Flat White

Liberty and America’s gun culture

20 February 2018

8:01 PM

20 February 2018

8:01 PM

Freedom is not an unalloyed good. It allows people both to flourish and to make mistakes. Freedom, then, can never be perfection. And finding the sweet spot between license and veto is a never-ending quest. The problem is as old as Aristotle, who called his answer to ethical dilemmas the “golden mean” – the middle ground between two extremes.

America’s continuing problem with guns is a case in point, as exemplified by the recent terrible tragedy in Florida, where a 19-year-old lone shooter, Nikolas Cruz, murdered 17 high-school students with a legally bought AR-15 rifle. Where, in this instance, is the sweet spot between individual freedom and collective security? In other words, at what point on the spectrum between freedom and servitude does the balance move too far to one extreme – either the individual’s right to own guns, or the people’s right to safety?

The question is both simple and complicated. How much damage do we accept as a society for the use of a good – in this case, the right of a free individual to own guns? We make similar calculations about everything else, so why not about guns. Nothing, in the interaction between human beings, comes without a price. As Milton Friedman said, there is no such thing as a “free lunch”. We always have to weigh gain from loss, benefit from risk. This is an important question, especially when the lives of children are at stake. And yet we allow people to die every day in order to gain the advantage of a good or a service. Even our police and armed forces make mistakes and kill innocents. But we accept that the benefits of having the police defend us against criminals, and the army defend us against foreign threats to our sovereignty, outweigh the price we pay in the death of innocents. We believe that the benefits outweigh the cost.

We also accept this cost/benefit calculation in other areas of life. 3000 people die each year in Britain from using aspirin. 1,225 people died in motor vehicle accidents on Australian roads in 2017. That’s 4.98 per cent of every 100,000 people in Australia. Medical errors are responsible for over 250,000 deaths in American hospitals each year. And you are as likely to be crushed to death by furniture in America as to be murdered by a terrorist. These are not flippant calculations. They are deadly serious in the true sense of the term. And in each instance we make a calculation whether the pain is worth the benefit.

Here are some statistics about gun ownership and murder in America. In 2015, there were 357 million guns in America. One in three people, in a population of 310 million, own a gun. There were over 13,000 gun-related deaths, which is 0.0043403 per cent of America’s population. And 80 per cent of that figure is criminal gang members killing each other. In other words, murder by firearm is the exception rather than the rule in America. This is not to excuse or mitigate the horror of mass shootings. Something has to be done about this issue because the laws governing gun ownership in America are not working. The rest of the world looks on in horror every time a mentally disturbed man murders innocents, especially children. And even people who admire America wonder why government, at both a federal and a state level, do nothing to alleviate this scourge.

The answer usually, but not always, lies in the civilised centre. This is the space where advocates of gun control and believers in the right of the individual to bear arms can meet. High-powered weapons designed for combat should not be available to the public. It would make all the difference, at least symbolically, if members of the gun-owning community in America publicly rejected the idea that people have a right to own any type of weapon. And it would be a sign of good faith by advocates of gun control to stop demonising people who own guns. It is too late in American history to outlaw public ownership of guns. The idea of the free individual defending himself against criminals or a tyrannical state is embedded in American culture.

Perhaps only when both sides of this issue come together can a serious debate on gun ownership start in the country that, for so much of its history, has been a beacon of civilised values to the world.

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