Saturday, February 6, 2016

Firearms and private citizens – nonsense on both sides, as usual

For some time now in the United States there has been an ongoing ‘debate’ (i.e, screaming match) between those who demand that private citizens have a right to own firearms without restriction, and those who feel that private citizens must be completely disarmed.  As usual both sides are wrong.

Whenever some crazed shooter blows away a few schoolchildren the siren cry goes out ‘oh how terrible this would not have happened if we had disarmed the entire populace how can anyone defend a policy that produces dead children.’  Leaving aside the fact that in the United States one is more likely to die from slipping in a bathroom than being plugged by a mass shooter, this is simply wrong. 

The gun-rights people keep saying “when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns,” and while tautological, it remains true.  It is a fact that in Japan there are strict gun-control laws, and the murder rate is very low.  However, Mexico also has very strict gun control laws – and an official homicide rate three times that of the United States (the actual rate is likely even higher).

I note that in Germany private citizens are not allowed to own firearms of any kind.  And yet in Austria any private citizen can purchase a shotgun as easily as in the United States.  And the homicide rates in Germany and Austria are equally low.  Well?

It is clear that gun control laws have, at best, a very minor effect on the rate of homicide.  What limits homicide is shared prosperity and social cohesion.  The middle class of the United States is armed to the teeth, and has a murder rate about equal to that of France.  It’s poor people without strong community and social support that commit murder, and especially drug gangs.  These will get firearms, laws or no laws. 

In particular, when young men of average ability can reasonably expect to have a decent job that is capable of supporting a family at a level that the society considers respectable, all other problems can be solved.  But take this away – let only PhD astronaut brain surgeon rock stars be able to make a decent living, let everyone else be living on the edge, let there be armies of aimless young men with nothing useful to do and no place for themselves in the social order, and bad things will happen. 

Ah, but the rich so dearly love their cheap labor.  One man’s desperately working random odd jobs trying to get barely enough to eat and avoid being thrown out on the street and forget about marrying and raising a family, is another man’s affordable labor costs.  Will the rich give up the quick and easy profits of ever- cheaper labor in exchange for long-term stability?  Or will they drive the populace into the ground?  This is really where the social peace is made or broken.

(Please don’t waste my time talking about ‘skills’ and ‘education’ – truck drivers in Japan have a considerably better life than engineers in Bangladesh.  Figure out why for yourself).

If ordinary citizens in Japan were allowed to own firearms, I expect that the homicide rate would hardly budge.  The Japanese are (for now) prosperous, nobody is worried about getting kicked out on the street tomorrow, nobody goes broke from medical emergencies, and they have a strong and cohesive society.  What would go up if the Japanese had guns would be the rate of successful suicides – this gets little press but that is probably the main effect of gun control laws in otherwise peaceful societies.  Stable middle class people don’t often kill other people, but if firearms are readily at hand they are more likely to kill themselves in a temporary fit of depression.

So outlawing firearms might help in some ways, but it will not create nirvana. In particular, it cannot stop a nation whose social fabric is fraying from descending into chaos.  On the other hand the gun-rights people are often equally wrong.  They claim that we can only be safe if everyone is packing a piece, so that criminals can be rapidly gunned down by an alert and armed populace.  Such rot.

Forget what you see in the movies.  In the real world danger strikes when we don’t expect it – when we are asleep, or in the bathroom, or distracted, or it’s dark.  Making life and death decisions when you are unprepared is nearly impossible for someone who is not heavily trained – and pretty darned hard even if you are trained. The professional police in the United States are, despite a lot of bad recent press, mostly pretty good, but making life and death decisions in a heartbeat when the lighting is bad and you are confused about what is really going on etc. is not something that even professionals get right all the time – and amateurs?  Forget it.

If you live in a good neighborhood in a peaceful society (important safety tip: LIVE IN A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD.  That’s far, far more important to your personal safety than owning a gun), and you keep a loaded weapon in your nightstand, you are vastly more likely to shoot an innocent by accident, or have a visitors’ kid wander in when nobody was looking and kill themselves or someone else, or have it stolen by an intruder, etc., than you are to wake up from a sound sleep and Rambo-like defend yourself from an invading armed gang.

On the other hand, there are times when guns really are valuable for self-defense.  In the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, order broke down.  People who were not armed were fair game for assault and murder.  People who had access to firearms were mostly safe. 

I think we need to take some lessons from the best professional killers, the U.S. armed forces.  When they are secure in a base, they keep their weapons locked up.  Because weapons are dangerous!  When enemy contact becomes more likely, they distribute their weapons amongst themselves.  When enemy contact becomes even more likely, they load their weapons, and only take the safety off at the last moment.

