In case you haven’t heard, Prince recently released a song entitled ‘Baltimore’, which pays tribute to Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, two young men whose deaths at the hands of police in the U.S. caused significant social unrest.
To my ears, as a Prince fan, the song sounds pretty good as a piece of music. The song broadly laments violence and says peace is good, which makes much of it hard to disagree with – I particularly like the line ‘peace is more than the absence of war’ – but Prince strays into the realm of disagreeable delusion when he suggests: ‘let’s take all the guns away’.
There’s two possibilities here as I see it. Either Prince wrote this line because he sincerely believes that all the guns should be taken away, or else it doesn’t reflect Prince’s belief and is meant to represent the sort of utopian, pie-in-the-sky thinking that the public tends to indulge in after deaths at the hands of police. Only Prince knows.
Whether Prince believes it or not, it’s worth discussing the idea of taking all the guns away.
By “let’s take all the guns away” does Prince mean citizens and policemen should all willingly decide to (somehow) get rid of or destroy their guns in a mass act of brotherly love? Because if he does, then obviously that’s never going to happen. Some or even many private citizens might be persuaded to do so, but the police would never get rid of their guns. Not because all policemen are soulless psychopaths who aren’t touched by the suggestion of making the world a better place, but because of the nature of the State’s relationship to society.
The State must possess a mighty stash of guns and the exclusive legal right to use violence and deadly force against anyone in order to maintain its position as the only agency in society that enforces law. The State is never going to voluntarily give up its guns and its power. No State ever has. Even British police, who don’t usually carry hand guns and thus rarely shoot people, are always safe in the knowledge that they have by far the biggest weapons armoury in society at their disposal – and the exclusive legal right to use violence.
It’s hard enough to get ten people to agree on a restaurant to go to, let alone millions of gun owners to agree to give up their guns. It’s almost certainly never going to happen, but I can only assume that people who attempt it do so because they believe that persuading a society of people to not have guns will be as easy as persuading people that murder is bad. This is because such people seem to believe that guns are evil in the same way that murder is evil; they seem to believe that guns possess the quality of evil and therefore equal murder. This is a case of poor reasoning, probably born out of wishful thinking.
A gun is a tool and thus can be used by people for both good and evil; it is not an action that can be morally defined as good or evil. A person holding a gun can kill or rob you, but they can also stop someone else from killing or robbing you.
If Prince wasn’t suggesting or envisioning a mass voluntary disposing/destroying of guns by police and private citizens alike, then he must have been thinking of an act of government – i.e. gun prohibition.
There’s always two types of arguments against any government action: the argument from morality and the argument from consequence. The moral argument against laws to restrict private gun ownership is a two pronged one. Firstly, gun prohibition cannot be enacted without violating the generally accepted moral laws to which most people adhere. In other words, it is necessary to use theft, threats of violence and actual violence (for those who resist arrest) in order to stop people from acquiring and selling guns.
Secondly, merely possessing or carrying a gun (i.e. concealed carry) is an action that does not restrict the freedoms of anyone else, and therefore cannot justifiably be prevented by force.
The thing about gun control is that it guarantees the presence of guns in any given community. Some group of people has to have guns in order to be able to stop everyone else from having them. This means genuinely gun-free communities are only possible in the absence of gun control laws. If the crime rate is low in any given community and its people feel safe, then it’s possible that no one will have a gun even though they are free to acquire them.
The argument from consequence against gun prohibition is this. Contrary to popular assumption and belief, it’s higher crime rates that cause higher gun ownership (not the other way around as is often assumed) and gun ownership levels have no net effect on rates of violence and crime, including murder. Also, for every crime committed with a gun there’s approximately three or four instances of crime prevention with a gun. Furthermore, much less burglary happens in areas where it’s legal for individuals to own guns. These are the key findings of the best research and studies, which I have discussed in detail in a previous post.
Gun control comes at a real individual and social cost. It is the murder, rape and robbery that would otherwise have been prevented or mitigated by the wielding of or the firing of a gun by a man fighting for his life or scaring off an intruder; by a terrified woman escaping a rapist; or by an armed school security guard ending a school shooting before it gets started. it’s the loss of life and property and the psychological and physical suffering that would otherwise have been averted.
Reflect on this. Guns in the hands of those who know they will be held accountable to the law should they use one aggressively, do not lead to increased violent crime or murder. Guns in the hands of State police, however, do because this group of people are so rarely punished for causing harm or death by violence or aggressive use of their firearms. That’s the significance of impunity, which is an inherent feature of law enforcement and conflict resolution monopolised by the State.
The truth is that ‘taking all the guns away’ is utopian thinking, it could only happen and indeed be desirable in a world where no one ever needed to defend themselves or their property; in other words in a world of perfectly virtuous human beings whose emotions never determined their behaviour.
History, particularly from the 20th century, tells us that dreams of achieving utopia through the brute force of government end in manifestations of human hell at the hands of it – and much human suffering.
Peace is more than the absence of war; it’s the maximum sphere of individual liberty. The police State in america has emerged as a consequence of the erosion of individual freedoms. The permanently poverty-stricken areas in which the boot of the U.S. police State most often comes down on the face of American humanity are the result of the erosion of the unprecedented economic liberty that American citizens once exploited to amazing effect. It’s true that more people in America than almost anywhere else in the Western world lose their lives in encounters with State law enforcers, but all people everywhere are losing their freedoms to the States that rule over them – whether they realise or not.
At a rally in Baltimore Prince said “the system is broken”, but he’s wrong. Broken implies it can be fixed, but fixing it would require agents of the State to be held accountable to the laws they enforce, or the State’s law enforcement agencies to be populated with human beings who do not act out of self-interest and according to incentives, but according to principles and out of interest for others. The nature of the State and of Man means both are impossible dreams.
It might result in some minor technical or procedural changes in front-line policing, which aren’t worth nothing, but advocating reform of State justice and civil enforcement systems through further government action will be a mostly futile use of good people’s time and energy; worst still, it will give people hope where there is none.
Where there is hope, as Epicurus once said, is in the principle that no evil lasts forever. What gives life to the State is the moral sanction of the people and what sustains it is the wealth they create. The latter is dwindling and, in time, we may hope that the former will be withdrawn by most. If we can find it in ourselves to turn our backs on the coercive apparatus of the State, then we’ll find ourselves facing a future of brave new worlds where law enforcers aren’t the most persistent and dangerous law breakers.