After The Parkland School Shooting We Need To Rethink The Trade-off Between Liberty And Public Safety

Mass Shooting - Marjory Stoneman Douglas High - Parkland Florida - Gun Control

Conservatives and gun rights activists don’t like to talk about it, but at the heart of their opposition to increased gun control is an unspoken trade-off between defending against possible future tyranny and trying to reduce or prevent otherwise inevitable future deadly mass shootings. In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, we need to drag this debate out into the open and re-examine the trade-offs which we are willing to tolerate

At what point is the promise of the Second Amendment and the assurance it offers Americans as the final firewall against government tyranny outweighed by the monthly carnage in American schools? Or is it wrong to even conceptualise such a tipping point, gut-wrenchingly tragic and outrageous though these endless mass shootings may be?

Are we right to focus on high profile mass shootings when so many more murders take place, in no way less tragic, during shootings involving only one victim? Is it appropriate to even contemplate reviewing something so fundamental to the American culture and precepts of government as the Second Amendment based purely on high profile massacres, when they form such a small percentage of the total yearly gun homicides?

Even if it were possible to outlaw the kind of weapons often used in high profile mass shootings, would it ever be politically or logistically possible to enforce a ban and/or seek to recall these weapons from lawful owners while providing appropriate monetary compensation, or would this simply leave the citizenry more at the mercy of criminals, or even provoke armed insurrection by those unwilling to comply?

All of these thoughts and more have been going through my mind as I learned of the latest deadly school shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen young people are known to have been killed.

I have long supported gun ownership rights, albeit with some caveats. Part of this is a function of growing up in the United Kingdom, where not only are most of the police unarmed, but where the law often ends up penalising those who try to engage in legitimate self-defence. If the government will not quickly and reliably come to one’s aid in a life-threatening situation, particularly given the rising Islamist terror threat, then what right has the government to demand that citizens forego even non-lethal methods of personal self-defence such as tasers or pepper spray?

I am not yet constitutional scholar enough to be able to adequately dissect the Second Amendment and the myriad existing gun control laws, but clearly there are existing limits on the right to bear arms, set both by the definition of the word “arms” and by state and federal law. One cannot construct a homemade nuclear weapon or dirty bomb in one’s garage or laboratory as an insurance policy against government tyranny, for example, and even the most conservative Republicans and the NRA don’t seem to register any objection to that.

As with free speech and the First Amendment, a line has been drawn. In the case of free speech, the line has rightly been set at the point of incitement or “fighting words”, the credible threat of harm to another individual. In the case of gun ownership and the Second Amendment, the line is both blurrier and more jagged, with various carve-outs and inconsistent application among the various states. But over the passage of time it was decided that certain semi-automatic weapons should be legal while others designated “assault weapons” are not, and yet nowhere is this spelled out in the Constitution.

Since there is then precedent for wide-ranging interpretation, it does not seem unreasonable to demand one of two things – either that the Second Amendment is revisited and its language tightened up to elucidate precisely what constitutes “arms” and precisely what infringements upon the right to bear such arms are now tolerable, or that the line in the sand (whose presence we all tacitly tolerate anyway) is redrawn in a way that restricts the type of weapon repeatedly used in these mass shooting incidents.

I believe that principles are important. In the Brexit debate here in Britain, I maintain that the principles of democracy and self-determination are sacrosanct and in themselves worth voting to leave the European Union, which is a deeply antidemocratic supranational government in gestation. I hold this view despite the fact that Remainers can point to many potential short and medium-term costs (albeit some of them invented or far-fetched) because democracy, though not quantifiable, is priceless.

And so it is with liberty and the right to fend off a tyrannical government, I suppose. America’s history is rooted in having to fend off a colonial power and fight to remain independent. American government is further predicated on the noble idea that the government and institutions of the day exist at the sufferance of the people, from whom they are temporarily given certain powers of governance, unlike most other countries where rights flow from the government to the individual. Given that the arc of history does not inevitably bend towards progress, and that tyranny can re-emerge unexpectedly at any time, a plausible and coherent (if distasteful) argument can be made that no matter how grim the death tolls and murder rates, the fundamental, universal liberty which the Second Amendment protects is yet more precious even than the lives taken every day by the bullet.

