The Price of Freedom?

by David Ottlinger

“This is the price of freedom.” Such were the thoughts of Bill O’Reilly upon receiving reports of nearly sixty people being fatally shot at an outdoor Las Vegas concert. (1) O’Reilly, it would seem, is able to crystallize his thoughts with enviable quickness. The quotation appeared in a short post only the morning after the shots were fired, when many of us were still in the throes of initial shock. But while we were collecting ourselves and starting to formulate the questions that would have to be asked, O’Reilly had already arrived at an answer. He was of course disgusted by the grisly and absurd loss of life. But even in the face of such overwhelming dreadfulness, he felt resigned to the force of a logic that dictates inaction. “This,” he assured us, “is the price of freedom.”

There is something about these words. They are neat, tidy and deeply unsatisfying. They presume to solve a complex social issue almost geometrically. The inference is arrestingly straightforward. Mass killings are a social ill. But freedom is a greater social good. Therefore we must buy freedom at the price of occasional mass killings. An entire argument is condensed to six words.

Sensing the potential for controversy, nearly every single news outlet in America (and a few outside) reported on O’Reilly’s words. (2) No doubt these outlets know their customers. We can safely assume that O’Reilly generates massive traffic for many sites, as curious and angry liberals click on links, fume over the contents and leave angry comments. A few places have also put out pious rebuttals. (3) But liberals should be more reflective. Before hastening to rebut O’Reilly’s logic, they should explore how it functions.

For me, O’Reilly’s comments were a revelation. They helped solidify in my mind something I take to be deeply important to understanding many contemporary conservative arguments. For O’Reilly’s argument to make any sense – for it even to be so much as possible to look at 58 human beings deprived of their lives and still be inclined to defend the freedom of the gunman – one must have a conception of freedom that is almost entirely asocial. When O’Reilly speaks of freedom he means exclusively the freedom of an individual acting alone. For many modern conservatives, this is the only freedom there is.

To see this, we may consider conservative arguments against gun control. By my observation there are three fundamental objections. All concern freedom. The first contends that even given a just and competent police force, some citizens may be subjected to criminal acts in such circumstances that the police could not reach them or could not reach them in time. In such situations citizens must have the freedom to defend themselves. The only adequate means by which a citizen may protect him or herself is with a gun. Therefore citizens must be permitted to carry guns. The second concerns the idea that while a society must maintain a police force to keep order, inevitably members of that police force will at times behave inappropriately or maliciously. In such situations citizens must have the freedom to defend themselves from the police. The only adequate means whereby a citizen may protect him or herself from the police is guns. Therefore citizens must be permitted to carry guns. The third considers the possibility that the entire police force and the entire state that supports it could become lawless and tyrannical. In such a situation the citizenry must have the freedom to resist or even overthrow the government. The only adequate means by which the citizenry may resist or even overthrow the government is with guns. Therefore the citizenry must be permitted to own and carry guns.

These three arguments are independent of each other and of variable merit. One could certainly accept the first but not the latter two. One could accept the first two but not the third. I mention this specifically because the third may seem to some moderate conservatives as the exclusive property of wildest and most paranoid conservatives, although my understanding is that in fact, this is not the case. (4) I do not include it to poison the well or to tar moderates by the association. Rather I include all three because they are frequently heard and together seem to me to make up the bulk of the anti-gun control discourse. It could be that there are other arguments, employed by jurists and philosophers, but these sorts of professionals have a limited role in mainstream political decision making.

What stands out is that all three have a strikingly common logic. Society functions as the source of potential threats and dangers. Freedom is the possession of the individual, which he or she jealously guards even to the point arming him or herself. Freedom is protected by the act of self-alienation. In all three examples, the individual points a gun at the encroaching social world and tells it to back off.

Equally remarkable is how all three arguments bypass the possibility of dealing with social problems through some legitimate central authority. The first concerns failure of execution. The latter two concern illicit motives and intentions. Really, the second and the third are the same objection considered at the individual and the social level. The second imagines a citizen confronting a corrupt agent of a central authority while the third imagines the entire citizenry confronting an entire corrupt central authority. Accordingly, the third is really only the second multiplied out to the entire society. The essential argument remains the same. More broadly, all three imagine that central authority is incompetent to address the problem such that power must revert to individual citizens.

Consider, by contrast, how liberals, or at least gun-control advocates, approach these problems. All serious people must admit that police sometimes fail and sometimes abuse their power. But liberals tend to believe that the best solutions to these problems are institutional. If the police fail, the best solution is to improve the police. If police fail to prevent crime, the best solution is to see what can be done to improve police response times. If it is impossible to prevent a crime being committed, it is better to allow the crime to take place and afterword make available to the victims police investigations and redress through the courts. If police officers act maliciously or carelessly, liberals seek to improve police discipline. This may involve changes to police training. It may involve actions by civilian government, such as the removal and replacement of police leaders, the commissioning of studies or the establishment of independent, civilian review boards. It may involve bringing lawsuits and rendering court decisions. But in all cases, even in cases when the police are corrupt from root to branch, liberals favor solutions that are mediated by some legitimate, centralized authority, be it the civilian government, the courts, citizen-activist groups or some combination thereof. To a social problem, liberals envision social solutions.

