Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I've always felt queasy in the presence of guns. It's their single-mindedness. Some machines have a consoling superfluity. Cars seem to be more than just machines for rolling down the road; good cameras do more than just take pictures. But, with the exception of the finest English shotguns, guns are just killing machines. I also don't understand going out into the countryside to shoot things. I feel it's a terrible failure of the imagination, like taking a television set on a hike. The wilderness is complete and self-justifying; all we are required to do is look at it. Many Americans value guns in ways that, occasionally, I have begun to understand, but, on the whole, I don't. Last night I saw a man say that, if the students at Virginia Tech had been armed, then the slaughter there would have been avoided. If Hamadryas Baboons had nuclear weapons, said E.O.Wilson, the world would end in a few days. If students, with all their un(in)formed passions, had guns, then every campus would be a slaughterhouse.


  1. Full agreement here. Nothing consoling about guns. They represent absolute individualism.

  2. Bryan, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed. Although an American who values our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, I own none, and have no interest in them. I realize that "gun control" in America is both a joke and an impossibility, given that there are millions more weapons than there are residents here. It does feed and clothe the families of a lot of advocates and detractors, as well as the families of countless PR flacks, lobbyists, ad salespeople, printers, and other related occupations.

    What I found appalling today were the people engaging in what my brother terms "Flight 93 Fantasies:" criticizing the dead, wounded and shell-shocked for being cowardly or lacking the physical prowess and mental acumen to single-handedly disarm a crazed gunman firing an automatic weapon from a doorway in a corner of a room.

  3. I've had numerous lengthy debates with otherwise sane American gun-lovers, at the end of which the width of the cultural chasm only becomes clearer: we don't get what they get from guns, and they don't get why we don't get anything from guns.

    They do have some genuine blind spots however: some have this delusion about the right to defend their property - they think the American attitude to law allows them to shoot pretty much anyone who wanders onto their front lawn. It doesn't. Not even in redneck country.


    I also don't understand going out into the countryside to shoot things. I feel it's a terrible failure of the imagination, like taking a television set on a hike. The wilderness is complete and self-justifying; all we are required to do is look at it.

    That is brilliant.

  4. Hear! Hear! Considering the US is a relatively young country, the attitudes of an alarming number are well and truly stuck in the (Wild West) past.

  5. What happened in Blacksburg, Virginia was a tragedy. All those hopes and dreams wiped out in moments, their families consumed in the sorrow. They have my deepest sympathy.
    The Queasiness felt on the single mindedness of guns is without exception, includes pretty little English shotguns.
    Oooooh, what filigree, on that Adams you've got pointing at me. Seems unlikely.
    While the Americans and their issues with guns is not that unusual. One only need to think of the special police in NI or exactly who is allowed to hold firearms in GB.
    Much of the issue in this side of the Atlantic descends from the very egalitarian nature of firearms.

  6. But just because you ban something - guns - doesn't mean you remove the problem. A prime example exists in the UK post the Dunblane Massacre ban on handguns, following which we have seen an exponential rise in the use of handguns in criminal acts. As the San Francisco lawyer and criminologist Don Kates writes :

    "The difficulty of enforcement crucially undercuts the violence-reductive potential of gun laws. Unfortunately, an almost perfect inverse correlation exists between those who are affected by gun laws, particularly bans, and those whom enforcement should affect. Those easiest to disarm are the responsible and law abiding citizens whose guns represent no meaningful social problem. Irresponsible and criminal owners, whose gun possession creates or exacerbates so many social ills, are the ones most difficult to disarm."

    And there is a form of engineering beaty to guns.

  7. It could also be pointed out that it reflects a cultural issue more than the simple possesion of firearms. Every able bodied Swiss male between the ages of 18-55 keeps an assault rifle at home(with ammunition) and we don't tend to read about mass shootouts in downtown Berne. Similarly there is a very high level of gun-ownership in countries like Norway, Belgium and Finland without the behaviour we see in the US, and to a lesser extent, Australia and the UK.

    Seems to me that Anglo-Saxon, no-one's-gonna-tell-me-what-to-do culture seems to be making another appearence.

