Questions concerning the right to bear arms

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, many took to print, online, and social media to give expression to our collective outrage, our sadness and our specific frustrations. Those in favor of gun control wondered how many shootings it would take until the political establishment has had enough of their inaction. Those saddened by the limitations of mental healthcare drew attention to this difficult condition. After the appropriate length of honorable silence, some people came out in support of the Second Amendment. All of these views are understandable when taken in the context of the deepest concerns of the people making them. Then, in what seems to be a bizarre hypothesis, the National Rifle Association (NRA) proposed that schools would have been safer, had more of the school personnel been trained in the use of — and equipped with — firearms.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution (1791) is about the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The intent of the Amendment is to empower citizens to organize against a tyrannical government, or an invading power, or to  combat crime or enforce law. The Amendment is held in high regard by many, especially those who espouse political libertarianism, especially by those who do it loudly [1]. While there are arguments to be made on both sides, the adversarial nature of debate in today’s media coverage makes it difficult for people to oppose the Second Amendment in a nuanced way because they are immediately put in the embarrassing situation of being against the Constitution, against the Founding Fathers, against personal liberty and right to property, and therefore against the country. In this environment, many reasonable objections to the Second Amendment do not get expressed. In particular, the question is rarely framed in the following way: Given that increased gun ownership demonstrably increases the likelihood of the tragic death of innocents, and given that increased gun control demonstrably reduces personal liberty, might it be reasonable to at least consider giving up some personal liberty to reduce some tragic deaths? And as a corollary, at how many such tragic deaths do we draw the line?

I often wonder how much of the support for the Second Amendment comes, not from conscious thought but from our penchant for blindly adhering to powerful documents about which we have become thoroughly indoctrinated. Perhaps, it is not entirely oversimplified in this case to draw a parallel between biblical literalism and  Constitutional literalism. In some parts of the US, notably some of the Southern states, these two go hand in hand. In other parts, notably among groups enthralled by libertarian ideology, there appears to be no shortage of those who will abandon the first, only to substitute it with the second. If we are not to accept the Second Amendment just because it happens to be a part of a document that outlines one of the great ideas in human history – the idea of a government of, for and by the people, or for those swayed by nationalist rhetoric, the idea of the greatest nation on earth  – then how do we rationalize its inclusion in the Constitution?

It is natural to assume that the framers of the Second Amendment were influenced by the social, cultural, military and political climate of the late 18th century. The framers of the Constitution looked upon a country that had forged its independence at the cost of many lives, against what they perceived as unjust constraints imposed by England. These same men participated in, and even perpetuated, a social setup in which slavery was normal and acceptable, and in which it was normal to think that women were inferior to men. It was not unheard of in those days, to settle individual disputes over money, property and love interests by means of a duel in which two men attempted to kill one another, often with guns. Therefore, while acknowledging that these people and those who followed in their steps had a great vision for this new country — a vision of personal liberty, limited government, freedom of expression, and the right to own property — is it so difficult to accept that they were limited by the zeitgeist? Is it so difficult to accept that we live in a world that they could scarcely have imagined? Why then, do supporters of gun ownership parrot the Second Amendment without pausing to think about the consequences of the ease of obtaining firearms in the twenty-first century, or even the merest possibility of updating Constitutional dictates that are over two centuries old?

It is an inescapable conclusion that any argument that legitimately questions the continued existence of the Second Amendment, questions by association the existence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the power exercised by its euphemistically named lobbying arm, the Institute for Legal Action. I did not write this post trying to fish for those arguments, but to express and clarify (even to myself) two broad questions that arose in my mind about the right to bear arms. The first dealt with the relevance of the Second Amendment in our historical epoch, and was expressed above. The second deals with the practical argument that the presence of guns in the hands of the right people “levels the playing field” and by doing so, reduces the likelihood of violent crime.

This argument certainly has some logical merit: An emotionally disturbed or deranged  individual wielding a firearm would be killed or incapacitated before he or she has had the chance to inflict a large number of casualties. An old shopkeeper in an unsafe part of town would be spared misbehavior, assault and theft by young hoodlums if they knew that she kept a gun handy. It seems to make sense. However, it is possible to carry that argument too far. Imagine the scenario that the NRA or its supporters propose, in which more people in the school administration, e.g., janitors, some teachers, some newly stationed armed guards,  have access to guns. This is, without exaggeration, a society where guns are more normal everyday things, and many people that you see or interact with on a day-to-day basis possess a firearm on their person. By construction, this levels the playing field, and will most likely mitigate catastrophic loss of life in tragedies like Columbine and Sandy Hook.

