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Stopping Power — Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns
A Book by J. Neil Schulman
A Rather One-Sided Debate on Gun Rights

A Rather One-Sided Debate on Gun Rights

The following is a selection of messages I wrote between July 21, 1992 and February 7, 1993, posted in the Gun Control topic in the Public Forum * Non-Profit Connection Bulletin Board on GEnie. Again, for copyright reasons, I’m posting only my own writings and have removed the last names and log-on addresses of the other participants in the discussion. I’ve also edited the messages for clarity and to remove irrelevancies and redundancies. — JNS

Sun Jan 17, 1993 at 21:44 EST:

Gun police, Bob?

Back when the federal constitution was being debated, James Madison wrote Federalist Paper #46 (under the pen name Publius), discussing the respective powers of the federal government, the states governments, and the people. Madison’s premise was that the federal government could safely be given militaristic powers without fear of becoming a tyranny, because the natural loyalties of the people would be to their states rather than the federal government; and any attempts at tyranny by the federal government would be quickly dealt with by the state legislatures, working in concert if necessary.

Madison didn’t foresee the outcome of the Civil War, though, less than a century later, and the subsequent winnowing away of the sovereignty of the states as compared to the federal government.

Here’s an excerpt from what Madison had to say in Federalist 46:

The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition. The reasonings contained in these papers must have been employed to little purpose indeed, if it could be necessary now to disprove the reality of this danger. That the people and the States should, for a sufficient period of time, elect an uninterrupted succession of men ready to betray both; that the traitors should, throughout this period, uniformly and systematically pursue some fixed plan for the extension of the military establishment; that the governments and the people of the States should silently and patiently behold the gathering storm, and continue to supply the materials, until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads, must appear to every one more like the incoherent dreams of a delirious jealousy, or the misjudged exaggerations of a counterfeit zeal, than like the sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism. Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made. Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it. Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors. Let us rather no longer insult them with the supposition that they can ever reduce themselves to the necessity of making the experiment, by a blind and tame submission to the long train of insidious measures which must precede and produce it. The argument under the present head may be put into a very concise form, which appears altogether conclusive. Either the mode in which the federal government is to be constructed will render it sufficiently dependent on the people, or it will not. On the first supposition, it will be restrained by that dependence from forming schemes obnoxious to their constituents. On the other supposition, it will not possess the confidence of the people, and its schemes of usurpation will be easily defeated by the State governments, who will be supported by the people. On summing up the considerations stated in this and the last paper, they seem to amount to the most convincing evidence, that the powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States, as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded, of a meditated and consequential annihilation of the State governments, must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them.

Much as I respect Madison, his vision of the future was fatally flawed. The usurpations of the federal government over both the states and the people is virtually unlimited. A state can’t set speed limits on its own highways without being blackmailed by the federal government about the age at which it legalizes drinking alcoholic beverages. The federal government, with powers of taxation and central banking which would have been unthinkably evil to Madison, has built up a federal debt which threatens to bankrupt our economy — and still the people can’t muster the power to rein in its servants.

And with the institutional barriers which the Founding Fathers imagined would protect us from tyranny eaten away, one by one, over the last two centuries — protections against seizure of property, protections against indictments without grand-jury approval, protections of the rights of the people to be secure in their persons and homes from unreasonable searches — you would take from us our final line of defense against total victory of the forces of statism. For a chimerical vision of public safety — in the name of “gun control” that has never proven substantially effective in reducing crime — you would take the people’s sovereignty over their rebellious, spendthrift, and maniacal public servants — and make our possession and carrying of arms subject to our servants’ approval.

Neil

Mon Jan 18, 1993 at 04:25 EST:

Rich, it’s not so much that an aroused and armed public would make an attack on the army or the government, but rather that an armed public is capable of withstanding an aggressive attack by a government/army which is out of control. As we saw in the collapse of the Soviet Union, revolutions happen when governments attempt to seize power and don’t have the force necessary to do it. (If they successfully have the force to do it, they get to write the history books and it’s called putting down a rebellion.)

Madison and the other Founding Fathers saw an armed public, organized into state militias or not, as a repository of the people’s liberty — as the practical implementation of the people’s sovereignty. Certainly the object is not to foment armed rebellion against Congress, but to attempt to tame Congress by electoral and other institutional means.

But the logic of power has its own moments of truth. If things go the way trends say they might, we could have an economy bankrupted by the federal debt in our lifetimes. My first novel, Alongside Night (Crown 1979; Avon 1987) explored this scenario. When money calculated in dollars — bills marked legal tender — aren’t accepted anymore, when the phrase “the full faith and credit of the United States government” is no longer accepted by foreign banks or foreign governments, we face a crisis in which the ability of the American people to rely on themselves for their own security against criminals, men-on-horseback, and foreign interlopers becomes real and pressing. You can’t count on the U.S. army when the government doesn’t have anything to pay the army with any more. This has happened in history time and time again.

There’s another issue. The logic by which the federal government was given the power to pass laws directly affecting individuals through courts and punishments — as opposed to merely imposing rules on sovereign states as was done under the Articles of Confederation — equally applies in the modern day to the United Nations. Sooner or later the logic of empire is going to demand that individual countries submit their citizens to the direct courts and punishments of the United Nations.