What is crucial is that liberals are still able to see society as a source and guarantor of individual freedoms. They see individuals not necessarily as weak or callow, but certainly as dependent upon a larger association. For human beings, social and political animals, it is unnatural to be separated from the larger whole. An individual cannot be considered at liberty unless he or she has a great many associations, and associations of the right kind, with other individuals.  Freedom apart from these associations would be a pyrrhic freedom, a fruitless victory over the burdens and restrictions of mutual associations.  Outside of society there is only the freedom of Robinson Crusoe or Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone, alone in the library, surrounded by books and huddled over his shattered glasses.

But much of contemporary conservatism seems to be defined by its inability to see the larger society as a source of freedom as well as potential threat to it. This is part of what is so jarring about O’Reilly’s words. It would seem to me that the true outrage against freedom was perpetrated by the shooter in these attacks. People joining together in the streets to enjoy music is a shining example of freedom. The gun violence that punctuates this kind of free assembly and association, as well as the allocation of guns which makes such tragic interruptions a regular feature of life, are the enemy of that freedom. But for O’Reilly it almost seems as though those concert goers would have been freer if they had each stayed home and sat alone with their assault rifles, suspiciously eyeing the barred door. What could justify such a vision?

The answer is that for many conservatives, such a society of shut-ins would be freer by definition. If freedom is defined as freedom from dependency, freedom from obligation, freedom from the group, then such isolated, self-jailed prisoners are maximally free. Mark Lilla, in his most recent book, quotes Grover Norquist’s formulation of this outlook as giving the spirit of the age. “My ideal citizen is the self-employed, home-schooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit,” Norquist exults, encapsulating a lonely ethos, “Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything.” (5) Neither, it would seem, does he need anyone else.

Norquist’s is a dark and fascinating understanding of freedom. This “ideal citizen” is free because he (and here ‘he’ does feel implied) is not dependent on anyone. He is economically independent (he is “self-employed” and has an “IRA”). By home-schooling his children he is made independent of the schools. By carrying a concealed weapon he is perhaps even independent of the police. The point is that he is the paradigm of freedom, because of what he is not a part of. Norquist name-checks several fundamental functions of any human society — economy, education, policing — and systematically excludes his ideal citizen from them. It is this apartness that makes him free. Again, as in the gun control arguments considered above, the larger society features exclusively as something to be avoided. Again, being free is something done alone.

I hate this vision. Among other reasons, I find it un-American. It is radically incompatible, for instance, with the vision of freedom to which FDR gave voice. Freedom from fear and freedom from want cannot be and were never meant to be anything that could be achieved alone. Such freedoms arise from community and social solidarity. They can only be achieved by many people working together in complementary ways and coordinated, to some degree, by central authorities that all accept as legitimate. Such a vision holds that freedom is achieved by the shared maintenance of good order and social harmony. The “New Deal” accepted as a given that any social life had to be a deal. That is to say it was a deal between this one and that one, to live in mutual association on some terms acceptable to both. On this vision freedom is something we achieve together.

Of course conservatives reject the New Deal. But even the traditional American freedoms such as those of speech and religion require cooperation and association. This means more than noting that freedom of religion requires someone to practice the religion and someone else to tolerate it. Achieving a real culture of tolerance means communicating and ritualizing respect and acceptance. It means establishing shared practices and norms and being governed by them. Above all, it means joining together in a common purpose and a common narrative. Citizens define themselves as members of a republic of liberty and are proud to practice its virtues. Practicing its tolerance becomes a bond of community and association. The rituals that institutionalize such practices become a source of belonging. As different as Americans can be from their neighbors, they can all identify with the values of America, and in that they can become recognizable, understandable and eventually even familiar to one another. They can say to one another: We may not have the same politics, we may not practice the same religion, but we are all Americans.

In spite of the slander of the Glenn Becks of the world, the Founding Fathers understood this. They were no libertarians. Their enlightenment liberalism was tempered by a traditional republicanism. They understood that self-governance required a special culture. Democracy required constant maintenance and could only be supported amongst people of virtue, which meant people who were always public-minded and who would put the commonweal over their own interest. A still-familiar image of this can be found in the busy-body antics of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin often claimed to have been deeply impressed at a young age by Cotton Mather’s Bonafacius or Essays to Do Good, a collection of writings extolling civic participation and public spirit. (6) Franklin took these lessons much to heart. He helped establish a university, a lending library and a fire brigade. He essentially succeeded in getting Pennsylvania to raise a private army. He even toyed with the idea of a public pension for widows and other women who could not support themselves. (7) All these projects had a common theme: Individuals are dependent on the society and the problems of individuals must be dealt with socially.

The Washington Post recounted, in some detail, the experience of two concert goers, only one of whom was to live through the night. (8) It is worth looking at the details of this chance meeting. The two were of different backgrounds and from disparate locations. But they were not only able to meet but to form a connection over their common love of music. Such free association and open society is the stuff of real freedom. If defending it means limiting and controlling the use of guns, it will be a fair price.

