A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Final Word On Guns

The big picture:

It has never been a good idea to begin the consideration of an issue from either irrational fear and hostility or eye-glazed devotion and longing. With that in mind, I begin looking at guns from the history of the forces from which they arose.

Human inventions have been and are most often about doing more, faster, with mechanical advantage and at greater distances than arm’s length.  And we almost always end up having complex and mixed feelings about our inventions.  I can, with two hands, scoop up a couple of pounds of dirt, if the ground isn’t too hard.  The big mechanical shovels can reach out a hundred feet and scoop up 25,000 pounds of dirt and rock in one dip (the very biggest excavators pick up 150,000 pounds in a single scoop). 

“Biting” or hitting something from 10 or more feet away has been a project of our genus (and genius) for millions of years: rocks, pointed sticks, spears, atlatl darts, bows with arrows, tubes with soft metal ‘rocks’ and explosive powder. This last has, of course, become the gun.

A man can throw a rock by hand with about 80 foot-pounds of energy (the amount of energy required to lift 80 pounds one foot, but concentrated into the striking surface of the rock and transferred to the object struck over a very brief amount of time).  A powerful handgun can throw a chunk of lead with an initial 700 foot-pounds of energy and, the most powerful commonly accessible shoulder arm, with 5000 foot-pounds of energy. 

A rock, with natural skill and practice, can be fairly accurately thrown over a distance of no more than about 50 feet (15 meters).  A handgun can be pinpoint accurate with average skill at 60 feet (18 meters) and much more with fully developed skill.  A shoulder arm can be pinpoint accurate at a quarter of a mile (400 meters).  These are the kinds of, and rates of, development that would be expected from something that hominids have been working at for a million years.

There are three points here: guns are one present technological product of a process that humans have been at for a very long time; the sophistication and power of the result is typical of many of our other technological pursuits – and, as with many of them, overwhelming and beyond our biological capacities to either understand or control; and guns are the present device in support of behaviors, specific to killing other animals and other humans, that have long been a part of the species.

But, before we get to the critical element of lethality we need to understand there are many things we have invented that may very well be doing too much more, moving too fast and pushing our actions out beyond the reach of our foresight, things that we have lost control of to our peril.  In this sense an AR-15 with a 100 round drum is similar to the mechanical shovel in its relationship to the non-mechanical power of the basic human.  Each bullet leaves the gun barrel with about 1100 foot-pounds of energy; that times 100 equals 110,000 foot-pounds of energy per magazine.  The two responses, “Wow, I gotta get me one o’them,” and “That is completely fucked up,” pretty much sum up the range of argument.

The primary difference between guns and almost all of our other inventions, that have come to dominate our lives rather than us controlling them, is that lethality is their intended purpose.  All the projectile tossing implements are to prevent a living thing from either running away, or from running at us, by killing it.  The origin and function of a firearm is not target or skeet shooting; these are devices with the intended function of creating incapacitating injury to another living thing from a distance.  This is the primary reality that must be factored into our response to them, not their other “utilities.”

The most basic question we must ask is: Does a community have the responsibility to control the products of human invention, and specifically to guns, the sources and methods of lethality available to its members?  A related question is: Who in a society should have access to devices with lethal capacities, should that access be regulated and, if so, how?  It would be a very hard case, indeed, who would claim that there should be no limitation on any invention or source of lethality.

(Let us dispense with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; it really is a red herring.  Any honest reading of the amendments to the Constitution and the arguments surrounding their creation make quite clear that the intention of the Second Amendment was other than the freedom to have firearms in the hands of private citizens with no limitations.  Those who claim Second Amendment justifications for uncontrolled gun availability are seeking official justification for personal, and commercial, desires and fears by selective and dishonest reading.

Full text, Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.  Ignoring the opening conditional clause of the Second Amendment distorts its meaning and intention just as much as ignoring the conditional clauses in the Third Amendment which then might be read to mean that no soldier can ever be quartered in a private home, which is clearly neither the meaning or intention of that amendment.)
It is only sensible that a thing that can (be made to) kill with only the slightest of physical effort must be treated differently than other more difficult to use potentially lethal instruments, even those made specifically for that purpose.  Knives and swords, spears and lances, bows with arrows, combat hatchets and clubs(and like instruments), garrotes, various poisons, and all those hundreds of kinds of large war making machines are all moderated in their availability and use by either social custom or law.  Let’s just say that humans must come to realize that the whole pantheon of our inventions, all manner of weapons among them, need to be brought into ecological balance – as every species and living behavior has been in obligatory ecological balance for billions of years.

A Personal Reflection:

But here the argument gets awkward and spins into regions where, in general, humans have difficulty: probabilities. We like certainties better and do our damnedest to build sophistries that convert ‘maybe’ into ‘for sure.’ “No one needs a gun” and “everyone needs a gun:” the results of either certainty are both foolish.  Admittedly, the “no one needs a gun” argument, in most present societies, has more merit, but there are times and certain human activities when the capacity to deliver lethality is a desirable option to have at hand; our question is what are those times and activities.  And then, how are we to control and enforce our choices?

