Gun Control and The Security Dilemma: Why Empathy Matters
There’s times when a sociology degree with some extensive political science work can actually come in handy. I know, right?
I am increasingly finding that very basic sociological, political science and anthropological ideas might actually help us have a coherent discussion about some important issues.
There’s an idea in political science called the “security dilemma”.
It’s a pretty simple concept. Anything you do to make yourself safer is going to make other people feel less safe.
Let’s say Country X is in the middle of a bunch of other countries in a big, flat plain. It’s worried it’s going to get invaded. But it doesn’t want to scare anyone else. (Country X has a long history of being very pleasant and peaceable).
So it decides to build a big wall around some of its borders. There’s nothing threatening about that, right? It’s just a wall.
Every other country in the area (let’s call them A, B and C) starts to wonder what’s up with Country X. Why do they need a wall? Country X’s diplomats are saying that it’s “just a precaution”. Wow, that sounds ominous.
Whether Country X intended to or not, they’ve just scared their neighbors. Countries A, B and C are going to find it harder to trade with Country X. They’re going to find it harder to see what Country X is up to beyond the walls. They might even realize that having strong walls lets Country X attack other countries and then hide behind the walls to forestall a counterattack.
Of course, this isn’t to say that every country on the planet should lay down their arms. Having some degree of policing capability, and the ability to patrol and defend one’s borders, is just prudent.
But it does mean that any country that is thinking about building their military power is going to have to think about the tradeoff in terms of making others less secure. It’s a matter of empathy and morality, and it’s also a practical technique to avoid an arms race.
Pro-gun activists really, really need to understand the security dilemma, and it’s emphatically clear that by and large most of them don’t.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be focusing on those who advocate for open carry, who want to have the ability to have a weapon anywhere they please in public, and who refuse to even compromise on the issue of not owning an assault rifle. There are reasonable people who simply would feel more comfortable with a handgun in the house and/or would like to hunt or do sports shooting with a rifle, and are willing to take responsible precautions. I am hoping that these people might begin to understand how toxic the extremists in the NRA are, and how recent court decisions about gun rights have some very scary implications for many of us.
Those who want to carry weapons openly routinely indicate that they don’t trust other people. They’re scared of burglars, they’re scared of gangs, they’re scared of any number of threats. They want to have a weapon on hand to deal with those threats.
It’s perfectly understandable. In many societies, people would have a knife or a sword on hand, the equivalent of guns in those times.
But those people are asking us to trust them.
Why? Why should we trust them if they can’t trust us?
If you get rid of or limit background checks, I suddenly have no reason to trust you. If you make it easier to purchase guns from private vendors with less paperwork, I suddenly have no reason to believe you got a gun in a way that would make me comfortable or for reasons I would respect.
Just because you look like an older white male with jeans and a wedding ring doesn’t mean you’re not a threat to me. You could be a rapist, a tweaker, a mugger, just as well as anyone else. I have no reason to trust that you got a gun
This is really important to make clear, so I’ll reiterate it again: Gun activists are asking for society to trust them when the entire point of their appeal is that they don’t trust society.
That’s clearly not a viable position to take. It doesn’t make any sense. It ignores the security dilemma. And there’s even an implicit racism in the idea. It’s the idea, “You should trust me with a gun because I’m white and look like your neighbor. But I want this gun because black people in the inner city who I don’t know have guns”.
If people are allowed to walk around in public with a nine-millimeter, in playgrounds and at grocery stores, I want a gun too, just for me to feel safe.
Now, let me make something clear. I love first person shooter video games. I love action movies. Terminator 2 and Commando are movies I will watch again and again I like the idea of a gun. But I’ve never owned one, and I don’t intend to any time soon.
The open carry people may think they are defending their own rights, but they are actually making it so that I can’t feel safe unless I also have a weapon. They are taking away other peoples’ rights to safety. They are limiting other peoples’ options.
Even if we accept the Second Amendment as justifying private gun ownership, a position that is absolutely and utterly recent and against the Framers’ intent (not that strict construction is necessary), every right in the Constitution and as a matter of logic is balanced against others’ rights.
Moreover, practically, let’s say that others are openly carrying a nine-millimeter. I might very well want not only a .50 caliber weapon but a bulletproof vest. They may in turn want a stronger weapon.
The logic of the NRA is the logic that leads to arms races. It makes no one safe.
I don’t want to live in a society where I’m afraid that anyone could in a heated argument in a bar decide to take out a gun and fire. I don’t want to live in a hair-trigger society where my speed at drawing a gun is going to determine how comfortable I feel in public. This National Memo article indicates exactly how dangerous such a society can be, no matter how much the NRA would love to pretend that every single gun user is eminently trustworthy except for those criminals (as if the dividing line between a criminal and an upstanding citizen is one that is never breached or changed and is a very clear and bright line, something everyone from homicide to vice detectives to sociologists can tell you is totally absurd).
And I really don’t think most NRA activists, even the most extreme, want to live that way either.
