Lamar W. Hankins : Gun Control and the Ethics of Self-Defense

Political cartoon by J.D. Crow / AL.com.

The ethics of self-defense:
Reconsidering gun control

Much of this will seem counterintuitive, especially to those who are brought up with a macho mentality, whose inclination will be to fight, get revenge, teach the hoodlum a lesson…

By Lamar W. Hankins /The Rag Blog / January 28, 2013

Since I last wrote about gun control in the middle of December, I have continued to read and gather as many facts as I could find that might contribute to real solutions to the gun violence that is so prevalent in the United States. What I have read and what I understand leads me to conclude that there may be a few ways to reduce gun violence and the number of deaths from guns, but that is far from certain.

A poem by Carl Sandburg that was just discovered in the archives of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests a view of guns from an ethical perspective:


The Revolver

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court,
nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and
interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief
that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.

Sam Harris, who is an author, philosopher, public intellectual, and neuroscientist, also proposes an ethical framework from which to consider self-defense and guns. Most people I know who want a gun or guns for protection (self-defense) don’t consider that the decision has ethical dimensions, but it does. How those ethical dimensions fit into a discussion about gun control is what interested me in Harris’s thoughts on the subject.

To begin his discussion of the ethics of self-defense, Harris cites the data: “In 2010, there were 403.6 violent crimes per 100,000 persons in the United States… Thus, the average American has a 1 in 250 chance of being robbed, assaulted, raped, or murdered each year. Actually, the chance is probably greater than this, because we know that certain crimes, such as assault and rape, are underreported.”

Harris begins with the premise that “dialing 911 when an intruder has broken into your home is not a strategy for self-defense.” He suggests three principles relevant to self-defense:

Principle #1: Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places.
The primary goal of self-defense is to avoid becoming the victim of violence. The best way to do this is to not be where violence is likely to occur. Of course, that’s not always possible — but without question, it is your first and best line of defense. If you visit dangerous neighborhoods at night, or hike alone and unarmed on trails near a big city, or frequent places where drunken young men gather, you are running some obvious risks.

Principle #2: Do not defend your property.
Whatever your training, you should view any invitation to violence as an opportunity to die — or to be sent to prison for killing another human being. Violence must truly be the last resort… Unless you or another person is being physically harmed, or an attack seems imminent, avoiding violence should be your only concern.

Principle #3: Respond immediately and escape.
If you have principles 1 and 2 firmly installed in your brain, any violence that finds you is, by definition, unavoidable. There is a tremendous power in knowing this: When you find yourself without other options, you are free to respond with full commitment.

Harris offers what he considers the core principle of self-defense:

Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape — not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.⁠

One very practical thought that Harris offers is to remember that “anyone who attempts to control you — by moving you to another room, putting you in a car, tying you up — probably intends to kill you (or worse).

Much of this will seem counterintuitive, especially to many men (and some women) who are brought up with a macho mentality, whose inclination will be to fight, get revenge, teach the hoodlum a lesson, or assure that he is prosecuted for his criminal behavior.

For those with special martial arts training, there may be a tendency to think that this is what the training was for. But for every person with a black belt in Jui-Jitsu or another martial art, there is a story that did not end well for the trained victim. After all, no one is really as good as Jack Reacher.

But Harris appreciates martial arts training because it may help a person respond more quickly to the threat, provide a person with more confidence, provide psychological and social benefits, and give a person the mental preparation necessary to focus on what is most important — escape from the danger.

All of Harris’s arguments about self-defense and guns can be read at the following links:

Even in a home invasion, where many gun owners think that they can repel the attacker or attackers with a weapon, reality does not support such a proposition. Harris reminds us that the police, who are trained to remove an invader from a house, will approach their task with perhaps five officers, heavily armed and in protective gear. The average homeowner cannot come close to matching their level of skill and equipment, and, unless everyone in the family has managed to escape, they will all be in great danger.

Harris’s views on self-defense help inform a discussion about dealing effectively with violence, especially gun violence (though Harris also discusses knife violence). Over 300 million guns are in circulation in the U.S. There is little likelihood that their number will diminish. In fact, in December, there were 2.2 million new background checks for gun purchases. Not only will lots of the good guys have guns, but probably most of the bad guys will have guns, also.

As a good guy, according to Harris, I have to make a practical and ethical decision about whether to own a gun or guns, “given my specific security concerns and the level of violent crime in the society in which I live.” For Harris, who lives in the Los Angeles area, “[t]he choice to own a gun comes down to this: If I hear a window break in the middle of the night, I want to be armed with more than my idealism.”

