Tuesday, February 27, 2018


There’s another element of the conservative movement that has primed this shift toward gun rights. Historically, the first line of defense against danger is the state. But the rise in individualism of recent decades, the growing paralysis of our national government over recent decades, and intense conservative campaigns to sow mistrust of government as too big, too bureaucratic, and too incompetent combine to make the government an uncertain ally. A superficially realistic and healthy response is for individuals to take matters into their own hands and arm themselves to protect themselves and their families.
John Ehrenreich "Why Are Conservatives So Obsessed With Gun Rights Anyway?"
One of the issue with American politics, as I see it, is that the two primary sides understand that the other holds them in complete contempt. This passage (well, honestly, pretty much the entire piece, really) illustrates one of the reasons why Conservatives often feels that Liberals are contemptuous of them. I can understand the point that the state is the first line of defense against danger. But that's a lot different than saying that an individual's first line of defense against individual danger is the state. This would take the nanny state to its illogical extreme, requiring it to be involved in, and directing, people's lives 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. After all, it's difficult to protect that which you cannot control.

The law-enforcement apparatus of the United States protects us from individual threats, like violent crime, by swiftly and surely sanctioning offenders, giving people who may commit crimes a reason to reconsider their actions. Except for the fact, as many of us understand, that the system doesn't actually work that way. Many crimes go unsolved. Even for crimes in which a suspect is identified, a conviction may not be obtained. And even when a suspect is convicted, the convicted person may or may not actually be the perpetrator. And if an innocent person goes to jail, then one can presume that the actual criminal is still out there. One does not need to view a government as even moderately incompetent to understand the difficulty of of the task at hand. But Professor Ehrenreich seems to presume that the understanding that the government cannot be the personal bodyguard for 300+ million individuals leads to what he terms "pseudorealistic anxiety."

But outside of the very real phenomenon of people overestimating the risks from rare, but mediagenic threats (of which mass shootings are one), he doesn't explain what's so unrealistic about thinking that one may targeted by a violent crime. After all, even considering just those attacks carried out with knives the murder rate in the United States is higher than that for all methods of murder in Great Britain. And even in societies where murders and assaults are rare, it can make sense to have some means of protecting oneself. I live in the suburbs of Seattle, and the nearest police department isn't all that far away, maybe a mile as the crow flies. But were someone to come through my door right now with a baseball bat and murder on their minds, if my only hope is to wait for the police to arrive, I'd be screwed.

And this is the issue that Professor Ehrenreich never addresses. Firearms are popular tools of self defense because they are understood to be easy to use an effective. Despite the fact that guns are not inerrantly lethal weapons, we often treat them as such, and therefore we tend to discount the general usefulness of other tools. Not that most people would bother carrying a sword around with them, but they're very dangerous weapons. While police seem to understand this (I was stopped once while literally moving a naked sword ten feet between the trunks of two cars), however, Slate considers sword murders a joke (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/01/nerd_violence.html) with nerds as the punchline. A working of knowledge of martial arts and other hand-to-hand combat styles are also viable tools for defending oneself - given a trained martial artist and an untrained gunman, my money is on the martial fighter.

But guns are considered quick and easy. Despite the fact that without some basic training and some range time, the danger a gun represents is a random quality, which my kill someone or may not, and that someone may or may not be the person the wielder was intending to shoot, we tend to view guns as making any random Joe into a killing machine. And in a world were the average person lacks access to any sort of personal bodyguarding, taxpayer-funded or not, the ability to project (often lethal) force when you need it is attractive.

The problem with the government is not, as Professor Ehrenreich puts it, that it is an uncertain ally. It's that it isn't an ever-present one. Granted, the occurrence of crime isn't ever-present, either. And both are unequally distributed. But even with that, the places with the highest levels of policing are not, simply because of that, the least dangerous. (I will admit to noting a certain irony when people who would rather drop dead than be within 100 miles of "the inner city" cite "inner city violence" as a threat they need to protect themselves against.) So I'm not necessarily saying that everyone who worries about the need to protect themselves against violent crime has to.

But this works both ways. A Liberal mindset that sees danger in every gun is no more rational than a Conservative mindset that sees vulnerability in every moment without one. Mass shootings, despite the fact that they are very mediagenic, are rare. And there are pretty much no repeat offenders in the category. Given that they are such a small percentage of violent crime, if the state should be considered the first line of defense against being mugged, why not against being randomly shot? True, there is a mindset that says that if one could do away with all the gun, then muggings would drop too. And there may be some truth to that. But it presumes that weapons cause crime (that access to weapons create criminals), rather than crime causes weapons (that people who intend to commit a crime see access to weapons). But if Liberal fears of mass violence cannot be assuaged by the spotty presence of agents of the state, why should Conservative fears of much more common (but still rare) acts be?

One could simply chalk this up to being unthinking, but I think that there is an argument to be made that partisanship often goes hand in hand with the understanding that "the other side" is simply irrational. And people tend to view that as being disrespected. That may be an incorrect viewing of it, but it isn't an unreasonable one.

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