Sam Harris has recently published a new essay entitled “The Riddle of the Gun.” It is, to my mind, a piece of self-serving mythology, and a dangerous one at that. Repeated throughout the essay is the claim that a gun, in the hands of a good person, should be seen to be a clear benefit to society, and that those who think otherwise are living in a dream world. He even has some derogatory things to say about commentators who do not know the proper lingo, who embarrassingly pronounce or spell the names of weapons other than “Colt” mistakenly.
I can only imagine [he writes, with evident relish and pride] the mirth it has brought gun-rights zealots to see “automatic” and “semi-automatic” routinely confused, or to hear a major news anchor ominously declare that the shooter had been armed with a “Sig Sauzer” pistol. This has been more than embarrassing. It has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying.
Harris really should have seen this comment as beneath his dignity, but the evident emphasis he places on it makes one wonder about the impartiality of other things he has to say. And while I know the difference between an automatic weapon and a semi-automatic, and already knew how to spell ‘Sig Sauer’, I wonder whether he really thinks it is important for people to know these things before they may be considered competent enough to comment on the American fixation on guns and gun violence, and its implications for the safety of people in the United States.
I also have some other difficulties with Harris’s way of expressing himself. He remarks knowingly on the perils of dialling 911:
Suffice it to say, if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police—it is a problem of physics.
Why would he put it this way, I wonder, except that something’s being a problem of “physics” seems to make what he is saying more scientific? For the real problem, if problem it is, is not so much a problem of physics, as one of time, geography and possibly personnel. But, surely, for someone to offer an argument about the effectiveness of 911 calls to the police, an important piece of information would be some evidence as to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of 911 calls as opposed to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the use of firearms for self-defence. Harris simply assumes that the evidence will fall out in the way that he presupposes, though he offers no demonstration that this is in fact the case. Does owning firearms pose no danger to the owner at all? And are firearms more effective than other means of defusing dangerously violent situations?
Added to this is the fact that where weapons, especially handguns, are easily accessible in the home, intimate partners or family members are in greater danger than they would be if such firearms were not so readily available. Though I have not checked the statistics, I am going to take Sean Faircloth’s claim at face value, when he says, in his response to Sam Harris, that
[f]irearm assaults on female family members, and intimate acquaintances are approximately twelve times more likely to result in death than are assaults using other weapons.
This is important evidence that Harris simply ignores. Indeed, Harris’s entire article is based more on a fascination with guns, and a personal conviction that he is a responsible gun owner, than on the facts that might be adduced in favour of stricter controls of guns. Indeed, the paucity of evidence used by Harris to argue his case is striking.
Repeated throughout Harris’s article is the belief that in a country so heavily invested in guns it is important for “good people” to have guns, and he considers himself (possibly for good reasons) to be one such good person. This is something that he repeats several times in the course of his article. For instance, he remarks on the remarkable priorities behind sentencing in American courts, and then follows this up with the claim that good people should have guns:
We live in a country where nonviolent drug offenders receive life sentences but a man who rapes a fifteen-year-old girl and cuts her arms off with a hatchet can be paroled for good behavior after eight years (only to kill again). I do not know what explains this impossible distortion of priorities, but given that it exists, I believe that good, trustworthy, and well-trained people should have guns.
I share Harris’s perplexity at a judicial system that punishes nonviolent drug offenders more harshly than those who have acted in such a way as to show violent disregard for the rights and dignity of others, but there is simply a mismatch between what he reprobates and what he approves. For, is it likely that there was anyone with a gun in the immediate vicinity of the unfortunate girl who was raped and had her body brutally maimed who could have prevented that senseless act of violence and brutality?
Besides, speaking about “good, trustworthy, and well trained people” with guns is arguably an incredibly self-serving judgement about Harris himself. As Faircloth says:
Does Sam — or Joe or Jim — think he’s “stable” when he buys a gun? Of course. We all think that. But in the real world — it’s later when the gun gets drawn. Men, often drunk, get in fights. Men, often drunk, become jealous or want to control women. As anger or jealousy boils “stability” and “commitment to safe handling” can change — and do change — often – and often very quickly — into a dangerous and often lethal rage.
To imagine that there is any way to distinguish those people, now stable, who might, at some future date, become unstable and unpredictable, is simply wishful thinking. We do not like to think that anger, jealousy, or drunkenness could ever tip us over into murderous, blind rage, but they undoubtedly can, and where this does happen, there is clear evidence that where hand guns are readily available, the outcome of such rage is likely to be more lethal. Just comparing firearms related death in the United States with places like Australia, where there has been a concerted effort to reduce the number of firearms by buyback and other programmes, or Canada, where firearms control, especially of handguns, is much more stringent, is a fairly clear indication that widespread private ownership of handguns makes it far more likely that one will be killed or harmed by firearms. Death by firearms in the United States is significantly higher than in any other high-income OECD country.
Besides this, Harris uses some obvious rhetorical strategies that do not amount to rational argument:
For instance, it is estimated that 100,000 Americans die each year because doctors and nurses fail to wash their hands properly. Measured in bodies, therefore, the problem of hand washing in hospitals is worse than the problem of guns, even if we include accidents and suicides.
This is such an obvious irrelevance that it is surprising coming from someone who hosts Project Reason: Spreading Science and Secular Values. As Faircloth points out, this is mere rhetorical flummery:
Similar reasoning works like this: “Women are about eight times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than by breast cancer, so all that concern about breast cancer is overblown.” Please. It is entirely reasonable that society can, and should, work to address breast cancer – and cardiovascular disease, hospital hygiene safety (Harris raises this chestnut too) and handguns. The either/or choice is a rhetorical trick, not a reasoned argument.
It is discouraging to see such special pleading used by someone who prides himself on rationality. Indeed, it leaves him — and others who strive to base their world view on reason — open to the kind of riposte used by Andrew Brown who ends his latest diatribe against the new atheism (et hoc genus omne) thus:
The real danger of his kind of atheism is that it replaces fantasies about gods (who don’t exist) with fantasies about human beings, who do. And which is more dangerous: to be wrong about something imaginary or about something real?
It is hard to argue with that, given the borderline paranoid fantasy represented by Harris’s “The Riddle of the Gun.”
Sean Faircloth makes very sure that he pays Harris a debt of gratitude and admiration for what Harris has done for the cause of reason, and I would not want to be remiss in this respect either. I have valued many of Harris’s writings, remembering in particular some of the trenchant good sense of his first two books, The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation. However, I have to add that some of the things that Harris writes have puzzled me. His qualified approval of torture, for example, or his rather remarkable essay on taxes as theft, have left me with more questions than answers. I now add “The Riddle of the Gun” to that number. I have found much to commend in his writings, and even used some of The End of Faith in homilies in another lifetime. I find, though, much unevenness and even carelessness in his work, and while Faircloth extends a hand to him “in undying admiration,” I find my admiration, though still genuine, increasingly qualified.