The next question to ask is whether this makes for a stable and healthy society. It is possible to ask this question as a social scientist, which I am not. It is also possible to consider this as an instance of a zero-sum game between a person likely to attack others without provocation (call this person an adversary), and a person able to defend himself or others from the adversary (call this person a protector). Then, we have 4 possibilities: If both the protector and the adversary are unarmed, then we have a safe outcome. If the adversary is armed, but the protector is not, then we have a catastrophic situation. If the protector is armed but the adversary is not, then we again have a safe outcome. If the protector and the adversary are both armed, then we have controlled damage and fewer casualties. Then, it is strictly advantageous for the protector to be armed, and I suspect that this is the reasoning (if any) behind the NRA’s proposal, and behind the pronouncement of gun advocates. This creates a situation that we often encounter in the case of a different game-theoretic formulation, the popular Pascal’s Wager [2]: A solution is justified without examining whether the underlying model is correct.

The problem here is indeed in the assumptions of the above game theory problem. In the abstractions for mathematical tractability, it is assumed that both parties – the adversary and the protector – are aware of all possible outcomes, and they are perfectly rational when the experiment is conducted. Now, it is obvious that, an emotionally disturbed person is far from rational and this would appear to buttress the argument for gun ownership. But, it is also obvious that the protector, in the real world, may also occasionally become irrational and erratic, or be surrounded by people who are so. This being the case, it is only reasonable to have a process in place that can distinguish prospective adversaries from prospective protectors, as reliably as possible. It would also be reasonable to provide firearms only to those people who can demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that they are prospective protectors and not prospective adversaries. It would further be reasonable to place and enforce rules on the storage of the firearm, so that it does not fall into unintended hands, such as those of a little child who may accidentally set it off, or a disturbed adolescent who may steal it with terrible consequences. It would further be reasonable to place limits on the type and number of firearms that an individual can possess. It would perhaps – though I have to admit that this is problematic territory – be reasonable to ask people to regularly confirm their emotional well-being as they age, so that today’s protector does not become tomorrow’s adversary.

Thus, at first glance, the game-theoretic interpretation suggests that more guns in the hands of more people makes for a safer world. But, on even a slightly closer look, practical reality as distinct from mathematical abstraction suggests that access to guns should be carefully controlled. There are other assumptions that are routinely shoved under the rug: In addition to perfect rationality, many models assume that the two players are equally skilled, fully informed, have a weapon of the same potency, and act at the same time (thereby modeling the surprise element out of existence). [3]

I haven’t even considered the question of whether people would prefer to live in such a culture of guns. This is a matter for social surveys, and is a heavily culture-dependent issue. In such surveys, many — including myself — would say “No. I would not want to live in a world where so many people are armed. I’d rather live in a humane society where guns are unnecessary.” To which, many others would legitimately retort that this view is utopian. But couldn’t we agree that, at the very least, gun ownership laws in this country need to be tightened significantly and enforced properly [4], and that victims of gun tragedies should have at least as much leverage in determining the course of gun ownership as the vested interests of a powerful gun lobby?

[Note: If you want to comment or point out flaws in the reasoning of the author or other commenters, please do so below in a civil manner. Inflammatory comments and ad hominem attacks will be summarily deleted.]

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[1] Penn and Teller produce a thoroughly entertaining, humorous and informative program called “Bullshit!” in which they tackle issues ranging from religion to pseudoscience to alternative medicine. Unfortunately, in the case of their segment on gun control, it becomes apparent that they are not immune to synthesizing (or at least propagating somebody else’s) bullshit.

[2] Pascal’s Wager is in essence this: If you believe in God and He exists, you are saved. If you believe in God and He does not exist, you wasted your time but no harm done. If you don’t believe in God and He does not exist, no harm done. If you don’t believe in God, and He exists, then you will face eternity in Hell. Thus, your dominant strategy is to believe in God whether He exists or not. Some form of this argument is often used to justify belief in God, without considering that it is applicable only to the model of a petty, vengeful God, and without considering the relative scientific, ethical, and social merits of belief and disbelief.

[3] Robert Taylor’s paper on a game-theoretic formulation of gun control and its policy implications, includes a more detailed game between an attacker and a victim than the one mentioned in this post. The extra detail is introduced by incorporating the possibility that attacker and victim may have different costs in procuring, learning, and using the firearm. It reaches the conclusion that gun control could reduce social welfare, which is a disturbing thought until it becomes clear that Taylor does not consider the consequences of the assumption that attacker and victim act simultaneously. This has been pointed out in an article by Rich Lafferty.

[4] The question of how this should be done is beyond my expertise. However, it is being hotly debated in the news media these days. My intent was to ascertain (as much for myself as for any reader) broadly whether gun control is logically reasonable. It seems that even the basic reasons covered above are not being talked about, and they did not seem obvious to me.

