Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I never miss a game

Guns, guns, guns! C'mon, Sal! The Tigers are playing -- TO-night! I never miss a game.
-- Clarence Boddicker, gang boss of Old Detroit

As regards the recent Virginia Tech horror, noted libertarian blogger Jim Henley has (apparently) only this to say:

Grief Not Grievances

Could someone spend maybe five minutes being really sad that a bunch of people got killed before hopping on their preexisting hobbyhorses?

Henley is anything but reluctant to voice his opinions on any number of issues, and he's one of the first people I go to for perspicacious and always eloquent insights on complex matters. Why, then, the marked (in fact, pointedly underscored) silence on anything relating to the VTech shootings except his apparent disgust with everybody else in the blogosphere for orating at great and vehement length about it?

The human mind is complex, and only a fool attempts to objectively define the motivations of anyone else without an overwhelming preponderance of evidentiary indicators. Having said that, though, well, I'm my favorite fool, so I'm still willing to speculate, perhaps entirely groundlessly, that the reason Henley seems to be the only socio-political blogger not currently shooting his keyboard off about gun rights vs. gun control in the shadow of the VTech mass murders is that his views are as follows:

Last time I bothered to look into gun laws, mostly at Tim Lambert's critiques of John Lott and "the English John Lott" (I forget her name), Lambert printed enough statistics and charts from both sides of the Atlantic to convince me that gun laws make essentially no difference to crime rates - they are a small effect either way, utterly swamped by other factors, of which demographics and demobilizing from major wars are two of the biggest. Easing restrictions on gun ownership does not lead to the crime drops many of my fellow gun rights supporters expect; increasing them does not lead to the crime drops most gun rights opponents imagine. Jamaica appears to be an interesting edge case where a serious, nigh-military disarmament of the population seems to have led directly to vastly higher crime rates, but Jamaica went at it with a zeal that very few American gun controllers seriously contemplate.

Mark Kleiman came to pretty much the same conclusions about the practicalities and, last I checked, argued that, since gun prohibitions don't provide the social good of reduced crime and gun-ownership rights are important to a lot of the population, "we" should err on the side of permitting broad gun ownership. I would go further, saying that, in the absence of a demonstrable social need, gestural prohibitions worsen the character of the society; they are bad for liberty. Further yet, I consider the right to keep and bear arms a useful "canary in a coal mine" right: the government that doesn't trust its citizens to wield lethal force is a government the citizens should not trust. (Note that this is NOT the old "We need our guns so we can destroy the government if it becomes tyrannical" argument.

Mr. Henley posted those comments on March 12, 2007, and certainly, chirping cheerful aphorisms about how 'the right to keep and bear arms [is] a useful "canary in a coal mine" right' is a great deal easier to do with a straight face and quiet conscience when some nut hasn't recently walked into a public building and repeatedly emptied a Glock 9mm he bought legally for $500 at a local gun shop into 30 or so randomly chosen human targets. Still, simple embarrassment at the obvious real world consequences of the citizen's right to wield lethal force that Henley so blithely championed only a few weeks ago may not be the underlying factor in Henley's current conspicuous silence; it could just be a decent respect for those mourning their dearly (and senselessly) departed that has kept him from 'hopping on his pre-existing hobbyhorse'.

Or, it could be that his pre-existing hobbyhorse looks like a long shot if not a non-starter, in light of Monday's events. Compassion, chagrin, or calculation? Obviously, I can't know for sure. But Henley’s natural human decency shows through in nearly everything he posts, so I myself would believe it’s far more of the first than the latter two factors.

I do know this -- Henley has cogently and concisely summarized the pro gun point of view with his remarks. When he says "in the absence of a demonstrable social need, gestural prohibitions worsen the character of the society; they are bad for liberty", he is speaking for a great and growing number of Americans who honestly feel that their notional right to walk around in public armed to the teeth with lethal firearms is much more important to grand human values such as 'liberty' than any minor considerations of safety or security that might be garnered by intrusive government regulations that would intolerably interfere with said 'right'. And Henley's is a sane, rational, reasonable voice, compared to many riding in the same bus with him, whose own arguments may best be summed up by the following column:

So much for 'gun-free' safety

By Rod Rose


Guns don’t kill people, pro-gunners say. People kill people.

People with guns can kill people with guns who are using their gun to kill people.

