[politics] Guns and terrorism and the defense of essential liberties

The 9-11 attacks in 2001 killed 2,996 people1. As a direct result of that, Americans accepted significant limitations on civil liberties and Constitutional rights in the name of fighting terrorism. 3,000 deaths were enough to profoundly change our social behaviors and legal framework. For the first time in our history, we became a nation that formally endorsed torture as an instrument of interrogation. We embraced assassination as an instrument of state policy. We initiated policies of indefinite detention without trial. We began placing ever greater legal and social limitations on freedom of speech. We enacted legal protections for warrantless searches and extensive monitoring of private communication. In effect, we engaged in an explicit wholesale abrogation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. Arguably the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have also been limited.

This unprecedented assault on the Constitutional rights of Americans was led in substantial part by American conservatives through their political voice in the Republican party. Regrettably, the Democratic party largely supported the Republican initiatives. Even more regrettably, the current Democratic administration has perpetuated most or all of these steps unabated.

Since 9-11, through 2010, there have been 25 deaths due to terrorism in the United States4.

3,000 deaths in a one-time event were sufficiently important for conservatives to shred the Constitution. 25 additional deaths in ten years have been sufficiently important for conservatives to continue to shred the Constitution, and to demonize and vilify anyone who speaks out against these measures.

Compare 9-11 to gun violence. In 2001, the same year that almost 3,000 people died in a terrorist attack, approximately 11,000 people in the United States were murdered by firearms2. Since then, the firearms murder rate has swung between 8,000 and 11,000 deaths annually3. (It’s been trending downward of late.)

Yet according to my conservative friends, the Constitution is so profoundly sacred that any attempt to rein in gun violence is an unacceptable transgression of the Second Amendment. The liberty of keeping and bearing arms is so critical to American citizenship that almost 10,000 deaths per year are an acceptable price to pay.

My question for the Republican party is this: Why was a one-time event of 3,000 deaths so profoundly unacceptable that we changed our entire American way of life, when an annual epidemic of firearms death three times that size is simply part of the cost of a free society? Why is one selected part of the Bill of Rights so inviolable that to even discuss the possibility of gun control is tantamount to treason, while the rest of the Bill of Rights can be traded away in a sustained moment of panic?

In part, I think I can answer my own question. From what I can see of the conservative perspective, this comes down to the utility argument.

For example, motor vehicle deaths in 2001 totaled 42,1965. (Also trending downward since.) That’s 1,400 percent of the 9-11 death toll, yet there was no outrage. We accept the motor vehicle death rate as part of the social cost of our transportation system. As a society, we assign a very high value to our transportation system. Furthermore, these deaths are by definition accidental, with the exception of vehicular homicide or vehicular suicide. No one expects to get into an accident, after all. So we trade utility for risk. High utility, low perceived risk.

Terrorism, on the other hand, has no social value whatsoever to anyone other than the terrorists themselves (and possibly the groups or causes they claim to represent). At any rate, Islamic terrorism of the sort that perpetrated the 9-11 attacks cannot be argued by anyone sane of any political persuasion to represent any positive value to the United States. (I am speaking here specifically of the attacks themselves, not the Bush administration’s response.) Zero utility, high perceived risk.

Widespread private gun ownership has a strong perceived utility to people who favor such a policy. Target shooting, hunting, self-defense and defense of essential liberties are generally the positive values assigned to gun ownership by conservatives and other gun enthusiasts. To people of this viewpoint, much as how society as a whole accepts the automobile death rate as part of the social cost of widespread automobile use, the gun death rate is simply part of the social cost of widespread private gun ownership. And much as with vehicle deaths, no one expects to be shot by their own gun. Most people don’t have a serious fear of violent crime in their daily lives. So we trade utility for risk. High utility (from the gun-owning perspective), low perceived risk.

So the real point of argument isn’t to ask whether the deaths are acceptable. They are, much as automobile deaths are acceptable, if you assume up front that widespread private gun ownership provides social utility. The real point of argument is whether that assessment of utility is valid.

It is presumably obvious that I don’t perceive any such utility.

I am indifferent to target shooting, and my negative opinions about hunting are purely personal and therefore don’t translate into a policy stance on my part.

The self-defense argument collapses in the face of actual data about gun usage in the home, which is strongly unfavorable to the usual pro-gun position. Per Wikipedia, [E]very time a gun in the home was used in a self defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four accidental shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and eleven attempted or completed suicides6. One standard conservative answer to that is the statistics don’t account for millions of crimes deferred by gun ownership. This is another pro-gun claim that doesn’t stand up to non-partisan investigation of the data7. Despite numerous personal anecdotes about self-defense, many of them true, as well as some cherished fringe scholarship on the Right, for society as a whole, the self-defense argument fails on the plain face of the facts.