Speaking for myself, I observe the rest of the world being considerably less free — less concerned with individual liberty — than the United States, even in its current degraded condition. And I think the relinquishing of our national independence is to be resisted. We are the only nation on earth with a Second Amendment — the only nation that in its founding accords the rights of sovereignty to its people, rather than to an aristocracy, a technocracy, or a theocracy.

As we go on this issue, so goes the world.

It’s rather important that we stand fast.

Neil

Tue Jan 19, 1993 at 04:53 EST:

Bob, whether the enforcement of laws denying sovereign individuals their rights to the means of force is local, state, or federal, it still works to the benefit of those whose ultimate goal is the destruction of citizen sovereignty and the replacement of it with a more powerful ruling class.

You have supported my point unwittingly, when you concede that the federal government can blackmail lesser governmental entities. It doesn’t matter that the gun police would be state rather than federal. The policies would be set by political groups with a nationwide or international agenda.

You try to shrug off this point with a witticism about, “Today the Brady Bill, tomorrow the world.” You bet, son. That ain’t a joke; it’s exactly right. Today the agenda is to use whatever political means can undercut the right to keep and bear arms, and diminish it to a mere privilege under police control. Once that is accomplished, all institutional protections of the rights of the people are merely subjects for political debate — and rights are no longer the basis for making those determinations: power is.

The destruction of rights is incremental. Those who would enslave us are patient. It’s done one step at a time. The targets are always the weakest links: those who abuse the rights that others need for lawful and moral purposes.

The strategy is to focus on short-term practical concerns, and try to wipe from people’s minds the thought that there are any larger or longer term issues.

No. I do not accept your context. Street violence is not the only important issue. As a matter of fact, street violence is a consequence of the general breakdown of social customs and mores into anomie — and anomie is precisely the situation in which decent people most need the physical force necessary to defend themselves from those would attack their lives, liberties, and property.

The issue here is not merely guns. Guns are merely the ultimate means by which these issues are discussed. The issue is power. The issue is whether ultimate political power is to be reserved to politicians and police, or to the people.

And that, my friend, is the basis that we will defeat this attempt to destroy the people’s liberty, which comes among us dressed as crime control.

Neil

Thu Jan 21, 1993 at 23:57 EST:

Kate:

I was not arguing that guns can’t kill. You have shifted the argument to different grounds. I was arguing against your point that this is the only purpose to which they can be put. Guns, as inanimate objects, have no purposes of their own. To impute a purpose to them implies that they were engineered to perform a certain function by purposeful beings.

This is not an academic or trivial point. The rhetoric of “guns have only one purpose: to kill” is a misstatement with political purpose: to deny that guns have moral or otherwise lawful functions, particularly by others than police or armies.

So, when I point out that guns can sometimes just threaten instead of kill, I am both describing a function to which they can be put and a lawful and moral purpose for which a person might wish to obtain them.

In fact, your army instructors are incorrect. The purpose of modern military small arms is not to kill the enemy. If that were the purpose, NATO would not have mandated full-metal jacket rounds, which are less lethal than expanding rounds. The purpose of modern military small arms is to wound the enemy, in order to require the enemy to require units to divert resources from attack or defense into transporting casualties to the rear instead.

The problem with the gun control movement is that it keeps on missing the target. Its proper aim should be to disarm criminals. Instead, it attempts to disarm everyone. And because of this, it sours the idea of even reasonable measures aimed at disarming criminals, because of long historical experience with demagogues who use incremental regulatory measures in order to eliminate entire fields of human action.

First the government says that it just wants to tax firearms. Then it must have enforcement agents to collect that tax, right? Next thing you know, interstate commerce is being used as an excuse for federal BATF agents to raid the homes of honest gun owners, wantonly destroying their property, looking for (and often not finding) certain classes of firearms which don’t have the right excise tax stamps.

Then gun control advocates wonder why the NRA goes ballistic whenever they propose handing more regulatory power over firearms into the hands of the government.

Neil

Fri Jan 22, 1993 at 08:40 EST:

Kate:

Look, there are two different arguments we could have at this point. I can try to convince you that liberty is an important enough value that, even granting that guns make society more violent or dangerous, it’s still worth it. Or I can try to convince you that firearms widely dispersed in the hands of the citizenry actually make society safer and less violent, because criminals outgunned have fewer potential occasions to attack. I believe both, and have facts and history to bring up in defense of my position.

If you value safety above freedom, we don’t have a lot in common to talk about anyway. All I could say to you is to quote Ben Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

My response is Patrick Henry’s: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

This may not be an adequate response to a Canadian. But then again, judging from history, Americans have always been testier about our individual freedoms than Canadians.

As for the practical response, your per capita murder rate is comparable to our lower density states, many of which have little gun control. Canada just doesn’t have areas as densely populated as New York City or New Jersey, for example which have both heavy gun control and high murder rates. If you’ve been taught that there is a causal relationship between high murder rates and high density of guns in the United States, then you need to understand that statistical correlations don’t tell you cause and effect. It’s just as likely that there are more guns where the murder rate is high because frightened people go out and buy more guns for defense against crime. This happened in Los Angeles, where I live, right after our riots last spring.

