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April 8, 2003

More about gnus. And their relationship to a population’s ability to resist tyranny. From Jim Henley, who (unsurprisingly) epitomizes the thoughtful end of the libertarian approach to this subject. [08:17 AM]
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Comments on More about gnus.:

Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 09:08 AM:

God bless those bearded guardians of savannah freedom!

Greg Greene ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 09:09 AM:

Gnus?! Okay, if you say so . . .

  • If gnus are outlawed, only outlaws will have gnus.
  • You can take my gnu when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.
  • Annie, Get Your Gnu!
Put me on record — if I have anything to say about it, the right to keep and bear gnus shall not be infringed.

alkali ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 11:59 AM:

Put me on record 97 if I have anything to say about it, the right to keep and bear gnus shall not be infringed.

For those considering bearing gnus:

Birthweight of Brindled Gnu: 22 kg (48 lbs.)

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 02:53 PM:

I did rather like Mr. Henley's nascaent realization that, hey, wait, this problem is embedded in a complex context.

This liberty we are all concerned to preserve is not an easy thing to define; it does not mean doing whatever one blessed well pleases (liberty and anarchy are not understood to be the same thing, after all), and it does not mean the absence of any compulsory authority. (Anyone think that the folks with SARS shouldn't have to observe quarantine?)

Careful modern definitions generally look at access to choice compared to the amount of choice in the society -- is the access to choice concentrated, or general? Are barriers irrelevant to personal conduct present when people go to exercise a choice they would prefer?

That approach is, I think, accurate, but it is also not hugely useful if you leave out the more basic observation that the amount of choice available is a function of social organization.

Ten million individuals without a social organization are the paleolithic world population; decently fed, generally in out of the rain, but otherwise not much provided with choice.

Ten million individuals with social organization can be, say, Montreal, and its hinterlands; vastly more choice -- plays, movies, many different getting in out of the rain, many more people to talk to, greater expectations of personal security, a collective ability to do something about it most of the time when you get sick, a further collective ability to reduce the risk of sickness; these things, and others, arise from the pattern of social organization.

That's the answer to why merely being armed doesn't create an opportunity for greater liberty -- an opportunity to change the social organization to one that contrains their access to choice less -- on the part of the Iraqis; they haven't got a social organization, those have all been ground away, so there is no way to act other than individuals.

Up against formed units, groups of people with common purpose, common training, and common social bonds, that's another way to be helpless.

Which is why even with exactly equivalent weapons, private individuals still cannot expect to withstand anything organized for violence. The specialization, the training, the experience, the simple cohesion of long practice counts for a very great deal.

Which -- looping back and back -- is why the most fundamental, the most critical, of all the rights, is the right of refusal; the ability to say "nope. You're the legitimate government, all right, but we-the-people refuse this. Try again."

The second ammendment is in there -- in, do please remember, a context where most institutions dealing with violence were semi-private -- as part of that assumption of the importance of refusal, as a provision of tools for the purpose.

In a world with another couple hundred years of organization experience -- the American Constitution predates truly effective battlefield artillery, dispersed infiltration infantry tactics, the continuous front, staff command, mechanized warfare, electronic signalling, aerial reconaisance, and devolution of authority to the enlisted man -- that provision of tools isn't anything like adequate.

Which is not to say that having those tools taken away isn't grounds for concern; a response which doesn't notice the loss of sufficency is I think equally concerning.

What constitutes a meaingfully right of refusal, with the kinds of social organization of which we are now as a species capable, and how can this be made available to everyone?

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 05:02 PM:

Henley certainly speaks as if any Iraqi could walk into a gun shop and buy a gun.

I simply haven't seen any sources indicating that gun ownership is widespread and evenly distributed among the general Iraqi population.

I am highly skeptical, for example, that there is any sort of parity of gun ownership between the Shia and Sunni populations. Can anyone point to reliable sources on this?

Chuck Divine ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 05:32 PM:

One of things that brings out the libertarian in me is various government campaigns to stamp out something we all agree as bad (e.g., murder, accidental death) by suppressing some activity disliked by one group but engaged in by a large number of other people with few or no bad effects.

Yes, gun deaths are higher in the U.S. than in other countries. But the vast majority of guns are not used to kill people.

Drug use also can have unfortunate consequences. But that's not the way it is for nearly all people who have used drugs.

The list of things government is urged to take action against (and all too often today is) is long and all too often unsupportable by a calm examination of the actual dangers.

You want to stop terrorists from taking over planes by screening passengers? Sorry -- I'd rather arm pilots than try to find a few dozen people out of the nearly 300 million passengers a year on U.S. airlines.

