Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Are You Threatening Me?

In an earlier post I referred to my neighbor's bumper sticker, which reads:

Sure you can have my gun... BULLETS FIRST!

My neighbor would probably be surprised to learn that guns, as I noted in that post, have not always been considered private property. But for him - if his bumper sticker is any indication - they are not only private property, but a special (and threatened) class of private, in defense of which any means is justified.

Many other writers have noted the frequent connection between guns and self-identity. Of course, guns are not unique in this respect. We often identify ourselves by objects in our possession. I am a great music lover, and have a rather obscene collection of compact discs, to go along with my records (yes, I have a vinyl record collection - and even an operational record player!) and other musical media. I once dreamed that all of my cds were lost in a flood, and woke up existentially disoriented. Just having my musical collection threatened in a nightmare was enough to call my self-identity into question, leaving me emotionally rudderless until I could confirm that nothing had happened to those objects.

This connection between possessions and identity has often been exploited by gun lobbyists to resist even the most moderate and sensible restrictions on private ownership of dangerous weapons, creating the paranoia reflected in my neighbor's bumper sticker. How can someone reach the point where they are willing to threaten the life of anyone who philosophically disagrees with the wisdom of allowing citizens to arm themselves to the teeth? But that is exactly the sentiment communicated by my neighbor's bumper sticker, and that sentiment is not unique to him.

The problem with having weapons is that having them makes us more likely to use them, without making us any safer. The mere possession of the means by which to kill or maim another person makes us contemplate situations in which such killing or maiming might be justified, and such contemplation, if it is left unchecked, can cause us to seriously mis-evaluate the morality of such situations.

While Jesus' Sermon on the Mount calls into question the moral justification for self defense ("You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Matthew 5:38-41 NRSV) the American gun culture, which insists on an unchecked right to defend self and property by any means, clothes itself in the rhetoric of Christianity.

Jesus expressly forbids meeting violence with violence, evil with evil. This is the case whether health, property, or even liberty is at stake. But, of course, a reasonable person could argue that the commands of Jesus are not universally binding. After all, we live in a plural society, in which both the law and the public morality should account for the diversity of views and beliefs. And, despite Jesus' protestations to the contrary, most people in America believe in a basic right to defend self, property and liberty.

But, hopefully those of us who believe in such a right do not consider it to be an entirely unlimited right. Hopefully reasonable people who believe that it is morally justified to visit some level of violence on those who would threaten their person, possessions, or freedom believe that the level of violence visited upon those who threaten them must be proportional to the threat.

I say that because on my walk this morning I saw a sign much more troubling that my aforementioned neighbor's bumper sticker. A few blocks from my house, posted on the gated fence around a well-manicured yard, is a menacing sign which reads:

NO TRESPASSING: THERE'S NOTHING IN THIS YARD WORTH BEING SHOT OVER!

Not exactly a subtle threat. When I first saw this sign I was tempted to knock on the door and ask the owner of the house if they would seriously shoot anyone who jumped the fence. But, thankfully, I thought better of it. Anyone who would post such a sign would not make, I think, for a very good conversation partner on the ethics of self-defense.

I'm not sure how to tie all of this together, Even though I've lived in Kentucky all of my life, and even though I've lived in Louisville for over 6 years now (qualifying me as a honorary Louisvilleian, I think!), some days I feel like an alien who was tossed out of a spaceship and had to make my home here. I simply can't relate to the desire to visit lethal force upon someone for the crime of trespassing.

Perhaps that's because I can relate more to the trespasser than the property owner. After all, it wasn't that long ago that I was a boy, passing through my neighbor's yards on my short-cut to the park, or jumping the fence into the garden next door to retrieve the tennis ball that my brother pummelled in one of our daily games of BYBB (Backyard Baseball - the greatest childhood game ever invented, and the only form of baseball that I could ever dominate).

