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Posted by on Jan 10, 2013 in Debate, In the news, Philosophy, Politics | 22 comments

More on guns and demonizing Sam Harris (2)

In my previous post I touched briefly on arguments of the kind that says, “It won’t happen to me.” These arguments argue against regulating an activity in a way that forbids it to people like me, because people like me can avoid the relevant risks associated with the activity.

If this was just arguing that I should have a special privilege, it would have no merit – why should lawmakers take any notice of that claim? Furthermore, in a large class of cases I will be deluding myself if I act in the relevant way. For example there is no reason to believe that I am less vulberable than others to the health risks from smoking. If I think otherwise, I’m probably fooling myself.

Nonetheless, perhaps surprisingly, arguments along the lines of “It won’t happen to me” can be perfectly good ones in some cases. Activity X many be one that has certain risks to the individual (or to others) that can largely be eliminated if an individual adopts precautions A, B, and C. It may turn out that a certain amount of rational planning and self-discipline (and perhaps training) are required to adopt precautions A, B, and C., and that, alas, many individuals fail, in practice to take those precautions. Accordingly, activity X ends up  causing much harm.

Nonetheless, it does not follow that activity X should be prohibited. And indeed, someone can know that she is well-placed to take the relevant precautions (she may already have experience of doing so, she may have undertaken whatever training is needed, she may have analogous experiences with other activities, and she may simply know from a range of experiences that she is an adequately disciplined person).

I can think of numerous examples of this. In such cases, we may well trust our own judgments about whether we, as individuals, can take adequate precautions against a paricular set of risks. If the risks are large enough, the government may impose some kind of licensing scheme to encourage people to take the precautions, and there may be risks of criminal penalties or liability for civil suits for people who don’t undertake them. If the risks are very great, especially if they fall heavily on others, it may make policy sense to impose a ban, but it cannot simply be assumed that all activities like this should be banned. Indeed, the liberal approach is surely to introduce sweeping bans, as opposed to regulatory requirements, licensing, etc., only as a last resort.

Now, Sam Harris may be wrong to think that he is well-placed to own handguns without it turning out to be counter-productive, risky for others, etc., as it is for many or most other people. But we can’t simply assume that his reasoning is fallacious here. Perhaps he is better placed – because of his character, training, knowledge, understanding, or whatever – than most to be able to take due precautions. If so, there is an argument that the law should be able to recognise this, perhaps in a scheme of checks and licences.

I also see that Jean Kazez – another person whom I have time for – has written a very brief post that is dismissive of Harris. The problem with this is sort of thing is that it does not advance intellectual understanding. Jean’s only stated complain is that Harris supposedly thinks that the NRA is more enlightened on the topic of gun control than The New York Times, as if this is so absurd that no argument against it is even necessary. That, however, is a path that we should be very wary of taking. In some circumstances, a conclusion will, indeed, be so absurd that it casts doubt on the premises, or even the good faith of the person putting the argument, but we should be careful when that person is known to be intelligent and thoughtful, the conclusion is politically controversial rather than going against near-universal common sense, and it is really not clear without further inquiry what the conclusion even amounts to. It is better to look at the detail of the conclusion (and the supporting argument, if any) than simply dismiss it.

Note that Harris explicitly expresses “outrage” at the influence of the NRA, and says he finds it (viewed objectively) evidence of “collective psychosis” that the gun lobby and the topic of guns are so politically important in the US. (I agree.) Even when he says that the NYT editorial makes the NRA view seem enlightened by comparison, the clear intent is to say that the editorial it is even less enlightened than the NRA’s (unenlightened position). Harris may be wrong about that, but what he seems to be getting at is not that the NRA’s position is enlightened (indeed, he seems to have nothing but contempt for the NRA) but that the NYT editorial is “unenlightened” in the sense of being emotionally overwrought and revealing an ignorance about guns.

