Present at the table were Ralph, Paul, Sam, Marta, Jan, Thijs, Mathijs, Jacob
This is the story about the meeting we had in De Zwarte Doos on the university campus. Inside it was too busy, so we sat outside, where it was just a little too cold for some of us, and that in the middle of June! We started at around 5 o’ clock after we had ordered our drinks. The theme we had agreed upon was the unofficial slogan of the National Rifle Association of America which goes like this:
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
Jacob brought in the theme because he was reminded of it in a lecture given by Johanna Höffken, which was about the neutrality and democratisation of technology. How do we make sense of this slogan, which has such a nice rhythm to it? And how can we explore its meaning? Might it have an architectural dimension? The following story is not faithful to the actual conversation, which of course went its own wonderful circuitous and ricocheting way, but I hope I have covered all the points raised and I must admit that I do not always remember who raised which point. But this is the story of the meeting as it sorted itself in my mind.
First we had to grapple with the slogan itself. In preparation for the meeting we had watched videos and read web-logs posted linked by various members of the PT on our Facebook page. Some of the Facebook contributors could unfortunately not be present at the meeting, designs had to be finished, exams prepared for. Jacob posted a video he got from the NRA website by Colion Noir (is that his real name?) which concerned the so-called car analogy, the analogy whereby it is argued that guns kill, but that cars kill too. In fact people kill more people using cars than they do using guns. It would be ridiculous to ban cars, so why is it less ridiculous to ban guns? Sure, cars are designed for transportation while guns are designed for killing. But that could hardly be enough. Cars may be designed for transport but they nevertheless kill and, more importantly, they can even be used as intentional weapons. Maarten responded to the film by posting a link referring us to a weblog by Mike Laboissiere on Talking Philosophy, who deconstructs the argument by analogy (giving a bit of a wobbly explanation of the argument by analogy itself, but then completing his story very fairly by saying that that the gun-car analogy can be used to work both ways. The analogy can be used by the gun lobby as it was by Colion Noir, but could just as easily be used against the gun-lobby by saying: well we regulate the use of cars with great strictness: licences, regulations, speed-limits etc., so that is what we should do for guns too. But, and this was an interesting proviso, the driving of cars is considered a privilege, while the owning of a gun is considered a constitutional right. To take away your right to own a gun is a different problem, in the United States at least, to taking away the mere privilege and convenience of driving a car.
And so it goes on. There is, it would seem, no substantial ground to decide the argument, no incontrovertible reason to make us all agree on a direction to take. As a result more words have been spilt on the issue of gun ownership than on many other topics. And that is hardly surprising. People kill people, using guns. And that is a real problem. Another anonymous blogger on the Armed With Reason Website pointed out that a child’s garden game of grass darts was successfully banned after a campaign started by worried parents because one of them had discovered that the darts sported a sharp metal point. In the end the judges were convinced and the argument that clinched the deal was that the darts were designed for children as a game. Design and actual experience of the darts did not accord and so the ban on the grass darts became total. The blogger asked why guns designed for children as promoted by the NRA were not also banned. A sensible question, but one that remained unanswered.
How are we to make sense of this slogan? All this preliminary stuff merely helped to charge the issue, load it with meaning and very hotly contested opinions that somewhat obscured the purpose of the meeting, which was to be about the slogan: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Perhaps the reason that the discussion is so slippery and moves so quickly away from the topic of the slogan itself to the debate the slogan participates in, namely the discussion about gun control, is that the logic of the statement is impeccable and cannot really be faulted. Guns do not kill people except in a banal sense, they merely deliver the bullet that kills and do so with great efficiency and designed convenience. They were designed to kill effectively, which they duly do. But the trigger is, incontrovertibly, pulled by a person, either by accident, misadventure or with the intention to hurt or kill. It is people who kill people with guns. Although the slogan appears to argue in favour of the pro-gun lobby, after all they adopted it at their slogan, it does so only on the basis of the thinnest suggestion. You could use the slogan to represent the anti-gun lobby: ‘If it is people who kill people, then for God’s sake keep guns well out of their way! We know what people are like!’ Perhaps because we begin the slogan with the observation that guns don’t kill people, we start by declaring the innocence of guns and then subsequently place the responsibility for shooting people fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the people who do so. We could change the slogan around a bit to mean the same and yet give a very different feel to the whole: people kill people, with guns. That is what John Lajoie made of it.