  8. 'People decide things with their heart and then use their mind to justify it'... an ill-remembered quote but one that often springs to my mind - as it did watching the same interview last night.

  9. Not all Americans have a desire to own a gun. I don't own a gun, don't want a gun, and would be happy to never see a gun. I recall on my last visit to England in the early 80's that the English police carried no guns. There was something comforting in that.

    But to quote Robert Heinlein, "An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life."

  10. 'People decide things with their heart and then use their mind to justify it'... a quote that often springs to my mind - as it did last night as I listened to the same 'arm the good people' fool. I think he's in love, and as Jeremy Clarkson said the previous night, who can explain that.

  11. I'll take up the challenge and defend American gun culture. Brit and I have debated this topic quite thoroughly both on TofE and the Daily Duck.

    First off Bryan, your self-contained wilderness is no such thing, it is a manicured garden devoid of predators. You feel no need to shoot game because you eat beef and pork raised on some factory farm and slaughtered and butchered by low wage laborers. Your idyllic stroll in the woods is only possible because of modern man's absolute dominance over nature. It is an act that would be unreal to the vast population of pre-industrial humanity. Only a fool would wander the woods without a weapon in the old days.

    Secondly, your notion that an armed populace would invite slaughter is nonsense. As Brit mentioned, homeowners in the US are permitted to defend their homes with firearms and use deadly force, within limits, to do so. My state, Minnesota, passed a concealed carry law several years ago, allowing law abiding citizens to apply for a license to carry a concealed firearm in public. There was a great outcry from the anti-gun crowd, but no slaughter ensued. Gun violence is mostly an urban gang related phenomenon here. You can drive through any suburb or rural community and be confident that every other home contains at least one firearm, but you don't see the gun violence there, nor do you see very many home burgularies or invasions. It's just expected that if you enter a home illegally you will probably face an armed occupant.

    But as Brit mentioned, it's a cultural disconnect. You can't understand how we conscience any level of gun violence as an unavoidable outcome of allowing every citizen the right to defend themselves. We can't understand how you deny every citizen the right and the dignity of defending themselves and their homes.

    P.S. I own two guns: a Ruger .357 magnum revolver, and a Lee Enfield #4 Mk 1 rifle circa 1943. That rifle saw service defending your country.

  12. Perhaps the news that the killer was a student from South Korea will slow down the somewhat predicatble efforts to blame that 'ole cowboy gun culture.

    Yes, this issue does separate the Americans from the rest, but the differences are overblown, sometimes with discernible schadenfreude. The whole question looks very different through rural eyes and the States has a vibrant, large and very safe small town/rural constituency--much more demographically and politically significant than in other Western countries, I think. They don't have to organize huge protest marches to get Washington to even understand their perspective. The big problem and the drama is mainly in the combination of guns and urban dysfunction.

    Also, we are talking 300 million people here. Comparisons with Finland and Switzerland are dicey, but even so there are huge swaths of armed America that would give them good runs for safest-place-in-the-world award.

    Although, I must admit that even as a philo-American Canadian, I can't for the life of me figure out why gun-nut bloggers like Duck and his pals seem incapable of defending their hallowed right to bear arms without insisting on linking us to sites advertising their favourite toys with frightening photos and illustrations. Did we ask, Duck?

  13. The campus shooter was from Korea -- not an American redneck with a gun (this to Lee Madgwick in particular).

    I wish we had strict gun-laws, but mainly because of the daily carnage I read about in our inner cities -- including Philadelphia, where I live.

    Otherwise, I grew up with guns: Was taught to shoot a rifle as a very young child. I think once you see what they can do, you gain a great respect for firearms.

    Sadly, what I see happening in the U.S. relates to something else. Pride, respect, revenge. If some people feel dissed, instead of solving the problem via discussion -- or even a fistfight -- they resort to a firearm. Instead of a black eye, death results.

    And then there are mentally unstable people, which I'm quite sure the guy on this campus will turn out to be. But, again, it will also have a pride/honor component, I'll bet you. Someone dissed him. He failed something and couldn't conscience it: He decided to go down in flames and take lots of people with him.

    Guns have always been around, but people have changed.

