Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Jan 9, 2013 in In the news, Philosophy, Politics | 19 comments

Conservatives and liberals, Sam Harris and gun control

One of the oddities of the gun control issue is the assumption that this is an issue that naturally divides along liberal and conservative lines (I’ll bracket off the question of how meaningful the labels “liberal” and “conservative” really are). Perhaps that assumption is true, in practice, in the particular circumstances of the contemporary United States, where various alliances of convenience and history exist. It is not, however, true at a philosophical level.

From my viewpoint, having lived through Australia’s experience of the gun-control issue, there is no reason why even very conservative politicians cannot support much tougher restrictions on civilian access to guns. After all, John Howard, perhaps our most conservative prime minister ever, instituted a tough regime of gun control, including a massive buy-back of weapons, following the horrific Port Arthur massacre of 1996. Admittedly, Howard encountered much opposition from his own party and from the rural lobby, but his zealous, energetic, and effective advocacy of gun control exemplifies the fact that there is nothing in social or political conservatism that inherently favours citizens wearing or possessing deadly weapons.

There is no philosophical, as opposed to expedient, reason for conservative politicians in America to favour a very broadly interpreted “right to bear arms”. It would take only a small number of high-profile conservative politicians to face up to this fact, and show leadership on the issue, to change the political situation in the US considerably. Under the right circumstances, imaginative, visionary conservative leadership on this issue could even be a vote winner, just as it was for John Howard in 1996. For that reason, I don’t think that attempts to undo the current situation where the US is currently awash with guns are futile, though I do think that it will probably take some statemanship among conservative leaders before it actually happens.

And so, I am less pessimistic than Sam Harris, in his latest comments on violence and gun control, about reversing the current situation. I do, of course, feel some pessimism. I acknowledge that there is no obvious prospect of the kind of leadership I’m talking about, which would probably have to come from level-headed Republicans at state level… if any of them feel the willingness and confidence to go against the gun lobby. If it does happen, it will happen unexpectedly, but someone in the position of the US President, for example, should be certainly be talking to conservative governors and to other conservative power brokers.

There is also no philosophical reason, as opposed to reasons of history and expediency, as to why liberals should automatically favour gun control. Liberals should, of course, favour laws against murder, armed robbery, and the like. However, merely purchasing, owning or carrying a gun does not directly harm anybody. If liberals take the Millian tradition seriously, they will be very slow to ban anything that does not cause substantial, wrongful, direct harm to others.

As I’ve argued in other places, we should not make a fetish of directness. Some actions that do not cause harms in highly direct ways might nonetheless create such a substantial and urgent risk that something needs to be done in addition to prohibiting the final step in a process that leads to the harms.

To take another controversial example, consider pornography. On commonsense understandings of harm (as opposed to certain heavily theorised and contested understandings), providing or viewing pornographic imagery does not directly harm anyone. It does not pick your pocket or break your leg if I watch a pornographic movie. The harms that are alleged (at least the harms understood by common sense) are highly indirect. They may proceed, for example, via alterations to the personalities of male viewers – perhaps they will develop more callous attitudes toward women, and this might, in turn, lead some men to discriminate against, harass, or even assault or rape, women.

However, given that this process would be indirect, and given the relative lack of success to date in showing that the process takes place like this at all, let alone that it is close to inevitable that it will happen in such a large class of cases as to amount to an urgent problem, many liberals are unwilling to support strong censorship of porn.

The issue for liberals should be whether the current and continuing flooding of American society with guns, or certain kinds of guns, looks different – i.e., whether it is demonstrably contributing in a substantial and urgent way to the social evil of very numerous deaths and injuries from firearms.

It appears to me that it is. In that respect the case for gun control is unlike the case for banning, or much more severely regulating, pornography. My argument, therefore, is not that the jury is out in this case, but merely that attitudes to gun control should not necessarily be divided along liberal/conservative lines. Prior to looking at the actual evidence, liberals have no philosophical reason to favour tough gun control (indeed, they should favour people being allowed to live a wide variety of ways of life, including ways of life centred around owning, cherishing, and firing guns). Prior to looking at the actual evidence, conservatives have no philosophical reason to oppose gun control – not if they are genuine philosophical conservatives, as opposed to puppets of the gun lobbby.

The trick is to look at the actual evidence and then find statesmanlike leaders – such as John Howard proved to be, on this particular issue, in 1996 – who will actually show vision and courage. Whether that will happen in the short term remains to be seen, but there is at least reason not to let up about the issue. There is also reason not to characterise this as a liberal versus (rational) conservative thing. It is a “thing” about what the evidence actually shows, and what steps might actually have some effect. They will probably have to be steps within the US Supreme Court’s current interpretation of the Second Amendment (which means that Sam Harris is unlikely to be prevented from keeping handguns in his home for self-defence, especially seems he seems to be willing to go to great efforts to comply with any legal checks and requirements).

However, this  much-maligned Supreme Court position leaves a great deal of room for legislatures to regulate who can get hold of, and keep, what sorts of weapons, how onerous the checks are, etc. With goodwill and vision, there at least seems no reason for philosophical issues – rather than issues of expediency – to prevent quite dramatic progress, at least in states where regulation is currently slack. It’s mainly a question of where that vision is going to come from, if from anywhere, on the conservative side of American politics.