American attitudes to gun control are about how they see the state


11:52 am - December 16th 2012

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by Jonathan Kent

There are some reactions to the Connecticut primary school killings, such as those expressed by President Obama, that will be almost universal: “This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another.”

But the different reactions here and in America tell us a great deal about our concepts of freedom and our relationship with the state. However crazy it may seem to allow the casual sale of weapons in a country that suffers around 30,000 gun deaths a year, the issue goes to the heart of American traditions of liberty.

In England our national myth is the myth of the good king: King Arthur sleeping until England needs him; Robin Hood siding with good king Richard against bad Prince John; Richard II – ‘your leader is dead, I shall be your leader.’ When English kings behaved badly they were rarely blamed directly, people preferred to believe that ‘if we can just prise the king away from his wicked advisers he will listen to sense and all will be well.’

Just as the most common dream in Britain is apparently about the Queen dropping in for tea, we also cherish the notion that the King or Queen will always protect the best interests of the people. Perhaps as a result most Britons have a benign view of the state. But it’s also a remote state – not an embodiment of the public will, but ‘The Crown’, and it still has a tendency to act like ‘The Crown’.

In America the national myth begins from the fear of a bad King; bad King James from whom the Pilgrim Fathers fled; bad King George against whom good General George rallied the colonies and their militias and drove from the continent.

Americans’ right to bear arms, guaranteed under the Second Amendment to the constitution, stems from the right of citizens to protect themselves and their homes from bad rulers; whether it be invading armies, their own government, or the bad folks from over the valley.

Ultimately we have to decide how to best balance different and often competing kinds of freedoms; ‘freedoms to’ and ‘freedoms from’, as in: Your freedom to own a gun impinges on my freedom not to live in fear of being shot.

What Americans have grasped is that ‘freedoms to’ are the mark of a truly free society. What they haven’t grasped is that ‘freedoms to’ also favour the powerful and the rich.

What Europeans have grasped is that ‘freedoms from’ are the touchstone of a peaceful and more equitable society. What many haven’t, especially on the left, is that authoritarian regimes always use ‘freedom from’ to justify their repressive behaviour. If we’re to err on one side it’s surely that we should be generous with ‘freedoms to’ and rigorous, even parsimonious, with ‘freedoms from’ – we should always be satisfied that we really are talking about freedom.

Getting the balance right might be the devil’s own job but in the wake of Sandy Hook hopefully even US Republicans will concede that the devil has been far too busy and it’s time that citizens step up to the plate and stop outsourcing the task.

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Reader comments


Interesteing points, but I think there’s more to ask: Another alienated teenage boy goes on a school killing rampage and it’s about guns? Is there something in America that turns a misfit into an alienated loner and then into a murderous suicide? There is a horrible pattern to these school massacres.

The city of San Francisco, California, has two gun control ordinances:

“One ordinance requires guns in the home to be locked up when not on the owner’s person and the second bans the sale of fragmenting and expanding bullets, affecting only the city’s sole gun store: High Bridge Arms, in the Mission district.”
http://www.sfbg.com/2012/12/04/guns-bayview

Such restrictions are sensible, if modest, measures but even those have been challenged as unconstitutional by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in a Federal Court. The Court struck down the challenge but the NRA has said the fight will continue.

The police in San Francisco and in Oakland, on the opposite side of the bay, have launched a buyback plan to get guns off the streets:

“A gun buyback day in San Francisco and Oakland brought out huge crowds Saturday as local residents turned over firearms for cash. Each person turning in a working firearm to police was given $200 cash. The line was around the block in San Francisco where the group ran out of cash by early afternoon and started handing out I.O.U.’s.” [msnbc.msn.com]

The reason for my continuing focus on San Francisco is that by accounts in American media, the city is regarded as the most “liberal” in America, with nine registered Democrat voters for every Republican. The incumbent mayor is ethnic Chinese.

The city is also an indisputably thriving location for business. In another thread, I mentioned that the state of Maryland on the Atlantic coast has the highest median household income among the American states. San Francisco is a city, not a state, but its median household income is higher than that of Maryland. Btw Milton Friedman moved to San Francisco on his retirement from Chicago University.

3. the a&e charge nurse

America free …… are you being serious?

The US is a corporate dictatorship run for the benefit of the uber rich.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzbdJPDhfgI

It appears large swathes of the American populous feel sufficiently insecure that they have be be tooled up to deal with the devastating consequences of their iniquitous system.

