April 26, 2007

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

The New York Times Supports the Police State!

(Note: the title of this post is an example of the "underhanded rhetorical technique" I recently discussed, but I bet it got your attention. Now that I have your attention I will, as usual, try to avoid rhetoric and emotional appeals in the actual text of this post, and show why the position of the Times implies support for the police state.)

An editorial appearing in today's New York Times finally, at least, more or less understands the position of supporters of the Second Amendment as written. That's close to all that can be said positively about this little article. It begins with this line:

By now, the logic is almost automatic. A shooter takes innocent lives, and someone says that if the victims had been armed, this wouldn�t have happened. The only solution to a gun in the wrong hands, it seems, is a gun in the hands of everyone.

Why do gun advocates support this line of reasoning? The critical point is that it is not possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals without violating the rights of the people. Gun control laws are a failure. As has often been pointed out, gun control advocates are disturbed by the idea that (in some alternate world envisioned by gun advocates) just anyone could walk into WalMart and buy a handgun, but they don't seem to have noticed that criminals don't get their guns from WalMart. The reason why putting guns into the hands of law abiding citizens is the only solution is because keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is not possible. Clearly this solution is not ideal. It would be better if we trusted the police in terms of both their abillity and their willingness to protect us and, in fact, in most cases we can do precisely this. I don't personally own any firearms, despite being a political supporter of gun ownership and a resident of West Philadelphia. The reason for this is that I live in the Penn part of West Philadelphia and there are police and security gaurds everywhere and I actually trust that they work for me and they see their job as being to protect me. Furthermore, I believe that they are much more competent at protecting me than I am at protecting myself (I'm not particularly skilled or comfortable with a handgun, though I have shot one before). It is true, however, that there have been some alleged instances of racial profiling on the part of the Penn Police Department, so if I was not white I might be less inclined to trust them, and more likely to buy a gun. Similarly, if I lived out past 50th street somewhere, I might not believe in the ability or willingness of the police to protect me and buy a gun. I can't say for sure because I've never lived out there, but you get the idea.

The point is that, while it would be ideal if we could trust our trained police to defend us, there are cases even where simple defense against criminals cannot be entrusted to the police. Furthermore, if someone is breaking into your house, the police can't get there as fast as you can go get your gun.

The Times asserts,

Those gun advocates who believe that the Second Amendment confers the right to carry a gun in public are quick to point out that they are law-abiding, decent citizens trying to protect themselves and their families in a world gone mad. But, of course, the guns can�t tell the difference. Arming more people would be a recipe for disaster.

But this can't be true. The reason it can't be true is that we live in a (constitutionally limited) democracy so that (excepting constitutional limitations) the will of the majority is the law. The majority is by definition law abiding. We need the government to be strong enough to protect the rights of the minority, but at the same time we have to recognize that if everyone has equal power, the majority comes out on top. When we ban guns, we have the effect of taking them away from only law abiding citizens. I hate to use this as an example so soon after the fact, but Virginia is a state where it is singularly easy to get guns, and VA Tech has a policy against carrying guns on campus. This policy is essentially unenforceable, since the campus is open. This means that people who care about following rules are disarmed, while there is absolutely no effect on people who don't care about following rules. This is a problem.

Now, I want to say that I consider myself a moderate on this issue for the following reason: in general, I support banning guns in locations where there is good reason to do so and it is possible to effectively enforce the ban without violating rights. I do not, however, think that an area as large as a city or town could possibly meet these requirements. An airplane, for instance, does. There are three reasons for this: (1) boarding of the airplane is highly regulated/limited, so it is relatively easy (at least possible) to remove guns from people as they board, (2) if a bullet pierces the hull of a plane (so I'm told) it is likely that everyone aboard will die, and (3) people don't have to fly on airplanes if they don't want to. Now, I think this should be the airline's prerogative and not the government's, since it is private property, but that's another story. Of course, it is the right of the owners of any private property (including the administrators of VA Tech) to ban guns on their properties, but what I'm saying is that these are the circumstances where it's a good idea. Similarly, when the government is the owner of a piece of property (e.g. national park land, federal courthouses, etc.) it may ban guns on its property, and in cases like the ones described (and only such cases) it should. In these cases, though, it would be a very good idea to have armed security gaurds in case the security fails. In the case of airplanes, I would be a strong supporter of developing weapons that don't pierce the hull and issuing them to pilots. If there is a compelling reason for banning guns in a location, then there must be some sort of security risk, and you should have gaurds anyway. You might as well arm them.

The Times, however, seems to think that the entire United States is a case like this, which is clearly not so. It doesn't meet any of the conditions mentioned. There is no good reason why guns should be banned from the entire country (some people use guns to commit crimes - like some people use cars or kitchen knives to commit crimes), and it is not possible to effectively keep guns out of the hands of everyone without effectively instituting a totalitarian government.