If that reality had been in effect on the Virginia Tech University campus Monday, perhaps nearly three dozen people would not be dead today.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 33 people had died of gunshot wounds, including Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old South Korean who methodically slaughtered 32 people and then killed himself. Cho may have used two handguns — police found a 9mm semi-automatic and a .22-caliber handgun in the classroom building where Cho killed 30 people before taking the coward’s way out.

Indications are that Cho was legally armed, according to the Associated Press; the $571 receipt for a Glock 9mm pistol, model unknown, was found in his backpack. He had a U.S. Immigration Service green card, so he was eligible to buy a handgun. The gun store owner where Cho bought the Glock earlier this year was horrified.

Virginia Tech has a “zero tolerance” policy concerning handguns on campus. They are not permitted.

Cho apparently did not read that part of the VA student handbook.

According to The Roanoke Times, a law that would have allowed students to carry licensed handguns on campus didn’t get out of a Virginia General Assembly committee less than a year ago.

The Times quoted VA spokesman Larry Hincker as saying he was happy about the bill's defeat, “because this will help parents, students and visitors feel safe on our campus.”

Virginia Tech was proudly labeled a “gun-free zone.”

Monday, Cho Seung-Hui wasn’t in a “gun-free zone.” He was in a “target-rich environment.”

It was the equivalent of fishing with dynamite: Cho had absolute freedom to kill anyone opposing him, because his victims had no practical way of killing him first. They could only sit or cower or claw at the windows and doors in horror, hearing the methodical bang-bang-bang of a 9mm Glock creating craters in their classmates’ flesh, waiting for the impact in their own.

So, before we — again — hear the tormented wails of anti-self-defense reality deniers, let’s examine what could have happened at Virginia Tech University Monday.

The answer is not more restrictive gun laws. Virginia Tech had an absolute ban on handguns on campus.

The answer, Boone County Sheriff Ken Campbell told me Tuesday morning, was: “One armed citizen.”

One person, student, professor, custodian, who was trained in and had in his or her possession a firearm, may have been able to stop Cho before so many victims died. Certainly, one person — perhaps more — who had the training and mental conditioning to respond to a deadly threat would have improved the odds Cho would have been killed before he killed so many.

This is the gun owner's wet dream, of course, and that particularly macho, Wild West/Charles Bronson DEATH WISH "the solution to gun violence is BETTER gun violence, dammit" type scenario is amply buttressed by the following incident, as noted here:

In October of 1997, sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham stabbed his mother to death and then went to school with a rifle where he shot 9 students, killing 2 of them. Assistant Principal Joel Myrick raced to his car, retrieved a .45 caliber handgun, and used it to subdue Woodham until police arrived.

In the town of Pearl, Mississippi, this 'one armed citizen' scenario was, apparently, vindicated. However, as a general rule, when 'one armed citizen' decides to exchange gunfire with another armed citizen in a crowded public environment, the results are not usually so pretty:

A gunfight that broke out amid crowds of Boxing Day shoppers in downtown Toronto yesterday left one teenage girl dead and six other people injured.

Seven people were shot -- including an off-duty police officer out taking advantage of the sales -- after 5 p.m. in the Yonge and Elm streets area, north of the Eaton Centre.

"A number of suspects brandished firearms and there was an exchange of gunfire on the streets," Chief Bill Blair said last night, standing at the crime scene. "As a result, a number of innocent bystanders were struck. The information I have is that one young female, an innocent bystander on the street has lost her life."

What, if any, conclusions can be drawn from all three example incidents? Those who believe in an unrestricted right to keep and bear arms will say that the Pearl, MS incident clearly vindicates their position, since a single armed citizen did indeed bring a halt to a lunatic's shooting rampage and almost certainly saved lives. They will sadly shake their heads because no similar heroic gunfighter appeared at Virginia Tech to pre-emptively slaughter the insane pistolero there. As to the incident in Canada where innocent bystanders were wounded, one lethally, by the crossfire that erupted when several armed citizens began exchanging gunfire in a crowded public place, well, one presumes gun rights true believers like Henley, columnist Rose and Sheriff Campbell will disregard that incident as anomolous, or not at all the same thing as the sort of incident where a lone psychotic goes on a rampage with a weapon and a single stalwart successfully ends said psycho's reign of terror with a single well placed round.

