Saturday, April 7, 2018

Murder, Metaphysics, and the Second Amendment

For a few months now I've silently watched the debate over whether to repeal the Second Amendment, in the news and on social media. Normally, I avoid charged political debates. I don't think they're very productive. It's much more productive, in my opinion, to discuss basic values. And it's much harder. I like getting to the point.

This is why I want to come at this from a politically neutral angle. To me, which political party agrees with a view is the least important question. Democrats, Greens, and other liberals are environmentalists. So am I. Republicans, the Constitutional party, and other conservatives are worried about the decay of family values. So am I. I don't choose my position based on what some party says about it. I choose it based on truth. To do otherwise is to put the cart before the horse. It leads to circular debates that never get to the heart of the matter.

I've finally chosen to write about the issue of gun control because I believe it has become a metaphysical issue. It's a question of what our hierarchy of values should be. It's become a deeply philosophical question.

To be honest, three months ago I found the question silly. Should we repeal the Second Amendment to the Constitution, namely that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."? Well, altering the Constitution should be a last resort, like when you're doing home improvement and considering whether you should remove a load-bearing wall. In the hierarchy of values, the Constitution is pretty fundamental. It's our most sacred set of laws, at the basis of what has made the United States a leading light for the world.

(Many liberals are going to say, ah, but is the U.S. a leading light anymore? Shouldn't we be following in the footsteps of Western Europe, which has mostly banned guns and generally don't have anything like the Second Amendment? Well that's precisely the question isn't it? So let's get to it.)

What finally convinced me of the importance of the question was a short New York Times article by a former Supreme Court Justice arguing that the Second Amendment is antiquated and should be tossed. He points out, and I agree with the sentiment, that "Rarely in my lifetime have I seen the type of civic engagement schoolchildren and their supporters demonstrated in Washington and other major cities throughout the country this past Saturday. These demonstrations demand our respect."

Absolutely. These schoolchildren demand an answer. So does a former Supreme Court Justice. In fact, I've seen more (relatively) sober-headed debate over this issue during the last few months on social media than I have almost any other political issue. And I think the reason for this is simple: it does not (on the face of it) touch on religion, or minority rights, or any other of the hot-button issues that tend to offend the politically correct. With no minorities to get offended for, people are keeping (relatively!) cool heads about this. They talk about statistics instead.

Not that talking statistics, by itself, is going to get us very far. But since the entire case for repealing the Second Amendment seems to rest on statistics, it looks like that's where we're going to have to start.

The most-cited statistic in this context is that the U.S. has one of the highest murder rates of any industrialized country, and also one of the highest gun-ownership rates. So, the reasoning goes, if we could only get rid of guns, we could join the rest of the developed world (that is, Europe) in enjoying a low rate of murder. And the argument that we need guns to protect ourselves is silly, because without guns there won't be much we need protection from. Case closed.

Ah, but things are rarely so simple when you're talking statistics. We're forgetting that correlation is not causation, that there are many variables and some might be still more highly correlated, or more highly causal. We're forgetting that the Second Amendment actually has a reasoned purpose aside from affording us personal protection from murderers. All these things have to be taken into account.

Here are some more interesting statistics to consider.