Notes

  1. https://www.billoreilly.com/b/Mass-Murder-in-Las-Vegas/851098107399788721.html
  2. A more or less random sampling:

https://www.thedailybeast.com/bill-oreilly-vegas-shooting-the-price-of-freedom

http://thehill.com/homenews/media/353503-bill-oreilly-las-vegas-shooting-the-price-of-freedom

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-las-vegas-shooting-live-updates-bill-o-reilly-calls-mass-shootings-the-1506980448-htmlstory.html

http://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/10/02/bill-oreilly-las-vegas-massacre-is-the-price-of-freedom/

http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/bill-oreilly-las-vegas-shooting-1202578290/

https://www.gq.com/story/oreilly-mass-shootings-freedom

http://observer.com/2017/10/bill-oreilly-cals-the-las-vegas-shooting-the-price-of-freedom/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4942498/Bill-O-Reilly-Las-Vegas-massacre-price-freedom.html

  1. For instance:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-guns-second-amendment-freedom-20171005-story.html

  1. At least it was not when Garry Wills penned his famous essay some years ago:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/09/21/to-keep-and-bear-arms/

  1. Lilla, Mark. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York: Harper Collins, 2017. Print. p. 19
  2. Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print. p. 26
  3. Ibid. Ch. 5
  4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/two-strangers-bond-over-country-music-and-beer-then-the-shots-started/2017/10/03/d5d4541a-a846-11e7-b3aa-c0e2e1d41e38_story.html?utm_term=.9f6b9fe387e9

94 Comments »

  1. Dan-K,
    Labnut: What do you think is the reason for the weird prevalence of mass shootings in the US?

    I can give you an opinion but it probably has no value. But here goes anyway.

    The most striking thing about mass shootings is that the killer almost always dies and expects to. Mass shootings are therefore a form of suicide. This is the clue to understanding mass shootings, as a form of suicide.

    Suicides are a signal of loss of hope, of despair, of alienation and loss of belief in oneself. But many suicides are also a strong protest that signal deep resentment. The manner, timing or place of suicide is often intended to signal and place blame for the terrible feelings of injustice the person suffers.

    Mass shootings are then a form of suicide where the killer signals in the strongest possible way his deep resentments and feelings of injustice. He does it in this way because it commands the strongest possible attention.

    But why in the USA? Because in the USA, more than anywhere else, the intense media coverage guarantees the suicide’s signal receives the attention he desires and needs. He knows this because he has read the multitudinous reports of earlier mass killings.

    Feeding into this is the nature of the US’ founding myths that valorize the strong lone individual halting injustices with the force of a gun. The mass killer/suicide is, in an inchoate way, re-enacting this myth to fulfil his deep resentments.

    But what do I know? This is just a reasoned(or unreasonable) guess.

    Like

  2. Labnut,

    I don’t know.
    Mass killings have become so common now in the US that they’re almost a bitter fact of life, but I cannot believe it’s easy to kill other human beings. I’m not talking about people living war zones or hardened criminals like the Mexican drug cartels. I’m not talking about Afghanistan or the slums of Johannesburg or Kaapstad. I’m talking about citizens in stable, democratic states – which the US still is.

    Even Italy, which has plenty criminal organizations like the Mafia, the Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta and the Sacra Corona Unita, has much lower murder rates than the US. Even the Italian Mafia keeps the innocent victims to a minimum – if they kill, it’s usually someone associated with the Mafia itself or with another criminal organization.

    Lots of indoctrination or training (in the military, for example) is necessary to turn someone into a killer. Often it takes the form of “othering”. The Nazis treated Jews, Roma and Slavs as sub–humans. For religious fundamentalists the other is a decadent infidel. In WW I, American propaganda depicted the Germans as brutal apes. During the Holodomor, the Ukrainian Kulaks were mere obstacles on the way to the perfect, collectivized agriculture.
    Another trick is making you believe that is your duty to kill. It moves the responsibility to a higher authority – the commanding officer for soldiers, God, Allah or Yahweh for fundamentalists.

    No, I don’t buy your thesis. I don’t believe going into a movie theater or a school and shooting everybody is some form of suicide wish combined with the opportunity to give 15 minutes of fame to your “deep resentments and feelings of injustice”. More is needed. First of all, the guns, of course. But also a rigid, unbending mindset, convinced that the people you’re going to kill are “the others”, and a society in which rigid, unbending mindsets aren’t considered to be an aberration but a virtue.

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  3. marc levesque: But is the percentage very different for the other countries?

    I don’t know but gun deaths per capita is not a very informative metric. You might ask “what is a better metric?” and the answer depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Suppose you got rid of the Second Amendment and everyone who owns guns legally turned them in. In that case gun deaths would go down but will you see a meaningful reduction in suicide or domestic violence?

    The popular notion that most of gun deaths happen in mass shootings is wrong, in reality they are rare relative to other gun deaths, which means making broad gun policy based on those events especially problematic:

    [P]olicies aimed at reducing gun deaths will likely need to be targeted at the specific people who commit or are victimized by those incidents. And mass shootings just aren’t a good proxy for the diversity of gun violence. […]

    If we focus on mass shootings as a means of understanding how to reduce the number of people killed by guns in this country, we’re likely to implement laws that don’t do what we want them to do — and miss opportunities to make changes that really work. Gun violence isn’t one problem, it’s many. And it probably won’t have a single solution, either.

    With that in mind I don’t understand the reaction from the left regarding guns. Maybe people believe that citizens shouldn’t own guns as a matter of principle but then as I explained in my first comment here, that is just not tenable because of technological progress.

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  4. Parallax wrote:

    “The popular notion that most of gun deaths happen in mass shootings is wrong, in reality they are rare relative to other gun deaths, which means making broad gun policy based on those events especially problematic.”

