Thursday, April 19, 2007

Risk versus Rights?

There's an interesting argument being put forward by those favouring the rights of Americans to carry guns in the wake of the tragedy in Virginia:

"Obviously, this man had a lot of problems. You don't know. If he had not got guns, would it have been something else ... People crash cars into people," said Mr Wilder. "When something like this happens, when there is a tragedy, this is not the time to jump on all the political agendas. I tend to believe that when you have freedom, there are responsibilities that go with that freedom. When there is a problem, does it mean we should reduce the freedoms, or increase responsibility?"
Leaving aside the obvious flaw in his argument that the man might have found some more efficient way to kill 32 people - is there a more efficient way for a civilian to kill 32 people in that space of time than two semi-automatic weapons? - the gist of his argument appears to be that the many should live with some degree of acceptable risk rather than remove the freedom of the majority because of the actions of the few.

Now, whether carrying around semi-automatic guns is a civil right is a totally separate argument, but it's interesting that the ability to own weapons is the only right that some people are not prepared to sacrifice in order to increase public safety.

14.24 out of every 100,000
Americans die in firearm related deaths. A very much smaller percentage die from terrorist related activity and yet it is constantly argued that Americans (and Brits, as this same argument is employed by Blair) must sacrifice the right to privacy and many other rights in order to protect the populace from terrorism.

If the reason for restricting our rights is to protect us, then surely governments would restrict our rights in the places most likely to reduce deaths amongst the population?

And why do the right wing understand the argument about acceptable risk - versus restrictions being placed upon the entire population - when it relates to gun ownership, but seem unable to understand that argument when it relates to terrorism which, as I say, kills far fewer people than guns?

There are many on the right who raced to defend President Bush when he was found to be listening to calls outside of FISA - which is a Federal crime - because he was "protecting them from terrorism". Indeed, many on the right have supported the establishment of the facility at Guantanamo Bay - which has destroyed America's reputation worldwide - in order to be protected from a threat that kills fewer people than handguns do.

All of us live with a degree of risk every day. Every time I, or any other Londoner, board a tube train we are taking a risk. This is something we inherently accept.

Now, whilst I support my government taking actions to ensure that my journey is as safe as possible, there are some things that I am not prepared to sacrifice in order to help them to do so.

My right to privacy comes pretty near the top of that list. And if the government were to present me with the choice of giving up substantial parts of my privacy in order to reduce any risk, then I would choose to continue to take the risk rather than to surrender substantial parts of my privacy.

It strikes me as very interesting that the right wing understand this argument only as it relates to handguns, but seem unable to grasp it when it is applied to terrorism and the way we all must live our lives since 9-11.

Especially, as I say, since handguns kill many more people than terrorists do.

* There are nearly 200 million privately owned firearms in the US

* In 2004, there were nearly 11,000 homicides involving guns, according to the FBI

* Total number of victims from firearm incidents was 477,000 in 2005

* A British citizen is 50 times less likely to be a victim of gun homicide than an American

* One third of firearms are handguns

* 16 children and teenagers are killed by gun accidents in the US each day

* Guns that are kept for self defence are 43 times more likely to be used to kill a friend or family member

* Possessing a household gun increases the chance of suicide by five times.

Click title for full article.


Stash said...

First, I think your posts above and bellow show that there are much more efficient ways to kill 32 people than with hand guns.

Second, according to this PBS doc from 1995.

There were 223 million firearms in the US at the time with 815,130 incidents of reported violence and 11,198 deaths from handguns. A little math finds that .0037% of all guns in the US are used for violent crime.

I'm a gun advocate, but I have no problems with any of the proposed gun control laws, like waiting periods, clip size, caliber restrictions etc. Most of them make perfect sense to me. You don't need a hunting rifle or a sports pistol the very second you want one, and you don't need a .50 cal sniper rifle to hunt anything. But I think it's fair to say and that statistics show that the gun laws only work on the lawful.

Anyone bent on committing crime will be able to find ways to do it. Crazy people will always be doing crazy things and they don't necessarily need guns to do them. Further, terrorists and street gangs are not going to be hindered by new gun laws.

I think the key is that more effort needs to be placed in law enforcement and controlling the flow of illegal guns. Also, we need to make sure those who use weapons in crime are sent to jail and stay there.

Kel said...


I think coming from different continents we will never see eye to eye on this one.