One thing you might be interested in: Canadians suffer a higher rate of home burglary with the family present than Americans do. American burglars know they might get shot, and tend to limit their burglaries to houses they case out to make sure they’re empty. It’s also why our armed robbers love robbing 7-11 convenience stores. The Southland Corporation, which owns 7-11, has made it a policy to forbid their clerks to be armed. Of course some robbers kill the unarmed clerks anyway, because 7-11 also requires the clerks to make frequent cash deposits into a safe they can’t open.

You ask if your VCR is worth killing over. No. But the forcible invasion of your home is. A person who would do that is capable of anything, including rape, kidnaping, mutilation, torture, or murder. Do you want to take that chance? Feel free. I won’t. That’s the reason to keep firearms. If the burglars haven’t cut the phone lines to begin with (as many do), then the time it takes the police to get to you after you call will be the longest of your life. That’s assuming that they even answer the emergency call right away. It could be busy. They could put you on hold because they are overloaded. There could be a general emergency — such as an earthquake, hurricane, or rioting — in which the entire emergency phone system is overloaded and goes down — as happened here in Los Angeles during the riots.1

Then again, you might live in a poor black neighborhood where the police take their sweet time responding, if they come at all. Sorry. I don’t believe in either Santa Claus or police protection. But then again, you’re closer to the North Pole, and maybe you know better.

As for firearms training, I say the more the better. I myself have taken police reserve training in addition to NRA courses.

Bob:

Guns are not the most lethal weapon currently available to criminals. Not by a long shot. The most lethal weapon currently available to criminals is gasoline. Dirty syringes are also right up there.

As for the Constitution being a living document, and times requiring change, I agree. The protections against government power which the Founding Fathers expected would protect us from tyranny haven’t worked. We are on the brink of economic and social collapse because the government has invaded all spheres of society, destroying productive enterprise, breeding crime, and destroying social cohesion. The solution is to expand liberty and to restrict political power.

And on the off-chance that the politicians might not like this to happen, I think keeping the people armed and ready is of overriding importance. If I have to choose between your opinion and that of Jefferson or Madison, guess which one I’ll go with?

Neil

Sat Jan 23, 1993 at 03:51 EST:

Kate,

1) Your point about my ignorance of Canada is well-taken. My knowledge of Canada’s bill of rights was the 1960 version, which could be changed by parliament alone; I was unaware that Canada had adopted a charter of rights and freedoms into its constitution in 1982. I stand corrected.

Nevertheless, I still maintain that the U.S. is freer than Canada. A constitutional guarantee of rights on paper is not self-enforcing — as your constitutional crisis is demonstrating. Scissors cut paper — and so do guns, as I have proved every time I shoot paper targets at the range.

2) You say that power isn’t in the hands of the people in the U.S. either, because we still have an aristocracy, despite our constitutional rights. Which misses my point. What power we haven’t been deprived of by our “aristocracy” is because they haven’t been able to disarm us. Of course we have a privileged class, and of course many of them try to disempower others to their benefit. Which it is harder for them to do if the others are armed and unwilling to be so abused. That is my point.

3) Finally, you ask if our constitution is so strong and our rights so enshrined, why we need arms to defend them. Precisely because words on paper don’t enforce themselves: when words fail, it takes arms to do that.

4) U.S. cities of 4 million where it’s safe to walk the streets: there aren’t any. All U.S. cities of that size have both severe restrictions on gun ownership and high crime rates.

Sat Jan 23, 1993 at 05:17 EST:

The following chart integrates a comparison of per capita homicide and robbery rates of various American cities, divided between those with restrictive guns laws/enforcement and lenient gun laws/enforcement.


Cities: Restrictive Gun Laws/Enforcement

Rates per 100,000 (1990)

                                  Homicide           Robbery

    Newark, NJ                       41                2188
    population: 275,221
    (1990 census)

    Detroit, MI                      57                1266
    population: 1,027,974 
    (metropolitan area: 4,382,297) 
    (1990 census)

    New York City, NY                31                1370
    population: 7,322,564
    (1990 census)

    Baltimore, MD                    41                1288
    population: 736,014
    (metropolitan area: 2,382,172) 
    (1990 census)

    Chicago, IL                      31                1335
    population: 2,783,726 
    (1990 census)

    Washington, D.C.                 78                1274
    population: 606,900
    (metropolitan area, 3,923,574)
    (1990 census

    Boston, MA                       25                1049
    population: 574,283
    (1990 census)


Cities: Lenient Gun Laws/Enforcement

Rates per 100,000 (1990)

                                  Homicide         Robbery

    Austin, TX                       10                 314
    population: 465,622 
    (metropolitan area: 781,572)
    (1990 census)

    El Paso, TX                       7                 268
    population: 515,342 
    (1990 census)

    Wichita, KS                       6                 355
    population: 304,011 
    (metropolitan area: 485,270)
    (1990 census)

    Tucson, AZ                        7                 223
    population: 405,390 
    (metropolitan area: 666,880)
    (1990 census) 

    Corpus Christi, TX               11                 173
    population: 257,453 
    (1990 census

    Omaha, NE                         3                 180
    population: 335,795
    (metropolitan area: 618,262) 
    (1990 census)

    Colorado Springs, CO              3                  92
    population: 281,140 
    (metropolitan area: 397,014)
    (1990 census) 

Sat Jan 23, 1993 at 17:34 EST:

Bob:

Ah, yes. Transfer the liability for the criminal misuse of firearms to the manufacturer. This means that the manufacturer of a device is liable when that device, which has no defects, is intentionally misused by a consumer.