    = = =

    Completely disagree. The only way to reach a conclusion like this is by way of very crude, Benthamite Utilitarian assumptions.

    = = =
    Regarding what you think is “tenable,” why is it tenable in other modern, industrialized countries?

    In a modern, civil society there simply is no good reason for ordinary citizens to be walking around packing heat. There is even less good reason for them to own AR-15s and the like. The pro-gun arguments are so laughably bad that I’d be surprised that anyone bothers making them, if I didn’t know just how cynical pro-gun lobbyists and advocates are.

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  5. Dan: Completely disagree. The only way to reach a conclusion like this is by way of very crude, Benthamite Utilitarian assumptions.

    What is the conclusion you disagree with?

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  6. 1. Your position borders on irrational, yes the outcome is the same, death by a firearm, but the causes are different. Do you take the position that differentiating between those and responding differently is “crude utilitarianism”??

    2.

    Regarding what you think is “tenable,” why is it tenable in other modern, industrialized countries?

    In a modern, civil society there simply is no good reason for ordinary citizens to be walking around packing heat. There is even less good reason for them to own AR-15s and the like. The pro-gun arguments are so laughably bad that I’d be surprised that anyone bothers making them, if I didn’t know just how cynical pro-gun lobbyists and advocates are.

    I haven’t made any pro-gun arguments, just pointing out things are not as simple as advertised.

    I call the situation untenable because of 3D printed firearms (Wikipedia). It won’t be long before everyone has a 3D printer in their home, then an AR-15 will be just a button away, you won’t even have to leave your garage.

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  7. There is nothing irrational whatsoever about enacting policy to prevent mass shootings at elementary schools, movie theaters and the like. But there is something borderline demented about refusing to.

    So people in Denmark will be able to print out AR-15s. Somehow I suspect they won’t be as enthusiastic about doing so, as people in, say, Alabama or Idaho.

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  8. There is nothing irrational whatsoever about enacting policy to prevent mass shootings at elementary schools, movie theaters and the like. But there is something borderline demented about refusing to.

    So what is the policy you would like to enact?

    So people in Denmark will be able to print out AR-15s. Somehow I suspect they won’t be as enthusiastic about doing so, as people in, say, Alabama or Idaho.

    All you need for a mass shooting is one deranged person (see Breivik in Norway for example).

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  9. I’d like gun restrictions as strict as those you see in other modern, industrialized countries. Ones that have far lower rates of gun violence and mass shootings than we do. As for the deeper question as to why Americans are so disgustingly violent, relative to their peers in other modern, industrial countries, that will be much more difficult to address, in part because it is due to so many toxic elements in American culture.

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  10. I’d like gun restrictions as strict as those you see in other modern, industrialized countries. Ones that have far lower rates of gun violence and mass shootings than we do.

    Note that:

    1. This won’t do much to reduce suicide or domestic violence, there might drop by a small amount but not much else.

    2. This won’t impact homicides occurring due to criminal behavior.

    3. 1 & 2 comprise the vast majority of all gun deaths in U.S.

    Let’s assume that you succeed in implementing policy and that it eliminates mass shootings, what happens in 2027 when anyone can print an AR-15 in their your home? They will start again. In a way because of availability of guns, U.S. is better prepared for the world in which everyone will be able to have a gun. I think other countries will have a much harder time adjusting.

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  11. I’m afraid on this issue we inhabit different planets. I don’t think we can have a productive discussion.

    I agree.

    Like

  12. I’m a little surprised to see no mention of honor cultures in this discussion. This particular attitude toward guns and freedom seems most concentrated in the mid-South and in former frontier areas west of the Rockies. Now, the south was settled primarily by rural Scots-Irish pastoralists, and anthropologists have long noted that a primary dependency on domesticated animals tends to incentivize the cultivation of a conspicuous reputation for formidability and ruthlessless in the pursuit of redress for even trivial slights. A farmer living off many acres can afford to tolerate a certain amount of theft, but for a herder, whose livelihood exist in large, discrete packages that can be merely led away rather than carried or carted, a single pillaging run could consign one’s entire family to starvation. This pressure to deter thieves through threat of violence would be compounded in areas with little legal or institutional means of redressing such wrongs–places like the earthy South and the frontier West.

    The really insidious thing about these cultures of honor, though, is that they are self-reinforcing. The easiest way and most straightforward to make oneself look like one not to mess with is to conspicuously assert dominance over someone else. So people in honor cultures–particularly men–are constantly checking and testing each other for weaknesses or lapses in vigilance. Thus, even when cattle rustlers have long ceased to be a tangible threat for most people living in areas seeded by the honor cultured, the felt need to be constantly signaling one’s formidability (now as a defense against other signalers) nevertheless remains.

    What is particularly sad is that this nasty feedback loop may nowadays be driven primarily by pluralistic ignorance. Vandello & Cohen (2008, link below), for example, found that among white undergraduate men [insert all due caveats re: empirical psychology here], southerners reported no greater willingness to engage in honor-related violence than their northern counterparts but tended to perceive their peers as much more violent than themselves (men in general tend to overestimate the aggressiveness of other men, but southerners did this to a significantly greater degree than northerners). Further, while southerners within this demographic were no more likely than northerners to encourage others to escalate a conflict situation into violence, they were more likely to perceive other bystanders as encouraging such an escalation.