It is silly and fruitless to blame the gun. You cannot punish guns except by destroying them and that does not punish them, but punishes those who want guns. We should blame our weakness in our inability to solve our issues without the use of violence. But that is not to say that the gun neutral. Is an apple guilty for looking delectable? Is a sweet talker inccocent of talking sweetly? Is it right to rape a woman because she looks attractive? These are, as far as they go, correct analogies. If we start blaming guns, we remove our autonomy and I for one am not prepared to do so. Sure guns are charged or valenced for a particular kind of use. Sure, they are designed to look cool and seductive. They might even tempt and seduce. But I must resist temptation. If I fail to resist temptation it is me who falls. Even if a gorgeous lady stands there naked in front of me, I have no right to rape her, even though it might be my natural instinct to do so. I have to overcome myself. What I am presented with in my life becomes my problem, the way I respond defines me. Having said that, the way I respond becomes the problem for those around me as I am part of a bigger thing than myself. The lady might well have something to say about someone raping her. So might her husband or father. We all live with the consequences of our weakness, our strength: the victim, her family and friends, the perpetrator’s family and friends. What a mess.
The problem with guns is that their efficiency alone gives them a selective advantage. They kill efficiently, relatively cleanly and at a safe-ish distance. Other instruments can also be used to kill, cars, kitchen knoves. And there are other tools which, like guns, are designed to kill. But none of them do so in quite the same way. They do not have the same attractive properties. Knives designed to kill are messier, they require you to get close to your victim. Your bare hands, if they are powerful enough to kill, require great force and intimacy with the victim. And the victim might well be stronger than you; that is a risk. Bombs kill too generously, too indiscriminately, they are not as selective as guns, not as clean and accurate. Bows and arrows require quite a lot of skill to handle quickly. Guns require much less training. You can learn to fumble with a gun simply by watching a little television or a YouTube film. Using a bow and arrow requires practise. If I had to choose my weapon to kill a particular person, I would choose a gun. Guns are particularly good at killing and were designed to do so. Nor are they designed to kill people necessarily, (who brought that up?) We can use guns to hunt. So when we ask, ‘are guns necessarily bad?’ we are asking a question that is not easy to answer. The proper answer would have to be hypothetical: ‘guns are always bad [IF] you do not want to use violence against any living creature, even for the purposes of feeding yourself and your loved ones’. In other words guns can only be considered bad if you lay your moral cards on the table and choose a definite point of view. But can we be so decided about this? As Ralph pointed out, how can guns be bad if you want to defend yourself or a loved one against someone attacking you? Well, I suppose we could decide that running away in such situations should become a categorical maxim: instead of using guns, we should always run away! But what if that is impossible? And what if you get fed up of always being told what to do by some idiot with a gun?
An equally important aspect about guns is their power to force you to do things against your will. The look of a gun opens up a whole new discussion (I forgot who brought it in) Guns are not just designed to kill, they are designed to look as if they can do so really well. They have character. The gun’s seductive nature, its character as something that is cool, is itself an issue we must deal with. Guns are fascinating to men and boys. They love exploring them, showing them off and feel in awe of the power in their hands. And it is their look and their idea which is seductive and has to be resisted. Guns, like cars, impress. Their presence alone is a persuasive force. You can force people to do things for you by just brandishing a gun. Men believe they can impress girls with a cool car, and it often works! They are instruments of power and they are designed to be instruments of power. They look powerful. Is forcing people to do things with a gun by showing it, as bad as killing people? Is threatening to kill someone as bad as actually killing him? If you believe in autonomy and fairness, then you cannot give a straight yes or no answer. By brandishing a gun and using it to hold sway over people you rob people of their autonomy. At the same time killing robs people of their autonomy for ever. That is irreversible. So it must be worse from that point of view. The attacker brandishing a gun obviously does not care that he is doing a bad thing. In fact he may feel that you have done him wrong to the extent that he feels justified in killing you. In any case his feelings are no concern of yours, the question is simple: would you want a gun to defend yourself against a man brandishing a gun? Would you want to have a gun to resist the oppression of the stupid and the violent? I find it difficult in my mind at least to discount the argument of self-defence. I might want guns to be uninvented, but that is silly. They are here and here to stay. You cannot easily uninvent things, it takes years of neglect and negation for something to be completely forgotten about and guns play a large role in society. If I had a gun to defend myself and my loved ones, I might well use it with a clear conscience in a desperate situation, even though I would probably spend a lot of time afterwards going through the scene, again and again, worrying about whether I could not have solved the issue in a better way.
This is something like what the NRA argue when they invoke the second amendment. There are more clauses in the second amendment that permits the use of guns by law. Would you want a gun to defend yourself against an oppressive state you happen to be living in? Jan observed that although he is fervently against gun-ownership and for the strictest regulation, he could imagine a situation where he might want a gun if he were condemned to live in a state which not only claimed a monopoly on violence (which he was not in principle against) but which was ready to abuse that monopoly to serve the ends of its leaders and their minions. This is an important consideration. In wonderful poldering Holland (poldering is a word to describe our consensus-driven discursive culture) I cannot ever imagine needing a gun to defend myself against state oppression. But I can imagine living in countries where the state or the chaos that prevails in failing states, form a real threat to the basic freedom of pursuing your own good. Would I want a gun if was stuck in such a state? Again, I could choose to escape. But if that weren’t an option…? And what if I get angry at the idea of always having to bow to the violent and the nasty?
Now for the third clause in the second Amendment, the clause dealing with needing a gun to defend your country. Would you want people to have a gun to defend their country? It might depend on who the invader is and what state I am living in. It would be difficult not to allow myself a gun to defend a country that I consider fair and worthy of my children to grow up in. If I didn’t I might emigrate. There are countries that in trying to be a country require so much investment in violence and control that they make their citizens into monsters. Who would want to live in a state that turns its citizens into bigoted and prejudiced monsters only to preserve its impoverished being? I would happily swap my gun for a one-way ticket. I owe my country allegiance in so far as my country is loyal to its commitment to fairness and justice. My loyalty cannot be unconditional, I would be encouraging abuse if it were. But if it deserves my loyalty, I would want to take up arms to defend it against oppressors. What I would in any case want is for such a country, a country truly devoted to justice and fairness, to have a monopoly on violence, so as to be able to remove ourselves from the need for violence. At the same time we would have to acknowledge that giving the state such a complete monopoly and removing ourselves so completely from violence, presents its own paradoxical problems. We might solve these in some way, but I cannot yet see how. National Service? Education?
So here we are, the clauses of the second amendment are covered. We might want to defend ourselves and our loved ones against people threatening us. We might want a gun to counter an oppressive government, and we might want a gun to defend our country against invaders. So what is wrong with owning guns? Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And if people use guns, you can either get a gun yourself and join the arms race, or move. But is this enough?
The arms race is the right word. Guns indubitably encourage the accumulation of more guns. They form a selective principle: if there are guns about, those with a gun have an advantage, and those who run away remove themselves from the pool. It pays to have a gun in a gun culture and it pays to run away. Running away further concentrates the gun-culture you have left. Within that culture you have to look for further advantage. Old weapons become increasingly ineffective. That is the iron-logic of the arms race: more, faster, cleaner, easier, better. The increasing efficiency of technology is a powerful inflationary pressure. We might sympathise with a nostalgia for the time before we had guns. If you do not have a gun you would have to think more carefully about killing people. It takes much more energy, much more consideration. In order to defend yourself adequately in a gun culture, in order to keep the playing field level, you are more or less required to either join the arms race, or tread very carefully, or move. Hands, knives and even bows and arrows are no longer effective when you are confronted with a gun. Forget about guns being seductive or valenced. Guns quite simply are the weapon of choice because others might have them. The arms race is in that sense similar to corruption. If a company or a society encourages fraud and corruption by failing to stand up to it and deal with it fairly, those who are good at defrauding and being corrupt prevail. Honest people move away, or join the force they cannot beat. A culture encouraging guns, is a culture in which guns will prevail. America, Jamaica, many countries in Africa, they demonstrate the point adequately. And statistics bear this out as Marta pointed out. Australia introduced strict regulations on gun control and gun crime quickly receded, gun abuse has almost disappeared, gun accidents have disappeared altogether. There are far fewer gun crimes in Australia now, after regulation, than there were before. America on the other hand has one of the highest rates of gun crime. Having guns means using them. Having a gun as a standing reserve, always affords the possibility of its use. It makes sense to stop people having guns to kill and threaten with. But this is only good advice if we feel that the price to pay for self-defence, the price to pay for opposing oppression and the price to pay for defending your country is not worth the abuse that comes with gun ownership.
The NRA, ignoring the fact that it is in fact a lobbying platform with the decidedly commercial purpose of creating a market for the very wealthy gun industry, presumably does not condone the criminal use of guns. It, again presumably, wants guns to be used only in accord with the clauses of the second amendment: self-defence, opposing oppression and defending one’s country from foreign invasion. The gun industry has a clear and uncontested commercial interest in people owning and buying guns and using ammunition for practise, but we cannot accuse it of wanting people to be killed and gun usage to be abused. That would be too cynical and I think genuinely wrong.
So the question we need to ask is this: is the price too high? Does America and do other countries, pay too high a price for the constitutional right for people to own a gun? Can we solve this with statistics? How many people must die of gun abuse before we say that the price is too high? How many people must be saved through self-defence for us to say that the price is worth it? Can we settle the question in this way? We would have to introduce a sense of value. It would be risky and arbitrary. We may become tempted to suggest things like this: we value a life killed in self-defence to be X amount of money, and the value of a life killed by gun abuse to be Y amounts of money. Alternatively we may think it is fairer to say that we give all lives a constant value, and then determine how many are killed through abuse and how many are killed legitimately. If the number of people killed through gun abuse exceeds the number of people killed in self-defence then… But how do we settle legitimacy? What is the price of a human life? I cannot go there. Let’s put it this way. My family’s life is worth my own.