What are the unquestioned justifiable reasons for having (and therefore using) a gun, not generalities like “self-protection,” but the actual occasions when the legal standard, “most reasonable people,” would agree?  While in some larger context there can be strong counter-arguments, guns can be considered appropriate in the hands of soldiers, police, forest rangers, subsistence hunters and others who potentially (that tricky probability thing again) face lethal force from either anti-society elements or natural sources of lethality.

There are a few people in the world who have so slipped the bonds of the social order that they are a danger to people in general, very few, but they are none-the-less real.  There are also, still, a few animals that, if confronted in the wild, can threaten life and limb.

Whether it is the best solution or not, I feel better carrying a powerful sidearm when I am walking alone in mountain lion country, miles from any sanctuary.  And yes, I have been followed – stalked – before: it was marvelously invigorating, but it was also dangerous (which, of course, is why it was invigorating).  Given the only choice between not going at all and going without a sidearm, I would go in the wild country anyway, but finding fresh tracks or scat, or surprising a lion up-close as I did one day, is a more pleasant and desirable experience with even the illusion of the capacity to stop the very small chance of attack.

So, there it is! The argument: When there is a danger for which a gun ‘might’ be the appropriate palliative, then its availability should not be denied (you will note that is not the language of the second amendment).  On the other hand, when the gun is the danger, then a clear case can be made for it to be denied.  You can easily see that this quickly becomes unwieldy: if the gun is the danger for which we need a gun… and so on.

“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Almost true; though true enough to ask the question: “What people should be allowed to kill people?” (This is really the correct form of the question of who should have access to guns.)  If the answer is that no one should be allowed to kill people, then, at least, those guns clearly designed for the killing of humans should be outlawed, no longer made and confiscated.  However, as much as we might like that simple and non-probabilistic answer, some people must be empowered to kill.

I should be able to kill a person intent on doing me serious bodily harm.  That sounds reasonable, but in my 70 years, lived in a great variety of circumstances, I have never been attacked in such a way (even by a wild animal).  The probability curve of my being seriously harmed or dieing has been pushed into the large positive standard deviations by automobiles, mountains, weather, water, my own hubris and occasional human general foolishness.  I suspect that this is the case for more than 99% of people in the developed world.  In fact, were I “attacked” by a gang of gun-toting blood-thirsty drug-addled criminals (like Charles Bronson in “Death Wish 3”) my odds would not be good even armed with what society currently accepts as reasonable for a private citizen. 

It would make much more sense for me to always wear a crash helmet and body pads, than to carry a gun, if I am concerned about dangers with substantial probability – even in wild country.

More arguments:

1) Guns as a hedge against “the government:”

Thom Hartmann’s consistent argument that an Apache helicopter or f16 (or Randi Rhodes’ Bradley fighting vehicle) vs. a few guys with AR-15s or Kalashnikovs would be so uneven a confrontation as to be hopeless misses the point entirely.  First and most obviously the confrontation described is the one at present in Afghanistan, but even that misses the point; which is, that the mistrust and fear of coercive institutions (seen as government even if really corporately inspired) is creating a variety of both impotent and semi-potent responses.  Aaron Swartz represents one response and Alex Jones represents another – but to essentially the same stimulus.  The same can be said for a wide variety of unlikely combinations: Julian Assange and Sean Hannity (government secrecy), Michael Savage and Mike Malloy (need for overturning common perceptions),

They each may draw lines around different regions of specific content, but like a Venn diagram, they also share an important origin; that is, the outsized concentration of power in the corporate-government hegemony over almost every aspect of life.  ‘Back to the land’ hippies, secessionist militias, crime-watch groups in minority neighborhoods, “sovereign” citizen movements, while having different levels of connection to Reality, all share the common motive force that something is terribly wrong with how power is allocated and relegated (limited) in our daily and personal lives. 

Each group has, in the past, seen their way as the way forward and have taken the word of the corporate-government sophists that it is the “other guy” holding them back.  But that misdirection is growing old.  The Shultz’s and the Limbaugh’s are sounding more and more alike as are the Frum’s and the Hartmann’s.  But it is the callers-in to talk radio that are telling the story.  Even when screened, as some admit “to make the host look good,” the depth of the more general angst comes through.

Guns are one of the few sources of a sense of power in the face of such confusing, mind-boggling domination – no matter how futile they might be. Even a grizzly bear is loath to attack a badger for fear of that one lucky bite.  An organized body public with weapons, even greatly inferior weapons, will be treated with more caution than a body public that is disorganized and individually powerless.  While the actions of such a public may be incredibly dangerous and ultimately wrong-headed, the fact remains that an armed public is more powerful in absolute terms than an unarmed public.

2) Gun “loving:”

The ‘little dick’ theory of gun affection is as juvenile a notion as the gun loving itself, and is certain to prevent either the proclaimer or the one proclaimed from discovering or sharing a more honest and accurate set of motives for their behaviors and beliefs.  This is equally true of the opposite number, the “wimp, coward and ignorant” theory of gun rejection.  Just as most male gun owners have normal genital endowments, gun refusers are just as likely to be tough minded, brave and well-informed as anyone else (though perhaps not about trivial gun detail).