    Winning hearts and minds on the matter of gun control is going to require disabusing folk of these misperceptions re: the violence-proneness of their fellows. Unfortunately, the news–both fake and real-but-sensationally-decontextualized–works against any such effort, as, of course, do the countless politicians, organizations, and self-appointed “thought leaders” who’ve figured out how to benefit by keeping these fears well stoked. That this issue now cleaves pretty tidily along old tribal lines is certainly no help.

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  13. Dan,

    What supports your statement is that the link shows that if you see each state as ‘a modern industrialized nation’, the states like CA and NY with the stricter gun laws have the lower death rates per 100,000 people while the south is higher.

    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/firearm.htm

    Of course stricter gun laws and a state where there is less of a gun culture because these states are more urbanized and suburbanized with those communities having very low gun ownership and rely on gov’t law enforcement to protect life and property etc. So once again the arguments get muddied with fuzzy premises.

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  14. Couvent,
    No, I don’t buy your thesis…. But also a rigid, unbending mindset, convinced that the people you’re going to kill are “the others”, and a society in which rigid, unbending mindsets aren’t considered to be an aberration but a virtue.

    You need not buy my guess but you do need to make a reasoned reply. Your alternative explanation simply does not hold water. My father had a rigid, unbending mindset and he certainly was no mass killer. In fact I know a great deal of people who have rigid, unbending mindsets and none of them are mass killers. I will go further and say that there is nothing about a rigid, unbending mindsets that necessitates mass killings.

    As people get older they become increasing rigid in their mindsets but we have no evidence that the onset of old age causes mass killings. I am sorry but your explanation does not withstand even a cursory examination.

    Like

  15. Parallax,

    1. This won’t do much to reduce suicide or domestic violence, there might drop by a small amount but not much else.
    2. This won’t impact homicides occurring due to criminal behavior.
    3. 1 & 2 comprise the vast majority of all gun deaths in U.S.

    Seen in a detailed, atomic way what you say seems true.

    What you are ignoring are the US societal values, its zeitgeist. See the video below, from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as a graphic illustration of what I mean.

    A program of incrementally restricting gun ownership, if well done, will begin to shift this zeitgeist, making the values shown in the video seem increasingly outdated and undesirable. Shifting a zeitgeist is a slow, incremental process that will only bear fruit decades later. We can start this shift by making small changes to gun ownership laws and then gradually tightening the controls. There will need to be other measure, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Labnut,

    My reply was motivated by a personal conviction: that the perpetrators of many shootings in the US have much in common with terrorists.
    (In fact, I think some of these attacks were acts of terrorism in the most literal meaning of the word: their aim was to terrorize.)

    But what drives terrorists? An absolute conviction that killing “the other” (and perhaps being killed yourself) is a prize worth paying for your aim. I used the expression “a rigid unbending mindset” to express this idea, but I accept that it wasn’t a good choice of words (just like that “thesis”). Labnut, Dan, apologies.

    I cannot believe that citizens in stable, democratic societies easily acquire this conviction. Terrorists usually go through a process of indoctrination and training before they act – even for them, killing doesn’t come naturally. They also have to live in an environment (what I called a “society”) in which rigid convictions are a *virtue*. Their belief that killing is justified, has to be unwavering.

    Three elements are necessary to turn someone into a mass murderer, I believe. Each single one doesn’t suffice – they all have to be present. A weapon, indoctrination, and an environment that prizes rigid, unwavering convictions. With fundamentalist Islamic terrorists it’s sometimes possible to find out what indoctrinated (“radicalized”) them, and where they found the environment in which their unwavering conviction was a virtue (fundamentalist interpretations of religion often play a role in both).

    But what about the US? A people’s commissar shooting Kulaks in Ukraine in the 1930s; someone who walks into a gay disco and starts to kill – for me, their mindsets have much in common. The difference is that in the case of the people’s commissar, we have some insight in the mechanisms behind him, but in the case of the typical American mass murderer, people scratch their head and say “Why, oh why?”.

    Actually, part of the answer is clear: the uncommonly easy availability of high-powered weapons in the US. Gun control is an absolutely necessary aspect of the solution in my opinion. I don’t understand why some people keep denying this. But I also think it’s high time to question why it’s apparently so easy to retreat into a toxic environment full of indoctrination where doubt is a sin.

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  17. couvent2104: Actually, part of the answer is clear: the uncommonly easy availability of high-powered weapons in the US. Gun control is an absolutely necessary aspect of the solution in my opinion. I don’t understand why some people keep denying this. But I also think it’s high time to question why it’s apparently so easy to retreat into a toxic environment full of indoctrination where doubt is a sin.

    The problems are this:

    1. Mass shootings are a very small proportion of all gun deaths in United States.

    2. Maybe you aren’t as concerned with gun deaths due to suicide, street crime and street violence. Maybe you think mass shootings are a separate category, maybe you think a mass shooting in which 50 people are killed is much worse than 50 individual suicides with a firearm. Then let’s assume: (a) you are able to achieve a complete and effective ban, and (b) this eliminates all mass shootings. Even in this ideal case the ban will soon become useless due to technological progress.

    Here is an (imperfect) analogy: gun control in 2017 strikes me as trying to ban porn in 1992. There is a constitutional amendment you have to overcome and the internet is just on the horizon. (This is a comparison to point out the legal, political and technological difficulties only).