While I'm sure that some people enter into private property with more menacing intent than the childhood version of me, I still can't understand how anyone could get to the place where they could shoot someone just for being on their property. Personally I'd rather be robbed than allow myself to kill another human being, and I hope that such an intuition is a common one.

So I have to ask: When, as a culture, did we get so crazy or depraved that we started to value our possessions over the lives of others? Can someone help me to understand this?

15 comments:

Brian Beech said...

“makes us contemplate situations in which such killing or maiming might be justified, and such contemplation, if it is left unchecked, can cause us to seriously mis-evaluate the morality of such situations” - I've often thought about when I may use my weapons and the repercussions of that, both morally and emotionally. I think anyone who contemplates those situations without 'checking' himself/herself already has some deeply rooted problems (which I won't even try to delve into).

You're neighbor's bumper sticker and the sign on the fence really strike me as humorous. I realize that there are a few extremists that would take those statements seriously, but I think it would be hard to find those people.

Anyone that would shoot a child for going into his/her yard to fetch a ball would definitely be in jail shortly thereafter. I did a Google search to see if I could find any instances of that and a quick search returned no results (not saying they don't exist, but apparently that is not a common occurrence). I also believe that anyone shooting a person for innocent trespass would also find him/herself in the legal system. So, my point is that having guns and the right to defend one's self/property doesn't give us the freedom or the right to use these guns anyway we desire.

I think the reason you find so many gun owners that are 'totally' against gun control is because they've seen what a slippery slope it is. When President Clinton signed an assault weapons ban it showed how easy handguns could be outlawed. Assault weapons sold today are semi-automatic, meaning they only shoot one bullet per trigger pull, much like a handgun. So, these were semi-automatic assault rifles were banned for being how much different than a handgun? Since President Bush allowed the ban to expire, it is still impossible for me to purchase a 'new' fully automatic assault rifle (which I think is unconstitutional). So, exaggerated resistance due to the quick 'slip' of that slope.

Sorry I didn't get into some of what I would like to, but as usual I am swamped with work!!! arrrrggghhh!!! And yes, I am watching 'Future Weapons' on the Discovery Channel – now that will make anit-gun advocates quite upset.

Tyler Simons said...

(yes, I have a vinyl record collection - and even an operational record player!)

I recently had a group of church people over to the apartment. (I felt like such a grown-up!) The people who were, (unlike us) of an age where they could remember records being the primary mean of music delivery were all impressed that I had a turntable. Only one couple actually had a turntable, and they didn't know where to get a stylus. I have a chanukah stylus; it's lasted since high school, so I was of no help to them.

The mere possession of the means by which to kill or maim another person makes us contemplate situations in which such killing or maiming might be justified, and such contemplation, if it is left unchecked, can cause us to seriously mis-evaluate the morality of such situations.

Doesn't everyone "contemplate situations in which such killing or maiming might be justified?" Don't we all have big knives in the kitchen? Most men could mess their wives or kids real good without a weapon or with any heavy old thing.

Following Amos Oz, I think it might be a good idea to focus on aggression, rather than violence. He fought to defend his country (for better or worse, militant opponents to Israel might want me to add) against people who wanted to wipe it off the map, for better or, probably, worse reasons. You'd rather get robbed than kill a guy. Me, too. If somebodys about to do something to your wife or kid and you can't reach them, I think you might be justified in using the gun.

Gun owners, I think, are kind of admirable in their desire to approach the edge while they contemplate the limit situations of human ethics. They need to take care there, the edge is a dangerous place. That's why gun people are so intent on gun safety and, like, focus.

I live in a place, though, where there's a lot of people around who don't really seem so keen on checking themselves from jumping off. The flow of guns into the inner cities -- and now back into the outer suburbs -- where many of the guns were bought in the first place -- is, terrifyingly, accompanied by an all-to-fast recourse to their use.

I don't know how to think about that, really.