And yet. And yet we do not live in a world of pure political theory. We live in the real world, a fallen world where at some point the body count, the sheer mass of lost human potential will eventually outweigh (if it hasn’t done so already) any benefit that the Second Amendment offers in its current form.

For the past decade I have been a project and program manager by trade, and one of the key things we do in my job is assess and mitigate risk. In order to do so, one needs to determine both the likelihood of an adverse event happening and the severity of the consequences if it does so. Assigning a numeric value to each, one can then multiply the two variables to arrive at a unique risk rating for any eventuality, and use that rating to determine whether the risk can be mitigated and whether it is worth the cost of doing so based on the probability and severity of any potential fallout.

The Second Amendment is essentially a risk mitigation strategy against the re-emergence of tyrannical government. The result of true tyranny (though such things always exist on a sliding scale) can inevitably be measured in countless human lives, as borne out by every dictatorship which has ever existed. The probability of tyranny re-emerging, however, fluctuates all the time according to societal trends and political developments – at this time, some might say that the probability has spiked somewhat, while others would say that such an assessment is overblown.

We then need to compare the price of our current risk mitigation strategy against government tyranny – the Second Amendment in its current form – against the price of such a tyranny re-emerging in the event that we either cease to mitigate the risk (by abolishing the Second Amendment and attempting a recall or seizure of guns in legal circulation) or reduce our mitigation efforts (by imposing additional limits and restrictions on Second Amendment rights).

I’m sure that some person far cleverer (and more clinically, dispassionately calculating) than I could input thousands of societal and political variables into a huge Excel spreadsheet, work some pivot table magic and come up with a theoretical crossover point in terms of lives currently being lost versus lives potentially saved by fending off government tyranny (to the extent that current levels of gun ownership are any true defence against such tyranny). However, I am not that person. All I can do is go by my gut feeling and confess that much as I believe in gun ownership and support the Second Amendment in principle, it seems evident to me that we are way past the tipping point and that something needs to change.

A reasonable trade-off at this point, I believe, would be the banning of the sale of semi-automatic, gas-operated weapons and potentially compulsory buy-backs and amnesties to remove as many as possible currently in private ownership, given the capacity of such weapons to rapidly inflict mass casualties and their current popularity with mentally disturbed or evil people for whom such firearms are their weapon of choice.

I arrive at this position based on an honest and realistic assessment of both the risk of government tyranny (the ultimate reason that supporters of such weapons invoke in their defence) and the ability of such weapons in the public domain to deter against tyranny. I would not go further and propose the banning of non auto-loading firearms because there is a legitimate self-defence and recreational interest in keeping them, while they also provide a continued (if reduced) protection against the emergence of government tyranny, with the reduction in deterrence more equal to the potential lives saved through a successfully-enforced ban of semi-automatic weapons.

As Salon (hardly an unbiased source, but instructive in this instance) wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Las Vegas shootings:

The problem with gas operated weapons is that they are very, very dangerous. They are inherently dangerous, of course, because they are capable of killing people. But they are also dangerous because of the design of their rapid fire mechanisms and because of the nature of the humans who use them. In order for one of these weapons to be safe when it is loaded with a magazine full of bullets, two things must happen: the safety must be on, and it must not have a live cartridge in the chamber. But even if these safety precautions are taken, it’s still dangerous because dropping the weapon might chamber a round and knock the safety off, causing it to fire. The United States Military considers the gas operated weapons it issues to soldiers to be so dangerous that loaded firearms are not permitted on military bases here in this country, or even on bases in combat zones abroad. When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, every time we entered an Army basecamp, our convoys had to pull over to the side of the road short of the camp entrance, soldiers had to dismount and walk over to barrels full of sand, and pointing the barrels of their M-16’s or M-4’s into the barrels, they had to remove loaded magazines from their rifles and clear the chamber of live rounds. Only when their weapons were completely unloaded and the bullets were put away were they safe.