    None of what I have written in these comments are pro-gun in any sense. It seems most people were unaware of relevant facts (composition of gun deaths or technological progress) that undermine their long held beliefs on what would be effective political action on this issue.

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  18. labnut: A program of incrementally restricting gun ownership, if well done, will begin to shift this zeitgeist, making the values shown in the video seem increasingly outdated and undesirable. Shifting a zeitgeist is a slow, incremental process that will only bear fruit decades later. We can start this shift by making small changes to gun ownership laws and then gradually tightening the controls. There will need to be other measure, of course.

    1. American movies are extremely popular outside U.S. as well, if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is evidence of some zeitgeist, then it is a global one.

    2. Shifting the zeitgeist about guns, whatever that means, will not reduce suicides, domestic violence or gang related crimes. Those do not depend on the social attitude towards guns.

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  19. It seems most people were unaware of relevant facts (composition of gun deaths or technological progress) that undermine their long held beliefs on what would be effective political action on this issue.
    = = =
    Trust me, your interlocutors know just as much as you do. They just don’t agree with the inferences you’ve drawn.

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  20. Dan: Trust me, your interlocutors know just as much as you do. They just don’t agree with the inferences you’ve drawn.

    If that is the case then posting that graph of gun deaths per capita was intentionally misleading. You can’t have it both ways.

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  21. There was nothing wrong with my posting of the graph. And there was nothing misleading about it, intentional or otherwise.

    You really need to check your attitude. This constant, “If you actually knew the facts, you’d agree with me” is not only stupid, it’s obnoxious as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. There was nothing wrong with my posting of the graph. And there was nothing misleading about it, intentional or otherwise.

    Let’s say we disagree on this and leave it at that.

    You really need to check your attitude. This constant, “If you actually knew the facts, you’d agree with me” is not only stupid, it’s obnoxious as well.

    This is not some deep knowledge only I possess, it is something everyone can grasp quickly. At this point it is not about knowing the facts, it is about acknowledging them.

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  23. It’s just as obnoxious to suggest that your interlocutors are unwilling or incapable of “acknowledging” facts that they know. We don’t need you to help us “face the facts.” We’re all grown ups.

    It is rare if ever that a single set of facts supports only a single position, and certainly that isn’t the case here. There are any number of positions on gun laws that are reasonable given the facts, including those that have been suggested here.

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  24. It’s just as obnoxious to suggest that your interlocutors are unwilling or incapable of “acknowledging” facts that they know. We don’t need you to help us “face the facts.” We’re all grown ups.

    It is rare if ever that a single set of facts supports only a single position, and certainly that isn’t the case here. There are any number of positions on gun laws that are reasonable given the facts, including those that have been suggested here.

    Like you said, we live on different planets.

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  25. Right. You live on the planet where the facts always point to your position, and you are exclusively capable of “acknowledging” them.

    It’s a planet of one. Right next to Kolob.

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  26. Right. You live on the planet where the facts always point to your position, and you are exclusively capable of “acknowledging” them.

    I form my opinion based on facts, I don’t have a prior religious attachment to a particular political position on this issue and I am not motivated by a strong sense of contempt about my compatriots.

    It’s a planet of one. Right next to Kolob.

    So far we had “obnoxious”, “stupid”, and “crude utilitarian” (the most offensive by far) but this is new and I had to look it up. For the record I am not Mormon and don’t consider being called or compared to Mormon an insult.

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  27. Parallax,

    What are you actually trying to say?

    If your position is that more is needed than gun control, I agree. It’s great to live in a nation in which “packing heat” going to the shopping mall is not only illegal but ridiculous too.

    But if you think that gun control is unnecessary, I don’t agree.

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  28. Actually,The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is an Italian film (although it was intended for the American Market). Much of it is a disguised meditation on the Italian experience during WWII.

    Films (or any individual entertainment or groups of entertainments) are not the best evidence concerning discussions of violence – not taken prima facie (‘oh, look how many people get shot in this one,’ for instance) In fact Japanese cinema has always been more violent than American cinema (generally speaking.) Yet Japan has a lower rate of violent crime http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Japan/United-States/Crime/Violent-crime.

    One has to see the culture as a whole to understand why Americans have a tendency to acquire lethal weapons and tend to use them as ‘first resort responses’ to perceived threats or grievances. For some reason Americans are likely to view a film like TG,TB,& TU,and come away with some sense of having certain attitudes supported, rather than whatever the film-makers were actually trying to convey. (I’ve always watched TG,TB,& TU as an anti-war film.)

    I think David’s essay gives us a opening into the pathologies of American culture as a whole that really form the ground of this issue.

    Why the gun? Because it’s easy to bring out, point, and pull the trigger. Americans love the convenience of it. Would there be less violence if there were fewer guns available? Given American irritability, another pathology at work, there would probably be continuing violence. Americans are a violent people. But would there be so many killings and mass killings? I don’t think so. Knives and even fists can be deadly, but they are not as deadly as a gun, and in certain contexts they are actually much less convenient. (Try stabbing 28 people in a minute – try even imagining that.)

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  29. couvent2104: Parallax,

    What are you actually trying to say?