Myself, I tend to see all of these things as being much of a much, which is to say, this is the sort of thing that will happen when we live in a society where any homicidal sonofabitch with several hundred dollars and a photo I.D. can walk into a corner shop and purchase the ability to mow others down by the dozen with a twitch of a finger.

The solution to the problem seems fairly simple -- make it impossible for the crazies and the criminally irresponsible to get hold of guns. A homicidal maniac might well rack up some damage if he or she goes berserk at a mall with a lacrosse racket, and two opposing gangs could feasibly cause some cuts and bruises to bystanders if they go at it on a crowded streetcorner with chains and knives, but the potential for collateral carnage when knuckleheads have at it seems to be enormously magnified by the presence of firearms. If we can somehow prevent maniacs and dumbasses from arming themselves, it would seem that would be the optimal solution. Even the most avid gun owner isn’t out there stumping for the rights of gangbangers and whackos to walk around packing heat, and in point of fact, if we could somehow keep the bad guys from easily accessing firearms, it would certainly minimize the need for ‘one armed citizen’ to intervene when shit jumps off.

However, reality, as always, intervenes – sometimes you can’t tell the crazies, like Cho Seung-Hui, from the sane-but-intermittently-grumpy. Gun shop owners aren’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to diagnose borderline homicidal frenzy in their customers, and it’s pretty much impossible to tell with any accuracy which purchaser of a handgun or rifle is planning to use it sanely and reasonably, and which is intent on climbing the nearest clock tower and picking off as many pedestrians as possible before the local SWAT team takes him down.

Since nobody can reliably predict how a particular firearms customer is going to use his or her purchase, it’s virtually impossible to filter the potential Starkweathers from the appropriately socialized small arms enthusiast, such as, I presume, Jim Henley, Bud Rose, and Sheriff Campbell. Those who fervently believe in the right to bear arms believe that a truly free society must always err on the side of liberty, and place few or no restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms. Those who feel that public safety should be of paramount importance in any civil continuum, on the other hand, just as vehemently feel that ownership of and access to anything as inherently dangerous as firearms must be strictly regulated for the good of everyone.

I myself am deeply conflicted on this. I don’t like guns, in fact, they frankly scare the shit out of me. I don’t want to live in a society where everyone goes armed everywhere, at home and in public. I cannot help but distrust my fellow man; in a world where people seem to frequently come to blows over trivialities, I cannot help but fear what the consequences would be if these same idiots could throw lead upon losing their tempers instead of punches. In callous theory I don’t much mind the idea of short tempered dumbasses killing each other, but I don’t much like the idea of me or someone I care about catching a stray bullet out of sheer rotten luck.

Yet this is an argument based on fear, and as such, it is one I am instinctively distrustful of in the arena of social policy. Arguments based on fear have been used throughout human history, and throughout recent American history, to justify any uncountable number of government excesses and outrages against basic human rights, and while notional values such as ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ may not seem like much when thrown into relief with 32 murdered bystanders, still, it is exactly that juxtaposition in other contexts that has led to ‘free speech’ zones, covert government wiretapping, the justification of torture, and the endless ongoing international atrocity we euphemistically refer to as ‘the War on Terror’.

I myself have always felt a primal revulsion at the notion of criminalizing what is essentially non-criminal behavior. I dislike hate crimes laws because they criminalize not only the anti-social acts of a perpetrator, but the thoughts and feelings of that perpetrator at the time (and sometimes prior to the time) their offense was committed. This is deeply offensive to me; however much I may loathe the thoughts, feelings, viewpoints, and opinions of some people, when any one person takes unto him or herself the power to pass binding, punitive judgment on the mental processes of another person, we’re in a bad place. When we as a nation and a culture decide it is appropriate to do this, we have left some basic, essential notion of individual liberty far, far behind us.

Similarly, I dislike stalking laws, which essentially criminalize the behavior of being in the same public place as somebody else. Certainly, bad people do use public thoroughfares to follow and intimidate their intended victims through their simple presence, and it’s a highly obnoxious tactic, but, still, to say to someone who has not been convicted of any actual offense that they cannot utilize a public area simply because someone else is using that area already is a solution that infringes basic civil liberties to a degree that I feel is unacceptable.

In this vein, the act of purchasing a firearm is hardly anti-social…

Okay. You know, I typed that sentence, finishing it with “nor should it be criminal.” And I went on to type a few more sentences about how we shouldn’t criminalize a simple business transaction, nor the act of carrying an object on one’s person… and then I went back and re-read those nine words, and… well, I’m not sure I believe them.