You want to stop gun violence by taking guns away from the responsible majority -- who sometimes have real needs for them (consider what life is like way out in the country)?

You want to stop drug problems by prohibiting drugs? What makes you think that will work?

Personally, I think we should look at the psychology of people who advocate various repressive measures. Especially when repressive measures don't actually seem to deliver their supposed benefits.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 06:42 PM:

Hardly anyone wants to be repressive, and while there are certainly folks who cynically exploit various prohibition movements, most of the support for them is sincere.

It's that preference for the moral -- which can work on personal scales, but not scales of hundreds of millions of people -- over the quantitative analysis which is in many ways the United States' unique heritage among developed nations.

Getting rid of that means taking on the legitimacy of religious belief in American public life.

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 09:56 PM:

"An armed society is a polite society" is grossly taken out of context. Also out of context: "Show me the money!"

Nicholas Weininger ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 10:12 AM:

A few points I haven't seen made in this discussion.

1. I don't know of any serious gun-rights advocates who claim that gun rights are effective bulwarks of liberty *in the absence of* either

(a) other essential rights like free speech and free assembly, or

(b) a culture in which people are willing to risk their own safety to preserve liberty against government.

For example, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (http://www.jpfo.org) is the most firebreathing extremist RKBA group I can think of; and if you look through their educational materials it's clear that they place emphasis on defending the whole Bill of Rights. And Jeffrey Snyder put it quite nicely at the end of his pro-gun essay "A Nation of Cowards":

"This is the uncompromising understanding reflected in the warning that America's gun owners will not go gently into that good, utopian night: "You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands." While liberals take this statement as evidence of the retrograde, violent nature of gun owners, we gun owners hope that liberals hold equally strong sentiments about their printing presses, word processors, and television cameras. The republic depends upon fervent devotion to all our fundamental rights."

2. To evaluate the importance of gun rights as a factor in-- or at least a correlate with-- preserving liberty in general, you need to look at what happens when gun rights are varied while other factors are held as constant as possible. Comparing Iraq to Canada utterly fails to do this, since there are so many other factors that fail to be even close to constant.

One way to get a better comparison is to ask: when the level of gun rights in one country changes over time, do other rights tend to change in the same direction? I'd argue that the examples of the US, Britain, and Canada in the 20th century all give strong positive answers to this question: governments that take gun rights away tend to take other sorts of rights away at the same time. Dave Kopel did a detailed article on the British case called "All the Way Down the Slippery Slope" which is very much worth reading; it's at http://www.davekopel.com/2A/LawRev/SlipperySlope.htm.
The aforementioned JPFO would add that there exists a correlation between anti-gun laws and genocide in a variety of countries; see their site for examples.

Now the strength of this conclusion depends on what sorts of rights you consider important; and even if true it only demonstrates correlation, not causation. But it is, at least, an argument to which the Iraq-and-Canada thing isn't a very good response.

3. Graydon's point about the necessity of organization for resistance is well taken. The Founders understood this-- thus the "well-regulated Militia" clause of the Second Amendment. So did the citizen militia groups who organized in the early 1990s and were promptly denounced as crazy racist extremists by all "respectable" opinion. It's a shame they never really got off the ground; it's also a shame that some of their members really were crazy racist extremists. Another addition to the long, long list of good ideas discredited by their advocates.

lightning ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 01:02 PM:

Henley's "canary in the coal mine" argument is completely theological -- he starts with the premise that gun ownership is a vital freedom and then tries to figure out *why*.

Near as I can tell, gun rights are not a canary -- they're a parrot. A thouroughly dead parrot, nailed securely to its perch:

1. Check the circumstances in which it is legal to *use* a gun. In many places, the concept of "self-defense" seems to no longer exist.

2. With the cheerful illusion of "RKBA", the gun nuts don't know or care about the erosion of other rights. Ashcraft is pro-gun, therefore he's pro-freedom; anybody who says oherwise is some kind of a dope.

I think that a much more useful "canary" would be tolerance for dissent.

Nicholas Weininger ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 02:40 PM:

lightning, can you give a single example of a "gun nut" who really doesn't "know or care about the erosion of other rights?" I gave several examples in my last post of gun nuts who do, in fact, know and care.

Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 03:25 PM:

Nicolas Weininger wrote: "can you give a single example of a "gun nut" who really doesn't "know or care about the erosion of other rights?"

Would John Ashcroft count? RKBA is pretty much the only right he won't trample.

Any gun nuts in Congress who voted for the "Patriot" act, or who want to make it permanent.

Is the Oregon legislator who wants to brand protestors "terrorists" a person who leans towards gun nuttery?