  14. Could one argue that all these guns are a bit pointless if people aren't going to use them in a practical way ie killing other living beings? Could one mention the alchemist phrase, "As above, so below?" If one's government applies the philosophy of might is right, and one's economy is immensely balanced towards the production of machines for extinguishing life, and the films and games of one's "culture" are loaded with violence...well, does the question need to be asked.
    On the side of the citizen's right to bear arms, I'd now be quite open. When the American citizen sees its government shredding the US Constitution with acts such as the Patriot Act(how do they get away with such a comical display of state propaganda-"Oh, if I don't support this, I'm not a patriot..."), using rendition, torture, eroding habeus corpus(see Military Commissions Act), running a concentration camp(Guantanamo Bay), etc....well, I would understand US citizens' suspicious attitude regarding the good intentions of its government. This was much of the traditional argument in favour of the right to bear arms, ie defence against tyrannical government. However, now, strangely enough, it seems those those who most approve of gun ownership tend also towards a fairly obsequious attitude towards this very same hypothetical tyrannical government. Did I say hypothetical?

  15. I wonder how far he would have got in England. Everyone has knives over here as far as I can make out in the press.

  16. Peter, frightening photos and illustrations? I linked to the Daily Duck. Don't tell me your afraid to go there now!

    Andrew, we could get into a whole tit for tat discussion about who's government is trammeling civil rights and freedoms, because there's plenty of ammunition to use against your government. But you've been reading too many heavy breathers from the extreme libertarian fringe of the US political spectrum. Or Andrew Sullivan.

  17. I don't dispute this, Susan, but in this case I wasn't actually referring to the gunman, rather the attitudes of many Americans. As was also stated in the blog:

    "Many Americans value guns in ways that, occasionally, I have begun to understand, but, on the whole, I don't. Last night I saw a man say that, if the students at Virginia Tech had been armed, then the slaughter there would have been avoided."

  18. I've got a theory about who is the real villain behind this shooting. It's a little 'out there', but bear with me...

    ...I blame it on a nut called Cho Seung-hui.

  19. Lee, you saw a guy from a pro-gun group that tried to get a bill passed last year to permit students to carry concealed weapons on campus. The Va. legislature would not pass it -- which tells you a great deal about "many Americans." Now he's getting a chance to say "I told you so," but a bill like that still won't get passed -- many, in fact *most* Americans don't want students carrying guns on campus.

    Your comments trouble me because I have met many people in Great Britain and continental Europe who do seem to believe we are a country of cowboys and gun-lovers. I don't despise guns -- I even understand Duck's and other men's appreciation of a well-made firearm -- nor do I have any desire to regulate people who like to hunt (though I wouldn't do it myself).

    This country is built on liberty: People being allowed to do what they want so long as they do not harm others. Obviously, now another standard must be invoked: Because some people insist on harming others with guns they can buy relatively easily if they have no criminal record, America must crack down on anyone owning a gun other than law enforcement.

    The right-to-bear-arms issue is ironic in that Americans wanted that right to avoid having their colonial British governors and overlords be the only folks in town with guns -- guns they could use to maintain their power over unwilling subjects.

  20. I've no great respect for my own government, Duck, and your tit for tat idea regarding who's government is more corrupt would seem to affirm the obsequious point I made. I don't understand the notion of a patriotic connection to the elites who hold power. Every one of the things I mentioned have happened/ are happening... Guantanamo Bay exists, torture is legitimised, people are being kidnapped from foreign countries, and they effectively disappear within places like Gitmo. The Military Commissions Act is a real piece of legislation which denies people the right to trial. It is only voluntary ignorance that enables one to deny these things.
    So just to repeat the original point in all its glory:

    However, now, strangely enough, it seems those those who most approve of gun ownership tend also towards a fairly obsequious attitude towards this very same hypothetical tyrannical government.

  21. You dislike conversation moving away from matters other than the particular and nothing but the particular, Brit? It seems a shame to have the capacity for thought and to instead insist its use is an irrelevant luxury item. Perhaps a few years further down the brave new globalising idiot culture and all abstract thought can be discouraged and termed Conspiracy Theorising.