[..] That’s all the Congress needs to know in order to write legislation that will make it far more difficult for mass killings to be carried out in the future. Ban the sale of gas operated weapons. Ban the importation and manufacture in the United States of new gas operated weapons except those for military or police use, and ban the sale or resale of currently existing gas operated weapons. The Las Vegas shooter apparently bought all of his weapons in contemplation of using them to shoot up the concert on Sunday night. If he had been unable to legally purchase his arsenal of gas-operated rifles, he would have been unable to kill 59 and wound over 500. Nor would the shooters in Orlando, or Newtown, or Virginia Tech, or Aurora Colorado have been able to so easily carry out their mass murders. If each of those shooters had to cock his weapon every time he fired it, far fewer people would have died.

Could such a ban be enforced by a mere Act of Congress? Again, I am not yet lawyer enough to proffer a deeply informed opinion. It may well be that such a ban could only be achieved through a Constitutional amendment – and given the current lack of clarity in the Second Amendment, the latter course of action would probably be preferable. Far better to have a clear and unambiguous limit on the power of the government to infringe on the private right to bear arms than the current situation where we have a very maximalist clause in the Constitution which is interpreted and curtailed in all manner of ways and thus made a mockery of in real life. And since so many decent and law-abiding citizens view their right to own such weapons as rooted in the Constitution, only a Constitutional amendment would give any future ban real weight and legitimacy.

But would such a measure do anything to significantly reduce the carnage which has long been a part of daily life in America? Much would depend on the method and timescale of any recall effort after an applicable law or Constitutional amendment was passed, and one can look to the Australian gun amnesties and buy-back schemes for guidance, but it should be acknowledged that any effect would be marginal at best in the short term.

Many weapons would inevitably not be handed in and would continue to be stored insecurely or accessible to those who should not have them, while psychopaths could continue to inflict mass casualties using smaller weapons. And while in time there would almost certainly be a decrease in the deadliness of mass shooting incidents (if not in the number of incidents themselves) as more guns were handed in and the inevitable smuggling routes disrupted, opponents of the ban could always disingenuously point to any mass shooting involving a semi-automatic weapon which slipped through the net as “proof” that the whole exercise was a futile exchange of liberty for no additional safety. The benefits would be marginal, and one cannot disprove a counterfactual.

And yet clearly something must be done. America stands alone among prosperous, developed countries in terms of gun violence and mass shootings in particular, and freedom enjoyed is not so vastly greater in the United States than it is in other peer countries such as Britain to justify the carnage (though again, America’s “insurance policy” against tyranny is somewhat greater than other countries).

If not this moderate additional restriction on gas-operated semi-automatic weapons, what is the alternative? Many Second Amendment defenders rightly point to a litany of other factors which contribute toward mass shootings, from the degenerate culture and lack of accessible mental healthcare services to the ubiquity of antidepressants and other prescription medications, and more. And they are right to highlight these issues – after all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

But we are now faced with a choice between trying to change society and human nature, which is incredibly difficult, time consuming and unpredictable in its results, or taking steps which accept the world and human nature as they are (surely the correct conservative approach) and enact physical constraints on the ability to purchase or acquire semi-automatic or gas operated weapons, or doing both.

At this point, we need to embrace an “all of the above” solution. We should absolutely do what we can to identify instances where the lack of mental healthcare or the prescription or illegal acquisition of certain pharmaceutical drugs can impact someone’s mental equanimity to the point where they become a potential mass murderer, and thenmake sensible reforms in this sphere. We should examine our culture of violence and any role that this plays in mass shootings, and also continue to take steps to change the way that the media reports such incidents (such as by focusing less on the killer, depriving them of the posthumous fame they crave and so acting as a deterrent to potential future killersthough others disagree that this makes any difference).

But this alone is not enough. We need to take practical measures too, steps rooted in the physical world to make it harder to acquire particularly lethal weapons. And for Second Amendment advocates (of whom I still consider myself one, albeit a reformist) it might be suggested that a small tactical retreat on this issue, if exchanged for cast-iron guarantees that no further infringement will take place, is infinitely preferable to inaction and the slow build-up of public outrage which might one day boil over and result in far more draconian gun control laws.

It may sound heartless so soon after another unspeakable tragedy to consider the issue of gun control in the clinical terms of risk mitigation. But at its heart, this is the purpose of the Second Amendment – to provide an insurance policy against encroaching government tyranny. And it does no good arguing the issue from a purely emotional angle or even from the self-defence angle, when both of these approaches skirt the real Constitutional issue at stake.

At its heart, the Constitutionally-rooted argument for the right to bear arms is not about hunting, recreation or self-defence; it is about the preservation of liberty and the right of the people to protect themselves from a government which no longer serves their interests. One can argue that this is an anachronism made hopelessly out of date by advancing weapons and surveillance technology, but American founding history vindicates the right to bear arms, and the wider arc of history warns us repeatedly against allowing ourselves to believe that Western democracies have entered some permanently benign state where the interests of the people and those in power will never again be irreconcilably opposed.

This is the battleground on which the issue must be fought if we are to have any resolution to the gun control debate, because this is the only line of argument seen as valid by gun ownership advocates, and because the Constitution demands that it be so. What, in 2018, would be a more acceptable, legal and politically/logistically feasible balance between safeguarding against the low probability of encroaching government tyranny versusprotecting the presently-imperilled public interest?

That is the question we must answer.


Note: I am no constitutional scholar or expert in how existing gun control measures have been reconciled with the Second Amendment. If anybody has any corrections, additions or counter-arguments to what I have written, I would be grateful to hear them in the Comments.


Shooting At High School In Parkland, Florida Injures Multiple People

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On Gun Control In Britain



It’s difficult at the moment to know precisely how seriously to take Nigel Farage’s public pronouncements. In a matter of days he has managed to offend a great number of people by suggesting that once you adjust for maternity leave, women working in finance have at least a level playing field with (if not an easier time overall than) men; he appeared to prevaricate when confronted with another loony UKIP local councillor, this one publicly attributing the UK’s recent bad weather to the coalition government’s legalisation of gay marriage; and he publicly disowned the 2010 UKIP manifesto, which he personally helped to launch.

All of this is rather unfortunate, because in many ways Nigel Farage remains one of the most principled and straightforward politicians in Britain today. Aside from some heavy-handed and paternalistic conservative attitudes to social issues such as gay marriage and an excessive obsession with immigration restrictions, the policies currently espoused by UKIP are ones which would appeal to many a libertarian-minded voter grown disenchanted with the Tories under David Cameron – myself included. Therefore, I hope and trust that the PR wobbles of this week will soon be behind him.

But more importantly, I hope that the current furore does not drown out a more important debate that Farage has initiated – whether or not to relax Britain’s stringent gun control laws and relax the blanket ban on handguns. Farage is of the opinion that to do so is right in accordance with conservative principle, with individual liberty and with common sense.

The Guardian reports:

Asked about gun controls, Farage said: “I think proper gun licensing is something we’ve done in this country responsibly and well for a long time, and I think the kneejerk legislation that Blair brought in that meant that the British Olympic pistol team have to go to France to even practise was just crackers.

“If you criminalise handguns then only the criminals carry the guns. It’s really interesting that since Blair brought that piece of law in, gun crime doubled in the next five years in this country.”

“I think that we need a proper gun licensing system, which to a large extent I think we already have, and I think the ban on handguns is ludicrous.”

The initial arguments brought to bear against Farage are not terribly convincing:

Ian Mearns, Labour MP for Gateshead, said the comments were an example of “how extremely dangerous Ukip are”.

“Families facing a cost-of-living crisis will find it bizarre that one of Nigel Farage’s priorities would be to relax Britain’s tough gun controls,” he added.

So we are told that the policy is “dangerous”, and then fed the old line that the British public believe that politicians can and should only ever focus on one issue at the time, and that the economy must crowd out everything else. When someone leads off with the “why aren’t we focusing on something else?” argument, they generally don’t have much else in the way of persuasive arguments.

As a libertarian-minded voter, given a blank slate and in an ideal world I would like to see the blanket bans on handguns in the UK repealed. While recognising that Britain is very different culturally to America on this issue, where the Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms very clearly, I believe that our country (at least the people, if not our government) do also place great value on the freedom to defend oneself with any force necessary if required. The strength of public feeling in the Tony Martin case rather proves my point, no matter how much gun control advocates might desire to wish it away.

Where we differ more substantially is the fact that in America, the Constitution makes clear that the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed not only for reasons of protection and self-defence against personal violence, but also against oppression by the government. In Britain, where our rights are granted to us by the government and it is our lot to bow and scrape and be thankful for what we are given by way of freedoms, this is clearly not the case. The government is not ours; rather, it belongs to Her Majesty. This may seem like a quibbling detail, but when looking at issues of civil rights and liberties it is an important one.

As a general principle, I don’t think it should be the government’s business to ban or to allow small arms, or to do many other things. I would be quite happy if the government could content itself with competently undertaking its core functions of defending the nation, protecting property rights, providing law and order and providing a framework for other institutions to deliver much of what currently falls under the welfare state. I have sufficient belief in the goodness of human nature to think that, if properly guided and harnessed, this might be achievable.

However, I also recognise that this is not the seventeenth century, and I am not a stockinged, bewigged colonist in the New World. We do not live in a time of attempting bold new methods of self governance – or bold new methods of doing anything at all, and there is little desire among the public to become the kind of country where such experimentation takes place. And this is where conservative pragmatism comes into play. On the topic of gun control specifically in the UK, I cannot support Nigel Farage’s belief that gun control laws should be repealed.

Guns are not plentiful in the UK as they are in the United States. Making it legal for average members of the public to own firearms again would initially empower those people, but there would be a gradual and inexorable drift of firearms from law-abiding citizens to active criminals. Like almost anything, if you are criminally minded and you want to lay your hands on a gun, you can do it if you invest time making the right connections. But it is difficult to do unless you already have those links with the criminal world, and so guns are not purchased in the UK on a whim, or by ordinary folk for use in a moment of high passion – the supply is small and in the hands of professional criminals, and therefore it simply takes too long for someone not in the know to make the purchase. Why expand the supply and start to make it exponentially easier?

In the United States, the case is very different. Guns are a dime a dozen, and any blanket ban on firearms in America, as well as being grossly unconstitutional, would leave law-abiding citizens defenceless in a country where almost every criminal has ready access to a gun. In short, banning guns in the United States would put the population at risk while the population of the United Kingdom would be more endangered by the legalisation of firearms.

I freely admit that a bulk of conservatism and libertarian opinion may differ with me on this issue. Indeed, The Commentator last year revealed something of the depth of feeling on the repeal-gun-control side:

The choices include term limits for Prime Ministers, a flat tax, a law to encourage the ‘greening’ of public spaces and the repealing of Britain’s hand gun ban. Following the Dunblane massacre in 1996, in which 16 schoolchildren were killed, Parliament passed The Firearms Act of 1997, which essentially banned handguns for the atrocity.

But Britons seem unconvinced by the law. The proposer, known as “Colliemum” asked, “…why should only criminals be ‘allowed’ to possess guns and shoot unarmed, defenceless citizens and police officers?”

While the poll continues, so far over 80 percent of the 11,000+ respondents have told the Telegraph that they want to see the handgun ban repealed.

Unscientific, yes. But also highly emphatic.

I have called often and loudly for a constitutional convention for the United Kingdom, to decide once and for all the powers we are willing to give to the government and those which we insist on keeping for ourselves, as well as to fairly and equally devolve powers to the four home nations under a federal system. Part of the output of such a convention would inevitably be a decision on whether we are happy to continue being granted our rights or having them taken away by the whim of each successive Parliament, or if we want to enshrine certain inalienable rights in a more permanent and unyielding document.

But until my call is heard and a Constitution is written and adopted, there is no document to which we British can point to say that government shall not deprive us of the right to own guns. Neither is there precedent, or a persuasive common sense argument. Ceteris parabus, just as there is no sound or legal way in which American citizens can be deprived of their right to bear arms, so there is no reason rooted in law why the British should have theirs returned.

As the American civil war drew to an end, James Russell Lowell wrote:

Among the lessons taught by the French Revolution there is none sadder or more striking than this, that you may make everything else out of the passions of men except a political system that will work, and that there is nothing so pitilessly and unconsciously cruel as sincerity formulated into dogma.

Sincerity formulated into dogma. We see this a lot today, both in Britain and America. In the United States it is manifested most obviously in the Tea Party and the demands of its more fanatical members to immediately roll back the functions of government regardless of the potential suffering of those who have come – and in many cases been encouraged – to depend on it. Pitiless yes, and often cruel too. And in Britain we see this dogmatic approach, I am sad to say, in Nigel Farage’s call to repeal the gun control laws.