You are right that there are differences between the USA and Europe about how the State is perceived, and you are right that this is linked to the fact that people left Europe for north America because of “bad kings” and some north Americans still maintain a rhetorical hostility to bad rulers. However I don’t think that in Europe (or at least the UK) this manifests itself in a hope that the Queen will drop in for tea.

Those of us who stayed behind in Europe had to find ways of living with those bad kings. We had to build methods of governance that made rulers more accountable. Kings either became irrelevant or were deposed.

The other thing to notice is that the population density in Europe is higher than in many parts of north America. We need institutions is help us livewith our neighbours, and on the whole we trust the State to provide those institutions. In north America there is still a belief in certain quarters that they can live in isolation.

So yes, the USA is different (and there are big differences in values, whatever our politicians tell us). But it has little to do with having tea with the Queen.

5. Paul Trembath

What evidence do you have for these rather sweeping assertions? I rather believe that we (and the USA) are considerably more diverse than you suppose. If the Queen drops in on me she may have an unexpected conversation about abdication, Republicanism and privilege.

“In America the national myth begins from the fear of a bad King; bad King James from whom the Pilgrim Fathers fled; bad King George against whom good General George rallied the colonies and their militias and drove from the continent”.

You forget the myth of the so-called pioneer outdoorsmen like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, whose legends are much bigger than their lives ever were. This is all part of the US’s macho culture.

Some good observations from commenters but I do feel I should clarify a little where we seem not to have quite understood one another.
I think I should emphasise this is more a piece on why I don’t expect the U.S. to address issues of gun ownership effectively let alone other underlying factors such as poverty and a lack of mental wellbeing support. On more specific points:
@1 Cherub. Yes – there are countries in Europe with high levels of gun ownership, such as Switzerland, however they tend also to be rather less unequal societies than the USA. I’ve seen it argued cogently that even in the U.S. gun death rates are gighest in sates with the highest Gini co-efficient (a measure of inquality) and lowest where inequality is lowest. There’s also a strong argument that massacres lead to copycat atrocities – the ‘hey, I’m pissed off too, I guess I’ll do what that guy at Columbine did’ factor. But these are all factors among many.
@2 – thanks, very informative.
@3 – please note my remark; “What they haven’t grasped is that ‘freedoms to’ also favour the powerful and the rich.”
@4 – I think you need to read what I wrote again. I’m talking about prevailing national myths in the US and UK as reflections of culture and the way they’re reflected in our relationship and attitudes towards the state. The research that found that the queen dropping in for tea was the most common reported by people in the UK is only an illustration of a wider cultural stream in the UK – and as @5 points out it’s not universal. I haven’t dreamed about the queen dropping in. I probably wouldn’t lecture her about republicanism if she really did because a) I suspect she’s already pretty sure where she stands on that issue and b) it would be a bit rude to treat a guest like that. However we’re now confusing unconscious fantasy with reality so it strikes me as a bit of a futile line to pursue. But I would urge you to consider again
i) the resilience of the monarchy in England in particular (given low points such as the 1820s, 1870s, 1936 crisis, and 1997 and the way in which it has bounced back)
ii) the tendency of the state still to behave like ‘The Crown’ rather than the embodiment of the collective will.
iii) the fact that despite the tendency of the state to act in the interests of the establishment minority the default position of a majority of citizens seems to be to trust it – in sharp contrast with Americans attitudes, well summed up by Thomas Paine in Common Sense: (apols, from memory…) “Society in every state is a blessing but government, even in its best state is but a necessary evil and in its worst an intolerable one.”
@5 – show me where I’m suggesting that either of these prevailing myths is monolithic…
@6: Competely agree, though I hadn’t forgotten it. Indeed I’d accept that the myth of the self sufficient frontiersman is even more dominant than the myth of the people who stood up to a bad king. However it’s the experience of standing up to a bad king that has more bearing on the constitution and the first ten amendments to it, though the frontier myth seems to be a major part of Americans toleration of or active support for gun ownership.

There is a tendency to lump all Americans together as though they all have homogeneous values with a similar aversion to gun control. The example of the police gun buyback plan in San Francisco and Oakland shows that isn’t true.

While there are distinctive differences in social values between America and Europe – in the historic importance attached to national social security systems, for instance – we should tread carefully before lumping all Europeans together.