    1. Mass shootings are rare events, the victims comprise a small portion of all gun deaths.

    2. Suicides, street crime and domestic violence make up the vast majority of gun deaths.

    3. Gun control measures will have little to no effect on these three categories.

    4. The political cost of implementing effective gun control is very high.

    5. Now Let’s assume that you overcome political hurdles and you succeed in repealing the Second Amendment and convincing everyone to hand in their weapons voluntarily. This monumental achievement is useless when in a few years you can 3D print military style automatic weapons in your home by pushing a button.

    The five points above are the basis of my position which is there are no good or easy answers on gun control. I have never said gun control is not necessary, but what are we trying to achieve? If the objective is to reduce gun deaths in United States, then focusing on mass shootings is not the way to go about it. If you want to have no mass shootings then see #5 above and note that even in countries with strict gun control sufficiently motivated deranged people still carry out these acts (I gave the example of Breivik in Norway).

    I recommend Leah Libresco’s piece in Washington Post do take a look if you have the time, labnut thought it was a worthwhile read and the Wikipedia article 3D printed firearms.

    Finally this is from the FiveThirtyEight article, Mass Shootings Are A Bad Way To Understand Gun Violence, which I have already quoted above but I will quote again for the sake of completeness:

    You could, theoretically, cut down on all these deaths with a blanket removal of guns from the U.S. entirely — something that is as politically unlikely as it is legally untenable. Barring that, though, policies aimed at reducing gun deaths will likely need to be targeted at the specific people who commit or are victimized by those incidents. And mass shootings just aren’t a good proxy for the diversity of gun violence. Policies that reduce the number of homicides among young black men — such as programs that build trust between community members, police and at-risk youth and offer people a way out of crime — probably won’t have the same effect on suicides among elderly white men. Background checks and laws aimed at preventing a young white man with a history of domestic violence from obtaining a gun and using it in a mass shooting might not prevent a similar shooting by an older white male with no criminal record.

    If we focus on mass shootings as a means of understanding how to reduce the number of people killed by guns in this country, we’re likely to implement laws that don’t do what we want them to do — and miss opportunities to make changes that really work. Gun violence isn’t one problem, it’s many. And it probably won’t have a single solution, either.

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  30. Mass shootings are not the only problem but they are a major one, irrespective of whether they are responsible for the most gun deaths.

    “Responsible for the most deaths” is a pretty meaningless category anyway, at least from the standpoint of the kinds of policies we are talking about. And that’s because we are not only concerned as a society with counting Benthamite happiness/misery units.

    It is important to stop mass shootings — and especially in the absurd number that we have in the US — in good part, because of their catastrophically demoralizing effect on an entire society, regardless of where they stack in the overall death toll. More people drown in pools annually than die in mass shootings, a fact which any barely conscious person should see is irrelevant in addressing the problem of mass shootings.

    As for the arming of the citizenry, there are all sorts of negative tertiary effects that we ought to be concerned about, besides the literal death toll it results in. For example, what happens to policing in a society in which cops know that anyone they may stop for any reason may be packing heat? Nothing good, I can assure you.

    There is nothing “religious” or “irrational” about thinking that a civil society is incompatible with mass gun ownership, especially, in a modern, industrialized country (as opposed to, say, among pre-industrial farmers with muskets). That this has to be explained and even fought about is sad and one wonders whether one’s interlocutors are just being contrarian for its own sake or think they are smarter than they really are, but there it is. In all honesty, it’s what makes me (and Dan T.) think very hard about whether its worth having comments sections in venues like this. They just seem to bring out the Argue! Argue! Argue! instinct in everyone, which from a learning perspective is practically worthless. The sort of valuable exchange imagined by Mill in “On Liberty” requires self-discipline among those who seek to gain from it.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. You might limit the number of comments per reader rather than closing down the comments section entirely. That way you would still benefit from reader feedback.

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  32. A limit of 2 or 3 comments per reader for each post. The first time you pass the limit, a warning. The second time, you’re banned for a month. The third time, you’re definitively banned.

    That would discipline the reader, including myself, into using our space carefully and thoughtfully.

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  33. It is important to stop mass shootings — and especially in the absurd number that we have in the US — in good part, because of their catastrophically demoralizing effect on an entire society,

    Yes, precisely. It’s worth stopping to think exactly what this demoralising effect is.

    All societies have disputes and often the disputes matter a great deal to the stakeholders. It is how we go about resolving the disputes that forms the essential character of a society.

    In all earlier times disputes were simply resolved by the use of individual force. These were the most primitive societies. In time states monopolised the instruments of force and thus disputes were resolved in the favour of ruling elites. Individuals gained somewhat since they were no longer at the mercy of a stronger neighbour but instead they were at the mercy of the state, a somewhat dubious gain.

    Then came the major breakthrough where the use of force was ‘renounced’ to be replaced by the rule of law. Disputes between neighbours and with the state were resolved in the most fair and egalitarian way to date. Force was now limited to the application of the rule of law. This is where we are now and it is arguably the most important achievement in the history of humankind.

    But the ownership and use of guns signals a return to our most primitive state where we no longer appeal to the rule of law but instead are ready to resort to individual use of force. This mindset, a readiness to act outside the rule of law is a deeply dangerous and destabilising mindset with a host of unintended consequences. The rule of law underlies all social behaviour and if we are ready to act outside it we become scofflaws, prepared to pervert the rule of law in other aspects of our behaviour. It is certain to lessen our social cohesion and diminish trust. Trust is the foundation of all social behaviour and the diminution of trust is the worst possible outcome.

