28 December 2013

Gun control

This is the section on guns from the previous post. There's a section on abortion coming if you wish to be reassured or pissed off by that instead.

For gun control, I am perfectly happy to have conversations over the possible effectiveness of various proposals in a theoretical debate. I find that most proposals don't have much regulatory value to the actual problems in our gun culture and all its associated carnage in public and private violence. I'm also perfectly happy to point out that, despite the elegant plans often drawn up, we have a second amendment. And while I'm not necessarily happy about it, there are legal scholars and court rulings which say it is kind of a big deal. In the haste to say we need gun control, it's rather important to acknowledge this exists.

It is not sufficient to begin arguments as "you don't need..." when talking about regulations that would impact constitutionally guaranteed liberties as a basis for why a particular regulation is required. "You don't need" isn't a determination that I am often convinced is well established is correct in the first place. It's more like "I don't want you to...". Which is fine as a motivation, but it often goes unacknowledged in the debate. I'm not comfortable around guns either (outside of video games and violent movies). But I'm aware this is often why I might not be all that happy about someone else having one and not out of some dubious understanding of their needs that I'd be comfortable making into a law preventing them from attaining those needs. Their needs might include an enjoyment of owning and using firearms for some particular sport, for self-defence, for traditional value, and so on. These are not necessarily convincing "needs", or entirely accurate determinations that they made themselves either. But they do exist. They can often make for adequate grounds against for eliminating accessibility to particular kinds of firearms (on their own), or for many weapons accessories (most extended clips, flash suppressors, silencers, etc). As a result, gun control advocates advancing questions of "need" will tend to ignore that "need" is not a very salient point in the debate as it is subjective what that "need" is, and is rather immaterial in any regard if one concurs with a general proscription that the object whose need is being measured is a protected class of good via a constitutional amendment. (Note: I would argue many more things than firearms fall into this category as protected private actions and forms of property, including most of our vice crimes like narcotics or various forms of sexual services, but firearms were at least mentioned in the constitution and for whatever reason the public often subscribes to a legal theory that if the government isn't expressly limited or prevented from doing something, it can do it).

On the one case where there seems to be an actual restriction, automatic machine guns, even that restriction comes out of a sort of circular basis. Machine guns are illegal effectively because it's not likely a civilian would have one. But civilians would not likely have one because they were made illegal decades ago during the height of Prohibition. There's a great deal of absurdity in comparing automatic machine guns designed to fire hundreds of rounds per minute, often high powered rounds at long range at that, and semi-automatic rifles that are often called "machine guns" based on their similar appearance. One is clearly more lethal and dangerous than the other. So. There's a better reason available for why a machine gun is illegal of course, in the same way that a civilian can't get a rocket launcher, artillery rounds, tanks, or gunships for private use. Namely it serves little purpose other than intimidation and destruction via violence or the threat of it and constitutes a significant danger to the peace and tranquility of a community. This is still true of other firearms to a degree, but making a functional distinction about actual military grade equipment has a way of pointing out that some, if not all or most, of that equipment is designed expressly for killing other human beings easily and in large numbers and this is a significant threat that ownership would likely only be for offensive purpose against other human beings and is often too impractical for use in other needs. For other fire arms it is more often appropriate or sufficient to say "you can have that, but don't walk around with it and start pointing it at your neighbours when talking to them" or "firing it without defensive cause in the town", and to some extent to provide legal restrictions like "we do not trust you to have that because you have committed violent acts in the past for which you have been arrested and convicted of." Although our restrictions over gun ownership via felonies leads to ridiculous problems in many states because of what is classified as a felony in the first place, and who gets convicted of such, there's some reasonable basis in making these specific distinctions where there's less of a clear basis in attacking "need" more broadly.

That ultimately all becomes more an argument over use instead of need. Rather than arguments over need, I think the much stronger case for gun control is made by establishing that we have a gun culture problem that generates an unreasonable amount of gun-related violence. Some of that violence, in some places quite a lot of it, is generated by other factors than the mere existence of the weapons being used. Gang violence resulting from black market disputes over market share in illicit goods or services for example. That has little to do with guns in the abstract and more to do with other dubious legal pursuits of the state (usually narcotics). In examining this as an actual problem within our midst, we might also become aware of the gun problem in suicides; in that suicide by gun is far more common and far more deadly than murder or assault by gun. This too is a trail of carnage. When this is understood to be an actual and very large/complicated problem, what we find is that there might still be appropriate, even legally accessible, state reactions, but they probably won't have as much to do with regulating "assault weapons" or flash suppressors. Which are at best cosmetic ways of firing pellets of metal at high speed into living tissue rather than a significant contributing factor to the violence and blood spilled. They might have more to do with why people are using these weapons aggressively in the first place.