Would you like to see this as a precedent for transferring liabilities on other devices to the manufacturer, when they are misused? Let’s say, make swimming pool manufacturers responsible when people drown in their pools. Let’s make Ma Bell responsible when people make harassing phone calls. Let’s make Ford responsible when a bank robber’s getaway car runs over a pedestrian.

What’s that, Bob? You say that you don’t work for the Trial Lawyers Association?

Bob, let’s talk for a moment about the public opinion polls which show that Americans want more gun controls. What is it that public opinion polls measure? Public opinions! And what are public opinions based on? What the public knows, or think they know. Where do they get these “facts”? Largely, from evaluating what they see on television, hear on radio, and occasionally what they read in newspapers and magazines. And what do we see on TV, hear on radio, and read in mass-market magazines? We see the same illogical arguments about blaming inanimate objects for what criminals and morons do with them, as we have been seeing in this discussion topic.

When writers like me break through into the media, pointing out that guns are frequently used by the good guys to stop the bad guys, we see public opinion changing.

When there are riots in Los Angeles and people see armed homeowners setting up barricades to keep out carloads of armed rioters, people change their minds, and in a matter of a couple of weeks, the Los Angeles Times pollsters register a 9% increase in the number of non-gun-owners who decide to become gun owners.

Bob, you ask me for a case where a country with an armed citizenry has had to fight off tyranny. That’s like asking me to find a country which regularly uses pesticides where pesticides have fought off locusts. If you have the pesticides, you don’t have locusts. If you have an armed citizenry, tyranny is inhibited at the git go. In World War II, which citizenry was better armed: Switzerland or France? And which one was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany?

Okay, Bob. Let’s say I agree with you. Criminals go into areas with little gun control and buy guns, which they then use in areas with more restrictive gun control. Does that tell us anything? You bet. It tells us that criminals like to take their guns into areas where they know they have easier pickings: a disarmed public to prey upon. They damn well don’t want to stick around the areas where they bought their guns — too many of the good guys might have guns and shoot back. Have you just made my case for me, or what?

Bob, your history of the 2nd amendment is flawed. The entire issue of keeping and bearing arms was written into the Constitution precisely because the British governor of Boston, General Gage, had required the colonists to keep their arms at an armory — then the colonists couldn’t get them back when they needed them to fight off the British. The attempts by Gage to send troops to collect the arms of British subjects at Lexington and Concord wasn’t forgotten, either.

The right to keep and bear arms means: keeping arms where you can get them when you need them, and carrying them where you need them, without having to get permission from others.

Neil

Sun Jan 24, 1993 at 11:37 EST:

Bob:

I disagree with the justice of transferring liability to manufacturers whose products are not defective, regardless of whether the product is crop-dusting equipment, firearms, or chemicals. Life can’t be made risk-free; to the best of my knowledge, we all die sooner or later anyway, and just because bad things happen doesn’t mean that someone else is at fault and lawyers need to write bad laws to find a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in life.

Seriously, are you so intent on crippling firearms manufacture that you are really want to saddle this country with such an extreme precedent of liability?

Look, Bob. First you complain that gun control doesn’t work because it isn’t everywhere. Then you try to claim the success of gun control in some places. Well, which is it? Either gun control works at reducing the supply of guns or it doesn’t. Either gun control can keep guns out of the hands of criminals, or the rest of us need to be armed to fight back. Make up your mind.

Finally, on rights. Are you maintaining that we have them or that we don’t? If you’re saying that rights are merely political agreements, then I assume you see nothing wrong with slavery, so long as it was constitutional? If you think otherwise, I’d like to know on what basis, if it isn’t that rights precede politics.

As for chimps and whales — when they ask me to recognize their rights, I’ll take it seriously.

Neil

Mon Jan 25, 1993 at 01:40 EST:

Bob,

As I said in a previous message, guns and gun control aren’t ultimately the issue we’re debating. As we can see from following the threads, the issues are all sorts of other things: conceptions of rights versus governmental restrictions; differences about risks and liabilities; basic differences in political philosophy.

There is room for disagreement about individual risk assessment versus the dangers to others.

When reasonable people can disagree, who decides? Do we sue each other in court and let judges decide? Do we let legislators come up with a decision that is binding on both those who agree and those who don’t? Or do we let individuals decide for themselves?

The same problem that we are discussing here arises in the social conflict between those who believe abortion is murder and those who believe it’s no one’s business but a woman’s to decide whether or not to have one.

