Sam Harris and Gun Ownership in the US

Something that I had assumed was unlike to occurred, has done so. Up until now, Sam Harris, in his various works, has made perfect sense to me. He has provided honest and balanced discussions on morality, faith and human wellbeing that I could only agree with. However, on the subject of gun ownership, so many differences scream out that I feel myself compelled to write this post.

Where I agree

Firstly, there are numerous points on which I agree with him in the two of his articles that I will address here; The Riddle of Guns and FAQ on Violence.

I agree that those against guns tend to be completely against guns. This hardnosed approach is irrational and is as unlikely to spur progressive change as hardcore environmentalism will one day return us to the simple country shire as many enthusiasts would like to see (noting that such a fantasy was never real in the first place and cannot ever be so in the future).

Buy back schemes applied in places like Australia too are not reasonable with the given expense in the US either.

I also agree that the US is very different to places like the UK and Australia when it comes to attitudes towards guns. Many American’s would like to think that God is written into their constitution (which is not the case) while the right to bear arms in fact is through the second amendment. It’s law that is zealously championed within the US in a way that foreigners simply just don’t get.

The potential solutions to this problem are thus complex and likely to be different to those undertaken elsewhere previously. He is right on the dollar here and his critics are simply wrong; apparently filtered by idealism.

However, much of the further explanation that Harris works into these two articles reflects the same strategies as those applied by individuals he often debates himself. It is extremely biased with sleeves loaded with tricks that I’m surprised it passed his own BS meter.

Where I don’t agree

Before I go on, I must state that I am assuming these recent articles are in response to the hot topic of gun ownership in the US. It’s timely. I acknowledge that he is more broader in these articles to violence itself, however this seems to be an act to muddy up the water and return to a position which he favours (a position, I should also state, that is not too far from my own).

So that is my first complaint – these two articles seem to be addressing the debate over gun ownership while pulling in various other topics that are irrelevant to return to his desired position.

In FAQ on Violence, Harris returns stats from various countries that, yes, demonstrates homicide rates are higher in the US (but decreasing) BUT other crimes, such as rape and assault, are higher in places where gun control is greater. Unless he is trying to suggest such crimes rates in other countries would be reduced if more people were packing heat, this argument is the cliché apples and oranges…

Someone who cares genuinely for human wellbeing would instead conclude that the US has a problem with homicide (and gun related violence) and the other noted countries need to do something to reduce the incidents of rape and assault. It should be a country by country problem to human flourishing that needs addressing and is not a case for or against gun ownership.

In the other article, The Riddle of Guns, Harris reminds us that of the 55 million children that went to on the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, only 20 met their end. Thus,

“Even in the United States, therefore, the chances of a child’s dying in a school shooting are remote.”

That sentiment turns my stomach. I have a son in school and a beautiful baby girl; both of whom feature as pinnacles for my greater hopes for the future. Their happiness and long and successful lives are what matter to me more than my own happiness and success. They are why I write on New Anthro and am passionately driven to challenge invasive memes that threaten our long term viability as a flourishing species.

One death at the hands of an unstable individual holding a high powered weapon – especially an assault rifle – is too much. One classroom or crowded place where innocent people have no potential to act before a stupid amount of firepower peppers over them is never acceptable.

How many women successfully travelled on buses in India over the past few weeks and only two were brutally ganged raped? Is the threat thus remote enough that isn’t really a problem? Any one subjected to such inhumane crimes is one too many. We ought to be motivated to stop such crimes by the gravity of the horror, not marginalise them by their apparent ratios.

He also argues that a revolver can be loaded quicker, but so what? Which will fire the most rounds in 10 minutes, with loading time included between a semi-automatic and a revolver? These massacres are not akin to Hamlet; no-one stops to undertake soliloquies at any given moment, eventually leading to the bloodbath. The damage is done in the amount to firepower delivered as quickly as possible.

Harris reminds us of the amount of murder that happens from considerably less powerful weapons. For instance;

“Seventy mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, leaving 543 dead. These crimes were horrific, but 564,452 other homicides took place in the U.S. during the same period.”

He also notes that twice as many deaths result from bare hands than rifles of any sort and that in China there has been a spout of stabbings in schools. So what? Is someone likely to kill 20 people in an American school with a knife or their bare hands as efficiently as they can with a semi-automatic?