We might instead modify the way we prosecute, arrest, and impound property in the form of illicit vices. We might increase the availability of and augment the way we treat mental illness and disturbances. I'd be very cautious about tying gun ownership rights to said illness and treatments, most likely because the result would be fewer people with guns or who want guns getting treatment. Here I don't think either the NRA or liberals opposing them have any idea what they're talking about. We might increase or establish federal or state taxes on mind-altering substances; alcohol especially or through decriminalised or legal markets for narcotics. We might find ways to encourage weapon safety through offering basic training courses in exchange for registration or manufacturing companies could be installing or providing security features on weapons. We might work to reduce crime in areas that people no longer feel a "need" to be armed in the first place and would not purchase a weapon for that purpose of self-defence and in time decrease the cultural reverence attached to them. We might talk more about why we have a cultural medium that is more comfortable with violence than with saying certain words or with nudity. I think all three have a place in culture and cultural depiction, but the current comfort with violence relative to sexuality is absurdly puritanical. Why, we might ask, is it that we ourselves are so inclined to consume that media? Again, I'm not convinced it is a problem that we do so, but it does us little good to point fingers in a taxing blame game rather than look in the mirror once in a while and re-evaluate.

These are all complicated ways of getting at the problem. But all of them are likely to have much larger impacts on gun related violence than restricting "assault weapons", and various other proposals based upon "need".

We might also acknowledge that the largest cause of violence by choice of weapon, even among mass shooting events for which we often find gun control a topic de jour, is easily concealed handguns; a variety of guns so prolific in this country that there are at least half as many as there are citizens. Any legislative attempt to restrict these runs into some practical problems. First, there's so many available that it would take decades or hundreds of billions of dollars to reduce that number to a manageable level that it would even be possible to track or be reasonably certain who possesses or desires the possession of such weapons rather than through a grey market as now. Second, restricting handguns in some way is incredibly unpopular with the public (and even less popular after a major shooting event, even if a handgun was the primary weapon used). Third, it appears that home or local manufacture of weapons might be a near-term possibility via 3D printing and other assembler technologies that are decreasing in cost, making the regulation and control of weapons even less likely to be a centrally controlled matter. Some of these arguments apply equally to the question of restricting large capacity magazines, a popular state level restriction adopted in the wake of mass shootings.

And then, finally, the point of this exercise. It's unlikely to stand up to a Supreme Court challenge to make most varieties of restrictions upon handguns in particular a legal method of regulation. Because there's a pretty good case out there being made that such types of restrictions violate the Constitution and that case has won at the Supreme Court level already.

While I'm quite happy to have the conversations about efficacy and effectiveness, I'm not sure how people get past the "it's illegal for the government to do X" problem. Even good or well-intentioned ideas are restricted by these barriers, at least intended to be so restricted at any rate. And in this case, there are recent federal rulings and some not-so-recent that point away from the argument that many varieties of proposed restrictions could be legally interpreted in a manner that allows them to be used. And this is a major flaw in much liberal hand-wringing about firearms in that it often supposes the legal interpretation that the 2nd amendment is largely a device about tyranny and state militias, and thus a mostly quaint artifact of the 18th and 19th centuries perhaps, is the correct and only interpretation available and in wide use amongst legal scholars or the general public. I am disposed by some level of personal disgust to agree that this is a mostly correct legal and historical interpretation and that the historical capacity of the public to overthrow its government is much diminished in an aging country of 300 million citizens to be laughably improbable as an event worth considering in laying out our legal boundaries anyway.

But. I do not find my disgust to be informative about what the legal and moral rights of others shall be either and do not find it persuasive that these other interpretations must be wrong or inherently flawed by this particular variety of gun-clinging culture or some such with only that objection to raise. I do think it is sufficient to be questioning of that culture, curious of it, and if possible to act coercively in a private manner to encourage others to avoid the "need" or want of firearms. That's a process largely consisting of conversation or unwritten rules enforced by socially binding norms; norms which we have done little to create or foster amongst people who are not inclined to find guns discomforting and by the failure to do so have rendered many attempts at the federal or state level to adopt what may be perceived publicly or broadly as reasonable restrictions on weapons sales to be futile and abandoned.