And so with private citizens.  When safe at home, firearms should be kept locked up.  Sure, it could be the case that if there is a break in you won’t be able to get to them in time, but that is far less likely than an accident happening.  Nothing is certain, we can only play the odds.  But if things start to go sour – if the outside becomes more violent, if the police are not able to respond – then it starts to make sense to break out the guns. 

And of course this also varies with place.  Out on a farm in the middle of nowhere, with police very far away, and it being unlikely that drunk neighbors will stumble onto your back porch at odd hours, and rabid raccoons and hungry bears wandering around, keeping a shotgun handy starts to make sense.  In the middle of Times Square, New York?  Not so much, I should think.

Now there has been a lot of press recently about “gun free zones.”  There are schools where nobody is allowed to bring a gun – not the students, not the teachers, not even the guards.  As you might expect, these “gun free zones” are where a lot of mass shootings take place, because the shooters know that nobody can shoot back.  The use of mass shootings in these “gun free zones” to justify society-wide gun control laws sure looks like a deliberate attempt to set the ground for mass slaughter to make a political point – when rich people use the latest tragedy to scream that little people cannot be allowed to own firearms this rings hollow and corrupt, because these same rich people are all heavily armed. 

And yet the notion that mass shootings can be stopped by arming schoolteachers and janitors (and students!!) is also insane.  Imagine a bunch of untrained schoolteachers packing pistols all day.  How many mass shootings per year might this stop (or cut short)?  Across the entire nation, if we were lucky, maybe one.   How many accidents would there be?  And how many times might some 95 pound female schoolteacher be jumped from behind and have her weapon taken from her by a 200 pound 17 year old male student?  There are reasons why when guards enter a prison, they are typically not armed – in close proximity with inmates, they are more likely to have their weapons taken from them than to successfully defend themselves.

If you really want to know how to keep school kids safe, look at how the rich do it.  They don’t arm the teachers or students.  But the schools of the rich are very much not “gun free zones” – they are protected by heavily armed professional security personnel.  That’s how you keep students safe.

Perhaps the most extreme gun free zones in this country are in airport terminals.  Private citizens are not allowed to bring weapons of pretty nearly any kind into an airport – no guns, no knives, nothing.  And yet, mass shootings almost never occur in airport terminals – because they are defended by well-trained heavily armed guards. 

I frankly do not want to fly on an airplane packed in like a sardine where there are 100 firearms in the possession of all manner of civilian passengers – old, drunk, stupid, crazy, mean, nearsighted…  I freely give up my right to defend myself with a firearm when I fly on a plane… but in return I demand that I be protected. 

The late Sam Francis coined the term “anarcho-tyranny”, which is when a government disarms the populace, but then refuses to provide security.  That surely is the worst of both worlds.  If a government prevents people from possessing effective weapons, it must guarantee security.  I note that Japan does not allow drug gang members to enter the country, does not allow Muslim terrorists to enter, nor any foreigner with a criminal record…  and yet in the United States, increasingly we have an open borders policy that is allowing all manner of nasty people to come here and crime is going up.  To disarm the populace under these conditions is immoral.

Recently in Sweden the government let in a bunch of third-world refugees with no screening, and as you might expect the rates of assault and rape etc. are skyrocketing.  It was in the news that a young girl fought off a would-be rapist with a can of pepper spray.  The police were unable to provide any protection under such chaotic conditions, but they did prosecute the girl for using pepper spray in her defense, because the Swedish government does not allow private citizens to own or possess pepper spray.  This seems like a gross breakdown of a social contract – anarcho-tyranny, indeed.

If we really are going to have gun control in the United States, it should be non-negotiable that the external border be sealed, that foreign nationals with criminal backgrounds not be allowed free entry, and the number of police on the street should be increased at least five-fold (yes we can afford that, especially if we stopped wasting all those trillions on stupid foreign wars).  And we need to stop destroying the ability of young people to earn a decent living through honest work, which can be easily done by limiting immigration and stopping outsourcing to third-world sweatshops.  But if we are not going to do that – if we are not going to provide security, and not stop foreign criminals from moving freely over the border, and continue to destroy social cohesion – then anyone demanding ‘gun control’ is a whore and cheat and a liar.  IMHO.

If we provided a safe and stable environment for people, we wouldn’t need guns to protect ourselves – but then we probably wouldn’t need gun control either. 