Famously, of the 27 countries in the European Union, only 17 are in the Eurozone. Attitudes to state regulation and deregulation differ widely. There are systemic differences between countries with traditions of legal systems based on Anglo-Saxon case law, the Code Napoleon and Germanic law. All Europeans don’t share the same vision for an ever closer union in Europe.

i>Your freedom to own a gun impinges on my freedom not to live in fear of being shot.

And if your freedom _from_ a feeling of defencelessness happens to impinge on the freedom of a kid in kindergarten _to_ go home at the end of the school day?

You think one kind of freedom is valid, for example the freedom to own weaponry. That should be either because you can point at a society that has that freedom and say ‘it is good’, or muster some logical argument as to how the costs that freedom imposes on society are both bearable and worthwhile.

Playing games with the secondary words you can fit into a sentence containing those words, such that somehow all the things you favour line up in ‘to’ and all the things you oppose as ‘from’ just doesn’t cut it.

We need to take some salt with the narrative presented here on the relationship between monarchs and their subjects in Europe IMO.

For an alternative perspective on the historic relationships between the English, their monarch and the aristocracy, try this assessment by Voltaire, who was sentenced to exile and lived in England from 1726 to 1729. Reflecting on this experience in his: Letters on England, he wrote:

“The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good, and, at the same time, is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without insolence, though there are no vassals; and where the people share in the Government without confusion.” [Letter VIII]
http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/voltaire/letters-on-england.pdf

For other perspectives: England’s civil war lasted from 1642 to 1651. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 established that the monarch ruled with the consent of the governed, not by divine right. The last battle on British soil was in 1745, at the battle of Colloden, which ended the Jacobite rebellions over the Stuart succession. Slavery was declared unlawful in Britain in the Mansfield judgement in 1772. The American Declaration of Independence was made in 1776. The slave trade was banned by Parliament in 1807. Americans faught a civil war over slavery 1861-65. In England, the feudal system was already on its way out by 1500 – by then, half the land in England was already enclosed. The jury system in trials had been established by Magna Carta in 1215.

Technically they have the right to own weapons, which is slightly different to the freedom to do so. Since you wouldn’t expect a police officer to say ‘you have the freedom to remain silent’.

Well what about the freedom for the individual to have nuclear weapons, nerve gas and Ebola virus. If we are going to use the libertarian argument. Why should there be any limitations ?
Also Yanks, bless their cotton socks, love guns. Collecting, owning and firing them. I don’t they even think of bad kings just the enjoyment of blowing a target or deer’s head to pieces. It is the primeval need to destroy and kill. Like a little boy with a magnifying glass and ants.

13. Derek Hattons Tailor

@11 Freedom is a negative right. Subtle but important difference.
@12 Americans (or some of them) see the state, not necessarily as guarantors of liberty, but as a potential threat to it. I think the full constitutional text is something like “the right to bear arms against oppressive government”

Does the “right to bear arms”, in the US Constitution, extend to assault weapons, artillery, tanks, war planes etc? If not, how come since the Constitution isn’t specific as to what “arms” the right refers to?

The text of the Second Amendment (1791) in the Bill of Rights reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/second_amendment

15. Derek Hattons Tailor

@14 I think in theory it would as “Arms” could only have meant hand guns/rifles when the constitution was written
Having said that sale of the hardware is heavily restricted and attempting to buy it would I think attract attention from Clare Danes et al

16. Richard Carey

@ P Diddy,

“Well what about the freedom for the individual to have nuclear weapons, nerve gas and Ebola virus. If we are going to use the libertarian argument. Why should there be any limitations ?”

The libertarian argument would prohibit the use of the weapons you name, as violence is only allowed in self-defence against an aggressor, and thus weapons which kill indiscriminately are not libertarian. So there should be a limitation, and – here’s the libertarian argument – that limitation should be applied to the state as well as the individual.

More generally, amongst all the calls for ‘gun control’ I have not heard anyone yet call for doing this legally, i.e., by amending the Constitution.

The Constitution does not, by the way, grant the right to keep and bear arms, it acknowledges the right as pre-existing, and prohibits the government from infringing it.

Derek Hattons Tailor

Congress legislated to control ownership of assault weapons in 1994, during the Clinton administration, but there was a 10-year sunset clause so the control expired in 2004. Subsequent efforts to revive the controls have all failed. This is horribly topical as all victims in the killings at the Connecticut elementary school had multiple gun-shot wounds, indicating use of an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.

In 1791, those who drafted and approved the second amendment to the US Constitution can only have envisaged “arms” as meaning single-shot muskets and pistols. There were no breech-loading or lever-action rifles or revolvers at the time, let alone machine guns – the Maxim gun, the first of the machine guns, came out in 1884.

