klenwell information services : Paste20100226

Against the Gun is Civilization Argument:

The thesis is a canard. Guns do not promote civilization. Civilization is the result of functioning social institutions (foremost, the state itself), cooperative behavior, and, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, taxes.

1. "Reason or force, that's it." False dichotomy: in the sense that the force referred to is a very particular kind of force: lethal force. In civilized societies, this is a threat most people never face.[1] Even when they do, a gun helps only in very narrow circumstances and does not "civilize" the situation. Insurance is a much more civil alternative. It also glides over the more typical and complicated case of contracts. Are these instruments of reason or force? What do we do when they are broken?

2. "The gun is the only personal weapon that puts a 100-pound woman on equal footing with a 220-pound mugger, etc." The term "equal footing" seems to be the basis of the author's concept of civilization. But what's being equalized here? The ability to meet lethal force with lethal force? I suppose a case could be made that this is the bedrock of the social contract. But civilization rests on the sublimation of that threat, not its daily exercise. At the same time, I am confident that the author would oppose on principle the sort of equalization that helps to contain the threat of casual epidemic violence on the grounds that it redistributes resources from those who have earned them to those who are undeserving.

3. "A mugger, even an armed one, can only make a successful living in a society where the state has granted him a force monopoly." No civilized society has ever granted him that monopoly. The state reserves that monopoly for itself. That is part of what makes it civilized. The mugger is trying to break that monopoly, to the detriment of civilization.

4. "The gun removes the disparity in physical strength, size, or numbers between a potential attacker and a defender." I imagine numbers do matter in a gunfight. Even if they don't, a gun doesn't level the field. It simply replaces size with surprise.[2] Anyone meaning to do you harm should probably plan an ambush and the defender is not the only one who can take advantage of a gun in this situation.

More pragmatically, the author completely ignores the costs, risks, and responsibilities that come with gun ownership. The gun is not a magical wand and the costs of owning one are not insignificant. As my friend, the gun owner, who sent me this article makes clear, it requires hours if not years of training and investment to become competent with a gun. The question is: does the benefit of owning a gun for the reason posited in the essay (personal defense against unreasonable force) outweigh the costs that come with learning to use it responsibly and the risks that ownership presents? This is, however, extremely difficult to quantify.[3]

5. "When I carry a gun, I don't do so because I am looking for a fight, but because I'm looking to be left alone. The gun at my side means that I cannot be forced, only persuaded." This is narcissistic to the point of pathology. If you did this in any public place where I encountered you, you would be the one demonstrating a flagrant disregard for reason and threatening lethal force. It is a provocative act that does not further the cause of civilization.

For a detailed summary of the gun control debate in America, see this wikipedia page.

1. Possible exceptions to the proposition that the threat of lethal force is minimal:
- Women: women face an elevated threat of sexual assault from men. Does owning a gun discourage sexual predation? How would this even be quantified? The company of a couple reliable friends is almost universally better security than carrying a gun.

- People Being Bullied, Harassed, or Stalked: a special subset of the first case. If your sister or daughter (or, perhaps, brother) was being persistently or menacingly harassed by someone, an abusive ex-boyfriend or ex-husband, would owning a gun make her more secure? How do you quantify the advantage? Law enforcement obviously would be the first line of defense. If he was menacing enough, I might recommend she look into gun ownership, mostly as a means for providing her the illusion of security and empowerment. But here, note, civilization is no longer the issue at question. The question is how do you deal with or neutralize a psychopath. And this does not affect my position that all but the most basic guns should be regulated and restricted in society.

- Celebrities: would a gun have saved John Lennon? No. A security detail would have. Lesser celebrities, say a well-known scientist associated with a controversial position, faces a more serious dilemma. Still, a gun is little defense against a committed attacker and the attacker is going to gain much more by his access to a gun and the advantage of surprise than the defender.

The point with all of these exceptions are that they are extremely exceptional and not especially relevant to the claim that civilization as whole is promoted by wide public access to guns.

2. "In any event, guns may change the dynamic of a confrontation from “size wins” to “surprise wins,” but it does not make all confrontations even." http://www.foggybottomline.com/?p=343

3. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_arguments_of_gun_politics_in_the_United_States#Logical_Pitfalls_in_the_Gun-Violence_Debate