The bottom line is: my position on private ownership and carrying of firearms is akin to the pro-choicers who believe the moral choice should be made by the individual, and you — like the anti-abortion groups — believe that laws should be passed which impose their moral judgments on everyone.

You see, even if the anti-abortion group has a morally superior argument — and remember, this is a hypothetical “even if” — so long as there is a large sector of society who believes differently, it is politically impractical to impose their view on the whole of society.

The same is true of firearms. Even if you were right — and remember, this is a hypothetical “even if” — so long as millions of Americans believe they have the right to own and carry firearms, it is politically impractical to impose your view on the whole of society.

You can’t escape the fact that there are two hundred million privately owned firearms in this country, in around sixty million households. Even if regulations are passed restricting ownership of “assault weapons,” the failures of such laws in California and New Jersey to cause more than a small minority of owners to register their guns shows the distrust and indifference gun owners have for such laws.

And given the failures in prohibiting popularly desired commodities — everything from liquor to pornography — there is no historical basis for anyone to take seriously the idea that gun restrictions of the sort you propose would have any significant effect at reducing the firearms available to the irresponsible, the psychologically unstable, and the criminal.

What your proposals and those of Handgun Control, Inc., do accomplish however — what the constant attacks on gun owners and the 3 million member NRA by establishment media and institutions accomplishes — is to convince us that we are being devalued and trivialized by people who think they have the standing and the power to decide what’s best for us, even though we think they’re dead wrong. And under such circumstances, we will fight tooth and nail against even the most moderate and otherwise reasonable restrictions on firearms availability, because we believe them to be merely baby steps towards the destruction of our long-established political right to keep and bear arms.

I don’t expect you to give up.

But understand why we won’t, either.

Neil

Mon Jan 25, 1993 at 23:43 EST:

Bob,

When Florida changed its law six years ago, CBS’s 60 Minutes declared that allowing anyone who wanted to carry a gun to do so would turn Florida into the “Gunshine State.” They’ve never gone back to look at what actually happened, nor have they retracted their prediction of shootouts at every traffic accident.

Out of 101,009 people who have been issued a Florida license to carry a concealed firearm — and this includes Miami, a city with a metropolitan area population of 3,192,582 (1990 census) — only 15 have afterwards committed a crime with a firearm — and only one of those is a homicide.

That means that 100,994 out of 101,009 have not misused their firearm since being licensed. It also means that the rate of criminal misuse is 1 out of 6734.

The homicide rate in Florida is down 20% since 1987. This is the only reliable measure of crime, since there’s a body to count. All other crime rates — burglary, robbery, rape — are estimates based on crime reports and surveys; and most criminologists consider the homicide rate the only one that tells us anything useful about crime trends.

Meanwhile, the national homicide rate is up 15% during that same period.

The success of Florida clearly demonstrates that it is possible to implement a program for honest, decent people to carry arms, without arming criminals in any statistically significant number. And, even with such a small a number as 80,891 additional citizens on the street carrying guns, the deterrent effect on crime is noticeable.

Neil

Tue Jan 26, 1993 at 02:59 EST:

Bob,

Here’s how I see the cases of abortion and gun-control as equivalent.

1) Those who oppose legal abortion think legal abortion fosters the criminal killing of human beings, and therefore they wish to outlaw it for everyone, regardless of whether they agree. Those who oppose legal ownership and carrying of guns think legal guns foster the criminal killing of human beings, and therefore they wish to outlaw it for everyone, regardless of whether they agree.

2) Those who favor legal abortion think the question of whether legal abortion fosters the criminal killing of human beings is a question that must be answered by individuals for themselves, rather than the government forcibly imposing the views of those who think legal abortion fosters the criminal killing of human beings on those who disagree. Those who favor legal ownership and carrying of guns think the question of whether legal ownership and carrying of guns fosters the criminal killing of human beings is a question that must be answered by individuals for themselves, rather than the government forcibly imposing the views of those who think legal ownership and carrying of guns fosters the criminal killing of human beings on those who disagree.

3) In both the case of abortion rights and gun rights, there are millions of Americans who think it should be legal. Those who wish to restrict either abortions or guns wish to impose their opinions by force of government arms on those who disagree with them. Further, to the extent they succeed in restricting or prohibiting an activity which millions of people favor, they foment disrespect for the law, encourage civil disobedience and political strife, and destroy the social harmony necessary for a free society.

This said, let me answer your question, for myself only. My response is not binding on anyone else in the firearms rights movement. I believe that the quality of life is more important than mere elimination of risk. We all die sooner or later anyway, so we stand a 0% chance of avoiding the risks to our lives anyway. To me, individual liberty and justice are more important than mere reduction of risk of dying from gunfire.

Now, undoubtedly, you agree. You advocate gun control because you believe it would improve the quality of life. The difference is that you are taking a utilitarian view — trying to arrive at a political solution which benefits “the greatest good for the greatest number” — where I believe that such decisions are value judgments that must be made by individuals for themselves, and that we do not have a free society if uniform value judgments are imposed on all individuals.

That’s why I say it comes down to pro-choice or anti-choice.