Unless I’m missing something, there is no US legislation preventing its citizens from driving around in armoured cars or tanks for protection. And wearing body armour and head helmets would seem to be prudent investments.

The acclaimed American TV serial The Wire, which relates to gangs, drugs and guns in Baltimore, shows what happens with easy access to guns. Easy access to guns is no deterrent to their use.

Before we all decend into crude anti-Americanism over this, let’s remember that the Second Amendment (ie: thye “right to bear arms”) was intended as a bulwark against tyrany, and US Marxists 9eg James P. Cannon) have historically supported it.

My personal view is that then “Right to bear arms” outside the context of “A well regulated militia” (the actual wording of the Second Amendment) cannot be supported. and recent decisions in the Supreme Court to the contrary are simply perverse. Equally perverse is the decision to to renew the ban upon semi-automatic waepons.

Nevertheless, the “right to bear arms” is a product of America’s revolutionary origins, and not simply an example of its present-day decadence. Professional anti-Americans need to understand that.

Hopefully Obama, not facing re-election and (it seemed) visibly upset by the Sandy Hook massacre, will defy the NRA and other pro-gun vested interests, and take action to outlaw the private possession of firearms.

19. Richard Carey

@ Jim Denham,

“Hopefully Obama, not facing re-election and (it seemed) visibly upset by the Sandy Hook massacre, will defy the NRA and other pro-gun vested interests, and take action to outlaw the private possession of firearms.”

How? Legally, by attempting to amend the Constitution, or just sending the military door-to-door? That will be … interesting.

@ Bob B,

“In 1791, those who drafted and approved the second amendment to the US Constitution can only have envisaged “arms” as meaning single-shot muskets and pistols. ”

This is, IMO, a foolish argument. The purpose of the Amendment, whether you like it or not, is to ensure the people can resist a tyrannical government, and limiting the people to muskets would defeat this purpose.

Yeah – but how come the NRA challenge of the gun control ordinances of San Francisco – as mentioned @2 – and the evident popularity there of the police gun buyback scheme to get guns off the streets?

On the face of it, some Americans just don’t have this aversion to tighter gun control. In the light of the horrific annual number of gun homicides in America, the residents of San Francisco are looking very sane from this side of the Atlantic.

21. Richard Carey

Also @ Jim Denham,

your argument over the word ‘militia’ fails, because the militia was made up of civilians, who needed to provide their own weapons. It was not a professional force.

Richard Carey:

“This is, IMO, a foolish argument. The purpose of the Amendment, whether you like it or not, is to ensure the people can resist a tyrannical government, and limiting the people to muskets would defeat this purpose.”

I’ve been debating online since 1995. In that time, I’ve long since learned that anyone suggesting tighter gun control in America would reduce the horrific annual number of gun homicides there is deemed “foolish” or “stupid” by the gun nuts.

Your particular interpretation of the Second Amendment in 1791 is open to challenge. It had a place in a particular historic context which subsequently changed out of all recognition. In 1791, for any American community, there was the real possibility of armed conflicts with the British, the French, with native Americans and with Canadians, as well as marauding bandits. In 1812, a British army force sacked Washington, which is how the White House came to get painted white to cover over the burn marks.

I just don’t buy the “tyrannical government” story as relevant now, and that story evidently doesn’t impress the residents of San Francisco, who have been selling their guns to the police there to get guns off the streets. How come they aren’t worried about the prospect of tyrannical government?

If your interpretation of the Second Amendment is correct, what use is access to hand guns and rifles against a government empowered with automatic weapons, tanks and war planes? It logically follows, that every American household needs to have machine guns, tanks and war planes for personal protection. It isn’t me who is looking daft now.

The libertarian argument would prohibit the use of the weapons you name, as violence is only allowed in self-defence against an aggressor, and thus weapons which kill indiscriminately are not libertarian. So there should be a limitation, and – here’s the libertarian argument – that limitation should be applied to the state as well as the individual.
Assault guns and snipers rifles are used in self defense ?
I was in the military and that is not their purpose
Are they not assault weapons which will kill indiscriminately.
Handguns yes but a AK47.
Isn’t libertarianism a free for all. I have the right to own nerve gas to study as long as I don’t use it.
How can there be limitations.

@9 Soru, sorry, can’t make head nor tail of what you’re trying to say. As far as I can tell you seem to have misread what I’m saying.

