Stick a flower in it

I’ve often thought that, first and foremost, writers write for the benefit of their own mental health, rather than for the impact that their words might have on others. It’s fashionable, in the world of writing ‘advice’, to argue that writing is simply a product to be consumed by others that should never be undertaken for its therapeutic value. Here in the real world, however, we’re still self-medicating.

Recently, my wife and I were in our local Italian restaurant enjoying a quiet evening and good food, when a man walked past me, with his wife, to find a table. Such was the height of his belt that I could not avoid seeing a large pistol, attached to his belt with a holster, that was momentarily right in front of my face. As he walked away, I noticed that he was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a well-known gun manufacturer, perhaps intended to draw attention to his gun, for those not fortunate enough to have had it thrust into their face. The fact that this sort of thing is legal where we live does nothing to dampen my incredulity. What was this guy planning to shoot while at the Italian restaurant? Some aberrant linguine?

So it is that I decided to unpick a piece of prevalent non-logic that grates on my teeth as though someone is scraping their fingernails down a blackboard. Now, given the current occupant of the White House and his daily assault upon the thinking people of this country, going after illogical arguments in the political sphere looks a lot like shooting fish in a barrel. But I’m going to focus on a piece of non-logic that long pre-dates the current “administration”. The fact that it has been adopted by the Orange Menace in recent times is simply more evidence that he values populism over principles.

In the context of the criminal failure by successive US governments to take action on the public health crisis that is totally avoidable gun crime, the argument I want to focus on originates in the smoke-filled spin rooms of the National Rifle Association, the organization that used to be a genuine members’ club for gun owners, but long ago morphed into the lobbying arm of the gun industry.

Whenever I speak to anyone in this country who’s not in favor of stricter gun control, I am most often greeted by a barrage of non-argument and non sequitur that has its origins in those same spin rooms. There are so many such non-arguments that I couldn’t possibly take them all on here, so I’m going to focus on the one I find the most egregious and annoying. If you stick with me, hopefully we can unpick that argument in such a way as to take out my second-most-hated NRA argument at the same time, free of charge.

So, here goes. How often have you heard something along the lines of the following? “There’s no point in stricter gun laws, because only law-abiding citizens will obey them. The problem is criminals, and they’ll just ignore the new laws. So, the the law abiding gun owner is inconvenienced, but gun crime continues.” (Generally speaking, the proponent of this argument pauses at this point to give me a triumphant grin.)

The above nonsense is not simply an argument against stricter gun control. It is, in fact, an argument against the rule of law. The same non-logic could be used to argue against the need for any criminal law at all. Curious, isn’t it, that so many folk who claim to belong to the party of law and order could defend so vehemently an argument against the rule of law (and in favor of arming domestic terrorists – like Stephen Paddock – with everything up to and including semi-automatic weapons)?

If you think I’m overdoing it, follow me for a moment in the direction of the following example. Let’s suppose – just for the sake of argument – that US states had very few and very weak laws to prevent shoplifting. Let’s imagine that in some states you would have to steal thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in order to trigger the criminal law. And let’s imagine that, in other states, although the laws were tougher, in practice they were not enforced by the police, who had bigger fish to fry.

What would happen? It’s not difficult to imagine. All over the country, retailers would spend a fortune on security, but very soon it would be recognized that there was a legislative failure. Lobbyists representing retailers would descend on governors’ mansions across the land, as well as congressional offices, to demand action to protect the hard-working American shopkeeper. In short order, state houses would pass laws to expand the definition of shoplifting, as well as demanding that police authorities spent sufficient resources on enforcing those laws already in place.

What would happen next? At first, behavior might not change very much. Those who had made a habit of shoplifting would continue, for a while. But, gradually and incrementally, their behavior would be squeezed. The police would begin to heed the calls of retailers, purusing shoplifters and making arrests, where before they had done nothing. And, over time, many of the shoplifters who had got away with their antisocial behavior for years would find themselves in court, facing fines and/or prison sentences.

At that point, some habitual shoplifters would decide it was time to change their lifestyle. Realizing that it was more trouble than it was worth, many would modify their behavior to stay inside the law. Some, no doubt, would continue regardless, but that cohort would find their lives constantly disrupted by the criminal justice system, with no opportunity to steal, except from the prison shop.

Would these stricter laws bring an end to shoplifting altogether? Absolutely not. But retailers would find their business less disrupted, and would probably on average see profits increase as losses and spending on security decreased.

This, in an over-simplified nutshell, is how the criminal law works. No legislation in history has ever been 100% successful in wiping out a particular type of crime. That’s not what it’s for. What the criminal law does is to squeeze and displace behavior, to make it more difficult to get away with crime, to pressurize criminals into giving up their anti-social lifestyle, and to ensure that those who persist in continuing to break the law are easily differentiated from the rest of us, so enforcement activity can be focused on them. (Hold onto that last point; we’ll return to it in a moment.)

Can you imagine, in the above scenario, anyone seriously arguing that stricter laws against shoplifting were pointless because criminals would refuse to abide by them? In this context, such an argument is nonsense. And it’s always nonsense, once you accept that the criminal law is never a magic wand, and always an incremental tool to change, displace and punish antisocial behavior.

Which brings me to another NRA non sequitur. We are often told, by gun advocates, something along the lines of “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. Let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious truth that, in very many cases, multiple armed people would make a situation considerably worse rather than better. The recent tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas is just the latest example of that.

I have a more philosophical complaint about this argument. It assumes – and this runs through many NRA lies – that we’re all agreed on who’s good and who’s bad. But we’re not. Here’s the problem: everyone thinks they’re the good guy; always. Do you think everyone’s favorite bad guy, Adolf Hitler, combed his little moustache in the mirror each morning and cackled to himself about how much evil he could unleash today? Hitler thought he was right, and so does everyone else. So, a self-determined definition of moral virtue is literally worthless.

How, then, do we in a modern society determine who’s good and bad? The answer is the link between these two NRA falsehoods. Of course, we differentiate between good and bad by way of the criminal law and the justice system. And that’s exactly the reason that it’s nonsensical to argue that we can’t use the criminal law as a solution to fix the current public health epidemic that is avoidable gun crime. The fact is that it is precisely the role of the criminal law to change social behavior in such circumstances and, if we refuse to acknowledge that, we have no way to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys.

By way of a postscript, let me say that, when making the above arguments in person, I have often been described as “anti-gun”. I am not, in fact, anti-gun; I am anti-incongruity. I’m in favor of everything being in its right place.

When living and working in Afghanistan, the view outside my bedroom window, when I opened my curtains every morning, was – and this is literally true – a fortified tower, on top of which stood a hard-as-nails uniformed Gurkha behind a tripod, on top of which was a machine gun that looked longer than its operator was tall. Every morning I thanked God for that Gurkha.

And, when I needed to go out – even just to visit the supermarket that was walkable within three minutes – policy required me to go in a heavily-armored Toyota Landcruiser with two hairy former special forces, one of whom drove while the other sat in the passenger seat with a huge automatic rifle between his legs.

In both cases – the Gurkha and the close protection officers – their sole purpose every day was to prevent me and my colleagues from being kidnapped or murdered. And so I thanked God not just for them but also for their firepower. While I was lucky enough never to come face to face with the Taliban or their chums in the Haqqani network, there were several occasions on which I had to shelter in place for hours with the ominous sounds of a complex attack – both explosions and gunfire – clearly audible.

So, when I’m accused of being anti-gun, my standard answer is to ask my accuser when they were personally last in a situation where their life literally depended on weaponry and the skills of those properly trained to operate it. The answer is usually never.

At this point, I explain to them what I mean by anti-incongruity. I am very much in favor of heavy weaponry in a war zone, particularly when I’m in the middle of it. But there is no need for deadly weapons in our local Italian restaurant. There is no need for them in the ordinary homes and streets of America. And there is most certainly no need for them, God forbid, in our schools and colleges.

And there you have it. I have no idea whether the above will change anyone’s mind. Or even if it will make it easier for anyone to mount an argument against some of today’s insidious non-logic. But I do know that writing it down makes me feel better. And that’s the main thing.

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