Actually, I have an idea. Wouldn't it be cool if the NRA got together with the inner-city kids for gun safety clinics? It would make it a lot harder for liberals to turn up their noses at gun owners if the latter acknowledged the real problem that guns are exasperating, to say the least and helped the rest of us think of ways to fight it.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian Beech,

At the risk of once again painting myself as an out of touch liberal who can't take a joke, I don't see what's so funny about threatening to shoot people who:

a.) disagree with you about gun control, or

b.) enter your territory without permission.

As far as your slippery slope argument, aside from saying that a slippery slope argument like the one you made is by definition a logical fallacy, it flies in the face of our nation's history to think that guns are growing more controlled rather than less, for reasons mentioned in the earlier post on the subject.

But, more seriously, I'm a pretty funny guy. I can take a good joke, and I can give one too. And I even recognize and respect the connection (in some cases) between violence and humor. Slapstick is as old as comedy, as best as I can tell, and when done right it makes me fall out of my chair. But what's so funny about threatening to shoot someone? How is that anything other than bullying; an attempt to cut off all reasonable debate.

I think that there is something seriosuly wrong with making such a statement, and then trying to pass it off as "just a joke." That's like crossing the line and then trying to tip-toe back over it without getting noticed after you've already been called on it.

And I hope that none of your politically conservative friends see that staement as an infrigement on free speech, because it isn't. I'm not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to post such signs and stickers. I'm saying that:

1. They shouldn't post them, because

2. They shouldn't think thoughts which give rise to posting them.

This is a question of morals and values, not of legality. We can't legislate thoughts and speech, but we must surely acknowledge that we live in far too violent a society, and that the violence of our society is at the very least not helped by such sentiments.

Also, it is decidedly not unconstitutional to place limits on the sort of arms which one can bear, especially since the Second Ammendment, which reads:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

connects the right to own guns to the militia and its role in defending the nation from external threats. As best as I can tell, you are not a member of a militia of any kind. Further, militias have not been used to defend the nation since the War of 1812, a war in which they performed so poorly that they lost all popular support.

More murders are committed in the United States each year (roughly 24,000!) than in any other nation which is not in the middle of a civil war or violent revolution. More murders are committed in the United States each week than in all Western European nations combined in an entire year.

This is not because we are by nature more violent than other people. Our history, in fact, includes us through the 1850's being derided by Europeans for not having the stomach for violence. Pacifistic movements have flourished throughout American history, because most of us are not violent by nature.

Our violence is connected to the gun industry. Simply put, we kill more people than all civilized nations combined because we absolutely refuse to check the flow of lethal weapons within our borders.

Tyler,

I'll have to respond to your comments later, as I used up all of my time for the moment on Brian.

Thanks to both of you for commenting.

Brian Beech said...

I think they were funny not because the message they were conveying should be taken seriously but rather the way in which the message was delivered. “Sure you can have my gun... BULLETS FIRST!” is a little clever way of saying ‘hey, I’m against gun control’. That’s the way I take that and in that sense it is funny. Not ‘make me laugh’ funny, but rather just a ‘smirk’ type of funny. I think if the messages were to be taken seriously then yes, the humor would no longer be there. I doubt seriously that your neighbor would shoot a federal agent that came to take one of his guns (although I could be wrong).

I really don’t think it’s fair to say that history shows guns are being less controlled. If you look at guns from 1492 till now I would say you have a good point, but that’s like saying that live television is more regulated now than it has ever been. If you look at gun law history since prohibition (since that’s when it really started) it has become more and more controlled; up until Bush let the assault weapons ban expire. So…recent history shows that guns are being controlled more and more. I think that’s fair way of looking at gun control history.

As far as the murder rate of the US; there is no way I will buy that guns are the cause of murders. They may be one of the means to carry out these murders, but they are not the cause. I believe there is some societal breakdown that the US is suffering from. It’s much deeper than the fact that we allow our citizens to purchase guns.