I take the fact on board that the amount of guns used to kill people constitute 0.0037% of all guns in the US, however your figure of 11,000 still roughly accords with mine.

The events in the posts above and below this were both carried out by terrorist groups as opposed to individual civilians, so I don't really think your analogy is apt. Especially as the type of crime we are talking about is usually carried out by a solitary individual.

When it comes to individuals bombing, McVeigh is the only name that instantly comes to mind. Perhaps you know of others, but I imagine they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

However according to reports in today's Independent newspaper a British citizen is fifty times LESS likely to be a victim of gun homicide than an American.

There has to be some rational explanation for that.

However, interesting as all this is, that's not what the post was about. The post was about how right wingers accept that it's ludicrous to remove the freedoms of all gun holders because of the actions of a few - a point I feel you might agree with - and that there is such a thing as acceptable risk, something that your 0.0037% figure would back.

My point is that they have a very different argument about freedoms and acceptable risks when it comes to the subject of terrorism and our rights to privacy for example, in which case their argument reverses itself and they are all for the majority being punished because of the actions of the few. Indeed, there appear to be very few rights they wouldn't squander in those circumstances.

Stash said...

I did get the point of the original post with which I completely agree. Hypocrisy in politics is nothing new. I just wanted to discuss the gun violence aspect of your argument.

It is true in that the acts are part of the strategies of the various factions in Iraq, but I feel that the analogy is still applicable. One person with very little know how can do devastating things.

I feel that people being 50 times less likely to be victims in England than in the US is too broad a comparison. The US has 3 times the population for one. Most violence in the US occurs in the cities and are results of gang violence and the like. Take this form from my state of Pennsylvania. If I lived in Philadelphia I would be at least 200 times more likely to be murdered than another county in the state. Yet as a resident of Pennsylvania I might be several times more likely than someone living in a more rural state, because of Philadelphia, Allegheny and Berks counties where gang violence and drug trafficking are prevalent.

Therefore, I think it would be more applicable to compare London with Philly. I think we'll find that they aren't so wildly different.

This, is the kind of action I think needs to be taken.

Kel said...


I take it that the "50 times less likely" statistic has been adjusted to take account of the difference in population, it would be a meaningless statistic otherwise.

As to your comparison of London and Philadelphia. In 2000 Philadelphia had a population of around 1,500,000; London's population is 7,500,000.

And yet:

Allegheny ranked second among counties, behind Philadelphia, in firearm-related hospitalizations and deaths, according to the report, with 843 hospital stays from 2001 to 2003 and 410 deaths. Philadelphia had 2,566 hospitalizations and 960 deaths.

In the whole of England and Wales:

The number of people shot dead last year in England and Wales may have fallen sharply from 77 to 49, but the police are increasingly worried about the rise of a teenage gang and gun culture.

Despite London having around seven times the population of Philadelphia, it has a fraction of the gun deaths.

And the comparison between Britain and the US has to be valid as both country's have rural areas and larger cities. Indeed, it has to be right as - in the one American city you chose - there are more gun related deaths than in the whole of England and Wales combined. And those country's have a combined population of about fifty million people.

And, I agree, that in both country's it is the cities that tend to produce the greater degree of gun crime as your link to London shows, although the level of panic in London is caused by a fraction of the gun deaths that Philadelphia suffers from. And the rise in London gun crime is a relatively new phenomenon, especially amongst young blacks, and our method of tackling it has been to make possession punishable by a five year jail term.

Stash said...

OK. I give up on statistics. The most relevant follow up I could find was from 2005. In it London had about 1/3 the murder rate of NY per 100,000 residents with NY being the safest American city at that time.

However, I still don't lay the blame for this strictly at the feet of guns. I think the issues lie in our spiraling poverty rates and an overall decline in education.

The disparity between rich and poor in American cities is huge. The middle class has all but abandoned them and they are left with fewer and fewer tax revenues. Without a good tax base educational funding dries up and for large numbers of kids the gangs and drugs are all that's left. I think that it is this issue that lies at the heart of most of the crime in this country. I also think that that we are failing miserably at combating it. Guns, most certainly, can be a problem and we should be doing what we can to limit their misuse and acquisition by those that would do us harm. But no law on guns will do anything if we don’t attack the root causes of crime itself.

Kel said...


The disparity between rich and poor is indeed huge in the US and there is every indication that it is growing.

And I agree that tackling that would do as much as anything else to tackle the violence that is rampant in society.