Neil

Thu Jan 28, 1993 at 02:56 EST:

Bob,

Bob, you misunderstood what I said. I have no doubt that you, for one, do not believe that the basic moral question is one of liberty. Nor do we disagree that most people in this society don’t divide the issues that way, either, which is the reason that there isn’t a pro-liberty party and an anti-liberty party.

Most people are not persuaded that there are any fundamental principles defining good and bad, just or unjust, workable or non-workable. I don’t know whether you believe in consistency to a set of principles or what principles you might have — but you and I both agree that liberty is not their basis.

Now, about the shooting in Tampa, Florida today. You have been arguing that we need more gun control laws, that such laws will have an impact on reducing crimes of violence. Here we have Florida, which makes carrying a gun without a license a felony. It’s already against the law. The police can arrest you for it. What more do you want? Police are not supermen, and just because a law is passed doesn’t mean it can always be enforced effectively. I don’t know what magic you expect your elite gun police and elite gun courts can bring to reducing the criminal use of guns. They’ll be just people, too. On the other hand, elite gun police and elite gun courts would likely be used to deny guns to people who would use guns for self-defense.

Obviously, there aren’t enough people carrying guns to the office in Tampa, Florida, so that when a madman with a gun comes in and starts shooting up the place, there’s somebody ready to shoot back.

However, Florida law allows people to carry guns for self- protection from crazy people with guns — and I expect the number of Tampa workers carrying guns to work for self-defense will be increasing dramatically in the next few months.

Neil

Sat Jan 30, 1993 at 05:42 EST:

Bob,

The Ten Commandments (the ten “blessings” in original titling) are not principles — they are orders. One can possibly derive principles from them — such as that murder of a fellow countryman is evil — but the principles themselves are not contained in the text itself.

Not only are principles not just arbitrary orders, they must be self-consistent. For example, suppose I said, “Even to illustrate a point, it is never allowable to use the word ‘mudgumple.’” My principle of never using ‘mudgumple’ to illustrate a point has been violated by the very sentence which uses it to illustrate that point. It is self-contradictory — self-refuting — and thus does not stand up to the test of logic.

Now, when I said, “Most people are not persuaded that there are any fundamental principles defining good and bad, just or unjust, workable or non-workable,” I suppose, to be perfectly truthful, I’d have to exclude people who believe in the Ten Commandments. Their fundamental principle is, “The Ten Commandments defines right and wrong.” If the Ten Commandments say you shouldn’t do something, then their principle is, “If the Ten Commandments forbids that, then it must be wrong to do it.” They require no further argument, no demonstration of the truth of that premise.

But there are several prior premises that go deeper even than that. One of them is, “I don’t know what right and wrong is unless someone else tells me.” Another is, “I know that the Bible is written (or authorized) by God, and God knows right from wrong, therefore I can believe what the Bible says.” Still another is, “I know that the translation of the Bible I am reading is accurate to what God wrote (or authorized).” Still another is, “I know that what God told the Israelite nation to do four millennia ago applies to me today as well.”

You see how a simple thing like taking the Ten Commandments as final, unquestioned, literal truth bites its own tail? At any point you can come back with, “Well, how do you know that?” “How do you know that the Bible was written by God, rather than men?” “How do you know that the translation is accurate — are you a scholar in ancient Aramaic and Greek who has read the originals, or do you rely on the opinions of scholars? If the latter, why do you trust them?” And finally, “How do you know that the rules God made for the Israelite nation weren’t specific to those people at that time? How do you know that God doesn’t intend us to live by different standards or rules?”

Even a person who wants to forego the necessity of thought about discovering principles of right and wrong finds that it can’t be done without giving the matter some thought. No matter how much you want to abdicate the responsibility for figuring out right and wrong for yourself, sooner or later you have to, if for no other necessity than discovering for yourself which authority in interpreting the text you are going to believe.

Here, then, is a solid principle we can begin with: “It is impossible to know rules about right from wrong without learning the premises on which those rules are based.”

Now, let’s go to some of your statements about principles.

What I understand you to be saying is: Most people who hold to moral principles believe in being faithful to them until they are convinced otherwise. But because moral principles are learned, such faithfulness to principle is spotty.

If this is what you’re saying, then I would tend to agree with you. But it misses my point. My point is that most people have never thought it through, don’t care to think it through, and because they have no basic philosophy of their own — no worldview — to base their actions on, they tend to go with the flow and do what everybody else around them is doing. In other words, for most people, “right” is what most other people around them say is right — even if they don’t do it themselves — or “what Billy Graham, my teacher, Carl Sagan, and Dan Rather tell me is right.” If you want to know what’s right, turn on TV and see what people are saying. Or listen to a call-in show. Once you know the answers other people give, you can pick one or two and be done with the question, without the necessity of difficult thinking.

What I was attempting to do in my question to you was to elicit your own worldview — the basic premises or principles you are using to judge principles of government and social order. More fundamental to that, since many of my messages have expressed my philosophical worldview — the basic premises I’m arguing from — I was trying to find out if you have a philosophically consistent worldview as well. Once I knew that, I could discover where we part, and focus on the different premises themselves. That would enable me to attempt criticizing any contradictions I found in your statements of principles, and possibly, at least between us, discover a closure on the many issues we’ve been discussing, so we don’t have to go back over the same tiring arguments again and again.