However much those who favor completely unhindered access to firearms may dislike to discuss it, there is an essential, fundamental ugliness to hand guns, and to the impulse to carry one around with you. There are legitimate reasons why someone might want to own and even carry with them at all times an easily portable machine designed solely for the purpose of conveniently killing a fellow human being, but dress it up however we may wish to with terms like ‘defense of self and others’, still, it boils down to pretty much exactly that – when we find ourselves wanting a gun in our hands, it is because we find ourselves wanting to kill someone. If that isn’t an anti-social impulse, then nothing ever will be.

The very best reasons someone can have for carrying a weapon – again, that much mentioned ‘defense of self and others’ – is an essentially selfish, mean spirited motivation, rooted entirely in fear. Pragmatically, incidents like the Virginia Tech massacre seem to show that this fear is in some instances justified, and yet, at the same time, such incidents hardly happen every day… and when they do happen, they seem to me to argue just as clearly against easy access to firearms as the other way.

One of the reasons I have always been conflicted on gun control is that such laws strike me as being impractical; there are millions of guns already out there, and there is no pragmatic way for any centralized authority to get them all back out of circulation. Beyond that, I sympathize with Henley’s stated position as to distrusting a government that does not want its citizens to be able to arm themselves if necessary. There is real and valid truth in that argument, and if it seems callous when held up against the gory video footage of actual gunshot victims, well, sometimes something can remain valid regardless of how much it may offend or horrify us. If the past seven years have been anything, they have been an object lesson in the necessity for suspecting and distrusting any government, including and especially our own.

Yet, again, when a crazy man can buy the means for to go on a killing spree for five hundred bucks with no questions asked, it seems to me that, again, there needs to be some kind of balance struck between the right to walk around armed to the eyebrows just in case murderous lunatics go berserk in your immediate vicinity, and the right to feel reasonably secure in your person from such attacks as you go about your business. Yes, one armed citizen could well have dropped Cho Seung-Hui in his tracks before he racked up such an impressive body count, but Cho Seung-Hui couldn’t have killed 32 people if he hadn’t had such easy access to high powered shootin’ irons, either. And let’s be fair, that ‘one armed citizen’ might have just as easily have gotten into a running gun fight with Cho Seung-Hui which could have had as many or more casualties as Sueng-Hi’s unopposed rampage did.

How many human lives is individual human liberty worth? That more than anything else may be the essential defining question every thoughtful person needs to answer for themselves, before they can figure out how they feel about any other social or political issue.

My modest proposal, such as it is, for a solution to this specific issue is gun insurance.

By this I do not mean a policy that pays you replacement value on your firearms if some junkie breaks into your house and steals them. No, I mean insurance very much like the kind of mandatory policies we are all required to have on our personal automobiles; insurance without which we are not allowed to operate said automobiles legally on the streets. This insurance would be an indemnity against any damages done by our guns, and it would work exactly the same way as auto insurance does now – if your gun isn’t insured for a specific purpose, you cannot use it for that purpose, and if you cannot show proof of insurance when you go to purchase a gun, well, you cannot buy that weapon.

Gun insurance premiums should be rated similarly to auto insurance premiums, as well. A gun owner would have a different rate depending on the make and model of firearm he or she wanted to own and operate, and their rates would also be adjusted by the uses they wanted to put their gun to, and also by any past incidents of reckless behavior they might have on their record, as well. A .22 target pistol insured only for home use by someone who takes a firearms safety course every six months and who has never so much as brandished their weapon in a threatening manner would generate a very different premium than that of a .357 Magnum insured for home and street carry by someone who thinks gun courses are for sissies and who has been cited six times for drunk & disorderly.

Instead of creating a central database of known felons and those who have had mental health issues, derived entirely on reports from police and mental health authorities, insurance agencies would maintain a comprehensive database of gun owners, much as they currently do for licensed drivers. Gun dealers would run a potential buyer’s name and Social Security number through that database to verify his insurance status and make sure the new weapon is added to any existing policy, or if no policy exists, sell him one on the spot (getting trained to sell an insurance policy on a gun is a lot easier than going to medical school to learn to spot the signs of incipient violent psychosis).

I have no idea if this sort of policy would have kept Cho Seung-Hui from buying his Glock 9mm, but it would at least have been another impediment between him and a 32 entry body count.

