Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guns and Power

 It occurred to me the other day that I have seen nothing in the debate about guns and violence concerning the relation of guns to power. Let me try. There are not a lot of conclusions here, only an attempt to explore and maybe understand what is going on behind and underneath this issue.

1. Guns are neither good nor evil in themselves.  A gun by itself is a mechanical tool. It is not merely a mechanical tool because it is inherently dangerous. It  be used for good, such as the necessity of hunting food or of defending oneself, or it can be used to wantonly kill wildlife or other humans.

2. Power likewise is neither good nor bad in itself. We commonly tend to think of power pejoratively as an evil, but what we object to is the misuse of power. Power is little more that the ability to do or accomplish something. In a society of other people with disparate goals, it is the ability to influence others to work together for a larger purpose. Nothing good in this world was created without power and certainly much evil has been inflicted on the world by its misuse.

3. Someone with a gun in hand or holstered has more power than someone who does not. It is the power of life and death. To possess a gun, especially in a situation where a gun are not normally expected to be present, is to possess great power for the intimidation of others. The power of a gun is in its ability to exact fear in another. A person with a gun is powerful because others without guns cannot easily object to that person’s demands without threat, explicit or implicit, of great injury or death. The possession of a gun is a threat to those who are unarmed.

4. As a society we permit persons with police powers to carry guns. Normally, we have no reason to object to the presence of the police who possess guns. They possess guns in order to pose a legitimate threat to any who would do harm or break laws, which are the rules we have agreed to through our elected representatives. The presence of police is meant to be protective, not threatening. Police power is restrained by many rules and much training. We authorize or give authority to police to carry weapons on our behalf.

5. If two persons who are not police, carry guns, they are a threat to each other. Neither has reason to believe that the other intends harm, but has reason to be suspicious of the other’s intentions because each has the power to kill the other. Each may have a Second Amendment right to carry a gun, but the authority, legitimacy and control existing under police powers are absent. This is the situation of the mythical “wild West.” Each is capable of claiming the right of vigilante justice. Such quick and rationalized “justice” is more likely to be vengeful, violent, and mistaken. Historically, people have resorted to guns in the absence of government authority.

6. Police powers are not ubiquitous in our society. I live in a small town where the only police presence is from the County Sheriff 15 miles away or a state police car which may be in the area. There is one deputy on patrol for every 90 square miles in this county. Much of their work concerns traffic safety. We may describe such a society as basically “peaceful,” when residents are generally unafraid of one another needing only a minimal police presence.

7. In a generally peaceful society we have little need to defend ourselves or prepare to do so. If two persons have a dispute, either or both may have tendency to anger or rage. If either of these persons carries a gun, the potential for a shooting is substantial. Therefore, we have reason to be concerned that others around us may be carrying a gun on their person, in their car, or close by in their home. Fear of being harmed by another with a knife or a club, or just because that person appears bigger and stronger, is a reason why guns are purchased and carried for protection.

8. Fear of crime is another reason given for gun ownership. At one extreme, some people do not lock their doors at night. Others keep their doors bolted even in daylight. Many studies have shown that much fear of crime is unjustified. Perception of widespread crime is a product of media coverage of crime. If there is a considerable amount of crime in an area, a person may feel a need for a gun to protect self and family. This is a decision based on the reality that police force may be too far away to be able to intercede in an altercation. Property and violent crime tend to be more prevalent in poor areas. A gun may not be necessary to protect property from an intruder without a gun, but there is a long tradition in English law giving the right to shoot if one’s home I invaded. Here is a foundation stone of our Second Amendment rights. Historically, individuals owned guns for hunting. The same guns could be used in such a situation, in protection against crime. Many accidental shootings have occurred both hunting and in the mistaken belief that a family member or friend was an intruder intending harm.

9. In a time when many people see themselves as powerless, some will seek to fill that void in their lives with the a gun. Perception of powerlessness and perception of the power given by a gun are the driving forces here. People feel powerless when they have lost control of one or more aspects of their lives. This includes abandonment and divorce, loss of jobs, perceived threat by immigration of peoples who may have different customs or not speak English, perception of an increase of crime, failure to achieve political or ideological goals, fear of government invasion of individual rights, and even fear of foreign invasion. The rise of the current zombie meme may be a function of this growing fear of amorphous threats to our well-being.

10. War is the ultimate use of guns to achieve ends. Von Clauswitz said that war was the pursuit of politics or the continuation of policy by other means. Total war was a creation of the 19th century. Nuclear warfare is its limit. Brutality in entertainment has recently broken all limits. Many films feature wholly unrealistic villains who are total psycopathic in their lack of human concern. Guns are fired at individuals without reflection merely because they are “in the way.” Opponents must not be restrained but eliminated. In a list of five stages of conflict, the fifth stage requires that the other not just lose, but die. We do not yet know if such entertainment reflects or creates a more violent society.

11. The peaceable kingdom has existed and can exist again. Each person has the power to influence others through words. The processes of Roberts’ Rules, the legal system, and representative democracy have been understood to be sufficient to create a mostly peaceful society -- but may not be now so much. I think we have a right to live without fear of our neighbors. More guns may reduce fear of being at the mercy of others. They seem to equalize power. However, they do not reduce the fear of those with guns on the part of those without them. The possession of guns by my neighbors does not make me feel more safe.

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