Some say that we need guns to keep ourselves safe.  Perhaps, at least to some extent,  it may be the other way around?  Perhaps we need a safe society in order for private citizens to be able to own guns.  Let’s think back on Mexico, where there is strict gun control and yet rampant violence.  What if we let every Mexican own a gun without restriction?  It might allow some peasants to defend themselves from drug gangs and corrupt police… but it also might take a bad situation and make it even worse.  Mexico could rapidly become like those “Mad Max” movies.

The elites in this country may not be pushing for gun control so much to reduce ‘gun violence’, as to ensure that some semblance of order can be maintained after they have crushed the working class into the mud.

Now sometimes people say that guns are helpful in preventing crime via a ‘herd immunity’ effect.  The idea is that even if an individual citizen is unlikely to be able to successfully defend themselves from a random attack, if potential criminals realize that many of their potential victims might be armed, that will dissuade them.  I mean, a wasp is no match for a human being, we can kill any single wasp easily.  But it might exact a price.  So we shy away, and every wasp that dies stinging a human causes the human to in the future respect wasps, and leave them alone, and wasps in general profit from this.   So maybe even if most of the time armed private citizens are not so good at defending themselves from attackers, it is enough that they sometimes draw blood, and introduce an element of fear and uncertainty in the minds of potential criminals.  I could see how this might be a factor, although proving this could be very challenging.  Nevertheless the Japanese people are unarmed and there is virtually no crime.   Any such ‘herd immunity’ effect is, at best, modest.  If you want a peaceful society, have a safe and prosperous and cohesive society.

Now another argument is that private ownership of guns is necessary in order for people to be able to defend themselves against a tyrannical government.  This is a tricky issue, I think.

No single person, no matter how many guns they have, can successfully defend themselves against a professional police force.  You can have your hundred rifles (note to stupid: you can still only use one at a time!) you can have your bunker, the police will surround you and wait you out and you will go down. 

But what about a larger grouping of private citizens?  Well let’s see.  In the late 19th century the American oligarchs were stomping on workers, and they would sometimes send their Pinkerton goons in to shoot up some labor organizers.  If enough workers got pissed they would grab their rifles and run the Pinkertons and the local police out of town.  And then the federal government would send in the regular army and stomp the locals flat and that would be that.  Or would it?

A mob of people, no matter how well armed or brave or smart or skillful they are as individuals, cannot defeat a modern well-drilled professional army.  It’s not really about skill, it’s not about firepower, it’s about discipline under fire and the chain of command.  So rebelling workers always lose.

And yet… the army can’t be in every town at once.  You can’t profitably run a mine or a factory if it’s being occupied by federal troops.  The oligarchs won every gun battle… and lost the war, and American workers made real progress.  Meanwhile in wonderful gun-controlled Mexico the oligarchs could just have their private security forces machine gun striking workers and business went on as usual.  When the average person has access to firearms, there is a cost to the government oppressing them that may be a restraint on the government’s behavior, even if the average person never actually wins any battles.  But if the elites can slaughter the peasants with little effort, well, perhaps this will not work out so well for the peasants in the long run.  I would rank this issue a tentative win for the gun-rights crowd.

But can an armed citizenry defend themselves from mass slaughter?  The specific question often comes up: if the Jews in Nazi Germany had all been armed, could Hitler have still managed to accomplish the holocaust?  This is not all that easy a question to answer.

Certainly no single Jew could have defended themselves from a squad of professional German troops.   But what if, out of every five times the Germans went to take out a Jew, a single German solider had been killed or seriously wounded?  The loss rate would be too high – there is no way the Nazis could have sustained that loss rate. 

But it’s not that simple.  If the specific people that the government want to slaughter are distributed throughout the society, it might indeed be hard for a  government to take them all out.  But if they are living in restricted areas – ghettos, provinces, reservations?  Then the government can use the regular military en masse and roll up the singled-out population via conventional assaults.  Or the government could use fear to flush them out into killing zones.  So it’s not clear to me that an armed citizenry is a panacea to a murderous and tyrannical government.

And yet… whenever a tyrant aims to slaughter or enslave a population, they first disarm them.  Obviously the professional tyrants feel that an armed population is harder to murder or enslave than a disarmed population, and perhaps there is a reason for that.  Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot etc. were evil, but not stupid.  If they believed that an armed citizenry was a barrier to oppression, are we so sure that they were all wrong?

I think I will let George Orwell have the last word.

"That rifle on the wall of the labourer's cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there." - George Orwell  

“It is a commonplace that the history of civilization is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon — so long as there is no answer to it — gives claws to the weak.” – Geroge Orwell  

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