Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Closer Look At Sam Harris On Guns

Like most people, I have strong feelings about guns.  I have strongly negative feelings about guns.  I'm not convinced we could create a world without them, but I see no reason not to try, as XTC says, to melt the guns.

Of course, a world without guns may never happen, and certainly won't happen in any of our lifetimes.  Fortunately, the gun debate is more practically oriented.  It's not so much about whether we should aim for a world without guns, but about whether America needs stronger, stricter control of private gun ownership.  I think private gun ownership should be prohibited by law. (Update February 16, 2013: I explain and qualify my position here.)  Unlike me, Sam Harris is in favor of private gun ownership, at least until a non-lethal alternative is readily available.  In fact, he doesn't see a need for any stronger weapons bans at all.

I have some original and damning criticisms to make against Harris' arguments.  Even if you have a less radical position than I do, you may find my arguments relevant.  If you are in favor of private gun ownership, but think we should have stronger limitations and regulations, then you might want to read what I have to say.  Even if you are not in favor of stronger limitations or regulations of private gun ownership, you might also want to read this, since I'm dispensing with arguments that you might well be relying on.

Why am I focusing on Sam Harris?  Mainly because he caused a small stir when he posted "The Riddle Of The Gun" on his blog.  (He followed it up with a response to some of his critics.)  It might not stand out so much, as far as popular writing on the issue is concerned.  It's not particularly original or insightful, but it is worth commenting on for a number of reasons.  First, because it has sparked some controversy in the atheist and skeptical communities.  Second, because it is explicitly aimed at reaching a well-reasoned, balanced approach.  Third, because Harris' critics are often accused of being uncharitable and of not appreciating his arguments.  I think there are serious problems with many of his arguments, and with some of his responses to his critics.  Furthermore, his critics don't always drive home the right points in the best way possible.  So I think it might be worth having a go.

There are some points I am glad Harris makes, such as that the original intent of the 2nd Amendment is no longer applicable, and that the need for a well-regulated militia is no longer a viable justification for the private ownership of guns.  I also appreciate Harris' resistance to America's gun culture, which he sees as a sort of "collective psychosis."  His diagnosis might not be too far off the mark, though he might not be aware of how much a part of that culture he is.  I also appreciate that he is critical of the NRA's political strength, though his criticism here is not on target.  He does not voice any concern about the NRA's principles, aims or tactics; he only says their political influence is disproportionate to the importance of gun control.  While he disagrees with NRA enthusiasts about the need for gun advocacy, he has nothing critical to say about the NRA itself.  In fact, as he readily admits, his arguments are aimed at supporting tired NRA talking points.

Before I get to those points, I have to criticize the way Harris frames his discussion.  He persistently paints his opposition in false and unflattering terms.  Here is just one example:

Can’t a gun go off by accident? Wouldn’t it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.

That's plainly a straw man argument.  By Harris' reasoning, if a person thinks that gun ownership is not a risk worth taking, then they think the police can protect them from any and all possible threats against their well-being.  It's hard to believe that Harris would make this claim in good faith.  I know Sam Harris has heard of other forms of self-protection besides guns--he talks about them often enough--but perhaps he just forgot.  Or maybe he decided to ignore the truth and go with a more rhetorically satisfying zinger.  Either way, it's not admirable.

Harris' positive argument for private guns centers around the need for self-defense.  He recognizes that there are other forms available, but he says guns are the best.  His main claim here is that they level the playing field.  While your height, weight, coordination, strength and other physical factors can severely limit your ability to defend yourself in hand-to-hand combat, a gun will help most people overcome all of these difficulties.  There is some truth to this, but it is not as powerful an argument as Harris seems to think.  He does not give full consideration to all of its weaknesses. We have to consider what happens when your attacker has a bullet-proof vest, when they have the element of surprise, when they are faster on the draw, when they have your children held hostage at gun point, when their guns are more effective than yours.  In those cases, there is no level playing field.

Your gun is not a guarantee of equality, though it might be a greater threat to a burglar or potential rapist.  For that very reason, it also increases the risk of deadly force against you.  Harris has already considered the objection that gun ownership increases the risk of harm to the owner, and responds as follows:

I also realize that handling guns and keeping them in my home increases the risk of being accidentally injured or killed by them. I am also aware that other gun owners occasionally commit suicide or murder members of their families (or both)—and it could be that guns are more often used this way than they are to defend against crime (reliable information on the defensive use of firearms is very difficult to come by). But I don’t think these broader statistics apply to me (and I don’t think this judgment is the product of a reasoning bias). Just as I can say to a moral certainty that I’m not going to open a meth lab or start a dog-fighting ring, I can say that I’m not going to commit suicide or murder my family.
It looks to me like Harris has missed the point.  I accept Harris' estimation that he is not going to murder his family or commit suicide, but the criticism was not that gun ownership leads to a higher risk of those particular things.  It is the broader point that gun ownership increases the risk of harm to the owner.  This could be from accidents (and I'm not convinced that Harris is immune to firearm accidents) or from the mere fact that using a gun to respond to an aggressor can increase your own chances of getting hurt, or even killed.  In short, Harris has not taken this bull by the horns.