-To begin with, we only really care about homicide rates, not accidental deaths. Only 0.5% of accidental deaths come from firearms, (about 700 annually). Traffic fatalities account for over 25% of accidental deaths (about 35,000 annually).
-Still, homicides are only one cause of death among many that we might get passionate about. There are about 15,000 homicides a year in the U.S. But many more--about 70,000--die from Type 2 diabetes, which is in turn largely caused by unhealthy diets and lack of exercise. Homicide is not even in the top ten leading causes of death in the U.S. anymore.
-It's been estimated that three hundred years ago the homicide rate was about seven times higher in America than it is today. We have seen a more-or-less steady decline, obviously due to a more comfortable and less dangerous way of life. But keep in mind that homicide rates have also fluctuated wildly from decade to decade.
-The total number of guns owned in the U.S has been going up in recent decades, while the murder rate is declining. But be careful: the number of households with guns is also declining. You're seeing more guns in fewer hands. What does this mean? Well it should be obvious if you think about it. Income inequality is going up, but so is average income. And the sixties and seventies were unusually violent decades for us, much worse than the fifties and forties. In fact current homicide rates are about the same as they were around 1950.
-In fact, current homicide rates are five times higher than they were in 1900. That means that in 1900, homicide rates were about 1/35th what they were in 1700. What the heck? What we were doing right back in 1900? Why not figure out what that was?
-Murder rates in New Orleans, Detroit, Jamaica, and Honduras, are all higher than they were in Europe 400 years ago. Mull that over for a second ...
-Some studies comparing rate of gun ownership with murder rate by state in the U.S., actually found a negative correlation. That is, the more guns, the less murders. The District of Columbia has both the highest murder rate and the lowest percentage of the population owning guns. Still, other studies show a positive correlation. Does your head hurt yet?
-In fact, if you compare the U.S. with the whole rest of the world (not just "developed" countries) it has one of the lowest homicide rates and highest gun ownership rates. That's because poor countries can't afford guns and tend to be more violent. But what exactly is causing what here can't easily be proven simply by citing statistics. In any case, there is a negative correlation, when measured across all countries, between gun ownership and homicide rates. Things are pretty complex here, right?
-The "developed" countries (as determined by the OECD), the four that have higher murder rates than the U.S. are Chile, Russia, Mexico, and Brazil. But then again Norway, which is the richest and by some measures happiest country in the world, has the 8th highest murder rate among the 36 nations they list as developed. Gah.
-Firearm ownership rates and robberies, measured by country, are negatively correlated. It seems reasonable to conclude that firearms deter robbers. So keep in mind it's not all about preventing deaths.
-Some studies show that rates of rape are negatively correlated with gun ownership, though the data here is also sort of all over the place. Google it for yourself.
-One study found three factors, each alone having a five times greater effect on homicide rate than gun ownership: (1) percentage of blacks in the population, (2) degree of income inequality, and (3) overall violent crime rate.

That it's so hard to pin down a definite relationship between gun ownership and homicide rates indicates that we aren't getting to the heart of the matter. What changed between 1700 and 1900 in America that led to such a drastic decrease in violence? And then what caused it to jump way back up over the course of the 20th century? It didn't have much to do with gun control laws. You might try to argue that it has to do with assault rifles, but by far most murders have always happened with handguns. You can't account for a 500% increase in murder rates when assault rifles only account for less than 5% of murders.

It's got to be a cultural change we're seeing. It's got to be a shift in values.


What about mass shootings? What about school shootings? Isn't this what this recent youth march on D.C. was all about? Aren't increased rates of school shootings what started this whole debate over the Second Amendment in the first place?

Over the last 50 years we've gone from an average of <1 death per year in mass shootings, to an average of about 30. Much of this rise has occurred in the last 20 years. During the same period, the number of deaths in school shootings has gone from <1 death per year to an average of maybe 20.

In the grand scheme of things, deaths from mass shootings are still fairly rare. They're about as frequent as deaths by lightning.

We hear about them because they make a good news story. You can't help but wonder how they happen. You can't help but be disturbed that over the last 50 years, they've gone from unheard of to notorious.

It's been pointed out that school shootings have been going on for over 200 years in the U.S. Technically, this is true. But it's strange that they are on the rise when violence overall is on the decline. It seems to tell us something about our culture, about how our society is changing.  It's very interesting (if disturbing) to read through Wikipedia's list of school shootings in the United States  which stretches back to 1764.

The one in 1764 is actually a massacre of white school children by some Native Americans during the Pontiac's War. There isn't another one listed until 1840. That doesn't mean there was no school shooting in the interim. But on the other hand there wasn't any shooting that could be counted as a massacre (3+ people killed by a single shooter) until 1940 (and this was by a teacher), even though dozens of single murders or multiple party gunfights are listed during the 1800's. If you read through these, almost all the murders before 1940 are due to quarrels or feuds, and if multiple people die it is usually people on two sides of a gunfight. Usual causes include fights over girls or escalating feuds that started with a beating or verbal altercation. In other words, gun deaths in schools were much more rare, and almost always the result of people trying (rightly or wrongly) to stand up for themselves in a heated personal disagreement.

Modern school gun deaths, on other hand, are not only more frequent but almost always the result of cold-blooded, premeditated, unprovoked murder. (They still use handguns more often than rifles, so the availability of assault weapons is not the cause.) Many of these child murderers admit to being copycats, to trying to outdo previous records. It's right that this should disturb us. It shows a decay of values.


But is the Second Amendment antiquated? If we can save a few lives by ridding ourselves of this obstacle to gun control, why shouldn't we, if it's useless for anything else?

Justice Stevens says that the Second Amendment was not originally put in place for personal protection. But this is debatable. Let's take a closer look at why it was put into place.