Guns are being ‘checked’ in our borders. I’ve bought about 3 or 4 guns in the past year and every time I’ve had to go through a background check, submit fingerprints, and have even had a 7 day waiting period. Criminals go through no such hassle, they can get guns that come over our borders illegally and get guns that are stolen off of the black market immediately. My dad recently went to Canada, or tried to, and they refused his entry because he had a gun in the car; no problem. He turned around and came back to Michigan and was treated like a real criminal because he told them he had a gun. Nevermind the fact that he had an Indiana permit which Michigan recognizes as a legal document allowing him to carry the gun. He truly was harassed, set aside, they took his gun, took his bullets and gave his gun back with a strap that he was unable to get off until he got to a knife or wire cutters. He was carrying legally. How is this less regulated than ‘the days of ole’? Bottom line, the old saying is true “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian Beech,

First off, I think that you are hinting at a very good point. To borrow the old line from statistical analysis, correlation does not demonstrate causality.

There is a correlation between the prevalence of guns in the United States and our extreme murder rate, but that correlation, by itself, does not, as you point out, demonstrate that the prevalence of guns is causally linked to the murder rate.

To demostrate causality you have to identify all of the possible extraneous variables and sort them out. You have to, in this case, control for various other sociological and societal differences between the United States and other Western industiralized nations. But given the extreme differences between our murder rate and the murder rates of the countries most similar to us (compare, for instance, the United States to Canada), and given that, in my very amateur estimation, the most significant difference between the United States and the countries most similar to it, in terms of factors most likely to lead to violence, is the prevalence of firearms, a fair-minded person, gun owner or not, has to start asking some tough questions.

Could not the social ills which you speculate about be linked to all of the guns in our possession? Might we not address some of those issues by significantly reducing the number of guns in our country? And isn't it worth giving up some individual liberties to ensure safety?

That last question is a question often asked by conservatives, especially when they talk about sacrificing civil liberties (such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press) in a time of war. But while it is by no means clear that free speech and a free press make us less safe in wartime, it is abundantly clear that far from making us safer guns most often make us significantly less safe.

More later, I am sure.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

By the way, I am aware that I did not answer all of your concerns. Sorry about that, I ran out of time. I'll have to get to some of them later. You raise some good issues, which are worth discussing, and I hope you don't think that I am avoiding some of the best ones. I just can't do this all day.

Brian Cubbage said...

It's unwise to make the rationale for increased gun control rest on the dubious claim that guns cause violent crime. In fact, I somehow doubt that gun-control advocates who are speaking carefully really say that; the cliché "Guns don't kill people, people do" is something of a straw man, I think. A better rationale is that guns amplify both the number of violent crimes committed and the violence of those that are committed. They aren't a cause of crime, but their number and availability is a contributing factor in making violent crime in America as violent and as prevalent as it is.

The natural response to this point, and the one Tyler makes, is that if someone really wants to commit a violent crime, he or she will find a way to do it, gun or no. Fair enough. But it's implausible on the face of it to think that all violent crime occurs as a result of deliberate planning of the sort that would lead the criminal to embark on the crime regardless of the specific means at his disposal. Some of it might be prevented if there were simply fewer means at his disposal, giving him a chance, perhaps, to change his intentions. (I've no evidence in hand to support that latter point, though, so if you have evidence to the contrary, I would be glad to hear it.)

Plus, the lethality of guns is greater than, say, baseball bats or kitchen knives, both of which demand that a person get within a well-defined striking range near the intended victim. (Of course, bows and arrows are missile-based like guns, too, but it's harder to hide a compound bow and a quiver of arrows in the waistband of your underwear.)

