December 17, 2012

Gun Nuts 1

In the wake of the most recent school slaying I thought it might be relevant to revisit the writings of Eric S Raymond. Within my world he is a well-known and self-described "gun nut." His two principal writings on he right to bear arms appear to be The Parable of the Sheep and Ethics Through the Barrel of a Gun. I will look at the latter in a separate post. There is nothing I can do for the misery of the bereaved families. I can only hope to help in the longer run.

The Parable of the Sheep
This is a tale of a flock of sheep. The dog cannot keep the wolves away. Some sheep take the claws and fangs from dead wolves. They fight back, reducing the carnage. Eventually the wolves mostly leave sheep alone. They do not know which sheep are armed. Many sheep are terrified of the weapons. They ban the armed sheep from to the pasture. They post signs at the edges forbidding hidden weapons. The wolves, seeing this, return. Once again they inflict carnage on the flock. They are only beaten off by the armed sheep. The flock remain afraid of the weapons. They barely tolerate their protectors, the armed sheep. The armed sheep altruistically continue to protect the flock. Raymond describes the situation thus:
The bold sheep knew that the fangs and claws they possessed had not changed them. They still grazed like other sheep, and raised their lambs in the spring, and greeted their friend the dog as he walked among them. But they could not quell the terror of the flock, which rose in them like some ancient dark smoky spirit and could not be damped by reason, nor dispelled by the light of day.
The parable omits many refinements of the true situation. That is forgivable for expository purposes. A school shooting represents something outside the parable. There is a genuine reason for the terror of the unarmed sheep. Occasionally the armed sheep start acting like wolves. Of course the unarmed sheep are then the inevitable target.

The statistics for murder and armed robbery are quite alarming. Those for child murder are truly chilling. Almost 63% involved a firearm in 2011. Well over a thousand kids blown away each year. To suggest that we all arm to protect ourselves seems unbalanced. It's like the 1950's "defense" policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Never was an acronym more appropriate. The terrorists aren't over there, they are among us. A school massacre is an act of terror.

Here the Japanese strategy of many approaches might be fruitful. It is unlikely there is a single switch we can turn to stop this happening. Surely it is better to try to understand these acts of atrocity. Consider them a societal ill and seek its cure. Perhaps we could try to build a world where people are better in touch with their fellows. Extremes of behavior can (most of the time) be recognized. If someone is heading in a dangerous direction, perhaps it can be deflected by sympathetic attention.

I imagine* that most mass murderers are completely in control most of the time. They are indistinguishable  from "normal" people. The classic quote after an apparently psychotic shooting episode? "He seemed like a normal guy." Let's leave the fact it's usually a man to another time. It's not like they are landmines, liable to go off at any touch. I am a pretty placid person most of the time. Occasionally some perfect storm of circumstances hits. Shortage of sleep is often involved. Physical exhaustion never helps. Emotional distress is very rarely positive. I "go off on one" in an uncharacteristic way. We all have extremes of behavior, often in response to extreme circumstances. Some people are more extreme than others.

Some people, sadly, are so extreme that they must be incarcerated to protect the rest of us. I would, in the USA, prefer it if the government invested its funding in long-term plans to make the country a better place to live than lock up predominantly black predominantly drug-offending adults.** Now private companies are running prisons, vested interests are powerful.

So while Raymond's simplified argument seems reasonable enough, that's only because it is simplified. There are inevitable outliers in a flock of over three hundred million. Mental stability and degree of moral control are two important dimensions. At that scale the sheep would appear to have a good reason for caution. Anyone proposing to use fangs and claws should surely be assessed as a responsible individual. Mistakes will still be made, but (presumably) it is not beyond the wit of sheep to concoct a scheme that reduces the number of massacre incidents.

In network parlance, the parable doesn't scale to larger flocks. Neither does it scale to bigger and better teeth and claws. The reductio ad absurdum of many gun nut arguments is that we should all carry personal tactical nuclear weapons. What's reasonable, and what's not? Why are such deadly automatic weapons allowed outside gun clubs and the armed forces? I don't mind people enjoying handling and using firearms. Hunting, preferably for food, for example, is a perfectly legitimate use. So is fun at a gun club shooting range. Mowing down kids, not so much. We have to strike a balance.

One final note: please let's not imagine there is an instant cure. All we can do is lay, and maintain to, long term plans. These should aim to reduce the availability and access to weapons, particularly those capable of facilitating mass murder.

* Admittedly if this were a Wikipedia article someone would have at least added a "citation needed" flag
** Who are then unable to vote

No comments: