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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
Guns: continual fear 
1st-Aug-2012 10:43 am

My university major was political science, so of course I had to read Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. In this book, written in 1651, Hobbes attempted to formulate a theory of a nation-state, and he did so wracked, as he admits, by fear. In 1640, in fear of his life, he had fled his home in Great Britain to Paris and then Holland during the English Civil War.

His book angered many people for its ideas about how states are formed by social contracts and about how states can only rule if they hold sufficient power by consent of the governed — among other radical ideas for his time and ours. Leviathan is still admired as one of the most well-reasoned philosophic inquiries into politics.

You can hear a discussion about it at A Partially Examined Life: a philosophy broadcast and blog: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2009/06/07/episode-3-hobbess-leviathan-the-social-contract/

Chapter 13 (read it here) has earned the most fame, and I think it has some bearing on the situation in the United States and the use of firearms:

Hobbes begins the chapter by pointing out that all people are equal because they can all kill each other — and while he envisioned that someone physically weak might need to do it “by secret machination or by confederacy of others,” now firearms make each of us indisputably able anyone to kill at will.

He then says that since, inevitably, we will all sooner or later want something that someone else has or disagree with each other, we will be distrustful of each other because none of us can be safe from anyone else unless there is a powerful institution larger than ourselves, a common power which we all fear that can enforce peace. Without it, we cannot trust each other.

Without it, we will inevitably fight: to take each others’ possessions, to defend our possessions, or over differing opinions, such as religion or politics. So, without that common power forcing us to behave peacefully, we are in a constant state of war with one another. In a total war of all against all, we can have no industry since we cannot be sure we can reap its profits, no business because we cannot trust each other, no arts, no society, but only “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

And yet, he said, people want peace so they can have comfortable lives and the industry and business to create comfort. From this desire, people can be drawn into agreement to create a social contract for a peaceful civil society.

So much for Hobbes. And where is the US in this theory of government? Behind right-to-carry and “stand your ground” laws and increased arms sales, I see the perception that there is, here and now, a war of all against all — perhaps low-level, but very real. There is a perceived need to have a gun to be safe, even in a restaurant or movie theater, and certainly at home against intruders. The government is not perceived to be sufficiently powerful or competent to keep us safe, which Hobbes would consider a failed government.

Fear, and danger of violent death as a constant. No trust. And lives made smaller and poorer. Fights among citizens keep growing more vicious not just over possessions, but over opinions.

And yet, the vast majority of gunholders want peace and see no other way to secure it than by increasing their ability to kill at will, but I think this is a social contract in favor of greater war, not in favor of peace.

If Hobbes is right, this war does not need to continue. To stop it would take a willingness to create a social contract that involves everyone agreeing to give up some freedom to own and use lethal power at will — perhaps limiting the firepower of guns, perhaps requiring specific safety training for all gun owners, perhaps limiting the types of permissible munition, perhaps requiring insurance for gun owners the same way that cars must be insured. There are many other ideas that might begin to ratchet down the level of warfare.

These can be a hard concessions to make, which is one reason why Leviathan is a long book: what to give up, when, how, and the “unalienable rights” (in Hobbes’ words; the Founding Fathers had read him carefully) that cannot be agreed away.

Are we Americans willing to begin that long, hard process of negotiation to move away from a state of war and toward peace?

— Sue Burke

1st-Aug-2012 12:30 pm (UTC) - No, they can't.
Not only is the government not sufficiently powerful to protect us all, it has no duty to do so. There have been court cases were the police have not shown up and, in the subsequent court case, the judgment of the court to the victims was essentially "it sucks to be you."

Beyond that, any discussion of gun ownership in the United States that does not address the point that, unlike cars, firearms ownership is a civil right, is doomed to fail.

(Stephanie, who tried to post with my Google account, but Live Journal wants my permission to vacuum up my contacts list, which isn't going to happen.)
1st-Aug-2012 02:09 pm (UTC) - Re: No, they can't.
Two points:

First, the government is far more than just the police department -- and besides that, if we didn't starve municipal governments for funds, maybe police departments could do a better job.

Second, yes, there is a civil right to own firearms. But it's not an absolute right, according to the Supreme Court. Reasonable limits can be enacted.

Now can we discuss possible ways to cut back on the warfare?

(Sorry about Live Journal. Spammers are why we can't have nice things.)
1st-Aug-2012 05:27 pm (UTC) - Re: No, they can't.
I come from this with the perspective of someone who has had the experience of stopping an attempted "push-in" robbery because I had a loaded handgun. I pointed it at the thug and he must have remembered that he had an urgent meeting elsewhere, for he ran away.

Yes, if he had continued trying to force his way in, I would have shot him. But I didn't have to. The situation went pear-shaped too fast to even think of calling the cops (not that I could have, given that cordless phones didn't exist then).
1st-Aug-2012 06:53 pm (UTC) - Re: No, they can't.
I'm glad it worked out well for you.

What do you think can be done to create greater safety for everyone, other than more guns?
1st-Aug-2012 08:50 pm (UTC) - Re: No, they can't.
First, there is something on the order of 200 million firearms in the U.S. They aren't going away.

Second, people who are bent on mass-murder tend to select sites where there are a lot of victims who can be expected not to resist. What seems to be lacking is the notion that if you can't flee, then fight. Fight with whatever is at hand. There is no point in standing there and being slaughtered.

We've given up a lot of freedom and liberty in this country for the illusion of safety. Cops have far more latitude to stop and search people than they did back when I was a kid. I submit that it has largely been for naught. Asking people to give up even more for a promise of safety, when the governments have no duty to provide it, is not going to work. Not for me, at any rate.

(And yes, before you might think to ask, I have fire extinguishers, too.)
1st-Aug-2012 02:11 pm (UTC)
If Hobbes is right, this war does not need to continue.

You say that as if it's a hypothetical situation, as if there aren't plenty of countries which *do* have a social contract in place that says that we will not use violence against each other unless our lives are threatened, and sometimes not even then.

Of course it's not perfect, but it's possible. What I completely fail to understand is why Americans are so unwilling to join in.

On a personal level, I've been in a situation where I felt that I would be confident to confront someone if I had a gun in case they became violent. Which is, to me, sufficient evidence to say that I should never be allowed to have a gun, because _confronting people is not a safe action_. They were cowboy builders who wrecked my garden on behalf of my (soon to be ex-) landlord, and yes, they showed a complete and utter disregard for personal space, boundaries, and posessions, and I *did* feel intimidated by their presence - but I was not, as oyu said, at war with them, and the world would not be a safer place if they carried guns to protect themselves from irate houseowners.
1st-Aug-2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
Exactly, escalating violence is a choice.
(Deleted comment)
3rd-Aug-2012 01:20 pm (UTC)
Sometimes guns are more problem than answer. The kind of stranger-rape that guns could protect a woman from are relatively rare. But once women have a gun in their home, the chances go up six times that they will be shot and killed by a husband or lover. In short, a handgun is not a girl's best friend. All the rest is a clever sales job by gun manufacturers.


If everyone walked around with guns, there would be more crimes ... and more innocent people dying, which is unacceptable as public policy. Besides, insulting someone does not deserve the death penalty. And we'd never weed out all the hotheads, since more of then are born every minute. If everyone walked around with guns, we'd be smack in the middle of the warfare that Hobbes warned about as disaster. William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is all hell," and he knew what he was talking about. I do not want to go to hell just to visit my family in Texas.

In the middle ages, weapons and their use were strictly controlled. Sure, knights always went armed, but they were the police. Other people couldn't own a sword.

History and statistics tell us a lot on this subject.

Why can't we be civilized?
4th-Aug-2012 01:28 pm (UTC)
Those of my American friends who are big on 'the right to bear arms' tell me it is because of fear that the Government may one day turn on the people. To an Aussie this is an extraordinary idea. Yes we do have a gun lobby here too, but most Aussies think they are a bunch of nutters. We find the American passion for guns insane.
4th-Aug-2012 04:37 pm (UTC)
I don't understand how people think their handgun is going to make them safe from a government that has drones, tanks, aircraft carriers, and tactical nuclear weapons.

What will make you safe is democracy: the people control the government. However, democracy requires a lot of difficult, often unpleasant work. Buying a gun and believing a daydream is much easier, and people take the easy way out. I wonder if it's not insane but simply lazy. Buy a gun = problems go away. If only it were that simple.

4th-Aug-2012 11:00 pm (UTC)
Maybe they believe their fairytales, i.e. Hollywood movies.

I have seen it said (written) many times that America is not a democracy but a republic. Yet surely they need not be mutually exclusive. I don't live there and there's a lot I don't understand.

I have visited at length a couple of times, and find ordinary Americans to be wonderful people. So I don't at all comprehend where the outbreaks of mass hysteria (as it appears from here) originate.
5th-Aug-2012 09:25 am (UTC)
A republic is a form of government without a king or monarch. They are usually democracies. The United States and France are democratic republicans.

Kingdoms, however, can also be democracies. Both the Commonwealth realms (which includes Australia) and Spain are democracies headed by a monarch.

We are also perplexed about the mass hysteria. One thing is true in America: the less you watch television, the less likely you are to feel you need to own a gun. That is, Rupert Murdoch has a role in this, which should come as no surprise to you.
5th-Aug-2012 09:29 am (UTC)
How interesting! True, it comes as no great surprise.
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