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  34. Hello all,

    Good to see you all. I apologize for my late intervention into the comments, but you seem to have found a good deal to talk about without me! I will at least offer a few thoughts.

    S. Wallerstein,

    But the founders do have an important role as legends as well as historical figures. As I discuss in the essay a common narrative and mythos is essential for our functioning as a republic. So it should not surprise us that the word of the founders becomes somewhat sacrosanct. (Though I myself am comfortable revising what the founders said.) Gordon Wood wrote a great essay on this:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/01/13/no-thanks-memories/

    labnut,

    I’m not sure how you can deny that conservatism and gun rights have an affinity for each other. Gun rights are consistently a left-right issue in America whether we are talking about politicians or intellectuals. And anyway I tried to make the deeper ideological connection. If you don’t find it convincing you would have to tell me why.

    Dan,

    Thanks very much for the kind words.
    I agree that the good guy with a gun line is incredibly infuriating. Those types of arguments always involve sopping time and giving guns only to the people who should have them (as if we knew who they where). It just isn’t how policy is done. I think part of why O’Reilly’s words were so seized upon was that they were so clear, by contrast, in biting the bullet.

    ej (and labnut)

    I will have more to say in time about whether the left has gotten atomistic and obsessed with the self in due course. But I do think the emphasis on self-reliance and independence from the larger society is largely right-wing. The left still emphasizes dependency on society explicitly and implicitly.

    To your other point (ej), I refuse to give up on rational argument. To give up on this would be to give up on democracy itself.

    ainsophistry,

    As far as I know most anthropologists would say America has and always has had a dignity culture.

    Thanks to all for your comments.

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  35. What is so interesting is the fervour with which gun ownership is defended. It is worth asking why this should be so.

    When we became tool using animals we multiplied our effectiveness by orders of magnitude. The effect was so great that we fell in love with our tools. We treasured, them, we polished them and maintained them with an intensity that resembled a love affair. That continues until today and I see countless love affairs with tools. Camera aficionados are an example of this but there are so many more.

    The trouble is that soon after we became tool using animals we also became weapon using animals, and with good reason. We are a species born into deadly strife and weapons similarly multiplied our effectiveness. And the same thing happened, we fell in love with our weapons. We polish them, maintain them, treasure them and even idolise them. Just as we are in love with our tools, we are also in love with our weapons. You need not look far to see a great many examples of this. But there is an added twist to our love affair with weapons that makes it especially dangerous.

    Imagine this. You have crept quietly through the veldt until a large Kudu(a species of African Antelope) bull comes into view. Excited and eager, you raise your rifle, cock it and release the safety catch. You aim carefully and gently squeeze the trigger. The rifle bucks against your shoulder and briefly all sound is obliterated by the penetrating whiplash crack of sound. As if by magic, the distant Kudu bull crumples to the ground and lies still. Back comes the faint thwack of the bullet striking its target.

    In that instant you experience exhilaration but it is the exhilaration of the gods. It is the intoxicating exhilaration of the supreme exercise of power. With a light touch you have struck down a distant life force and abruptly ended it. In that moment you have become a god. Now make that target another person you have identified as an enemy and the experience is exactly the same but with the added intoxication of triumph at striking down an enemy. This is the dreadful, terrible, awful truth about us and we close our eyes to it. I know this description will horrify many but it needs to be understood so that we can understand the attraction of weapon ownership.

    It is the combination of the power of our love for our weapons and the exhilarating power of using them that accounts for the fervour with which we defend weapon ownership.

    The thing to understand here is that not only do we love our weapons but they bring with them a temptation to use them so that we may experience that intoxicating exhilaration. Lying under the surface of our being are the forces I have described. They are easily brought to the surface and gun ownership enables this. Disturb the fabric of society and we realise these forces in us.

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  36. A limit of 2 or 3 comments per reader for each post. The first time you pass the limit, a warning. The second time, you’re banned for a month. The third time, you’re definitively banned.

    This is a difficult subject that has been revisited many times. It is easy to squelch the enthusiasm of participants and so we need to be flexible and tolerate some abuse of the system.

    My suggestions are the following guidelines:

    1) Always quote the text you are replying to, as I have done above.
    I often find it necessary to defend myself against things I did not say! I should not have to do that. Quoting the text keeps the discussion tight and focused.

    2) The first comment must always be a direct reply to the substance of the essay and not a reply to someone else’s comment.
    We owe this to the author of the essay. Only after you have commented on the substance of the essay may you reply to someone else’s comment.

    3) Try to comment on the core arguments of the essay and not some peripheral issues.

    4) If you reply to someone else’s comment you get one chance only
    Say it once and don’t drag it out. We heard you the first time.

    5) The author of the original comment may offer up a rebuttal to the reply, but once only.
    Say it once and don’t drag it out. We heard you the first time.

    Thus we have:

    a) A writes a comment.
    b) B disagrees and writes a rebuttal
    c) A replies to the rebuttal.
    End of story. No need to drag it out since it is seldom that anything useful is said after that.

    The basic principle is that we need to encourage more discussion of the essay and less discussion of each other’s comments. That is what the author of the essay would expect.

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  37. David,

    That is true of parts of the US (e.g., New England), and the nation’s founding principles by and large reflect a culture of dignity, but the “Southern Culture of Honor” has been a topic of study for decades.

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