As far as those claims go, Harris doesn’t seem all that far off the mark (as it were). At the same time, the editorial makes a legitimate point: that there are documented cases where ready resort to guns by police and others has proved to be ineffectual and maybe even counterproductive. I don’t think Harris ever answers this very effectively. Furthermore, in partial defence of Kazez, Harris’s discussion of the NYT editorial seems like an unnecessary, perhaps distracting, excursion – it doesn’t add much to the logic of his argument. As it is worded, it is an unnecessary provocation.

In the end it would best for all concerned to focus on policy proposals and arguments for them. As to that, Harris seems to think that banning civilian ownership of military (or similar) rifles, something that could be done under current constitutional interpretation, would be a worthwhile action, if only for symbolic purposes, but would not save large numbers of lives, since most deaths in the US associated with guns are not caused by these weapons but by handguns. He also seems to favour limiting magazines to ten rounds, as well as instituting rigorous checking and licensing of civilian ownership of legal weapons. To his credit, he admits that doesn’t have the full solution, though he thinks that a lot of the problem relates to the existence of drug gangs, itself the product of the socially counterproductive war on drugs – so he seems to favour an end to the war on drugs.

These all seem like good policy proposals as far as they go, even if many of us would hope to go further. I think Harris has got into trouble partly because he has written the article in a somewhat contrarian spirit, arguing with people who agree with him in wanting more gun control… and partly because he does not set out clearly in one place what his policy recommendations actually are. Oh, and perhaps because he sees some social utility in guns, which is going to be anathema to many people. Still, as I reread the piece I don’t see anything like a rant, or someone being irrational – on the contrary, I see a thoughtful, generally quiet piece that is worth consideration and careful debate.

Harris is right about some things – for a start, it would be constitutionally difficult in the US to impose a total prohibition of civilian handguns. Perhaps this will require a separate post from me, but I don’t think we can work on the basis that District of Columbia v. Heller is bad law that can be safely ignored… and even you think that the case was wrongly decided, there is no prospect that it will be overturned any time soon. That means that any package of reforms will be limited in what weapons it can ban and how heavily it can regulate ownership of other weapons. That being so, constitutionally permissible bans on certain kinds of guns may not be able to achieve much by themselves. And Harris is also right if he’s suggesting that there is unlikely to be such a groundswell of public opinion as to overwhelm District of Columbia v. Heller (forcing a skeptical reconsideration of it by a reconstituted court, or leading to a constitutional change to overrule it).

So any package of reforms will need to be consistent with District of Columbia v. Heller, however unsatisfactory that may be, and there is at least a theoretical possibility that a law which goes only as far as allowed by this case could, perversely, be worse than no law at all. That is certainly not my position, and I don’t think Harris holds it either, but actual policies will have to take into account the possibility of perverse outcomes as well as the realities of what is achievable.

Harris does seem to think that merely banning machine-guns, military rifles, and the like (which is constitutional) could turn out to be counterproductive because it would distract from taking other measures that might actually be more effective for reducing deaths by firearms (such as, I take it, ending the war on drugs, addressing urban poverty, etc.). Surely this is at least possible. An electorate concerned that “something must be done” might be bought off by such a populist measure, even though it is likely to have relatively little statistical effect because these sorts of weapons don’t cause a large proportion of gun-related deaths.

In my view – and Harris doesn’t seem opposed to this, as he says to ban these weapons by all means – such a ban could nonetheless be useful. It might save some lives by itself, but it could also form a symbolically striking component of a carefully worked out package that would actually be useful, one which might take gun control as far as the constitution (as interpreted by the US Supreme Court) allows, while also including a raft of other measures.

All of this is somewhat imponderable. My aim is not to offer an overall solution to the problem of guns, on which I am not expert, but merely to counsel that we take a charitable approach to arguments that might initially seem unwelcome to us, looking for their possible strengths to see what this tells us. This will not only tend to make us fairer in our treatment of interlocutors – it can also help us find gaps in our knowledge, difficulties with our own positions, and perhaps even solutions that we hadn’t previously considered. Alas, I don’t claim to have discovered any exciting new solutions to gun policy, but at least the arguments put by Harris might inspire good discussion. That discussion just might lead us to some approaches that have merit (and which we would not otherwise have found). It’s worth a try.