The U.S. legal system did not spring out of nothing. Rather, it was the offspring of English law, with a few important modifications. The right to bear arms was not an American invention, but had its source in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

During the civil conflict between Protestants and Catholics in England, the Catholic king James II attempted to disarm the Protestants. The Bill of Rights of 1689 guaranteed equal rights to bear arms to Protestants as well as Catholics.

In other words, the right to bear arms, at least as understood in the 18th century, was a means to protect minorities from oppression.

This isn't to say that this was the only justification for the right to bear arms. This right was an old one, and its purpose comprised the obvious reasons: self-defense, resisting invaders, enforcing laws, suppressing rebels, resisting tyrannical governments, and participating in a militia.

You can find all these justifications for a right to bear arms, and more, in the writings of the Founding Fathers and in the written arguments made during the process of ratifying the Second Amendment. It wasn't just about having a "well-regulated militia." It reads ambiguously:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

But its ambiguity is part of its power. And it's been there since the beginning. Justice Stevens's claim that the notion of an individual right to bear arms is a 20th century invention is simply false. Individual rights were part of the original discussion over the Amendment, and the original notion of the right to bear arms. For example, in the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776 states, "That the people have a right to bear arms in defence of themselves and the state ..."

Among the notions that came into play when the Second Amendment was drafted by James Madison, was the explicit idea that it would help check the power of a tyrannical government possessing a standing army. And there is no reason to think that this check was only thought to exist between the state and federal level, that a right to bear arms would not be just as necessary for preserving individual rights against city governments, or city rights against county or state governments, as well as state rights against federal governments.

Over the last 200 years, there have been many different Supreme Court Rulings that have taken advantage of differing readings of the Amendment. But we should not neglect how people have actually made use of the right to bear arms over the history of our country.

The settlement of the West is a good example of where people made use of the right, and gratefully. As a Montana sheepherder wrote his brother back in 1886:

"I never go to town [Miles City] without a six shooter in my pocket and few men do. Everybody is more or less a law unto himself. ... They average a shooting match in Miles about once a week, but it is mostly drunken rows. The characters that 'Die in their boots' are not missed much. ... A man who keeps his eyes wide open, is sober and minds his own business is quite safe here to be sure not so safe as he would be in a well regulated eastern town but plenty safe enough for all practical purposes. A man has got to get used to the 'far west' to enjoy the strange life. After living here a few years most people prefer the life and there are few who have lived here any length of time who can even contend themselves to live back east again. I am one of them."

In other letters he speaks of cases where large groups of vigilantes banded together against organized criminals. Many forms of self-defense -- on both an individual and group level -- were necessary in the Old West.

Would gun control have been of any help in the Old West? The question doesn't really make sense. The problem was one of lack of law enforcement. Without law enforcement, you can't enforce gun laws in the first place.

And yet, by 1900 the murder rate in the U.S. dropped to one of its lowest levels in the previous few centuries. How did this happen? The answer to this question is probably very complex, having to do with countless evolutionary forces, justice carried out within the law and outside it, population and economic changes, centralization of power, and cultural changes. If legislation played a part it was a minor one, since the laws in the West were simply modeled on the ones in the East. We sum all this up by saying that the West was "won" or "civilized," as if this somehow settles the matter.

But we can't pretend that all or even most of the violence in America during that century was in the West. There was the Civil War too, and it cost far more lives than the settlement of the West.

In fact the South's justification for going to war in the first place was to resist a tyrannical government. It believed it was exercising its Second Amendment rights. Of course, no one would argue that the Second Amendment trumps all other rights. Its purpose is to defend one minority against another, and the whole reason for the Civil War (unless you're a moral relativist) was in fact to end slavery, that is, to assert the rights of a minority--blacks--including (at least eventually) their right to bear arms.

The South rebelled against an allegedly tyrannical government, and failed. The balance of power, since then, has continued to shift from the states to the federal government. It has been argued in the New York Times that "an armed citizenry" is useless as a "check on the ambitions and encroachments of government power." The author cites these failed rebellions: "The Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, the New York draft riots of 1863, the coal miners’ rebellion of 1921, the Brink’s robbery of 1981 ..." But these examples--like the Civil War, as I'm about to argue--are completely irrelevant. If one sympathizes with any of them, then one believes they were right to consider the U.S. federal government as tyrannical. But if this is the case, if our government is indeed a tyranny, then we are faced with a much much larger task than repealing the Second Amendment. And if one does not consider the federal government tyrannical then these examples are all moot. A truly tyrannical government is the enemy of the people and would--one would pray--evoke a much more widespread rebellion than any of these, including the Civil War.

