Don’t Come Around Here No More

I can only muster one thought in response to the Ralph Yarl shooting: legalities aside, and taking press reports at face value, it seems to me that having a doorbell constitutes implicit consent to peoples’ ringing it. If you consent to having people ring your doorbell, you’re not entitled to regard someone’s ringing it as indicating a threat that justifies the use of lethal force. If you do, then absent some very clear evidence of a threat, you’ve committed an unforgivable injustice.

And old age will only go so far as an excuse here. A person who invokes old age as an excuse in this context is invoking a kind of admitted debility for accidentally having shot someone who shouldn’t have been shot. But to invoke such an excuse is to know that you have the debility. And knowing it is a reason to refrain from shooting in the first place. So the old age excuse is self-cancelling: to the extent that it functions as an excuse, it also functions as self-incrimination.

Something similar applies, mutatis mutandis, to shootings on long driveways.

I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that a more heavily-armed society is a safer one. Am getting more so.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Come Around Here No More

  1. Well nobody’s going to come visit him any more. US society seems to have a cultural problem, which would be slightly less lethal if they were all armed with water pistols. My neighbours have guns for shooting foxes, and they shoot…foxes Mostly the gun’s in the cupboard.


    • I can’t do full justice to that without going on and on. But I fundamentally disagree with your take.

      Before I get to the disagreements, let me begin with what I take to be an agreement. I think we can agree that the use of firearms in the two cases in my original post, and the one I mentioned as an afterthought (the Texas cheerleaders) are clear, obvious, egregious misuses of firearms. Apart from issues of moral rights or public policy, it’s highly undesirable to live in a society that encourages the ethos behind those misuses: shoot first, ask questions later. But we do seem to live in such a society, and it’s inarguable that the widespread possession of guns makes living in it worse. The police get a lot of derision for taking that attitude and acting on it, but the attitude is actually pretty common, common enough to have become an ethos.

      Not an agreement, but what strikes me a belaboring of the obvious: what I said at the end of the post was that I’m skeptical that a heavily armed society is a safer one (than one that isn’t so heavily armed), You haven’t really disputed that. Even if I granted everything you say in your posts, doing so wouldn’t affect that point.

      Take two societies, one heavily armed (like ours), one not (like Japan). With respect to crime, Japan is safer than the US, and precisely safer in virtue of not being so heavily armed: criminals aren’t armed; ordinary citizens are not armed; and in general, the police are not armed. That’s why everyone is safer. Even if nothing follows from the Japanese experience in policy terms about what we should do about our own heavily armed society, the fact remains: theirs is safer than ours precisely because it’s not as heavily armed. Other things being equal, theirs is a more desirable society than ours to live in. It’s better not to have a reason to be armed and not be armed, than to have a reason and be armed.

      We all have our preferred examples and analogies. Yours is guns and Muslims. Mine is guns and cars.

      Both guns and cars are dangerous because they impose unconsenting risk on others simply by virtue of ordinary use of the relevant artifact. Cars aren’t made to be dangerous, but are inherently so. Guns are made to be dangerous. No user of either thing can claim to or pretend to eliminate all of the unconsenting risks involved, or internalize all of the costs when things go wrong. And things go wrong in both cases with amazing frequency.

      Until recently cars were more lethal than guns. I take the conventional approach to the regulation of cars to be a rational template for the regulation of guns. Driving requires licensure, and private ownership of a vehicle (including by implication rental) requires registration and proof of insurance, where “insurance” is itself defined in terms of a minimal threshold of coverage. We have rules of the road, along with (ideally speaking) predictable and consistent regulation of those rules, and clear rules of liability. I take those seven things, jointly, to be adequacy conditions on any rational transportation system, whether it operates through a State or through anarchy.

      The system we currently have is no doubt inadequate, but it’s an inadequate approximation to the ideal I’ve just described. Each element of the system has a rights-protecting rationale (by way of the regulation of ineliminable but lethal risk). Each may seem at times like “disrupting, micromanaging, and in many cases endangering large numbers of innocent lives for the sake of a speculative chance of blocking a small number of criminals,” but that’s not a fair description either of the aim or of the results of the system.

      Imagine that someone claimed that “the right to locomotion” is a deontic absolute that can’t be infringed, and is infringed by any system that requires licensure, registration, insurance, legally defined thresholds of insurance, traffic laws, traffic enforcement, and tort law. I would just flatly deny that we have any such right. To conceive the right to locomotion as a right to possess a vehicle in defiance of any of the seven constraints I’ve mentioned is to misconceive it. That’s literally a case of conflating liberty with license in the sense that Locke wields against Filmer. The “right to locomotion” has to be constrained by considerations of risk management, and the seven constraints I mentioned are reasonable ones.

      Again, suppose that someone pointed out on consequentialist grounds that a society based on motorized transportation is better than one where we forswear motorized vehicles in favor of walking or biking everywhere. I can agree with that (even I can agree with that), but since vehicles emit pollution, cause accidents, and create crimes/torts that wouldn’t otherwise exist, that can’t be the whole story.