In the absence of a worldview to argue against, let me just go after one principle I can divine from your message. You said that while you don’t believe in “absolute liberty,” you do believe in some “qualified freedoms.”

Let’s define our terms. By absolute liberty, I mean that each individual in a society holds the right to take action regarding the furtherance of his/her goals and value-judgments, limited only by the borders beyond which such actions deprive others of the exact same right. Historically, by the way, this is known as “the law of equal liberty.”

Now, this is already a rather big “qualification” on freedom. It forbids action that deprives others of their freedom of action, or that deprives anyone of anything which is rightfully theirs without their consent. We can spend a good deal of time arguing how such rights can be derived — and what are their natural limits — but that goes far beyond the scope of the immediate question, even though what gun-control versus gun rights ultimately is addressing is the question of where those borders are.

For the sake of this discussion, I just want to emphasize that I don’t believe that just because a group of people get together in large numbers and become powerful, it gives them greater rights over individuals or groups who are not as powerful. I believe that principles of right and wrong are independent of, and prior to, questions of political decision-making and the implementations of those decisions by force.

Okay, let’s get to some specifics. I asked you, “Here we have Florida, which makes carrying a gun without a license a felony. It’s already against the law. The police can arrest you for it. What more do you want?”

To which you replied, “I want it to work! And if it doesn’t work, if criminals still get guns and shoot wives or former supervisors, then the law should be changed.”

Bob, you are making an assumption that I have to challenge as utopian. You are assuming that no matter what a problem is, legislation can be drafted that will fix it. Further, you are assuming that even properly drafted legislation will be able to be enforced to an extent able to make an effective impact on that problem.

Or, to boil this down to an aphorism: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Bob, will you not even concede the possibility that it may not be possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals to any significant extent? We are living in a country which has spent billions and billions of dollars trying to eliminate poverty with government programs. Poverty is still with us. The government spends money on research to cure diseases: AIDS is not yet cured, nor is cancer or heart disease. Laws are passed to require seat belts in cars, then — when many people choose not to use them — laws are passed requiring people to wear seat belts. Yet, tens of thousands of people die every year in car accidents because they aren’t wearing seat belts.

We could, of course, pass a law that every car have a video camera in it, transmitting to roadside police receivers, to ensure that every one wears their seat belt. And we can have elite seat-belt police and elite seat-belt courts, who do nothing but enforce this law.

But at what cost? Some lives would be saved, certainly, but privacy would be lost in cars, the quality of life reduced thereby, and the death rate would be unchanged: one person, one death — sooner or later.

Your suggestion that requiring a reference from a neighbor, before you’re allowed to buy a gun, would have changed the outcome in Tampa, Florida, is such a suggestion. Suppose you ride a motorcycle and have long hair, and your next- door neighbor is a Jehovah’s Witness. Do you think they’re going to give you a good reference? Or suppose your dog uses their tree for a toilet. Or suppose you’re white, and your wife is black, and they’re bigots. The possibilities of abuse are endless.

Yet, you are so dubious that an armed citizen in that Tampa cafeteria would have been able to stop the gun attack that this tyranny-by-the-next-door-neighbor seems preferable to you.

Obviously I believe otherwise. I’ve written two Op-Ed pieces for the LA Times about individuals in restaurants who were able to put up an effective defense because they were armed — and I also believe Kleck’s estimates about the high number of gun defenses. But my point is, I think society has less to fear from the occasional armed psycho than it does from giving next-door neighbors the ability to veto each other’s rights. That violates the principle of liberty — the law of equal liberty — as I defined it earlier in this message. And I believe such violations corrupt and destroy the social bonds which make peaceful and productive coexistence possible.

Neil

Thu Feb 04, 1993 at 07:29 EST:

Bob,

You say it’s immoral to kill other human beings unless such killing saves innocent lives.

If your definition of “saving innocent lives” concedes that other criminal activities such as robbery, rape, burglary, and mayhem threaten innocent lives — and that it is therefore rightful to use lethal force against someone doing these — then I agree with this. Otherwise, I’d need a more detailed list of justifications and excuses for the use of lethal force.

You also say it’s proper for society to regulate human conduct so as to effectuate saving innocent lives.

If by “regulate” you mean pass laws which impose sanctions on people who kill other human beings other than to save innocent lives as discussed above, then I agree. If you mean restricting the freedom of people who have not killed other people, or otherwise threaten them with theft, injury, or other invasion, then I don’t agree that it’s proper. That would contradict your first premise by failing to make a clear distinction between “innocent” and “not innocent” and treats the innocent the same as the guilty; and without such a distinction between innocent and guilty, your first premise which relies on such a distinction logically self-destructs on its own internal contradiction.

Neil

Sun Feb 07, 1993 at 19:30 EST:

Bob,

There is a moral argument to be made here as well as a tactical argument. If you are arguing that a store owner who risks his life attempting to kill an armed robber is morally inferior to the store owner who allows the robber to take the cash box (which “isn’t worth dying for”), then you must be an Ayn Rand Objectivist. Only the Objectivist’s belief that sacrificing yourself for others is evil could find fault with a hero who risks his life to rid his neighbors of a clear-and-present danger to their lives.

