other individual rights argument founder: they fail to recognise that individual freedom is a product
of social conditions not something separate from it (see here
for some more of my discussion of this).
I've lived in England, the US and Australia for lengthy periods of time and have felt far less safe in the US than in the other two. Grossly unfair, I suppose, in one respect, as it it is neither quantifiable nor provable, but in a sense that is the point. It is as much about an individual's background level of comfort as they go about their day-to-day business as it is about statistics, theories of self-defence or philosophies of government. As someone who is highly unlikely to ever own a gun for any reason, including personal defence, I'm always going to feel safer in a society with less guns than one with more. In fact, I'm going to be
safer in a society where gun ownership is minimal. The less people with guns the less likely I am to be confronted by someone with a gun. If one of my objects in life is to not be shot, then my personal safety is enhanced by an absence of guns, even if such absence can't be enforced completely. I'm happy, as are most Australians, to allow a democratic government, acting with a clear majority of support, to minimise firearm ownership and heavily regulate those that remain. The simple truth is, most gun advocates aren't. So who is impinging on whose freedom?
I understand that circumstances in the US perhaps dictate a different approach to what I would prefer and to that which I applaud in Australia. US gun advocates should recognise the same thing about other countries and stop trying to interpret events (or even statistics) from elsewhere through their own prejudices.