But where the Times really gets things wrong is in its last paragraph:

True safety lies in the civility of society, in laws that publicly protect all of our rights and in having law-enforcement officers who are trained in the use of deadly force, then authorized to apply it in rationally defined situations.

The Second Amendment authorizes gun ownership because "A well regulated militia [is] necessary to the security of a free state." In recent history at the time of passage, "a well regulated militia" had been used for one thing: the expulsion of an abusive government. The Times suggests that we concentrate all deadly force in the hands of the government because we can trust them. Like any good American, I trust the government about as far as I can throw it. (I say "like any good American" because, as a brief survey of history will show, there is very little that is more contrary to hisotrical American values than trust of government.) Concentrating deadly force in the hands of the government opens the door to incredible abuses. The Second Amendment was intended as the last check on the power of the government. When the government has a monopoly on deadly force, there is nothing to stop it from abusing the people. This should scare liberals right now, given the Bush administration's constant expansion of executive power and disregard for truth and law (apparently, though, it doesn't scare them, because they're still the ones pushing for gun control). Congress doesn't have any guns. The executive branch does. For these reasons, gun bans are the best place to start if your goal is to build a police state.

A brief note is, however, in order to show my uncertainty about one aspect of this issue: one doesn't seem to have a right to private ownership of just any weapon. That is, the government seems to have the authority to, for instance, prohibit private ownership of nuclear warheads. Why is this, and where does the right to bear arms stop? Two parts of this answer are that the government can realistically keep nuclear warheads away from everyone, and that nuclear warheads are not useful for self-defense. But there are some more difficult cases. Why doesn't one have the right to privately own a rocket launcher, or a tank? I suspect, at any rate, that one doesn't have such a right, but I could be wrong. On a Nozickian scheme, the idea might be something like the following: private ownership of these items constitutes a risky behavior, and the government can prohibit behaviors that are at high risk of violating the rights of its citizens, but it must compensate those it prohibits for their loss of utility. Nozick argues that this compensation will usually be "in kind" - for instance, the government must, according to Nozick allow people whom he calls "independents" to "opt out," but it will prohibit these people from enforcing their own rights against its citizens, so it must (morally) enforce their rights against its citizens itself (in order to be protected by the government from independents and foreign nationals, you must "opt in" and pay taxes). This, however, generally only works where there is a risk of accidental violation of the rights of others. So in order to prohibit the ownership of some weapon, you must argue that its ownership constitutes a risk to those around the owner, even if the owner does not try to use it against them, and then you must compensate the would-be owner for his loss of utility. So, for instance, if someone wants a rocket launcher for self-defense, but this is deemed dangerous to those aroud him, the government, in order to prohibit him from owning it, must show that it can and will protect him in any situation where a rocket launcher might be required. I hold that you really can't make a case like this for any type of ordinary firearm, especially because the government can't necessarily be there to protect you in every case, and it would be a little scary if they could, but you certainly can for nuclear weapons, and you may be able to for rocket launchers and similar items, so these will be reasonably prohibited. I doubt if anything like this will hold for so-called "assault weapons." Drawing the line is, however, a difficult issue.

In sum it is my position that the best case is that you don't need protection at all, but if this can't be had then the next best thing is that the government is fair and effective in defending your rights when you have need. However, the very worst situation is the case (which has happened in, for instance, South Africa, and probably also in some neighborhoods of DC) where the government can't or won't protect you and prohibits you from protecting yourself (whether by actually prohibiting self-defense, or taking away the means necessary for self-defense). Note that this worst case clealry includes the case when it's the government that you need to be protected from. Since there will always be some cases in which a (non-totalitarian) government is unable to protect you, any general ban on firearms will necessarily lead to at least some instances of this worst case, and must therefore be opposed.

Posted by Kenny at April 26, 2007 11:41 AM
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An important point here is that the VT shooter did, more or less, purchase his two guns at Wal-Mart, after being declared mentally unstable and dangerous to himself and others by a judge. I haven't run the idea through philosophical filters, but it seems reasonable to at least have some sort of a blacklist of people who have been deprived by due process of law from the right to bear arms. If Virginia enacted a law to bring about some similarly limited form of gun control, I think it would be an appropriate response to the situation.

Posted by: Paul Ferree at May 10, 2007 9:36 AM

Paul - I agree, more or less. That is, I think it would be a great idea to, for instance, have as part of mandatory sentencing that, for anyone who uses a gun to commit a crime, one of their probation conditions be that they cannot own a gun through the duration of their probation. Similar things could happen for people declared mentally unstable and dangerous. But the point here is that we are now talking about a blacklist of people who may not purchase guns, rather than a licensing process. I think that would be a big improvement.

Posted by: Kenny at May 10, 2007 11:30 AM

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