@10 Bob – I’m not talking about a European relationship with the monarchy, I’m talking about the power in English culture of the myth of the good king, and the way that this theme has transferred to the state. In many ways our relationship with the state, with state as ruler and citizens as ruled has strong echoes of that under Charles I despite the advent of democracy.
I recently heard a Swede talking about the state and it was clear he (and his implication was many other Swedes to boot) saw the state as an expression of the collective will – ie ‘the state is us’. That’s not really true of the relationship between citizen and state in the UK.
I’m also arguing that European governments have historically been far more ready to intervene in the name of ‘freedom from’ (ie by restricting ‘freedoms to’) than American governments.
But again I feel I need to stress I’m really asking why it is after Hungerford we took one step towards gun control and after Dunblane another major step, while in the US, however much the stats suggest that the availabiliy of guns turns incidents tha would otherwise be far less bloody into head spinning massacres, gun control is seen more as a restriction on individual liberties guaranteed by the constitution rather than a safety measure.

Jonathan Kent: “I’m also arguing that European governments have historically been far more ready to intervene in the name of ‘freedom from’ (ie by restricting ‘freedoms to’) than American governments.”

The philosophers underpinning the American libertarian tradition were British, namely: John Locke – who incidentally nevertheless supported the institution of slavery – Edmund Burke, and John Stewart Mill, who very clearly expounded the difference between the concepts of “freedom from” and “freedom to”:

“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.”
http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html

JS Mill also famously wrote: Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.

You haven’t explained why San Francisco residents don’t share this aversion to tighter gun control.

26. Richard Carey

@ Bob B,

” I’ve long since learned that anyone suggesting tighter gun control in America would reduce the horrific annual number of gun homicides there is deemed “foolish” or “stupid” by the gun nuts.”

A strawman misrepresentation of what I said, which was criticising the idea that the 2nd Amendment should guarantee the right to keep and bear muskets, but not modern guns. I made no mention of what you say above.

“On the face of it, some Americans just don’t have this aversion to tighter gun control.”

Indeed, but can’t you understand why other Americans look at Chicago and DC and their chart-topping murder rates and strict gun control and say ‘no thanks, I’ll keep my guns’?

“Your particular interpretation of the Second Amendment in 1791 is open to challenge. It had a place in a particular historic context which subsequently changed out of all recognition.”

You know it’s not my ‘particular interpretation’. It’s well backed up by the contemporary records of the debates, and by the natural law origins of the American legal system, and, once again, I note that you, as a ‘gun-grabber’, don’t call for the Constitution to be amended, just ignored.

“It logically follows, that every American household needs to have machine guns, tanks and war planes for personal protection.”

No, it logically follows that the state should not have such a monstrously large military. The Founding Fathers warned them of the perils of a standing army and of foreign entanglements. In any case, this is not relevant. The law is what it is. If you don’t like it, call for its amendment. If you think it’s no longer relevant, then make that case.

27. Richard Carey

@ Bob B,

“The philosophers underpinning the American libertarian tradition were British, namely: John Locke – who incidentally nevertheless supported the institution of slavery – Edmund Burke, and John Stewart Mill, who very clearly expounded the difference between the concepts of “freedom from” and “freedom to””

John Locke, yes, but John Stuart Mill? I think you need to check the chronology on that one. The same applies with Edmund Burke. Other important influences came from Algernon Sidney, Hugo Grotius, Cato (the pseudonym not the Roman), Voltaire etc

22. Bob B

” In 1791, for any American community, there was the real possibility of armed conflicts with the British, the French, with native Americans and with Canadians, as well as marauding bandits. ”

The British and Canadians were effectively the same thing because Canada as a state did not exist. Most of the people who were in Canada at that time were Loyalists who had moved there from the thirteen colonies.

” In 1812, a British army force sacked Washington, which is how the White House came to get painted white to cover over the burn marks. ”

The White House was always white even before it was burned in revenge for the burning of the Parliament Buildings in the Battle of York, Upper Canada (roughly modern day southern Ontario)

Richard Carey: “No, it logically follows that the state should not have such a monstrously large military”

Funny man. America maintained and maintains such potent military capability to deter aggression by potentially hostile states, such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and nowadays, China, which is set to increase its military might. Hence Obama’s announced shift in American defence policy to put greater emphasis on the Pacific theatre.

A regular issue in post-war US presidential elections has been whether incumbent administrations have maintained sufficient military prowess to prevent aggression by potential adversaries. Kennedy made that a leading issue in his 1960 presidential campaign.