When my libertarianism meets the fact of modern Britain, the conservative in me must side with the real world as I find it, and for that I do not apologise.

More On Gun Control

Ross Douthat, in his New York Times column, tackles the issue of gun control. Coming from a conservative perspective, he points out that if we frame the gun control debate in terms of a culturally rooted activity versus the negative externalities that it causes, we may end up back on the slippery slope to Prohibition:

The consumption of alcohol, like the ownership and use of firearms, carries all kinds of second-order risks, and it’s easy to run a Foer-style argument against the claim that the happiness people derive from beer and wine and liquor is worth the toll that alcoholic beverages take on life and limb and happiness: (How many of the thousands of Americans killed by drunk drivers every year does your desire for a cold Dogfish Head justify? How many lives ruined by alcoholism? How much spousal abuse? Etc.)

He also makes the valid point that because of the sheer ubiquity of guns in private hands in America today, reducing the numbers to anything close to a level that might make a dent in the gun crime rate would require the use of some very draconian tactics indeed:

47 percent of Americans report having a firearm in the home, and there may be as many as 270 million privately-owned guns in the United States. So if you actually wanted to put a real dent in accidental firearm deaths, you would need not just a ban on large magazines or stiffer background checks for gun purchasers, but an actual Prohibition-style campaign, complete with busts and raids and so forth, whose goal would be not only be a simple policy change but the rooting-out of a very well-entrenched aspect of American culture. And the experience of Prohibition itself suggests plenty of reasons to be dubious that such a campaign would ultimately be worth the cost.

This chimes very closely with my own views. Whether or not you think that stricter gun control laws are a good idea, the unescapable fact remains that there are so many guns in circulation in America today that anyone with sinister intent will likely not have a very difficult time in finding the weapon that they need to commit the offence that they wish to commit.

If a gun amnesty was held, in which people could return firearms that exceeded any future regulations concerning the type or caliber of weapon, only the law-abiding (and least likely to use their weapons for nefarious purposes) would do so, leaving the pool of “hot” weapons that are actually used most often in crime almost untouched.

And if the government were to really tighten gun restrictions and seek to enforce them on the population (not that this would happen in a million years given the power of the pro-gun lobby and American resistance to big government dictums), this would require the type of busts and raids that Douthat talks about in his column. Quite rightly, this would never be allowed to happen in America, or anywhere else.

As defeatist as it may sound at first glance, there really isn’t anything much that can be done to curb gun crime in America from the weapon supply side, aside from obvious measures (nonetheless opposed by the NRA) such as requiring background checks to be made by all vendors including at gun shows, and acknowledging the fact that no hunting, recreational or self-defence purpose can be filled with semi-automatic weapons or armour-piercing ammunition, and banning these.

Any political capital, legislative effort and community work should instead be directed at efforts that can reduce the rate at which people use the guns that are already out there – early intervention with troubled young people, more work to combat gangs and perhaps (shock horror) the legalisation and regulation of many of the drugs whose illegal trade forments so much violence.

Given that none of this is likely to happen, we can all be roundly ashamed that after more than a week since the horrific shootings in Aurora Colorado, after all the many words spoken and written by victims and commentators and policy makers, absolutely nothing is going to change.

I would dearly like to be proven wrong on this one.

Romney Gets It Right

I think that Mitt Romney struck exactly the right tone in this speech, given in the aftermath of the horrifying shootings in Aurora, Colorado. NPR reports:

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney who was in Bow, New Hampshire for a campaign event addressed the mass shooting in Colorado, during a speech this afternoon.

Romney said he was addressing the nation, not as “political candidate,” but as “a father, a grandfather, a husband, an American.” Now, he said, “is the time to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another and how much we love and how much we care for our great country.”

The report continues:

He said that as the days go by, we’ll learn of the brilliant futures that were lost due to this “hateful act.” And that “there will be justice.”

“But that’s a matter for another day. Today is a moment to grieve,” he said. It’s a moment to remember that hate is overcome by the outpouring of support that the victims of the shooting were shown today.

Romney echoed the president’s earlier speech saying that tonight we’ll hold “each other closer.”

“We pray that the wounded will recover and that those who are grieving will know the nearness of God,” Romney said.