Harris also claims that gun ownership can sometimes reduce the amount of gun violence in the world, but his use of statistics here is highly suspicious.  He writes:
the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward. Thirty percent of urban households have at least one firearm. This figure increases to 42 percent in the suburbs and 60 percent in the countryside. As one moves away from cities, therefore, the rate of gun ownership doubles. And yet gun violence is primarily a problem in cities.

Against Harris, there is evidence that the correlation is straightforward and direct:  More guns does lead to more gun violence, and even more violence in general.  Yet, Harris thinks there may be an inverse correlation between gun ownership and gun violence, he says, because the areas with the highest concentrations of guns (per capita) in America have the least amount of gun violence.  However, even if these statistics are accurate, Harris' reasoning is not convincing.  He is making the mistake of treating rural, suburban and urban areas as if they were equivalent in all relevant aspects.

To see how this works, you have to understand Simpson's Paradox and the idea of a spurious correlation.  This is when a statistical analysis misleads us into believing a false correlation, one which may in fact be the opposite of the real correlation.  This can easily happen when you combine statistical data from populations of very different sizes without taking all of the relevant variables into consideration.  The population densities in urban, suburban and rural America are significantly different.  Furthermore, I think Harris is overlooking two important variables:  gun type and gun culture.

It is reasonable to assume that rural, urban and suburban America tend to have very different gun cultures and very different guns.  For example, guns in the countryside most likely tend not to be handguns or assault rifles, but hunting weapons.  These are most likely used to scare trespassers off of private property, to put down suffering animals, and to hunt.  It is therefore possible that more guns in rural America equals more gun violence in rural America, more guns in suburbia means more gun violence in suburbia, and more guns in urban American equals more gun violence in urban America.  In short, even if Harris' statistics are accurate, there can be a direct correlation between gun ownership and gun violence in rural, suburban and urban America.  And given the evidence for such a direct correlation (see link above), the odds are not in Harris' favor.

Harris also says "the only reliable way for one person to stop a man with a knife is to shoot him."  This shows a lack of imagination, and also an unjustified faith in the power of the gun--unless Harris is talking about the kinds of guns that are not so attractive to most people looking for simple self-defense.  It is in cases like this, with his overly romantic infatuation with guns, that Harris looks at home in the gun culture that he himself has criticized.

Harris is a strong advocate of responsible gun ownership, and he holds himself up as a model.  He claims that, unless we come up with a non-lethal alternative to guns, the best we can hope for is a world in which all gun owners are as responsible as he is.  He says we cannot, and should not, hope to reduce gun ownership significantly, unless and until technological advancements produce a non-lethal, but self-defensively equivalent alternative. However, he favors mandatory training courses and thorough background checks to make sure legal gun owners are as capable as possible.

I'm in favor of such measures as a short-term goal, but we cannot expect that mandatory training courses and universal background checks are going to guarantee a lifetime of responsible gun ownership.  No matter how responsible you are, people have a tendency towards inconsistency.  Some more than others, of course, and in various ways.  I'm sure there are many gun owners who live their whole lives without ever encountering gun violence.  Nevertheless, even if we upped it to mandatory annual training courses and periodic (perhaps random) psychological testing, we cannot expect most people to always handle and store their guns responsibly.  I suspect that even Sam Harris is capable of making a mistake with one of his guns--the kind of mistake that can cost a life--though he may be one of the safest gun owners on the planet.

To his credit, Harris does not assume that he has found the solution to the gun problem.  He just doesn't see a better alternative.  For that reason, his position is only as strong as his arguments against other proposals.  He does make negative arguments--arguments aimed at making his perspective look like the only reasonable option.  Even if his positive arguments are flawed (which, as I have shown above, they are), and even if there is no proof that he is right about guns (and he admits there isn't any), he will still say there is no better path forward.

Harris makes a few points against other paths.  First, he says that we cannot reasonably hope to eliminate private gun ownership from American society.  He doesn't take that suggestion seriously at all.  He also says that any possible gun prohibition would not make a significant difference, because the Supreme Court has decided that a prohibition of handguns would be unconstitutional, and handguns are the only serious problem (in Harris' opinion).  He says it would be too difficult for America to enact anything as effective as the anti-gun legislation which has been successful in the U.K. and Australia (both the result of mass shootings in their respective countries).  In other words, Harris thinks the political and legal culture of America is too thick to penetrate.  Those looking for weapons bans are simply unrealistic.

Harris' criticism of the anti-gun lobby is therefore an argument from incredulity, nothing more.  It's a well-known fallacy.  While Harris is certainly right that it would be very difficult to change America's legal and political culture, he has given no reason not to try.  All he has done is remind us that the fight is a very difficult one.  Harris has not given us good reason to refrain from advocating for the complete (or almost complete) abolition of private gun ownership, including handguns.