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Two Alexanders

One morning in 1926, a boy named Alexander Gregory was hurrying to school when he came upon rail tracks near the tiny Gaithersburg railway station. The station superintendent on duty was Alexander Dunn. Dunn asked the boy to wait, and so he did. A light snow was falling as a slow train passed them. After the last carriage went past, the boy started to cross the tracks and then he froze. Dunn shouted at the boy to warn him as an express train bore down on him from the parallel tracks on the other side. Then, taking matters into his own hands, Dunn, who was 62 years old, flung himself at the boy to separate him from the tracks. He was too late. Witness report that the impact threw the  Alexanders into a ditch dozens of feet away, and killed them both instantly.

For the last three days, I have been eating my lunch at the Gaithersburg railway station. It is still the same little building of red brick, except that very few trains pass. Now and then,  an Amtrak train roars past without stopping, or a long goods train ambles in a slow and tired way. On my morning and evening walks, I haven’t seen a train stop here yet. Perhaps, Olde Town Gaithersburg is not really one of the hot spots en route to Washington DC. It gives the impression of a town past its heyday. There are immigrant workers from South America, either doing tough jobs or waiting beside some of the TexMex restaurants and old specialty stores which might have been quaint at one time. The old town rubs its antiquated shoulders against the economy of the Beltway – that ribbon of asphalt is quite close, with exits to countless office suites where men and women work for government agencies.

Inside the station is what appears to be a functioning Amtrak ticket dispenser. There are a few wooden tables and the place is very clean. Some paper flowers adorn the walls, and there is a time table of bus routes. There is only one other room, in which two Asian women run a cafeteria with a predictable and disappointing name: Java Junction. The ladies don’t talk much but they make very good sandwiches. Their servings are small, unlike the huge Virginia-style portions that they serve at the hotel in which I am lodging. I have half a mind to ask these ladies whether they have bought the station premises and whether the ticket dispenser is just a showpiece, like the steam engine from the museum next door.  But I find it hard to communicate with them; they are not exactly loquacious. They are also quite short and most of the counter is half a foot taller than either of them; they remain  invisible busybodies who surface with sandwiches, take your money and retreat behind the glass.

So, like the two afternoons before this one, I take my sandwich and go to the empty  room with the paper flowers and the Amtrak machine. There is a clean, but now defunct ticket window. In front of the window’s railing, are some black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings from 1926. One of them carries the title, “Two Alexanders Perish”. The other describes how Dunn posthumously received the Carnegie Medal of honor for trying to save the little boy.  I read this article again, just like I have for the last two days. Some details commit effortlessly to memory, like the light snowfall on the morning of the accident. I think of the snowfall, and imagine the train rumbling through the flakes. I think of Mike Daisy’s fabrications about Foxconn factories in China, and wonder whether the snowfall had really occurred.

It is calm inside the empty room. Well lit and not at all gloomy. I replay the story of the two Alexanders for the third day in a row. But, I don’t think about the grizzly details of the accident, or the families of the dead. I feel exhaustion sweeping over me slowly and recall the never-ending commitments at work in recent weeks. For three months I have been counting the days until these deadlines go away and leave me alone. Without complaint, I mentally tick off the checklist of fear, worry, petulance, expectation and sadness that have accompanied these ten workweeks from hell: Each project, each paper, each program, each collaboration, each deliverable has been its own self-sufficient bedeviler. I note how it has been impossible to make anyone else understand this. I think of the classic loneliness of our time, where each person is truly an island, and no one really understands him. We listen to one another and think to ourselves, “I know how that feels”. Sometimes, we really do want to know how that feels. But mostly we can’t. We don’t know people’s private demons because most people do not or cannot share their private demons. Every person is unhappy in his or her own unique way.

Why this story of an improbable tragedy calmly brings me face to face with an existential crisis, I cannot say. I allow myself the admission – exceedingly rare for the optimist I imagine myself to be – that work and life may not all turn out well, that arbitrary and terrible things could happen at any time and that the most one can wish for is to have some equilibrium between tragedies. Strangely, the out-of-control negativity of this does not alarm or depress or worry me as it would normally have done. I step out into the cold, but there is still no sign of the airport shuttle that was supposed to pick me up. I look for telltale signs of the ditch where the old man and the boy must have fallen. I don’t find them.

On the other side of the building, a steam engine looms in repainted black and silver, like a dragon meticulously groomed in a coat of new mail, but dead without its flaming breath. I become interested in the ridiculously large brakes and dampeners on the wheels. Behind it, a metal carriage from the old Baltimore and Ohio railroad briefly catches some sunrays. In the carriage windows are reflected vistas of tree branches with spring-green leaves and a cloudy sky on the other side of the railway tracks. Their incongruous beauty intrudes on my emptiness a little, and I stop to take a picture or two. Then I haul my bags and walk away.

