Losing a Facebook Friend
First published: 29th March 2018
Earlier this year, I lost a Facebook friend. It happened over a, umm…, discussion on gun control. I knew this friend was pro-gun, so the fact that the discussion became heated was not surprising, but I don't want to live in an echo chamber. I've read articles that report research about the internet and social media making us more insular, and less open to other opinions, so I would like to avoid that self-confirming trend. I'm not going to un-friend people for disagreeing with me. If the ex-friend happens to read this and wants to re-connect, that's fine. If he doesn't want to re-connect, but disputes the way I've described the discussion, then he can send that to me and I'll post it below.
The short form of what happened is that, following the 14th February shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, my friend made a public posting asking the rhetorical question, "Tell me one law that would have prevented this". I responded with "The UK Firearms Act". We both responded over several days (timezone differences add delays), and another pro-gun person who I don't know joined in. I tried to keep my responses civil and addressing the arguments made. My perception was that not all of the responses were civil and to the point. Then, suddenly, the whole conversation disappeared, and my friend was not on my friends list anymore. He had un-friended me, and, perhaps, deleted the whole conversation. Because these were all responses to an original post by him, he has control and I have no record, even of what I wrote.
I'm dissatisfied, but not completely surprised, by the outcome. I cannot force someone to engage in rational debate. However, I think my arguments have value and I don't like them being, effectively, censored. So, I'm trying to recall the discussion, particularly my arguments and put them down here. To be clear, this does not re-create the discussion that was lost, this is my imperfect recollection and I will be expanding further on some points, and introducing points from other sources. It will be my thoughts on the gun control debate more widely.
"Tell me one law that would have prevented this"
I responded with the UK Firearms Act, I could have cited Australia's National Firearms Agreement. There have been three mass shootings, one at a school, in the UK, ever. There have been no mass shootings in Australia since the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) was introduced in 1996. Obviously, these are not laws that have any effect in the USA, but would a similar law work? I would say that, more than anything, it depends on the will of the people.
The enourmous number of (currently legal) guns in the USA is an issue, but not an impossible issue. Australia had a temporary buyback program that got 650,000 guns when the NFA was introduced. The #OneLess hashtag shows that some USA gun owners are willing to destroy their own guns, without compensation, because they recognise lives are more important than guns. It takes time to reduce the number of guns, but it is possible.
"You're not American, why do you care", "This doesn't affect you", "You were rude to butt into My posting"
I care about my fellow humans. The USA is a powerful country and its laws have influence around the world, also, I've visited the USA as a tourist. It was a public posting in a public forum, I can also voice my opinion.
"Heart disease kills more Americans than guns do, guns aren't even in the top ten."
We are talking about the deaths of high school students, do they often die from heart disease? OK, some links to statistics:
So, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the USA, and 80% of heart disease deaths is in the over 65 age group. There isn't a category specifically for high school students or specifically gun deaths, but for the 15-24 age group, the top three causes of death are unintentional injury, suicide and homicide. This is not surprising, old people die of disease, young people are generally healthier so accidental and violent deaths predominate.
Heart disease is important, we can have a separate discussion on healthy diet and the need for an efficient National Health Service, but this is a discussion about gun deaths and lives cut tragically short.
"You're not free", "You cannot understand our culture", "We are a Republic, not a Democracy"
I object to being told that I am incapable of understanding, call me ignorant, because that is one of the reasons I'm engaging in discussion: to find out more. Explain my misconceptions.
I cannot fully express what the arguments were, because I don't think they were properly explained and I don't have the record to refer to, so I might have missed important points that were made. I think the main thrust of the argument was that freedom necessarily requires the right to bear arms. Therefore, because I don't have the right to bear arms, I am not free and I am ignorant and deluded about my condition. Furthermore, the pinnacle of freedom was 250 years ago, when the USA Constitution was written, and it has been downhill from there.
I suggested that there had been improvements during those 250 years, like abolishing slavery, and I was accused of nagging about slavery. This is missing the point, my argument is that the USA Constitution isn't the pinnacle, freedom and human rights have fluctuated throughout history. There have been further improvements since the USA Constitution was written, these, in my opinion, include the abolition of slavery, votes for the poor, and votes for women. At other times, there were changes that were bad, such as the Jim Crow laws. This is not unique to the USA, every other state has had fluctuations in freedom and human rights, and they will continue for as long as people exist. When the colonists wrote, "No taxation without representation", they were British citizens fully aware that they were unable to vote for a representative in parliament, while otherwise similar British citizens in England could vote. They were aware of the history of Britain, including the rights won through the Magna Carta and English Civil War. The colonists may have declared independence from a tyrant, but the Parliamentarians, 127 years earlier, executed their tyrant. The colonists were also aware of the rights and traditions going back as far as the Roman Republic and Greek democracies.
So which is the USA? Is it a Republic or a Democracy? Let's check a dictionary:
- republic: a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.