      I think you can see where I’m going. My view on guns is the same, mutatis mutandis, as my view on cars, and for the same reasons.

      Just as you’re not a blanket apologist for the NRA, I’m not a blanket apologist for liberal centrism. But I think Nicholas Kristof’s view on guns is essentially correct:

      The car analogy is something we agree on.

      On the gun/Muslim analogy, you say:

      Yet it’s hard to see how the two cases differ in fundamental principle. Either the state is justified in disrupting, micromanaging, and in many cases endangering large numbers of innocent lives for the sake of a speculative chance of blocking a small number of criminals, or it isn’t. The rights and wrongs of such a case can’t magically reverse themselves depending on whether it’s gun owners or Muslim immigrants who are being targeted.

      I’m not in favor of banning either guns or Muslims. One clear difference between guns and Muslims, however, is that guns are inherently dangerous in their most ordinary uses, but Muslims are not. Still, I’m sufficiently in favor of the conventional view on borders to think that people can, on sufficient evidence, be prevented from crossing a border if there is reasonable suspicion that they have committed a dangerous crime, or intend to. So I would say that my view on both things is parallel: guns should be the subject of reasonable regulation, and so should borders.

      On the seen and the unseen, I don’t dispute that there are defensive uses of firearms of just the sort you highlight. I would go further: I’m willing to say, out loud and in public, that I’m gratified that the Palestinian resistance has firearms, and gratified that they use them against the Israeli occupation. But the issue of the seen and unseen cuts many ways when it comes to guns.

      Here’s just a small sample of examples, mostly drawn from personal experience:

      1) Misuses of firearms that do not issue in death are generally unseen.
      2) Misuses of firearms that do not follow a racialized script are often unseen (e.g., black shooter, white victim).
      3) Near misses almost always go unseen. My father owned a .38 for “self-defense.” One day, mistaking me for a burglar, he almost shot me. Precisely because he didn’t shoot me, the incident has gone unnoticed (until just now). The risks involved were real, but “I could have died” is by definition unseen.
      4) The significance of suicides-by-firearm is often (very crassly) dismissed on the grounds that people who commit suicide are “going to die anyway,” so that we should be thankful that they have guns around to help them. Since suicide itself is a hush-hush affair, suicide-by-firearm often goes unseen. But the number of such suicides is very high. (How to deal with suicide remains largely unexplored normative terrain on the pro-gun side:
      5) Suicides averted because no gun was around are unseen. When we moved to Hunterdon County in 2018 (both gun country and Trump country), Alison, carried away by exposure to our new surroundings, insisted that we needed to buy a gun “for self-defense.” I absolutely vetoed the idea, partly because I didn’t think we needed one, but partly because I had some suspicions that she wasn’t quite the right candidate for gun ownership. In May 2020, she had a psychotic break that made me very glad to have made that decision: I think it’s highly likely that if she’d had a gun that day, she would likely have killed herself and possibly have shot me.

      I’ve encountered people who, on hearing this story, point with gratification to the fact that she did ultimately commit suicide. So what difference does it make that she didn’t shoot herself on that occasion, given that she overdosed two years later? But that is precisely to fail to see what is too easily missed. It misses the suicide averted, while treating the actual, eventual suicide as inevitable. It misses the two intervening years of life Alison lived (or dismisses them as valueless). It misses the difference between shooting yourself and overdosing. And it misses my living to tell the tale.

      6) Self-defense without recourse to firearms goes unseen, for instance (a) the use of weapons that aren’t firearms (e.g., bear spray), and (b) calling the police. It’s very unfashionable to bring the latter up, but my own experiences on that score have been positive. (To be distinguished, naturally, from my experiences as a suspect.)

      On (b): as I said, my father owned a .38 for “self-defense.” On the one occasion when someone broke into our house, my father wasn’t home. My first reflex was to call the police. They arrived within 40 seconds, and apprehended the suspect essentially without incident. It took three of them to subdue this one person; he was unarmed but angry, high, aggressive, and dangerous. He was much bigger than me, and would have made minced meat of me had I physically engaged him unarmed. But I’m glad I didn’t shoot him. This is a pretty ordinary call for service to the police. They handled it pretty well. But things like this are rarely if ever news.

      On one of several occasions where I’ve witnessed a potentially lethal attack (in this case, a woman on the receiving end of a knife attack in Mishawaka, Indiana), I was torn between entering the fray or fleeing and calling the police. I did the latter. Again, the police arrived in less than a minute, and I was glad to outsource the heroism to them. The attacker saw them and fled (I don’t know if he was ever caught). The victim was escorted to safety. No shots were fired. Not news in any precinct, but a positive ending. So much could have gone wrong that didn’t.

      7) The number of people who claim to “need” a gun for self-defense but don’t is unseen.

      Anyway, I promised not go on and on, and already have, so I’ll stop. Seven is a magic number.


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