Ecstatic Road to Nowhere

Think if you and I had a car like this, what we could do. Do you know there’s a road that goes down to Mexico and all the way to Panama? – and maybe all the way to the bottom of South America where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside? Yes! You and I, Sal, we’d dig the whole world with a car like this because, man, the road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain’t nowhere else it can go, – right? [Jack Kerouac, On The Road]

Shortly before I graduated and left California, my good friend made me a present of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Inside the cover is an earnest note of farewell in Italian-accented English and a helpful explanation – The road is a metaphor for life. And so it is. [Spoiler notice: Only a few disconnected events are described in this post without giving the thread of the story. My view is that the events themselves are less important than the novel’s overarching mood of wild sadness, which is something that can only be felt while reading it. Still, if knowing about stray events ruins your enjoyment of a novel, please refrain from reading this post. The book is much much better 🙂 .]

On the Road is a frenzied account of the adventures of the narrator, Sal Paradise, who drives, walks, and hitchhikes his way across the length and breadth of the United States in the late 1940s. Traveling with him are his friends, Carlo Marx, Ed Dunkel, Old Bull Lee and above all, the mad Dean Moriarty. These trips are largely aimless, the destination being decided on the fly, for no other reason than that one has to “dig” the streets of Denver, dig Larkin and Geary and Embarcadero in San Francisco, dig the jazz in New Orleans, dig Hollywood, dig penniless musicians and singers in decrepit bars, and dig women in all places. It is a mad romp that never looks like it is going to stop; for there are always more places that Dean has to see, more cars that he must steal (not out of malice, not with any plan whatsoever, but just as an outlet for his inexhaustible nervous energy), and more women to be inebriated with. Dean has all the energy in the world – He can steal two cars within half an hour, dance madly for hours unmindful of the pool of perspiration at his feet, make Denver to Chicago in seventeen hours in a “borrowed” Cadillac without any sleep, talking nonstop on the way.

Dean is in a perpetual search for ecstasy, or bliss, or whatever he chooses to call It – unhindered by the trappings of every day life, unapologetically borrowing money, food and vehicle from friends and relatives – and Sal follows in his thrall. For a few fleeting moments, perhaps while swerving away from a sure accident at breakneck speed, or while holding the gaze of an enraptured jazz singer, it seems that they find It, but it is never enough. There are times when Sal and Dean think of settling down, trying to work for a decent living. But, they are just not made for a mundane existence. As Dean searches in vain for his lost, drunk and homeless father, swaps arbitrarily between his vivacious Mary Lou and his possessive Camille, one has to naturally ask whether his hopeless inability to stay with a job or a woman or a place has something to do with never having a settled family to begin with. Are Sal and Dean free spirits, or are they rudderless wanderers? Both? Neither? As Kerouac puts it, they are “two broken-down heroes of the Western night.”

It has often been said that On the Road is a novel about the “beat generation”, but we seldom find an explanation about what it means to be “beat”. Kerouac once said that it means “beatific”. This invokes images of gods, sages, dervishes, hippies, drunkenness, and already, this amalgam is a little too complicated to pin down. But, while we find it so hard to define, we probably have a vague internal notion of what it means to be Dean and Sal. In a few areas of our own lives, we are probably like them. In their case however, the road is not merely a metaphor for life. The road is their life, their goal, their prize, their refuge, their anesthetic. Undeniably, their lives are colorful, but the colors always blur into each other.

Reading On the Road is a little bit like reading The Catcher in the Rye. I found it more engrossing than Catcher; for a variety of reasons that have to do with timing and age more than anything else, I felt closer to Sal than to Holden. I find myself thinking many times about Sal’s and Dean’s rueful admiration for the places that they travel to, and feel that I know some of the pain that they would not admit to themselves. They were, as Sal says, the mad ones – “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time“, and I felt that I understood at least a fraction of that madness – and the insane jagged helplessness that comes when the world just does not understand, when there are no kindred spirits to be found, when all of one’s talk is just words, tiresome and meaningless in the horrible void. Different people choose different entry points into a book – hooks with which they adhere themselves to the story, burrow inside it and look around; mine was the air of desolation behind the screen of ecstasy.

[Two weeks ago, I was reading On the Road on a bench outside a railway station in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was a gray evening in the city of Jack Kerouac’s birth. One half of my mind is prone to thinking of this as some sort of sign. The other half scoffs at the suggestion, but retains just enough silliness to smile at the coincidence.]