My point here is that we don't subscribe to a misguided theory of intention here. The intention of a violent criminal is like the intention of anyone else who does anything on purpose in the sense that he has to match his motivations and goals to the means he has at his disposal. In countries with extremely limited access to guns, one simply lacks the means to implement criminal intentions using them. Of course, in America this raises the problem of how one could really limit access to guns in the relevant way without making their production illegal, or at least very tightly controlled. And I have purposefully dodged the entire question of how any gun control could (a) pass constitutional muster and (b) be implemented in a way that didn't infringe other basic rights. This is the balancing act that Sandalstraps seems to be referring to. I simply want to make sure that if we're having a conversation about how to balance gun control against other rights and socially desirable goals, more needed to be said about what sorts of things rest in the pro-gun-control side of the scale. I will let you all determine how heavily you think they weigh.

Tyler Simons said...

Brian C: It's implausible on the face of it to think that all violent crime occurs as a result of deliberate planning of the sort that would lead the criminal to embark on the crime regardless of the specific means at his disposal. Some of it might be prevented if there were simply fewer means at his disposal, giving him a chance, perhaps, to change his intentions.

Or the other guy to run away. Point taken.

I have purposefully dodged the entire question of how any gun control could (a) pass constitutional muster and (b) be implemented in a way that didn't infringe other basic rights.

I'm pretty pessimistic about the political possibility of major gun control legislation, too.

Strappy: If you're trying to convince individual gun owners that the risk of owning a gun is not worth the potential benefit, then I've got no beef, you're probably right. Your last question,

When, as a culture, did we get so crazy or depraved that we started to value our possessions over the lives of others?

Is, it seems to me quite distinct from arguments about legal restrictions on guns. How do we start a public discourse about this kind of thing? Liberals do often look to government regulation to get this stuff done. I don't think that's appropriate.

Tyler Simons said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tyler Simons said...

Brian B: Criminals go through no such hassle, they can get guns that come over our borders illegally and get guns that are stolen off of the black market immediately.

Or they buy them from stores in states with relatively lenient gun control laws:

Take Carail Weeks. The Chicago gang member, investigators said, made two trips to Marion County gun shops to purchase weapons before he was arrested in the March 3 shooting death of 14-year-old Starkesia Reed, hit by a stray bullet as she stood inside her home in Englewood, Ill.

Weeks, authorities said, used a fake Indiana identification card to buy two handguns and an AK-47 at Bradis Guns in southwestern Marion County.


or they pay people with clean records to buy the guns. Strengthening the regulations on sales of legal handguns will almost definately decrease the number of ill-gotten guns on streets like mine, on the South Side of Chicago, about five miles away from where Starkesia Reed was killed.

My dad recently went to Canada, or tried to, and they refused his entry because he had a gun in the car; no problem. He turned around and came back to Michigan and was treated like a real criminal because he told them he had a gun. Nevermind the fact that he had an Indiana permit which Michigan recognizes as a legal document allowing him to carry the gun.

Maybe the border patrol overreacted. Maybe. I'm going to be perfectly frank, though. I fully support your dad's right to own a gun and drive around with it, despite my fears that something bad might happen. I think if you're going to accept the responsibility that comes with owning a gun, you need to be extremely careful and sensible with it.

I think it's a pretty big mistake to try to take a gun across international borders without checking to see of you're allowed to. If I'm on border patrol, I'm going to be understandibly wary of anything that seems out of the ordinary. Here comes this armed man who didn't take the time to see if he was breaking canadian law by trying to take a gun into the country. What am I going to do? I can totally understand why he was treated like a potential criminal. It makes perfect sense to me. Your dad had a very uncomfortable situation. Good! I think he deserved it. That was dumb! He's not going to prison, is he? Did they press charges? You've got nothing to complain about there, in my oh so humble opinion.

Brian Beech said...

I think it's a pretty big mistake to try to take a gun across international borders without checking to see of you're allowed to. If I'm on border patrol, I'm going to be understandably wary of anything that seems out of the ordinary. Here comes this armed man who didn't take the time to see if he was breaking Canadian law by trying to take a gun into the country. What am I going to do? I can totally understand why he was treated like a potential criminal. It makes perfect sense to me. Your dad had a very uncomfortable situation. Good! I think he deserved it. That was dumb! He's not going to prison, is he? Did they press charges? You've got nothing to complain about there, in my oh so humble opinion.