Without talking to such people in the language of their adopted views on these issues, and abandoning the questions of need in a legal sense before having made the cultural argument, I would be very skeptical that any meaningful advances will be made on the social problem of violence and could easily see that what cosmetic methods are passed to deal with it will be either ineffective, overturned, or do more harm than good making these efforts rather pointless wastes of political energy.

There is naturally some contradiction in conservative claims on gun control as well, in that they advance an "originalist" logic to the documents but are often dismissive of that fact the documents have had to evolve based on changes in technology and social pressures that did not exist in the 18th century. Guns and human settlement were very different objects over 200 years ago in the same way that phones were very different 35 years ago. We should expect that any such regulations or restrictions that may have existed or were deemed appropriate in that time would be less so now.

We do not now have a culture that is likely to need to overthrow its government by force, nor a population broadly inclined to do so or to support movements to do so. Secession by states or cities is not a heavily backed item on the political agenda even in the various Southern states that still seem by rhetoric to want to fight the Civil War again. In Texas petitions to this effect received less than 1% of the state's population. While polls misleadingly portray a more robust population in favor than this, they still receive a small plurality (less than a quarter of those polled typically). Violent revolution, or even peaceful revolt, is even less supported. Various fringe to mainstream political groups agitating for radical adjustments in current policies such as the Free State Movement, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Greenpeace, and so on do not attract broader popular support and indeed, are often perceived or portrayed as annoying and incoherent political brands rather than substantive responses to the actual political problems concerning the average person/voter. As a result, I do not think the notion that somehow we are about to fight a war against our own government(s) is a compelling reason, though nor is it a necessary one, to prevent various laws to be adopted. I do think it is a sufficient reason to question the arsenals that the government has deployed or made available to local and state police forces, and why it is that they require and receive heavy machine guns or armored vehicles in small towns dotting the country. But that's a somewhat different question than what sort of gun a person may purchase, or what requirements we would have placed upon them to do so.

That conservatives or the NRA can rush to this argument; that some crucial number of home-owning men with rifles is all that stands between America as a free country and the imposition of a tyrannical dictatorship is a flag-waving piece of nonsense that does little to aid their cause in the debate either. It provides the misguided impression that we live in a far more dangerous country than we actually do. Most of the people pushing for gun rights do not live in dangerous neighborhoods beset by violence (some do) and we are so vanishingly unlikely to be attacked by foreign powers directly that such a well-armed public would be an asset rather than the current liability it is often seen as. It provides the impression that only these rights relating to weapons ownership are worth standing up for and fighting against attempts to oppress them. While other rights such as the freedom from unreasonable searches, rights to a trial by jury, or the capacity to speak freely or worship freely (or not) are often sought to be suppressed or abandoned by the same groups of people along with "lesser" rights like access to voting or the hiring and firing decisions of business owners vis a vis immigrants and migrant workers. There are certainly Constitutionally or morally consistent conservatives who will readily defend the right of say, a Muslim to attend a mosque, an atheist to agitate peacefully, or blacks or Latino citizens access to vote, and also to not be detained and harassed without reasonable suspicion (read: more than just it's a young darker skinned male) by police and other security forces.

But these are not the people they send to office to enact policy. And by that process it presents a position that looks very much like a cultural island where so long as gun ownership as a basic right is preserved, other freedoms may be freely eliminated by the state. And indeed may be enthusiastically eviscerated along the way. It would be trivial for a tyrant to co-opt such armed bands into whatever mobile oppression system they would desire to rule with and to be used against whomever they wished to use it against. Indeed, one could argue that's what we are already doing with police forces being armed to the teeth, ostensibly for counter-terrorism, but really to make aggressive raids over compliance with often petty regulations and conduct shake-downs in grey-zone regulation or against otherwise non-violent citizens. Whether the appropriate response to a well-armed government is to demand a well-armed citizenry seems ludicrous given the propensity for violence against the state being so low and the dangers still quite real. The appropriate response is most likely to call for a less-well-armed government.

Whatever we are left with at the end of this is not necessarily great and wise policy. Maybe we could restrict sales at certain third party access points or require certain information in background checks. Maybe we would restrict the sale of video games (also hasn't held up in court rulings though). Maybe we would restrict the size of magazines one could use for ammunition. Maybe we would do none of those things. And so on.

For me though, the only good and relevant outcome of all of that would be there might be a pause in the volume of screaming people do about how holy they are about some legal right granted and guaranteed them hundreds of years before their birth and how awful their opponents are for supposedly attacking that right, for this or that reason.

Both of you have no idea what you sound like.

And it's something like this. 
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