  22. And finally, Duck, you might be interested in this excellent article by Paul Craig Roberts, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, which offers a brief overview of the last few political years in America.
    Called Americans Have Lost Their Country, it begins, "The Bush-Cheney regime is America’s first neoconservative regime. In a few short years, the regime has destroyed the Bill of Rights, the separation of powers, the Geneva Conventions, and the remains of America’s moral reputation along with the infrastructures of two Muslim countries and countless thousands of Islamic civilians."

  23. Andrew, are you a white nationalist yourself or do you just like to link to white nationalist websites?

  24. Andrew and Duck: Not 'who's' government, but 'whose' government. 'Who's' means 'who is.'

    The English language is going to hell in a handbasket.

  25. The state has less power in my opinion. Even over here. The marketplace has a monopoly on nukes and god knows what other shit.
    Alot of the gun nuts believe it's everyones right, if they so choose, to build and own nuclear weapons.
    Yet people believe, despite the internet, television, globalisation etc that we're approaching an orwellian nightmare.

  26. In a few short years, the regime has destroyed the Bill of Rights, the separation of powers, the Geneva Conventions, and the remains of America?s moral reputation along with the infrastructures of two Muslim countries and countless thousands of Islamic civilians."

    Now that's what I call power!

  27. Thanks to all of you for a gripping discussion, the best this blog has seen, I think. I couldn't for the moment, attempt to respond, primarily because you have made me realise how little I know. It's a common feeling with advancing age. But I shall try in due course.

  28. Andrew:

    As far as I'm aware, mass murder occured before George W Bush became President. He can't do all the evil in the world - he's only one man.

    A nut did this. I do believe it's a sensible question to ask: "Can the US do something to make it more difficult for nuts to get hold of firearms?"

    I have argued long and hard with Americans gun-lovers about this, and what I found was that I didn't understand as much as I thought I did.

    Guns are deeply ingrained into the rural US culture. You can't just extract them like a loose tooth. (Much like Britain's city centres would be a lot safer on a Saturday night if there was no alcohol - doesn't make it easy or even right to ban booze).

    That said, I still think it's a sensible question. But in the end, a nut did this.

  29. Ok, we can go on and on here. But, Susan (although i actually agree with much of what you have to say), do you not find it troubling that many find the answer to such an horrific event not by wanting guns banned altoghter, but for 'everyone' to be armed?

    I just find buying a high-firepower weapon legally from a shop, without proper background checks pretty terrifying.

  30. Lee, I agree with you here. I think it should be much, much more difficult to obtain a gun than it is. In my fair city of Philadelphia (one of the murder capitals of the U.S.), one of our paper's reporters managed to buy two handguns -- one of them a truly scary weapon capable of taking someone's head off at close range -- in a matter of hours. They checked his driver's license, saw he wasn't a felon, and that was that.

    Here's the problem: Some cities and states have much tougher laws, but there is no ONE law covering everywhere. Camden, NJ, right across the border from us here in Phila., is a tragic town riven by gun carnage. In N.J., it is extremely difficult to get a gun --you must wait months and be examined extensively. What happens? A "straw" buyer gets the guns in Philly and trucks 'em across the river.

    Because America is so varied, city by city and region by region, there is no way to get all places to come to a consensus about what should be required to obtain a gun. Believe me, I do wish there were very strict controls on handguns and incidents like this should help to shape one.

    People's freedom from harm, or fear of harm, should be more important than people's freedom (I won't call it a "right") to bear arms.

  31. Bryan: your showstopping line in this post (and Duck's riposte) have made to the world-famous Blog Book of Quotations.

  32. There should be common law in every city of a country,in America if we want get a gun its take too much time because the govt law should not allow you to get that one easily.Most of the gun lovers are trying to get gun from different cities where laws are little bit familiar towards those people.

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  34. Mr.Bush have spoken with Governor Tim Kaine and Virginia Tech President Charles Steger. I told them that Laura and I and many across our nation are praying for the victims and their families and all the members of the university community who have been devastated by this terrible tragedy.He told them that my administration would do everything possible to assist with the investigation and that I pledged that we would stand ready to help local law enforcement and the local community in any way we can during this time of sorrow.
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