Even without potential external threats, the armed capability of the state will normally extend to greater fire power than that available to its citizens. If we are to take seriously the rights in the Second Amendment to bear arms as necessary to prevent government tyranny, it follows that households must have equivalent armories.

What the gang, drugs and gun crime in Baltimore have demonstrated is that easy access to guns does not deter their use. On the stats, easy access to guns just increases the number of gun homicides.

A truly horrifying news report in The Guardian about the assault weapon used to kill the children and their teachers in the Connecticut elementary school:

“Barak Obama is under intensifying pressure to take the lead in a campaign for greater gun control following the disclosure by police that the Newtown gunman used a semi-automatic assault rifle equipped with ‘numerous’ high-capacity magazines holding hundreds of bullets to carry out his massacre of young children.”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/16/obama-gun-control-newtown-assault

At the very least, it make sense to ban access to assault weapons like that but UK news reports are saying that there is little to no prospect of getting such legislation through through Congress.

29. Bob B

” Funny man. America maintained and maintains such potent military capability to deter aggression by potentially hostile states, such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and nowadays, China, which is set to increase its military might. ”

China has never been an expansionary military power beyond their immediate borders. The idea that the U.S. must continue spending as much on defence as the rest of the world put together because China is a growing economic power is pure neo-con propaganda. China have one clapped-out second hand aircraft carrier that they bought from the Ukraine. The U.S. has 10 and 1 in reserve. The U.S. defence budget is so large because the military-industrial complex lobbyists have made it that way. It is a scam rather than a defence budget.

31. Richard Carey

@ Richard W,

Aye. If only the Americans had paid attention to Eisenhower’s farewell speech.

30 Richard W: “China has never been an expansionary military power beyond their immediate borders.”

I doubt that Tibetans see it that way.

There was a war in 1962 between India and China over disputed borders. China’s government makes no secret of its intention to assert sovereignty over Taiwan and is currently engaged in numerous territorial disputes with neighbouring countries over the Spratly Is in the South China Sea as well as with Japan over the Senaku Is in the East China Sea.

The election of a new Liberal Democratic Party government in Japan, led by Shinzo Abe, an avowed nationalist, does not augur well for peace ahead in east Asia and Japan is a key ally of America. Obama’s incoming Secretary of State, to replace Hillary Clinton, will have early challenges.

Why all these recent regular parades exhibiting China’s military might – and why the recent demonstration of war planes landing and taking off on China’s aircraft carrier?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHZIUdHm6b4

China’s government certainly isn’t behaving as though it had no belligerent intentions.

@25 Bob, really – John Stuart Mill was born in 1806. I’d also be fascinated to see if you could actually source that quote. Sounds like it’s one of those ‘let me quickly knock out a quote and ascribe it to someone much smarter than me’ quotes.
I really don’t think you read the piece very carefully. Just as there were plenty of people in Britain who supported the American Revolution ad there were plenty of Tories in the colonies, neither tradition is without dissenting views now.
But you answers suggest that you could do some more reading around this subject. Try John Keane on Tom Paine and David McCullough on John Adams as starting points.

34. Man on Clapham Omnibus

I find the OP a little difficult to connect with; more Disney than reality sadly. The last time I thought of King John.. well let me think……. and as for dreaming of the Queen showing up ; well I haven’t thought of that since I sacked Cinderella.
Maybe rather than the fairy tails we should consider some structural elements of American Society, borne out of a violent struggle for independence, then the massacre of the native population,then the war against the Mexicans,then the civil war. That’s just the historical stuff! Take a look a what America has done in the last 50 years and you will realise that violence is pretty much the DNA of American society. It is unsurprising that that paradigm is inevitably played out regularly in civil society.

Jonathan Kent

Source of that quote by JS Mill about Conservatives:

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”
From a Parliamentary debate with the Conservative MP, John Pakington on 31 May 1866.
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Stuart_Mill

On the contested sources of inspiration for the American libertarian tradition, we shouldn’t overlook the seminal contribution of that American sage, HL Mencken, who famously said: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

“In 1791, those who drafted and approved the second amendment to the US Constitution can only have envisaged “arms” as meaning single-shot muskets and pistols. ”

As long as we aren’t simultaneously arguing that an adumbration of a penumbra of the first amendment of the constitution is clear authority for the right to an abortion…

In any event, the US legal system does not cleave to a teleological interpretation of either statute or constitutional documents.