All of these are again apples to the orange of the discussion at hand; that is the lone unstable mind getting hold of high powered weapons and wrecking horrible atrocities as a single act, quickly and efficiently.

Lastly, he concludes The Riddle of Guns;

“I believe we need a general shift in our attitude toward public violence—wherein everyone begins to assume some responsibility for containing it. It is worth noting that this shift has already occurred in one area of our lives, without anyone’s having received special training or even agreeing that a change in attitude was necessary: Just imagine how a few men with box cutters would now be greeted by their fellow passengers at 30,000 feet.”

Harris simply places blame on the victims; if you are greeted by someone holding a semi-automatic weapon, it is your responsibility to contain the problem.

Facing an adversary such a weapon or a box cutter are two very different situations and demonstrates a detachment from reality, unless of course (as seems to be assumed sensible in the articles) we all carry concealed weapons ourselves. The solution is more guns to protect people against guns.

The real problem is power

Given the hatred his work stirs up in ideological fundamentalists, I’m not surprised that he does have guns. In fact, he is probably prudent in taken such measures to protect his family. I am certain that he is also an example of an ethical gun owner – ensuring appropriate safety measures are taken and that he is well trained etc.

In his articles, he discusses from non-lethal weapons to tanks and missiles. I agree that guns are probably the most sensible range.

With the Taser, there have actually been a number of deaths, but on the flipside, I disagree with Harris that “their limited range and cartridge capacity, along with other vagaries of their operation, makes them (in my view) inadequate for home defense.”

If you can own a number of guns, why not a number of Tasers? I will accept that they may be useless in a Zombie apocalypse…

However, returning to the point; his in the right ballpark on this point. Yet the debate that ferments between Harris and his critics  misses the point; we are really debating about where on the sliding scale between a pointed stick and a nuclear warhead should the individual have the rights to personal ownership for personal security.

The problem in the US is that the right to bear arms came about before the invention of machines that a teenager could operate that were capable of mowing down a room full of people before they even understood what has happening. The second amendment surely never intended or had any expectations that such power ought to be accessible to a civilian and kept in the happy quiet streets of suburbia. They are machines of war, not self-defence or for a hobby. Yes the second amendment was about having access to militia, but is that even applicable today? Most people whom fall back on it care entirely about personal security.

If an intruder with a knife broke into Sam’s house and he pumped the character full of lead with a semi-automatic, I’d be a little concerned. That’s excessive force.

So the scale ought to be set beneath that level. That is a level Australia is now at and one that I think is prudent and sensible.

Coming back to poke the two articles one final time – the stats on Australian rates of crime which he refers to is even less applicable with this in mind. We can have self-defence weapons in our homes, unless of course it is the loss of semi-automatics that opens the doors to such crimes…?

Solutions?

I had to facepalm when Harris even suggested the same standing as the NRA; security at schools; more guns is the answer to guns!

Why don’t we need security at Australian schools? Apparently, we have now as many guns as we did in 1996, why not the same problem? I would suggest it is a combination of our attitude towards guns and the relative power of the weapons we have.

To his credit, he does note that the solution will not be easy. If a madman wants a gun, they will get one in the gun rich lands of the US. With homicide, the causes are often more socio-economic and also related to organised crime. Still, none of this addresses the nutter walking into a school yard.

We ought to do a lot more to reduce the potential for such crimes to occur. Improved mental health is part of that. Addressing socio-economic factors (again I refer to The Spirit Level) should be part of it also. However, can semi-automatics really remain safely in the mix, regardless of how much ethical mum and dad keep it safely locked?

Accidents do happen, as Harris points out; so can we be sure accidental exposure to semi-automatics by unstable minds will not happen or is this wishful thinking?

I would argue that a mix of things must play a role, which will include mental health, public education (awareness of signs that those around you may be having a difficult time and need help – how often do we miss the signs before suicide as well?), maybe increased security where a threat has been identified (non-ongoing), but also a limit to the power one can hurl out upon the world in a given amount of time; sliding down the scale beneath semi-automatic weapons.

Conclusion

It’s sad to see someone whom is often a source of reason and intellect in various debates fall prey to the same ideologically driven foot work applied by those he challenges. Maybe it was reading copious critical (arguably idealistic) letters that hardened his resolve to such a position.

Stepping back is often a sensible thing to do when you feel emotive on a subject; here his concerns for his family’s safety are directly on the table. I think he is trying to articulate a sensible position, but doing so poorly.

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