We are all more or less agreed: It is not fair to rob people of their lives for no reason. There may be one or two who feel it is legitimate to rob people of their lives just for fun. But few share such an idea. Such people are the sad creatures we see re-enacting films and living in their world of troubled fictions. To rob people of their lives by abusing your ownership of a gun, or to rob people of their lives because you are being led by strange fictions about right and wrong are criminal. How legitimate is the killing of a person, when you feel and genuinely believe that person to be an oppressor? We let the courts decide such things and they call in the help of psychiatrists and experts. What are we to make of sad creatures like Anders Breivik who are paradoxically prepared to transform their country into a slaughter house in order to ‘protect it’ from some strange fear? Sadness does not get much sadder than that event. We may assume that the NRA, despite their commercial and genuinely political interests, would agree with that. To say that it is unfair to rob someone’s life who is clearly intending to rob you of yours is silly. Self-defence is considered a fair way to rob someone else of their life, because we understand the price of our own lives and that of our loved ones to be extremely, perhaps even immeasurably high, certainly higher than the price of the life of some madman intent on killing you and yours. That is the (only) ground of this supposedly self-evident truth. Which of course it is not. We understand it as self-evident, because we understand this drive in us, or rather think we do. We forgive ourselves our drive to survive. But there is nothing to justify it other than that it is there and we all more or less feel it.
The arguments for and against gun ownership do not go all the way down. Cannot go all the way down. There is no foundational principle on the basis of which you can legitimately defend or attack gun ownership itself. It is an existential problem. As Rawls put it, ‘A conception of justice cannot be deduced from self-evident premises. Its justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into one coherent view.’ And the ownership of a gun needs to be justified just as the banning of guns needs to be justified by taking account all sorts of considerations. The presence of guns involve you in life in an emphatic way. That involvement requires people to judge each situation as it presents itself on the basis of many considerations. Those considerations determine the price one is prepared to pay.
In a safe and relatively happy country, the price would quickly become too high. What’s the point of owning a gun, when no one has one, when there is no oppression and the state has a monopoly on violence which it takes care not to abuse and with which it does its best to keep out oppressors? We happily subject ourselves to such a state. What is the point of not owning a gun in a state where everybody owns a gun and many are prepared to use it, and where the usual rough percentage of errant people are even prepared to abuse it? Gun ownership is decided through vicious and virtuous spirals. The NRA may see their right to a gun as a freedom and they might look down upon a ‘nanny state’ like The Netherlands where gun ownership is highly regulated. They might even use the word enslavement and consider themselves free. But, as Mathijs pointed out, they too are slaves to their conception of freedom, to their guns. There are alternatives. The question we have to settle for ourselves is this: In what kind of state would I prefer to live, prefer to subject myself in an autonomously made decision? I would personally prefer to live in a nation where as few people have access to guns as possible. I know what people are capable of, I do not want to encourage them in the wrong direction. I do not want a gun myself and I find people who allow themselves to be impressed and seduced by guns merely sad. It is not that I suspect people with guns to have small penises, but I do suspect they care about such things rather too much.
Silence fell. We were tired. We had reached an equilibrium, but there was still some exploring to do: what about the architectural dimension of this slogan? How does the willingness of people to kill people using guns affect the built environment?
Jan built an analogy with buildings that are designed to kill, like Auschwitz.
Marta came up with the idea that if guns are allowed, buildings will be created that somehow reflect the regulations in place for them. We shall want appropriate places to practice shooting. To protect ourselves from the prevalence of guns.
In reaction to the the problem raised by Ralph of being unexpectedly confronted with a situation in which you really need a gun to protect yourself, Paul referred to a recent conversation he had with someone who told him about the idea of owning a house at the other side of the world: architecture as a life insurance?
And of course there is the fact that the attitude that desires regulation or deregulation of guns, might be an attitude that affects every endeavour of human being. It might affect the very structure of our built environment. A country intent on keeping its freedom for self-determination and self-ownership will surely see an urban fabric which reflects that ethos, will encourage the creation of family castles and compounds of the like-minded, taking the lack of law into their own hand and creating enclaves of self-determination.
As Mathijs argued, a country that promotes freedom through gun ownership enslaves people to their guns. Countries who are more nanny-like and who regulate everything, will also regulate the built environment, giving people more rules, and more freedom from anxiety (about guns).