You'll get no argument from me that it was a dumb thing to do to try to enter Canada with a firearm. Although the trip across the border was a last minute plan and he really wasn't thinking about his firearm until they asked him about it. Nevertheless, it definitely was the wrong thing to do. But my problem is his coming back into America, where he is a citizen with no record, a 'right to carry' permit, that he was treated like a criminal. Now, I believe it would have been different if he had lied about having a gun and then the border patrol found it, but he wasn't, he told them about his firearm (as you're supposed to do). Having the power to hold someone and harass them should not be the reason it is done.

It boiled down to the fact that he was harassed for doing absolutely nothing wrong. He broke no US laws; he wasn't even skirting the edge!!! If Canada had decided to harass him, they would have had every right (in my mind). But to say that he deserved harassment in the US for doing nothing wrong?!?! That doesn't make any sense to me. That's like you getting pulled over at a 'license check' and being harassed for having prescription pills prescribed to you.

You won't get any complaints out of me saying that there are irresponsible gun store owners that need to be shut down. If someone sells a gun without the proper ID's and checks, I say shut them down. If someone with a clean record gets a gun for a criminal – send them to jail! I can tell you that where I buy my guns, there is no playing and it is serious business. You'll always have the illegals in every facet of life. I am curious how Carail Weeks, using fake identification, bought guns because of lenient gun laws... He used a fake ID...he broke the law and lied...and used a fake ID...that has nothing to do with the gun laws. What law would have kept that from happening? What extra step did he 'not' go through that he should have? The fake identification is the key component here; not the gun laws.

Princess Pinky said...

I was raised by the poster child for the NRA. He didn't want the government to take away his huntin' guns. He did not see any reason for anyone to own a semi or fully automatic gun, but he KNEW that if the government took those away, shortly thereafter the feds would be knocking on his door to take his rifles. My father parrotted every cliché regarding gun control. He was especially fond of the "guns don't..." one.

My response to this is Yes, guns don't kill people, crazy a** mother F**ers with guns kill (more) people (easier than they would otherwise).

Domestic violence is not caused by owning a gun. However, if there is a gun in the equation where there is a predesposition to violence in a relationship, the likelyhood exists that the violence could/ would escallate to such a degree that the gun could/ would be used.

Brian Cubbage said...

Princess Pinky wrote,

"Yes, guns don't kill people, crazy a** mother F**ers with guns kill (more) people (easier than they would otherwise)."

I want a bumper sticker that says that.

Tyler wrote,

"I'm pretty pessimistic about the political possibility of major gun control legislation, too."

Whether I agree with you or not on this point depends on exactly what sort of possibility you're pessimistic about. Am I pessimistic that Congress as currently constituted, or likely to be constituted in the foreseeable future, will pass major gun control legislation? Indeed I am. However, am I pessimistic that Congress, however constituted, could craft legislation that controls access to, and perhaps even production of, firearms in a way that is consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? I'm no jurist, but it seems like there's more room for such legislation than you might think.

It strikes me that much of your skepticism on this point derives from your general suspicion of the state-- your 'libertarian streak,' as I think you put it once. I have to admit that I just don't share this kind of skepticism. Maybe you could explain it to me. I look at states and see good things made bad by corrupt individuals and poor institutional design. Conservatives of a libertarian bent seem to look at the state as an inherently bad thing that sometimes does good, but when it does, it does it by accident, and at any rate it would have been better if it could have been accomplished without the state being involved. Why is that?

SonyAD said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandalstraps said...

Hateful, threatening comments will not be tolerated here. As such, I removed the comment made by sonyad on October 11, 2006.