Furthermore, even if I grant the self-defense argument in the terms framed by pro-gun people, it still doesn’t make sense. Guns are needed for self-defense primarily because bad guys have guns. The only logical outcome of this situation is a positive feedback loop of ever more increasingly powerful and widely distributed weapons. An arms race between citizens and criminals. Whose interests does that serve?

As for the utility argument regarding the defense of essential liberties, insofar as I can tell, conservative America threw that one out the window when they demonstrated an aggressive willingness to trade away a broad spectrum of essential liberties in response to 9-11. If Republicans were the Constitutional absolutists they claim so stoutly to be with respect to the Second Amendment, there would have been a very different response to 9-11, the USA PATRIOT Act would not exist in anything like its current form, and life would be very different in America, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay.

It’s simple common sense that fewer guns mean less violence. Gun violence statistics in the rest of the industrialized world bear this out unequivocally. That to even make this assertion in the national conversation is considered radical and unacceptable is a sign of how far into the culture of violence our society has descended.

The Tea Party constantly reminds us how important the wisdom of the Founders is. As Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”


1. Source: Wikipedia.
2. Source: FBI press release.
3. Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports.
4. Source: University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database.
5. Source: Wikipedia.
6. Source: Wikipedia.
7. Source: Harvard University.

5 thoughts on “[politics] Guns and terrorism and the defense of essential liberties

  1. One factor that’s important for the self-defense argument has to do with what your other self-defense options are.

    A large, adult male probably doesn’t worry much about self-defense on a daily basis. But just because guns are statistically not very useful for self-defense may seem like a weak argument to someone who is too small to fight back or too infirm to run away.

    At the far extreme, saying “No guns for anyone” amounts to saying, “You’ll just have to let the strong men beat up on you, rob you, rape you—and then call the police.”

    The law already recognizes this distinction. Most places (places without a “stand your ground” law), you’re required to attempt to make a reasonable attempt to retreat before a use of force is considered legitimate self-defense. But what’s reasonable for a healthy adult (running away, perhaps) is often not an option for someone who uses a walker.

    1. Cora says:

      I am an adult female, not particularly strong or athletic and have never once in my life felt the need to have a gun to defend myself. Because normal people, i.e. people not pursued by the mafia or with a fatwa on their head (and people genuinely at risk can usually get a gun even in countries with strict gun control), don’t need to defend themselves on a regular basis, because the chances of becoming victims of a violent crime are very small.

      Americans, even otherwise reasonable ones, often strike me as paranoid, constantly worried about burglars and rapists (or burglar rapists) and muggers and what not. And the violent crime rate in the US is indeed higher than in other western democracies. But a large part of the reason why the rate of violent crimes is so high is because guns are freely available.

      Besides, the sort of attacks that Americans are afraid of and from which they want to defend themselves with guns are things that are extremely rare. There aren’t a whole lot of burglars out there who break into a house to rape and slaughter the family who lives there before stealing the TV. The overwhelming majority of burglars are non-violent, they prefer to break into empty houses and they tend to flee rather than attack when spotted. Over the past fifteen to twenty years, I can think of maybe three burglaries in my hometown plus surrounding area (500000 to a million people) where a burglary went violent. And mostly violence means hitting people and tying them up, not rape and murder. I can think of only two burglary related deaths – one an old woman who died of a heart attack during a burglary (the burglar even called 911) and one a burglar shot by a homeowner who owned an illegal gun.

      Rapists are rarely the stranger attacking unwary women in the park or breaking into their homes. The overwhelming majority of rapes are acquaintance rapes, committed by friends, family, partners and acquaintances.

  2. One weakness to your argument, Jay, is that there are people who find utility in guns. Your personal preference means little in this case.

    Where the utility argument fails, and what I think is reasonable to focus on, is that it does not preclude regulation. We regulate traffic, vehicles, who can drive, and every aspect of the automotive experience. While there is no constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to drive, we can assume there is one since it is not forbidden.

    We need to resume taking regulation more seriously. A lot more regulations would not impair having and using guns for target shooting, hunting, or personal protection, but it might keep a few crazies from having easy access to large quantities of weapons and ammunition.

    1. Jay says:

      I was making an effort to draw a distinction between my personal preferences (with respect to hunting, for example) and the available data (with respect to the utility of firearms in home defense, where the likelihood of misuse is a significant multiple of the likelihood of the intended use).

      Agreed about regulation. The gun show exemption alone is an utter travesty. Likewise the lack of regulation of semiautomatic and high-rate-of-fire weapons.

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