Friday, 4 January 2013

Sam's Argument

Sam Harris has written a piece on American gun law called The Riddle of the Gun. He starts off promisingly:
Unlike most Americans, I stand on both sides of this debate. I understand the apprehension that many people feel toward “gun culture,” and I share their outrage over the political influence of the National Rifle Association. How is it that we live in a society in which one of the most compelling interests is gun ownership? Where is the science lobby? The safe food lobby? Where is the get-the-Chinese-lead-paint-out-of-our-kids’-toys lobby? When viewed from any other civilized society on earth, the primacy of guns in American life seems to be a symptom of collective psychosis.
Quite so. But it soon becomes plain that he may be a victim of that collective psychosis, when he says:
I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.
Is he really? I doubt anyone intelligent thinks that. Nevertheless, Sam is one of the clearest thinkers on any subject, even if he is occasionally wrong, so I think it should be fruitful to look at any argument he presents, since it is likely to be among the best the pro-gun lobby can offer. His counters to the 'liberal' position are unconvincing, to say the least, so what does he say positively in favour of guns?

He presents an argument here:
Given the level of violence in our society, the ubiquity of guns, and the fact that our penitentiaries function like graduate schools for violent criminals, I think sane, law-abiding people should have access to guns. In that respect, I support the rights of gun owners.
It's pretty splintered, but I think his argument goes something like this:

P1 We live in a society with a high level of violence.
P2 There are guns everywhere.
P3 Our prisons manufacture violent criminals.
P4 Everyone should be responsible for their own defence.
P5 The only way to defend oneself from a violent criminal in a violent society where guns are everywhere is with a gun.

C Everyone sane and law-abiding should have access to guns.

Well, I don't think this is even valid, and maybe it can be tidied up some more, but it will do for starters.

P1 he undermines himself by defending the levels of violence in US society when defending gun ownership:
Fifty-five million kids went to school on the day that 20 were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Even in the United States, therefore, the chances of a child’s dying in a school shooting are remote. 
He is well aware of the dangers associated with our perception of risk:
As my friend Steven Pinker demonstrates in his monumental study of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, our perception of danger is easily distorted by rare events.
Now it may be that he has good reason to own a gun and to train to use it correctly, but his situation should not be used to justify a position for the rest of the population. The statistics show that Americans are unlikely to be injured by a gun, as he knows, which militates against P1. The statistic we're trying to explain and remedy, as he also knows, is the discrepancy with the rest of the developed world. It seems very plausible to me that this gap could be reduced by making it more difficult for people in the US to own guns. So the 'ubiquity of guns' is the very thing that could be addressed, not used as P2 in his argument in favour of their ubiquity.

P3 may well be true, but is hardly different to other countries.

P4, it strikes me, is obviously wrong, in a civilised society. Not everyone is capable of defending themselves so are we supposed to let the young, the old, women, the ill, the underprivileged and the just plain incompetent gun users, get shot up by violent criminals? Now, maybe I'm being unfair, and he would say the premise is more like: everyone should have the right to defend themselves. The problem is that it's obviously a universal right he's arguing for, so this will still leave a large constituency vulnerable to the mass of armed members of society.

P5 I also think is obviously wrong, and betrays a rather simplistic and shocking vision of the way a civilised society should function. Self-defence does not simply mean shooting someone before they shoot you. As he himself also points out, being armed with a gun won't necessarily act as a deterrent, but can act as an incendiary:
But, emotions being what they are, [a weapon] often doesn’t [preempt further violence] —and the owner of the weapon can find himself resorting to deadly force in a circumstance that would not otherwise have called for it. 
Yes, as a soldier in a war-zone I would think it better that I had a gun. As a civilian in the midst of violent civil unrest, I might think it better that I had a gun. In a society that had broken down a bit, I might think it better that I had a gun. But I don't think any of our societies, including the US, come close to the sort of state that requires that sort of thinking.

So I don't think Sam's argument works at all.

Some more thoughts from Sean Faircloth here, and some cautionary words from Russell Blackford here.


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