By being armed, a robber is threatening to take a life if you don’t give him what he wants. His claim of being armed, and the demand for any sort of compliance under threat of force, justifies use of lethal force to prevail against his threat. There is no situation, short of the armed robber’s throwing down his weapons, and offering unquestionable and unconditional surrender — where it is not acceptable to use lethal force against him.

What is also hard for me to understand is why you would consider for a split second that a kidnaper who has just come in, after you have untied and armed yourself, deserves to live any longer than it takes for you to pull the trigger.

As a moral proposition, those who use lethal force to deprive others of their lives, liberty, and property have given up their right to life. Whether or not you ask for their surrender is entirely a tactical question, not a moral one. Does the kidnaper have information — perhaps about other hostages — which you need? Will confederates execute other hostages if they hear gunshots?

Bob, this is why it’s important that you not base your moral arguments on the mistranslation “Thou shalt not kill.” That mistranslation of the original Hebrew “You shall not murder” leads to moral imbecility.

***

Bob, in our constitutional system, government has not a single right which is not delegated to it by sovereign individuals. Moreover, the calculus that government may regulate a thing because that thing is used more for immoral purposes than moral purposes legitimizes totalitarian tyranny.

Are there more Danielle Steele soft-core porn books sold than C.S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics? The government may then regulate what books may be sold, and which ones you may buy.

Do high-fat foods promote heart disease more than they provide nutrition? The government may then limit you to buying no more than one package of hot dogs per month.2

Can any justification be found for allowing alcoholic beverages to be legally sold, when alcohol demonstrably has more negative impact on society — and promotes more immoral behavior — than any other single factor in society?

Obviously not. And it was tried. The law met with massive non-compliance, and gave birth to organized crime in America for the first time — organized crime which found other commodities to switch to when Prohibition was repealed, so as to remain in business even today.

The principle and legal precedent that is applied today to the dangers of firearms will be some fanatic’s legal argument tomorrow for fatty foods and books.

That is why an attack on the Second Amendment is an attack on the rest of the Bill of Rights. You can’t isolate this single issue from the rest of society. People argue by analogy in order to arrive at principles which may be applied to other problems.

Bob, there’s no such thing as a principle or conclusion that applies specifically to firearms that does not equally apply to other objects, defined by use, operation, and purpose.

If your conclusions are generally indefensible, then your conclusions about guns are specifically indefensible, and demonstrating this to you — if you are intellectually honest — must lead to you abandon any argument that does not stand up to the criticisms of fact, logic, and principle.

You can either be consistent to a set of correctly formulated, and reality-checked, principles, or you can slide into contradiction, absurdity, and hypocrisy.

Those are the only alternatives reality allows us.

You say it will be a lot easier to limit gun smuggling than drug smuggling. I find this belief naive. Just what is going to make these forces more incorruptible than other police forces, which are corrupted all the time? Entire narcotics squads in New York City have been discovered to be on the take from drug dealers, and police property rooms used as a storefront. Do you think that putting on a badge and swearing an oath relieves a person of being human? Your elite gun police will have power, and not only do we all know Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt, but if — in fact — the elite gun police are the only thing standing in the way of a criminal getting a gun, the elite gun police will be offered bribes seductive enough to corrupt a monk.

As for your contention that gun smuggling will be easier to limit than drug smuggling, this is an unproved assumption which on the face of it is absurd. Don Kates’s article “Points of Comparison Between Banning the Handgun and Prohibition of Liquor” provides an effective rebuttal. Further, I don’t believe you could find any law enforcement officer who would take your contention seriously.

Bob, are you saying that if someone is attacking my sister and I shoot the attacker to incapacitate him and stop the attack, without firing a warning shot first, then I am acting immorally?

If you believe this, then you don’t understand the first thing about how firearms are supposed to be used defensively. I do not know of a single instructor of combat handgunning — in law enforcement or outside it — who teaches shooting to warn, or to wound, as opposed to shooting at the center of body mass to incapacitate.

I would not draw a firearm unless I believed it was a life-or-death case. But in my police reserve training I learned that an attacker armed only with fists — much less a broken bottle, a chair, or a knife — can represent a lethal threat. A below-the-belt punch can kill. A blow to the head can kill. Further, lethal force is justified if a reasonable person can conclude that a successful attack could cause bodily mayhem, such as injury to a vital organ, or permanent damage such as being blinded.

Neil

Footnotes:

1 It doesn’t even take a riot. On March 15, 1994, a fire in a Pacific Bell switching station knocked out 911 service for most of Los Angeles.

2 I thought I was arguing to absurdity here. But in the February 19, 1994 Los Angeles Times, a letter from Sidney Gold, MD, of Granada Hills, California, one-ups President Clinton’s proposed hike in the cigarette tax to pay for health-care reform. Dr. Gold seriously suggests a one-cent per gram tax on “the fat, cholesterol, and sodium contained in the foods we eat.”

#

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