Monday, 21 February 2011

Annie get your gun

Quite a lot of people in the USA, and some in other countries, seem keen on the idea of carrying a gun for self-defence.

In principle, the idea that we should all have the means to defend ourselves is a good one. Unfortunately, a gun is inherently an offensive weapon that has no defensive capability. The only way of using it for defence is to “hit back first”, which is likely to work well only against an incompetent opponent; and tends to yield cases of innocent people being shot by mistake. A truly defensive weapon, such as Isaac Asimov's force shield, would be much better if available.

There are two situations in which you might consider carrying a gun (assuming that it's legal to do so).

  • Violent crime is common in your area. In this case, a gun may be useful in some cases, although it will be either useless or worse than useless in other cases (someone holding a gun becomes a high-priority target for armed opponents). You can decide whether carrying a gun improves your chances or not. However, my personal preference would be to try to move out of the violent-crime area and settle down somewhere more peaceful.
  • Violent crime is uncommon in your area. In this case, a gun may be useful only in a low-probability event. If you decide to carry a gun, for consistency you should probably guard yourself against other low-probability events. For instance, you should wear a helmet in the street in case something falls on you; you should carry a lightning conductor in case of thunderstorms. You should ensure that your home has an air-raid shelter, and stock up with food and survival gear in case civilization collapses. If you live in the USA, you should move out, because the Yellowstone Supervolcano could blow at any time and devastate the country.

It's a matter of opinion whether ordinary private individuals should be allowed to own guns freely, with restrictions, or not at all. I'm accustomed to live in countries in which gun ownership is heavily restricted, and I like it that way: I think countries with such restrictions are safer places to live. However, if most people in another country want guns to be freely available, that's fine with me; I'm not obliged to visit that country.

I'm aware that many American libertarians regard gun ownership as an essential liberty. I'm not completely sure of myself on this point, but I don't think it is. Even libertarians must accept some restrictions on liberty: we shouldn't be free to go around killing people, for instance. And, if we shouldn't be free to kill people, why should we be free to buy a tool whose primary purpose is to kill people? We should be entitled to defend ourselves, but I think we should all look for non-lethal methods of doing so. Some methods already exist; given more research, better methods would be found.

If guns are legal, I suggest that any innocent person who gets shot (or his next of kin) should be entitled to heavy compensation from the gun user or owner; even if the shooting is by accident or mistake. Gun owners, like car owners, should insure themselves so that they can pay up if required.


David Friedman said...

I live in the U.S., I'm a libertarian and know other libertarians, and I don't think I have ever met someone who expressed the opinion that everyone should carry a gun for self-defense. The usual view among libertarians is that everyone should be free to do so, with some people choosing to carry and others not.

Can you point at evidence supporting your "quite a lot of people?"

Chris said...

I've forgotten most of it but have a read of "More guns, less crime" by John Lott. As you can imagine, it's widely disputed but there is a lot of data in there. I mention this because of your force field argument. If you were to rob a bank you have 3 options: the UK, a US state where guns are legal but there are certain restrictions, or a US state where there are no restrictions on wearing a gun under your coat. Which would you choose? A criminal doesn't have to be successfully shot to stop him, he just has to influenced to think it is too risky.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the comments; nice of you to bother.

I have observed a number of people arguing that criminals will be more effectively deterred from crime if a significant proportion of the population is armed (and indeed Chris seems to be making that argument). To express this as "everyone should carry a gun" was careless of me; I didn't mean it literally, but people are entitled to read me literally. Mea culpa.

As it happens, I have a copy of Lott's book, though I haven't read it recently and don't remember the details. When I read it, I think I found it quite interesting but not entirely convincing.

If bank staff were equipped with force fields, they could laugh at bank robbers, they wouldn't need to shoot them.

In the regrettable absence of force field technology, I agree that armed civilians could perhaps thwart or deter some bank robberies, but I myself have little interest in carrying a gun around just in case I find myself on the scene of a bank robbery someday; a highly unlikely event, especially as I spend little time in banks.

Even if I carried a gun around, I wouldn't necessarily be brave enough to start waving it at determined criminals who'd be likely to shoot back at me. In general I'd prefer to be a live coward than a dead hero. Deterrence unfortunately works both ways!

Jonathan said...

I've now rephrased my prefatory sentence. I hope the corrected version is more satisfactory.

Jonathan said...

From Asimov's Foundation (1951), Chapter 11:

«While Mallow's look of patience never changed, the atomic forces that tore at him consumed themselves against that fragile, pearly illumination, and crashed back to die in mid-air. The tech-man's blaster dropped to the floor with an unnoticed crash.

Mallow said, "Does the Emperor have a personal force-shield? You can have one."»

I'll take half a dozen! With spare batteries, please.

Jonathan said...

Going back to the subject of bank robberies raised by Chris, I think it's the responsibility of the bank (and, in a conventional modern society, the police) to prevent bank robberies. Any help given by private individuals should be regarded as an unexpected bonus.

Chris said...

Agreed it's up to the bank to organise its own security but I was just using that situation as an example. Agreed that a gun isn't a perfect force field or even close but I do think the rationale behind concealed carry is somewhat of a weak force field to avoid getting shot at in the first place.

Someone wielding a gun amongst a public with concealed guns is a bit like mutually assured destruction.

I need to look into this again but I'm going to study just how do innocent people get shot?

Jonathan said...

Thanks, Chris. Yes, I agree it would be interesting to see statistics on how innocent people get shot.

If wielding a gun in a crowd is made dangerous, that may deter some crimes, but I guess not a large proportion. Most criminals probably prefer to do their thing away from public scrutiny anyway.

In a bank robbery, if you assume the customers are a danger, perhaps the efficient thing to do would be to rush into the bank and murder them all with a burst of automatic fire before they know what's happening. But I must admit I've never tried robbing a bank.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine was driving home when a couple guys in a pickup pulled alongside and spoke to her. She expressed a lack of interest and drove home. As she pulled into her driveway they pulled up behind her.
She laid a .45 on the roof of her car, not pointing it at them, but ready. They left.

Jonathan said...

Hello, Anonymous. Yes, the best scenario for protecting yourself with a gun is when you have a gun, the others don't, and the attack is casual and unplanned. A prudent attacker will either be armed, or will take you by surprise and prevent you from getting hold of your gun. (Or both.)