- democracy: a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
So, from that it appears that the USA is a republic, and a republic is a particular form of democracy. Why, then, were my opposing debaters so insistent that the USA is a Republic not a Democracy, and what is the link to the gun control debate? The answer appears to be rights, and the Second Amendment: a Republic has a constitution or charter that protects certain inalienable rights that even the majority of voters cannot rescind, while a democracy is "mob rule", with the majority able to impose their will on the minority, and take away their rights. Furthermore, it is the right to bear arms, as declared in the Second Amendment, that prevents the USA becoming a tyranny because it allows minorities to defend themselves against oppression.
At least, that is what I have guessed my opposing debaters were trying to express. I pieced it together from hints between insults, and other research, so I could have misunderstood. This can probably be attributed to me being British, and therefore a Subject, not a Citizen, and so incapable of understanding freedom.
I reject this argument as a gross misrepresentation of reality. My passport says that I am a Citizen, and the Magna Carta (translated text) has guaranteed rights since 1215. Many of the rights have changed, I have no idea what 'socage' or 'burgage' were, but they don't seem to be relevant today. However, other parts, such as, "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice." are still a valid and important part of English law. Nowadays, Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy, ruled by an elected Parliament, the monarch hasn't wielded power since Queen Victoria's time and there is a broadly similar level of freedom to the USA.
What people consider to be inalienable rights changes over time. The Magna Carta is different from the USA Constitution, which is different from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each was written at a particular place and time for a particular purpose, reflecting the current concerns. A big clue that the Right to Bear Arms is not a particularly obvious candidate for inclusion in a list of "inalienable rights" is the fact that it only appears in the Second Amendment. Once there is a list of "inalienable rights", then I agree that removing an item should be considered very carefully and cautiously. A simple majority is not enough, there must be an agreed procedure. Being able to discuss the proposed change is one of the fundamental parts of the procedure.
So, should keeping and bearing arms be on the list of inalienable rights? The reason given in the Second Amendment is that it is "necessary to the security of a free state". This implies that a free state without this right will fall into a state of tyranny. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and France are often considered as part of the "free world", and they have not fallen into a state of noticeable tyranny. Maybe it will take a little more time, how long do you want to wait? I would suggest that freedom of speech, education and engagement in the political process are far more important in protecting against tyranny, and keeping and bearing arms is unnecessary.
What about self defence? I'll split this into different categories:
Defence against the State. George Washington was able to recruit and train an army that could face and defeat the (arguably) greatest military power of the time. This is no longer possible. The resources and technology required to fight a modern war include tanks and aircraft. Sourcing those turn a revolution against an unjust government into a proxy war between super powers, take a look at Syria. A collection of assault rifles and other guns that wealthy civilians can amass are simply not enough, and then there is the problem of ammunition supplies. I would argue that keeping and bearing arms is insufficient to defend against the state
Defence against wildlife. I don't know much about this, as I live in a city. My encounters with wild boar on the streets have passed peacefully. To be fair, the vast majority of the USA population also lives in cities, so defence against wildlife does not appear to be a valid reason to allow everyone to carry a gun on the streets.
Defence against crime. This is a complicated area. There are many crimes, such as shoplifting or embezzlement, where violence is simply not an appropriate response. Even burglary is not punishable by death. Even just considering violent crimes against the person: assault, rape, murder; the utility of a gun is not obvious. There is the deterrence effect, but knowing the opponent has a gun can lead to escalation instead. One approach is to look at national statistics, and that clearly shows that the USA has a much higher murder rate than comparable countries like Canada, UK and Australia. Personally, I think my best chance of survival if I see someone coming at me with murderous intent is to run away. If I don't see them coming, then a gun in my pocket isn't going to save me.
Donald Trump seems keen on this idea. Apparently, having a number of trained teachers with concealed weapons in each school will prevent school massacres because the attackers are cowards and the teachers can effectively respond to the few who aren't.
This dangerous idea misrepresents what we know about the attackers, which, admittedly, is not a lot because most of them are dead. Mostly, they are not cowards, they appear to be either ideologically driven: they believe they are doing the right thing, maybe they expect a reward in an afterlife; or they are nihilistic and want to die while causing as much death as they can. The prospect of an armed defence does not deter these mindsets. Some may have a thought for survival and escape, will they be more concerned with the dangers of an armed teacher, or the SWAT team they know will be on its way? They can plan around an armed teacher, either by attacking where the teacher isn't, or by starting by taking the teacher by surprise. Concealed carry doesn't help, an attacker at a school is almost certainly a student or former student who can notice that Mr. Smith always wears a bulky jacket, or Ms. Wesson is very careful with her handbag.
What about the effect on the teachers? To carry a weapon means being constantly prepared to use that weapon, which is a psychological burden. Instead of paying attention to the learning needs of their students, they must constantly be evaualting whether a student is trying to get the drop on them. When a student looses their temper, the teacher has a difficult decision of whether to draw. At some point, a highly stressed teacher, possibly with a developing mental illness, will snap and become the problem they were meant to be preventing.
The March for Our Lives protests give me hope that the young generation of Americans will make a difference and make their country a safer place.