Tim J: “In any event, the US legal system does not cleave to a teleological interpretation of either statute or constitutional documents.”

Exactly so. And the Second Amendment is completely unspecific as to what exactly constitutes “arms”.

On the face of it, a citizen nowadays could therefore invoke the Amendment to justify possessing and using any kind of weaponry, especially so if, as is claimed, the undeclared intention of the drafters was to enable American citizens to challenge tyrannical government, which could have any variety of weaponry at its disposal.

It is separately contended that the Amendment can only be invoked to justify use of lethal force in self-defence, although judging by what actually happens, “self-defence” evidently extends to a variety of pre-emptive homicides so the slaughter of innocents continues unabated. Periodic massacres are a matter of public concern lasting for only a week or so.

This BBC assessment is very pessimistic about the prospects for any new US legislation to control possession of arms:

“Public support for stricter gun legislation has been on a downward trend in recent years, along with overall levels of violent crime.

“This, after all, is a nation where the pro-gun National Rifle Association (NRA) has more than 4m members. According to the Small Arms Survey, there were 88.8 firearms for every 100 Americans in 2007.

“Likewise, US legal and political trends have been moving away from supporters of greater controls, says James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University.

“‘All of the policy momentum in the last 20 years has been in the direction of gun owners’ rights,’ he says.”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20742508

I understand what the OP is saying, but there are many contradictions in this worldview of “resisting tyrranical governments” so many Europeans find it difficult to relate to. Who forced Nixon to resign? Who exposed Iran-Contragate? Who campaigned against the Bush-Cheney powergrabs? Well-regulated militias? The NRA?

Who forced Nixon to resign? Who exposed Iran-Contragate? Who campaigned against the Bush-Cheney powergrabs? Well-regulated militias? The NRA?

Now you mention it, it is a bit similar to the Tabloid press argument that they need to do these invasions of privacy in order to expose the powerful and corrupt, while hacking Sienna Miller’s mum’s phone instead.

Armed resistance to the State – or the threat of it – isn’t unique to the USA: George Orwell wrote that the rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy.

Passive acceptance of the State is a modern phenomenon.

I understand what the OP is saying, but there are many contradictions in this worldview of “resisting tyrranical governments” so many Europeans find it difficult to relate to. Who forced Nixon to resign? Who exposed Iran-Contragate? Who campaigned against the Bush-Cheney powergrabs? Well-regulated militias? The NRA?

The Black Panthers played quite a big part in the civil rights movement: they were heavily armed, and marched in Sacrimento against arms control.

Back in the Sixties it was Democrats who supported the right of people to bare arms (hence liberal Charlton’s support for the NRA) while the Republicans wanted to ban scary black men from carrying weapons.

Sorry, meant ‘Charlton Heston’ above.

Jim Denham

“Nevertheless, the “right to bear arms” is a product of America’s revolutionary origins, and not simply an
example of its present-day decadence. Professional anti-Americans need to understand that.”

Who are the professional anti-Americans that you are referring to, Jim? I agree with the OP that the attitude to the State in the US is partly due to the origins of the USA. What I object to is people who claim that Europe and the USA have exactly the same values or that we in Europe should accept north American values.

@35 Bob B – I stand corrected. Sincere apologies for having doubted your sourcing.

45. Richard Carey

@ Shatterface,

“Back in the Sixties it was Democrats who supported the right of people to bear arms (hence liberal Charlton’s support for the NRA) while the Republicans wanted to ban scary black men from carrying weapons.”

You’re right about the race element:

“The first gun control laws were enacted in the ante-bellum South forbidding blacks, whether free or slave, to possess arms, in order to maintain blacks in their servile status. After the Civil War, the South continued to pass restrictive firearms laws in order to deprive the newly freed blacks from exercising their rights of citizenship.”

http://www.saf.org/lawreviews/tahmassebi1.html

Try this news report on the bizarre beliefs of the mother of Sandy Hook, the perpetrator of the Newtown elementary school massacre:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNdDsf6XG-g

His mother was evidently the registered owner of five guns and a “survivalist” or “prepper” – see Wikipedia entry for “Survivalism” for an illuminating brief on a paranoid cult where the members get armed in anticipation of social upheaval or armageddon. I’ve a hazy recollection of an earlier cult from some decades back: Minutemen

I’m beginning to think that rational debate about the motivation of American gun enthusiasts is all rather pointless. For starters, it is clear that not all Americans feel impelled to possess guns for protection against a tyrannical state or the contingency of social disorder while much of the supposedly legalistic discussion about the “right to bear (what?) arms” in the Second Amendment in 1791 to the US Constitution is pure sophistry. At the very least, it is confused. Professional psychiatric advice will probably shed more light than philosophy or history hobbyists.

