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

Conservatives and liberals, Sam Harris and gun control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Currently in the US, everything that is evidence-based is more-or-less automatically labeled “liberal”. It is getting hard to find any connections between the “liberal” and “conservative” labels and any philosophical principles.

  • Copyleft

    Keep in mind that the U.S. definition of conservatism includes the concept that each successive level of government should have less and less power, with the very top level (federal) having virtually none. As a result, U.S. conservatives believe that an initiative like gun control, which involves governmental authority, is always bad.

  • Clare45

    Actually, from what I have been hearing from the NRA and the pro-gun Americans, the main point of bearing arms is to be able to defend yourself from your own government. This is a very alien concept for people like us from other countries, where we see the government as being representatives of the people, even if we may not agree with all their policies.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    After all, John Howard, perhaps our most conservative prime minister ever, instituted a tough regime of gun control,

    “Only Nixon could go to China”

    would probably have to come from level-headed Republicans

    Not many of them left. How could someone see their party overrun by religious wackos like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum et al., the Tea Party, the Birthers, the Creationists, the global warming denialists, those who would have the USA default on its debts if they don’t get their way; acquiesce to all of that, and still qualify as “level-headed”? Seriously, those folks are giving “conservatism” a bad name.

    At what point must one acknowledge that to remain in such a party is an intellectual and moral failing?

  • Copyleft

    That’s true too. Remember, we had a Civil War in the 1860s, and roughly a third of our population lives in the former Confederacy, where the cultural attitude is still “government–especially federal government–is the enemy.”

  • Thanny

    The base of the Republican party is virtually identical with the group that would consider any kind of gun control as an assault. No Republican politician could get on the ballot after advocating any kind of restrictions on firearms.

    Aside from that issue, I do disagree that guns themselves are the problem. The lack of a comprehensive social safety net in the US is what causes the increased violence, and guns are just the most readily available tool to carry it out. There’s no way to argue against the fact that guns make it easier to kill a lot of people in a short space of time, but it’s worth noting that the deadliest school attack in US history involved not guns but explosives (38 children and 6 adults dead in 1927 Bath, Michigan). And I don’t take a great deal of comfort from the fact that a man in China only managed to kill eight children with a knife (wounding 22 others) a couple of years ago. Someone intent on violence will find the tools. Like box cutters and jet fuel.

    My main problem with the anti-gun rhetoric that proliferates at times like these is that it’s never based on reasonable arguments. These people just hate guns on a visceral level, and refuse to concede any point that doesn’t advocate melting down every gun on the planet. There’s a striking parallel with anti-gay sentiments on the right – those people just hate homosexuality, so it should be illegal. In general, there are people who cannot distinguish between their own personal desires and appropriate goals for public policy.

  • So, to be clear on the meaning of direct and indirect harm, guns don’t kill people, bullets do?

  • Vic

    Would you really pin that majorly on a single event? I mean, we germans had that “Third Reich” thing going for a while and it didn’t turn out so well… but a “anti government” sentiment is, if at all, only present in neo-conservative or neo-liberal circles. Which do not get much attention since the 2008 crisis.

    It’s weird, since there’s a the notion among the populace
    that fascism and authoritarianism is strongly tied with conservatism,
    while the word “liberal” usually describes “market-liberals”.

  • Copyleft

    In the U.S., authoritarianism IS strongly tied to conservatism. If you get a chance, check out Chris Mooney’s book, “The Republican Brain,” or Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” both of which explore a wide range of psychological studies on authoritarian tendencies.

  • josh

    Vic, I would pin a lot of it on that event, though there are other big factors of course. Recall that modern America was founded in a rebellion by colonists against their central government so there has always been an anti-federalist streak in our national mythos. (As opposed to rebellions of the colonized, who might just want a native central government.) We also were founded amid the free market ideals of 18th century Enlightenment liberalism. Additionally we’ve never had an official state religion so there’s a long tradition of authoritarians regarding the state as a potential threat to their preferred power centers, (while at the same time coveting that state power for their own ends.)

    Post-Civil War, you have a large, geographically localized swath of the population resentful of the victorious government and regarding it as illegitimate. The modern American conservative movement is basically the result of an alliance between the socially regressive elements of the South, who regard the government as a tool of everything ‘wrong’ with modern culture, and the (often Northern) plutocrats of industry who regard it as an obstacle to the “natural” distribution of power.

  • RussellBlackford

    Reap Paden and I were talking about some of these issues with American politics the other day (see the podcast that I linked to in the previous post). It’s not an original point, of course, but it’s all too true: the Republican Party is no longer just a party that stands for fiscal and social conservatism, the interests of capital (as opposed to those of labour), etc. All sorts of quite crazy, often theocratic, ideology now dominates the party. This leaves “ordinary” fiscal or even social conservatives largely disenfranchised, or even finding that they are best represented by conservative Democrat politicians.
    It certainly does complicate the situation in the US. E.g., it makes it possible to get a truly crazy government elected at federal level.
    Still, I’m not yet ready to give up on the idea that there are conservative, even right-wing politicians in the US who may surprise us – cf Richard Nixon going to China, as was mentioned upthread, John Howard with gun control, etc. The fact remains that you can be very conservative on fiscal and social issues without finding any allure in guns, and nothing in conservative political philosophy requires you to feel that allure or to favour a highly unregulated market for firearms. A lot of this is all about historically contingent alliances among philosophically disparate political groups.

  • Ronlawhouston

    In the US it’s not philosophical, it’s practical. It’s simply about politics and money. Politically, the hard core gun nuts are the meat and potatoes of the Republican party. If you want to get elected in a Republican primary, there isn’t much better endorsement than a 100% rating from the NRA. On the other side, the NRA has a lot of money and they will pour it into races against people they see as their enemies. That’s not such a big deal in an inner city Congressional district, but in other districts that type of money can make a big difference. So, you have one side that can’t make any rational proposal without fear of losing their base and another side who runs around afraid of all the money that could make their re-election problematic.

    Heck, the rank and file NRA member supports many rational gun restrictions. I’m cynical. I don’t see it happening. The US truly has become a very dysfunctional republic.

  • Ingemar Oseth

    Hello ? Hello?

    Many Americans who own guns are not, repeat not, Republicans.

    Like Sam Harris, I keep firearms for protection, and have used them extensively for hunting and target practice. When I travel by car, I carry a loaded firearm which is immediately accessible from the front seat. I am not a Republican, or for that matter, a social conservative of any stripe.

    While I agree with much of what Harris wrote in his article, as a former Life Member of the NRA, I find fault with some of his points.

  • Ronlawhouston

    You are correct in your perceptions. About 1/2 of the hard core gun nuts are anti-government types with the other 1/2 being end of the world survivalists. There’s obviously some cross over (if the world is going to end then there won’t be a government). There is a percentage of gun enthusiasts that are raised with guns and enjoy the perceived power of owning and shooting guns. However a lot of those folks support reasonable restrictions on guns.

    Obviously, living in Texas, I have a whole lot of gun loving friends.

  • RussellBlackford

    Okay, so that kind of supports one of the points in the original post – that liberalism (you say you’re not a social conservative of any stripe) does not, in itself, commit you to supporting gun control. But the converse is also true – you can be a social and fiscal conservative while also supporting quite stringent gun control.
    Before we go any further, though, what sort of gun regulation, if any, do you support? You may have discussed this on one of the other blogs hosted by Skeptic Ink, but we haven’t discussed it here.

  • Ingemar Oseth

    Glad you asked. I am strongly in favor of the following actions on a permanent basis. In my view this list represents a moderate, rational approach to gun control in the USA.

    Ban assault weapons

    Ban large capacity magazines

    Institute stringent background checks on gun buyers that will rule out felons and people with certain mental diseases/disorders.

    Close gun show loopholes

    Require a reasonable waiting period for all gun purchases during which background checks can be conducted

    Require a firearms safety training certificate for all gun purchases

    These are certainly other actions that I might support, but this should give you an idea of my position.

    It is off topic, but I have a challenge to your conservative-liberal characterization. I am definitely not a liberal, nor am I a social or fiscal conservative as viewed in the common vernacular. Instead, like many people, I harbor a complex view of the world that cannot be easily labeled.

  • Ingemar Oseth

    “There is a percentage of gun enthusiasts that are raised with guns and enjoy the perceived power of owning and shooting guns.”

    If someone owns and shoots firearms because it gives them the perception of being “powerful” they probably should not have them.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Guns do not kill people.
    Bullets do not kill people.
    Massive blood loss and tissue damage kill people.

  • TheLoonyMonk

    I am a liberal & I do not support the banning of “assault weapons” , large capacity magazines, waiting periods for people that are not first time buyers, safety training for all gun purchases … the reason, none of these things will do anything to lower gun crime.

    Background checks are already done, why would we need to institute any new checks? Since violent crime has been dropping for 20+ years in the US, what problem is being fixed by these new policies?