And the reason why we do see drive-by shootings, and gang violence, and even the Mexican cartels being so heavily armed, is exactly because of lax gun laws. (Not exclusively, of course; there’s many factors, and I do find some anti-gun activists to be reductivist in blaming only permissive gun laws rather than a host of other variables that are also clearly salient).
The combination of lack of proper ATF funding and the degree to which we have not allowed the ATF to do their job, “straw purchases”, poorly regulated gun shows, unethical vendors, and numerous other components of our poorly regulated gun ecosystem has made it so that guns flow very easily. If a nice, upstanding, suburban family decides to sell their gun to a vendor and that vendor is, unbeknownst to them, not particularly ethical, they may ironically have just armed the very gangs that they fear.
Need I mention that many of the major school shootings have come about because the kids in question were able to steal their parents’ weapons? Or the fact that anyone who has a gun in their house is at risk of those guns being stolen and sold or used?
We have to get even more basic than this. The idea that you have a nine-millimeter pistol or even an assault rifle on hand and that would be sufficient to deter a burglar or an attack is, simply put, insane. Yes, some people will be able to defend themselves properly. Others will find themselves outnumbered or surprised. They may face multiple assailants, gun-wielding or otherwise. As this FAIR source indicates, many times people end up hurting themselves or having the gun taken in a struggle, and much of the evidence on the issue of gun rights and safety has simply been manufactured for ideological reasons. To be fair, there is some research (linked here) that indicates that there is substantial deterrent effect from a gun in the home, and that many people use a gun properly in a crisis situation. But if the research varies on an issue as important as this and with such implications as this, I’d rather err on the side of caution.
What gun activists are proposing in practice, even as they may think otherwise, is a very toxic state that I would call “anarchy” if that did not as an actual anarchist make me bristle. They are proposing a situation where we do not allow the law enforcement that we train and have rules about transparency and accountability for to handle the situation, but instead allow anyone, no matter their degree of mental health or skillfulness, to defuse conflicts instead. I do have my issues with American police, but the idea that an average person can consistently do better than a trained professional in crisis situations is an incredibly arrogant statement.
And it’s a really incredible request because not only has violent crime generally declined, not only are we relatively safe and the incidents of burglary and gang violence are greatly exaggerated by a media that prefers to build rating by any means necessary than to be responsible and to avoid playing into racist and classist stereotypes, but in any instance most of these NRA activists I have seen are straight heterosexual white males in the suburbs. They are some of the safest people on the planet.
This psychology is so important to understand. The safest people on the planet are the most scared of losing that safety and their privilege. It’s an example of the toxic effects of privilege, and it’s something that we have to engage with on a level that disarms (no pun intended) the bias and provides hope that there may be a better and safer way for everyone.
An upcoming article I intend to write on the topic will focus on sociological factors for gun violence, which I do believe are downplayed by centrist liberals in preference to a gun control model. But I’d like to end on a much more positive note instead.
I would love to find a way to allow people to keep their handguns and their rifles. I would love to empower responsible gun owners. As an anarchist, I always prefer to find the least coercive approach.
But why isn’t the NRA doing exactly that?
I don’t mean the NRA leadership; they have proven repeatedly to be aggressively reductivist.
But what about the NRA rank and file?
Why don’t we find ways of mitigating gun violence and making our streets safer while limiting restrictions upon our liberties as much as possible?
Whether the Second Amendment is about private ownership of guns or not is sort of moot. We want to be freer than the Framers intended.
There’s many ideas we could pursue. Just as we limit the number of methamphetamine precursor products someone can buy in one shopping trip, why don’t we limit bullet amounts that can be sold to any one person at any one trip? This would prevent bullet stockpiling. Better techniques for gun registration and bullet fingerprinting wouldn’t infringe upon anyone’s rights. And if our concern is that we don’t want government to have too much information, why not keep the information hashed just like we keep passwords hashed, accessible only to law enforcement with a proper request? Why not make the registration system as transparent as possible?
Many gun activists point to the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and others as examples of comparable countries to the United States that have reduced gun violence. I think these are fine comparisons, even though there are certainly some important differences. But I find many of their solutions more coercive than I’d expect.
The fact that NRA and pro-gun activists routinely snottily defend their right to have unlimited destructive potential and do not wish to concede that that right must be balanced against any other rights or legitimate state needs demonstrates an overwhelming lack of empathy. These people are proving in the very breath that they are saying they deserve guns that in fact they simply do not.
If someone actually cares about making their neighbors safer, they will promote ways of improving safety that they would be willing to accept. They would promote compromise instead of extremism.
But we can’t let those extremists dictate our dynamic.
So, let me try to start a better dialog.
I don’t want to take away anyone’s gun unless it becomes clear to me that doing so is the only way to protect far more people. I don’t want to take anyone’s property that they worked hard for. I have no interest in seeing anyone hurt or burglarized. I respect the security concerns of the right.
Is it too much to ask for them to do the same for me and those like me who find our gun culture toxic and crazy?