Harris’s ethical concerns about self-defense lead me to think about ethical concerns about gun ownership. From his ideas, I draw several propositions, none of which Harris should be blamed for.

  1. Every gun purchaser should be carefully vetted by way of a background check for mental illness, violence, law-breaking behavior, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and gang involvement. By gun purchaser, I mean everyone to whom a gun is transferred, either by gift, devise, or for remuneration.
  2. Every gun purchaser should be psychologically screened at least as thoroughly as a candidate for police officer is screened. Even with the level of screening that police officers go through, some of them prove to be unstable and a danger to the public. Without comparable screening for civilian gun owners, we significantly increase the possibility of increasing the danger to the public.
  3. I can see no reason why all gun owners should not have to be as well-trained initially about guns and their use, and receive continuing training, as are police officers. Such training is even more important for those who have a carry permit.
  4. Bans on ammunition magazines that can hold over seven bullets (the New York standard) would mitigate against the number of deaths that occur during mass killings. Such bans will not assure that fewer innocents will be killed during such events, but there is a likelihood that a ban on oversize magazines will diminish the number of deaths. Such a ban, to be effective and constitutional, will necessitate a buy-back program for oversize magazines and will require stiff penalties for possessing them as a deterrent.
  5. Putting well-trained police officers in every school may seem too costly, and it is certainly unsettling to think that the possibility of violence in our schools requires making them fortresses, but that may be the reality of America in the 21st century. I have been unable to answer satisfactorily why this is such a violent culture, but there is no doubt that it is, even if it has improved (see The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Steven Pinker). Either we decide to live with this reality or we respond to it with reasonable precautions. That’s a decision every community will need to make for itself.
  6. We should eliminate all restraints on the ATF with respect to inspections of gun dealers and allow ATF to enforce all laws and regulations regarding guns, gun sales, and gun ownership without limitation, and eliminate the requirement that the director of the ATF be confirmed by the Senate. The NRA, with the collusion of some politicians, has succeeded in preventing the ATF from doing an effective job. Let’s see what happens if the ATF is given the resources and actually allowed to enforce the 20,000 gun laws (according to the NRA) we now have.

I have no quarrel with the gun-control recommendations of the Obama administration, with the exception made above regarding the size of ammunition magazines. Neither Obama’s proposals nor mine will make this a perfect and safe society, but it is better to have public policy set for the protection of the vast majority of Americans than to please the NRA and the gun manufacturers for which it shills.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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2 Responses to Lamar W. Hankins : Gun Control and the Ethics of Self-Defense

  1. R Margulies says:

    Mr Hankins misses several major obstacles in his idealism.
    First, we are dealing with a natural law. Every organism will defend itself.
    Second, Predators choose the weak. Does Mr Hankins suggest that we abandon the weak and thin the herd?
    Third, we are not a violent country by international comparisons. We even have a lower rate of ‘self violence’, i.e.suicide than some countries with restrictive firearms laws.
    Fourth, most ‘gun violence’ occurs in large cities with segregated populations; such enclaves having been formed, funded, encouraged and perpetuated by a single political party.
    Fifth, the ATF has proven itself to be a political operation, again for a single political party, and has ‘gone rogue’ even on that party.
    Sixth, the laws do not have a demonstrated history of success, since laws only punish after the fact of committed crime. Laws did not prevent Columbine, Aurora, school massacres, San Bernardino and other terrorist attacks.
    The laws only impede honest citizens ability to defend themselves.
    Seventh, Mr Hankins misstates the responsibilities of dedicated and honorable Police Officers with other citizens who in fact, by virtue of citizenship, and in law, have the same responsibilities as do LEO’s. It is Criminals who violate citizenship and the law.
    Is Mr Hankins suggesting that all Lawyers, Judges, Politicians, Airline pilots and Physicians take polygraph and psychological testing? My experience suggests that many attorneys have some psychopathology. Where will he stop?
    What is the difference between a butcher knife, a kitchen knife and a hunting knife?
    And Eighth, The United States is A Constitutional Republic. He, and I, have free speech; and the right to be secure in our “…homes and possessions…”; and the right to “…keep and bear arms…”.

  2. Max says:

    “Principle #1: Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places”
    There are no such things as dangerous places, only dangerous people convening in certain areas. The problem is people, not geography. It needs to be addressed as such.

    “Principle #2: Do not defend your property.”
    A person who does not defend what is his will always have it taken away from him.

    “For Harris, who lives in the Los Angeles area…”
    Ha! Enough said.

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