In fact, the Civil War is a bad example after all. Since we do not consider it a war of ambition by a tyrannical North, we cannot class it as a rebellion against tyranny, even if some would disagree. A true tyranny would have been opposed still more vigorously, and defended by an army less convinced of its own moral rightness. And I don't think this way of viewing history in terms of good and evil is unrealistic. If you think otherwise, if you think that might makes right and the moral high ground never comes into play, if you think that tyranny is all relative and cannot be reliably identified, then you have as little right to call the Revolutionary War just as you do our defeat of Germany in World War II.

On social media people have gone as far as to claim that a citizenry armed with assault rifles could never stand up to the U.S. military with its drones and tanks and missiles. But this whole line of argument is ridiculous. The United States has had a hard enough time invading much smaller countries with even lower rates of gun ownership than our own. In an urban war raw firepower is generally not the deciding factor. And this all assumes an unrealistic scenario where somehow the entirety of the armed forces is allied against the entirety of the civilian population. It's much more likely that you'd see civil conflict where both civilians and military personnel are split. Or, as I think is still more likely, you'd see a general industrial collapse where energy-intensive technology is too rare and expensive to be useful, or simply unavailable.

The whole notion of repealing the Second Amendment is another consequence of our over-exuberant belief of Progress. We are arguing as if our government is immortal, and our prosperity will grow forever. But if the past is any lesson, or if current trends of resource depletion or value decay continue, then our civilization is certainly mortal. Being mortal, we are faced with an uncertain future, where the defense of our principles by arms may become necessary.

A collapse would mark a return to a de-industrialized, de-urbanized, re-agriculturalized way of being, that is, a return to a way of life much like that of two or three centuries ago. Back then it was thought sensible to protect the rights of all minorities to carry weapons so that none were discriminated against.  It was thought right to have arms handy so that tyrants and criminals and invaders could be confronted wherever and whenever they appear. And the thought was certainly not wrong. To think that violence can be regulated away by bureaucrats is a peculiar notion of our peculiarly sedentary, passive age. On the contrary, through most of history and in most places even today, unjust violence must be answered with active courage and determination.


Rates of violence differ greatly from time to time and place to place, mostly independently of how guns are regulated. The cause of increasing mass shootings is certainly spiritual. Killers used to be vigilantes, sometimes misguided. Now killers are psychopaths, twisted to evil.

What's the solution? We need to educate our children in values. They seemed to know how back around 1900. In fact one of the most recommended books on homeschooling today is Charlotte Mason's Home Education, published in 1886. Much of the book is devoted to teaching your children values, including love and nonviolence. She advocates punishment, such as a slap on the wrist, only as a last resort. Section headings include "Moral Value of Manual Training," "Slipshod Moral Teachings," and "Importance of Ethical Instruction." By contrast, modern public schools have been steadily teaching less and less morality over the decades, and more and more pure academics, or at best poorly validated Rogerian-"self-realization"-type (that is, amoral) psychological theories like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (which Maslow renounced later in life as a misguided and even harmful way of seeing things). The failure of modern parents and schools to teach things like self-discipline is well-documented in many recent books. I recommend, for example, Leonard Sax's "The Collapse of Parenting," which cites numerous studies and examples from his own professional experience counseling parents.

Much more important than any amount of legislation will be our individual efforts to raise the next generation well. Even for children attending public school, it is the home environment that will do most for shaping their principles.

There is no ultimate solution that will fix our whole society. Confucius taught that to fix the state, you must fix the family first. And to fix the family, you must fix yourself first.

So let's do it. Let's act with courage and determination. Let's each start with our own self.

Take care what you fill your mind with. Beware modern entertainment with all its moral relativism. Beware modern anti-philosophies of nihilism and cynicism. Pursue classic tales and all their moral heroism. Pursue ancient philosophies of virtue and hope. Find what is beautiful, true, and good and share it with others.

Build your values on time-tested rock, not on sand.

How would it be possible to improve the moral foundations of one's nation without having one's own moral foundations in order? Metaphysically, it is not, as both Confucius and the Founding Fathers understood.

The Constitution of the United States may have its flaws. There may be ways to improve it. But it is sheer pride to think that jettisoning its statement (however clumsy) of that ancient principle, the right to fight by whatever means necessary to defend those you love, would ever be a better solution than setting straight the foundations of moral education in this country.