Nicholas Weininger ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 04:20 PM:

No, Ashcroft doesn't count; he's a power nut, not a gun nut. He believes, at the present moment, that support for RKBA is to his political advantage. If and when that belief changes he will no doubt jettison his "principle", as he has done in the past on other liberty issues, notably states' rights.

The rest of the politicians you mention fall in to the same category. I am skeptical of the idea that anyone in political office has any real, deeply held beliefs about much of anything, other than the desirability of their remaining in office.

lightning ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 04:49 PM:

Nicholas --

I suspect that you hang around with a better class of gun nut than I do. The gun nuts that I deal with:

* State flat-out that all other rights are worthless without RKBA. "The Second Amendment is the enforcement clause for the Bill of Rights."

* State flat-out that *all* laws regulating weapons are, prima facie, unconstitutional. All.

Note -- I don't have any Website references. These are guys I know personally.

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 06:58 PM:

I tend to agree with a sentiment I think Neal Stephenson expressed, that by the time the 2nd Amendment comes into play for defending liberty, things have gone _really_ wrong. That is, there are a lot of other ways to fight against oppression before we get to small arms use, and it'd be a bad idea to put all our eggs in the RKBA basket and neglect those other, earlier means of fighting oppression.

David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 08:07 PM:

Lightning is completely wrong about one thing. The right to deadly force in self defense is not particularly eroded as a principle. And except for a few backwards states like Massachusetts, the motion has been in a pro-rights direction rather than an anti-rights direction in general.

There are more and more places in the United States where it's legal to carry a gun to defend yourself. 35 states now have shall-issue carry permits (or none required at all, in the case of Vermont). These states include eastern, western, northern, and southern states. They include states with very large cities, and states without. They include farming states and ranching states and rust belt states and midwest states. They are the home to more than half the population of the united states.

kla. ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2003, 12:36 PM:

"...a few backwards states like Massachusetts..."

Massachusetts. Backwards.


lightning ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2003, 01:22 AM:

The right to deadly force in self defense is not particularly eroded as a principle

Would that it were so! This page gives a brief discussion of "self defense law", as it applies to martial artists. Basic summary -- it's a nightmare. Not only do you have to deal with questions of "excessive force" (is it "excessive" to shoot somebody who's threatening you with a hammer?), you have to deal with the fact that the guy you shoot (or his heirs) can sue you for every dime you'll ever see.

The right to have a gun is not the same as the right to use it. Some jurisdictions have some very odd notions of "self defense". Is your area one of them? Best check. (Note -- don't just check the laws. Check how the courts interpret them.)

Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2003, 05:05 AM:

No one is probably reading this anymore, which is just fine by me. But after last night, I had to write something, just to weigh in.

Most of these comments have referred to the issue in a very abstracted way. "If the government comes to take your rights," or "if you need to defend yourself." But in my neighborhood, this discussion is anything but.

Last night, at about 3 in the morning, some guys had a brief but heated argument in the park near my house and then fired maybe 14 shots. Then they took off. Luckily no one was hurt (that I know of). I even called 911.

I say 'even' because I don't call 911 for fewer than 3 shots anymore. It's just not worth it: I hear 1-3 shots outside at night (I'm an insomniac so I'm up late most nights) at least once a week. More like 3-4 times a week in the summer.

Last fall a little girl was killed in her home, which was not too far from mine, by stray gunfire while she was doing homework. We ourselves have come home to find a bullet hole in our office and the bullet lodged in the wall near the filing cabinet.

A bicyclist was shot dead just last week 4 blocks down the street from our house, and another woman was wounded. A car was also shot up--had the driver been in it, maybe someone else would have been hit too.

So for us the proliferation of handguns in low-income Minneapolis is anything but academic. It's poison.

As for solutions, I am quite interested in the public health model, but I am also curious about the strategy adopted by many cities to sue gun manufacturers for dumping and fraud. Though many of those cases have been dismissed, a cursory glance at the Violence Policy Center http://www.vpc.org/litigate.htm seems to indicate that some are proceeding. I applaud their creativity. And if the manufacturers have been engaging in fraudulent or dumping practices, I hope the cities nail them to the wall.

Otherwise, maybe a year-long moratorium on handgun manufacture with a concurrent buyback/meltdown program?

Or my favorite, from Chris Rock: a $5000 tax per bullet, at which price there are no dead bystanders.

Stephan Brun -- Comment spam alert! ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 11:44 PM:

I don't believe this, another one?

David Goldfarb -- Comment spam alert! ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2004, 04:23 AM:

And yet another.