Tuesday, April 17, 2007

God, Guns and Guts


President George Bush arrived on the campus for a memorial service attended mainly by staff and students, questioning continued of the slowness of the college authorities and police to react to the first incident and failure to lock down the campus, cancel classes and properly alert students to the danger. But there was almost no debate in the US about a need for gun control laws - even among the staff and students.

"God, Guns and Guts Make America Great" according to the old bumper-sticker you used to see in Red States.

Why do we like guns so much? Because we think we live in Mogodishu. Somalis won't lay down their weapons because they know that if they give up their firearms but others don't they'll be shot by thugs or members of rival clans. If you live in a failed state, or a corrupt, impoverished Third World country, you can't count on the state to maintain public order or protect you so you rely on God, guns and guts and take care of your own.

Quite a number of Americans believe that every state, the US included, is a failed state--that government is the problem not the solution. They're convinced that individual citizens and the private sector can always do things better--in the teeth of empirical evidence to the contrary. They believe that the Market will do better at promoting the general welfare than a welfare state and that individuals and the private sector--citizens with guns and vigilantes--will do a better job in maintaining public safety than any government programs, including restrictions on the availability of lethal weapons. They rely on God, guns and guts.

Cho Seung-Hui, a homocidal maniac and Virginia Tech undergraduate, had "multiple firearms, not just the Walter P22 and Glock handguns he used in the killings" even though guns were banned on campus. Would this mass murder have been averted if Virginia had had more stringent gun control regulations so that murderous lunatics would not be able to build arsenals or would it have been better to have students and faculty were armed so that once Cho started shooting someone could have taken him out?

There's no a priori answer: gun control means fewer guns, fewer murderous lunatics and common or garden variety thugs with guns, so less need for respectable citizens to defend themselves; no gun control means more guns for lunatics and thugs, but more respectable citizens with guns to shoot them before they shoot us. It's an empirical question which way things will break, and the experience of affluent countries comparable to the US suggests that fewer guns for everyone make everyone safer than escalating the domestic arms race. But which way we bet depends on whether or not we believe that state regulations and agencies can keep us safe and that, apart from a few crazies like Cho, people are not out to do violence.

We don't believe that, and it isn't primarily criminally insane Korean undergraduates that we're worried about. We believe that there is an underclass out to do violence which cannot be salvaged or improved but only, at best, controlled and contained. We believe that the only way to keep safe is by isolating and segregating them, imprisoning as many as we're able, and moving away as far as we can from their turf--to remote exurbs and, if we can afford it, gated communities. We don't think the America is like France, Sweden or the UK--we think the US is like Somalia, or like Kenya where anyone who can afford it lives in a gated community or compound patrolled by security guards, or like other Third World countries where an impoverished underclass engages in crime and violence and everyone relies on God, guns and guts to protect themselves. And that is a self-fulfilling prophacy.


Andrew said...

Pity you didn't get that into the CT. It's one of the very few unpredictable and illuminating comments I have seen about all this.

Jim L said...

You hit the nail on the head with this one. I've always wondered about America's continuing adoration of guns and your explanation is about the best I've seen.

The mindset seems to be "I've helped create a society where the people I deem below me must have weaponry to get what society has denied them - therefore I must have even more guns to 'protect' myself." Truly a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you fear your neighbor then you must have more guns than your neighbor...

MikeS said...

Beautifully articulated, both the idea of a trade-off and the cultural 'siege' mindset; and you have resisted the temptation to propound a simple but unworkable solution. Enough of this intolerable unctuousness... prophecy... it's PROPHECY.

H. E. said...

Hmm. Maybe I will get it into CT in my next column 2 months from now. By then Virginia Tech will be old news. But of course by we may have another newsworthy mass murder!

Prophacy? I'm flattered. This is really just a little baby game theory. The international arms race keeps on going because nation states are in competition and because there is no fair arbiter with the will and power to stop them. The domestic arms race keeps on going because Americans believe (falsely) that the government doesn't have the will or power to protect them and aren't willing to dismantle a system that perpetuates the existence of an underclass that has every reason to be resentful.