Something else, and more, is working to attach some people to weapons and to cause some people to reject lethal instruments.  This is one dynamic that needs our understanding and attention.

That guns of different designs and capacities have different consequences is another dynamic, just as people are not simple, so guns, even though they share many common elements including lethality, have differences that need attention.

3) Guns as sport and survival tool:

This comes in two forms: hunting and the various kinds of target shooting.  Neither are the benign activities posited by advocates or as ruthlessly blood-thirsty as presented by detractors.  But that doesn’t mean that there is a complete or easy symmetry between the two views. Hunting by humans has changed the ecology of a majority of the planet’s surface – including the oceans.  Many species have been driven to extremis or extinction.  These are not good things.  Hunting was once an essential part of human survival and so is still a motive in our actions as well as a cultural relic.  But our vast numbers and the incredible power that present weapons bring to the “game” have removed sport and most commercial hunting from almost any usefulness (beyond that tiny few who still live close to the land) and have made hunting a seriously non-adaptive activity.

Target shooting may be practice for hunting and killing, but “plinking’ is also just fun: knocking things down from a distance to the accompaniment of a loud noise.  Getting good at something is pleasurable.  There is a language and a mystique around the whole process.  People can be together, “play” together, in the company of a powerful object.

But if we are doing these things so that we can survive when ‘the shit hits the fan’ we are kidding ourselves.  We should rather be working on organizing communities and learning to garden with both heritage seeds and native plants.  The earth’s billions would kill and eat every animal (as well as each other) much faster than most animals could reproduce – until the commercial ammunition ran out, until the handloaders used up the last of their powder and primers.

The symbolic, psychological and commercial uses of guns:

Guns are a source of power: It is a reality; it is also a reality that the power of guns has been mythologized and taken on a psychological, as opposed to a purely practical, quality. 

A person with a gun is a decidedly different thing than a person without a gun. The small and weak can be the apparent equal of the large and strong if they have equivalent “fire power” and expertise.  This is really not in question and is, also, not the question!  Which is: why would one need the “fire power” and the expertise?

A person surrounded by a community of trusted others might want to have weapons available against some form of outside threat, but would not feel the need of them when in the protection of community.  But, in a world in which individual power is held up as the ultimate currency, being in possession of guns seems to be an inexpensive buy-in to power.  It is completely understandable that a person who feels threatened as a generalized condition will desire a remedy.  Creating the ill-ease and then selling the remedy would lead to big money.

The fact is that millions of people go about their lives everyday without the felt need for the power of a serious weapon immediately at hand; and moreover, the general safety of their day-in and day-out existence supports their feeling.  There are others who have the felt need for the most powerful weapon that they can comfortably carry with them; there can be no argument that the existence of such weapons in the community increase a certain kind of danger to everyone. 


All of which returns us to the opening arguments.  Humans have created objects of great power, power to dig, to lift, to transport, to communicate, to coerce, to store perishables, many more, and to kill living things in massive numbers – it is one of our greatest achievements!

• As long as our societies present us with the design that we are isolated individuals fending for ourselves there will be an increased felt need for the most powerful weapons of protection possible… until the people are more afraid of the weapon’s misuse than they are of each other.   

• Guns have come to represent to people more than the sum of their actual uses, be those uses positive, benign or negative: some people only feel whole and right with the world when they possess them and others become some degree of physically sick when they see them; they are an irrational source of both power and dread.

• Much of the anti-gun rhetoric is demeaning of those who have guns and is based in the fear of the anti-social use of guns; much of the pro-gun rhetoric is deeply illogical and based in the fear of others who might wish to harm them and the fear that guns will be taken away.

• Guns are not just “guns.”  A well-made .22 revolver is a very different thing than a poorly made .22 semi-auto, a .44 magnum, a 30-06 hunting rifle, a 10 gauge goose gun, a semi-auto military look-alike .223 or a .50 caliber machine gun.  They all share lethality, but that alone does not make them the same.  They are made for, or intended for, different uses and for different markets.  Treating them all the same only distorts and confuses the arguments.

• Present humans are not the blood-drained castrati of our deepest “civilized” fears, and neither are we the Hobbesian brute hiding our bestiality in a 3 piece suit.  But, we are an animal with great power, magnified immensely by our technological productions. The community (or society) has the obligation to maintain an order of rules and expectations that give the social structure predictability, opportunity and community standards of protection and safety.

• There can be no “magic bullet” for the gun issue.  Much of what is said about guns is true: in the hands of good, well-trained people guns have positive utility; the more guns, the more gun crimes and gun accidents; in the tension between the people and government, an armed population must be treated with more caution than an unarmed population, even if official forces are overwhelmingly more powerful; guns distort social relationships and magnify the affects of those distortions. 

As is so often the case today the underlying conditions of education, honest presentation of data and honest discussion that would give a chance to deal effectively with the issues are denied us by the misuse of several other of our massively powerful inventions.  As with so much at this critical point in the history of the species the massive concentrations of wealth and political power will dominate the outcome for what the economic elite see as beneficial to themselves. Quite frankly, the rest is sideshow.