I understand that the concept of creating yet another bureaucratic requirement for gun ownership is not going to sit well with supporters of the 2nd Amendment, but when I propose gun insurance, I also propose as an inherent part of the policy that being properly insured would be the only stricture on and stipulation for gun ownership and usage. All other Federal laws, state regulations, and local ordinances regarding keeping and bearing arms would be rendered null and void by the presence of gun insurance. If you can afford to pay your insurance premiums, you can own and use a gun – period. If you can’t find any one willing to insure your weapon for a rate you can afford, well, you can’t have that weapon… you can’t buy it, or have it, at least, not legally.

One pragmatic item worth noting here is that while laws restricting gun ownership invariably meet with enormous resistance from the extremely powerful gun lobby, as is generally well represented by the National Rifle Association, a legislative attempt to create and mandate this sort of universally required gun insurance would find an equally or even surpassingly powerful private ally in the insurance lobby. Practically, passing such legislation would be much, much easier than getting some kind of comprehensive ban on all hand guns through any local, state, or Federal legislature.

For myself, I simply don’t want to live in a world where everyone around me at all times is packing a magic boom stick they can point at me whenever they feel like and make me fall down dead, nor do I want to live in one where I feel like the only reasonable means of defending myself from the possibility of such an attack is to carry such a weapon myself. I dislike guns intensely, and am frankly afraid of them. Plus, I really just don’t trust my fellow man that much. That may make me a sad, miserable little human being, but, still, that’s how I feel.

Still, I need only contemplate the idea of an armed intruder breaking into my home some night while my family is present to realize that, ugly though the reality may be, there are certainly circumstances where I would want to have a gun to hand. I hate living in a world where I have to make fundamental life decisions on the basis of fear, but, well, this does seem to be the world we live in.

Government intrusion into personal liberties is always noxious, and should never be tolerated for anything less than absolutely urgent reasons. Beyond that, I’ve never been one to argue the inherent semantics of the 2nd Amendment, nor one who wants to pick and choose which parts of the Bill of Rights I find acceptable and which ones I’d rather just ignore. To me, the 2nd Amendment says very clearly that American citizens have the right to own and bear arms and the government has nothing to say about it. Having the government pass ordinances restricting that right seems to me to directly contravene the wording of the U.S. Constitution, a situation I myself always find deeply troubling.

Having a law requiring insurance for any and all guns owned and/or carried that is enforced by government authority may seem like a pointless and essentially futile distinction, but I am of the opinion that it is a vital one. Furthermore, where governments seem to be almost inherently inefficient (a fact that in general I think is more positive than otherwise), the market by necessity functions at a different level. Insurance companies will stand to make billions from mandatory gun insurance policies, and will have a strong economic motive for keeping their losses to a minimum. If that doesn’t result in some kind of comprehensive policy that will make it more difficult for the deranged and the untrustworthy to get hold of a gun, well, I pretty much give up.


At 7:27 PM, Blogger AaA said...

And as I've said earlier, this amounts to basically taking guns only away from the poor. The poor have to live in the shitty, high-crime neighborhoods. The poor have to live next door to crackheads. When was the last time you heard about a rich person getting robbed by a crackhead? I'll bet it made the news because it happens so infrequently. Most of the time they're robbing their neighbors. (When's the last time you heard or read about some poverty-stricken person getting robbed by a crackhead? It happens so often it's not news, and it hapens to people no one cares about, so why report it?) It's not like they have cab fare or any other means to travel to a wealthy neighborhood to do any robbing, and if they did, they'd be picked up in two minutes by the police, who only protect and serve where the money says to.

And why the hell am I lecturing YOU about mistreating the poor? Has the whole world gone mad?

One more time:

38,000 deaths, 500,000 violent crimes (some of which would almost certainly have been murders) prevented.

Worth it.

Rich people wrap their Porsches repeatedly around trees, while drunk, and not only still have insurance to drive with, they don't even do time. While I agree in substance with the idea that some people shouldn't ever have guns, I strongly disagree with tying economic status to the decision. In fact, I find myself morally outraged by the suggestion, and truly shocked to hear it coming from a supposedly liberal person like yourself. The poor have every bit as much right to defend what little property they have from criminals as the wealthy do. Last I heard, you were some sort of champion of the rights of the poor and downtrodden.


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