Timothy McVeigh made a protest against state tyranny in America by blowing up US federal government offices in Oklahoma on 19 April 1995, thereby killing 168 people and injuring more than 800. I’ve never been clear on how this proved the American state to be tyrannical.

The devotion of the NRA to the 2nd amendment reminds me of those religious people who literally interpret their holy texts. In their day they served as an excellent backbone for civilisation to be built around.

The problem is that 2000 year old texts have had huge holes punched in them by science and have nothing to say about modern society. What does the bible say about global economics and investment banking? What about IVF treatment?

Similarly the 2nd amendment was added to the constitution at a time when America was largely an untamed wilderness at threat of invasion by European forces and pushing forward into Native territory. It was needed several hundreds of years ago but in modern society when the US has secure borders and an immensely powerful military it is out of date. The America of 1791 is long gone.

48. Richard Carey

@ Bob b,

yeah, it sure is crazy stocking up on food, meds, etc. I mean, when was the last time there was, say, a massive, destructive storm in America?

49. Derek Hattons Tailor

@ 47

The whole point of ideology is that it is universal, generalisable and not culturally specific. If an idea “works” then it works now or 1,000 years from now, here or in Timbuktu. No socialist ever says Marxism was only relevant to 18th century North Eastern Europe.

Why does everything have to say something about “modern society” (whose modern society and who decides ?).

Richard Carey: “yeah, it sure is crazy stocking up on food, meds, etc. I mean, when was the last time there was, say, a massive, destructive storm in America?”

It’s not stocking-up of the food and medicines that is weird but the reported collection of five guns by Adam Lanza’s mother, including one assault rifle together with extra-large feeder magazines.

Is it really surprising that distant observers regard it as shameful that the Federal and States governments take no steps to tighten gun control so there is a sickening series of four school shooting tragedies in just the relatively short span of Obama’s presidency so far with every prospect of more to follow if there are no new measures to control gun access?

BBC reporters in America are saying that there is little to no possibility of Congress passing gun control legislation. If anything, gun control in recent years has become more relaxed, not tighter.

I don’t buy this story that personal access to guns is essential to guard against the contingency of social upheaval.

It is evident that San Francisco citizens – widely rated in American media as the most “liberal” in America – are supportive of gun ordinances and queued up on Saturday to give up weapons in response to the gun buyback scheme launched by the city’s police. Yet San Francisco is located on an earthquake fault line – the notorious San Andreas fault – which means another quake anytime soon is highly likely. The last powerful quake there was in 1989 and the 1906 quake was catastrophic in the scale of casualties and destruction.

The claimed theory that guns are an essential protection in times of social chaos clearly hasn’t motivated San Francisco citizens to oppose gun control.

@41. Shatterface: “The Black Panthers played quite a big part in the civil rights movement: they were heavily armed, and marched in Sacrimento against arms control.”

But were the Blank Panthers politically productive? The politics was won (as far it has been achieved) by boring unarmed citizens standing up for their rights or for those of friends.

From Wikipedia: “Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party [Black Panther Party] “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country…””

A bonkers man thought that the Black Panthers were important. We may be permitted to conclude otherwise.

52. Richard Carey

@ Bob B,

there’s a reason no one carries concealed in San Francisco – nowhere to conceal it:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/san-francisco-nudity-ban

Strangely the rest of America insists on wearing clothes, as well as keeping their guns. Maybe SF isn’t particularly representative.

Put a $10K tax on bullets. Job Done.

54. the a&e charge nurse

How about this one? The laws against burglary and robbery obviously haven’t prevented burglary and robbery so let’s repeal those laws as unnecessary infringements on the personal liberties of burglars and robbers.

52 Richard Carey: “Strangely the rest of America insists on wearing clothes, as well as keeping their guns. Maybe SF isn’t particularly representative.”

After much recent public debate, the city council of San Francisco has narrowly approved an ordinance banning public nudity there by a majority of one vote. This follows recent previous ordinances banning nude eating in restaurants and making it mandatory for nudists to place covers on public seating before sitting down to maintain public hygiene (I joke not).

These are all regarded as libertarian issues in San Francisco but not gun control, because of the local flower-power ethic.

All that may be “unrepresentative” of American values but business thrives there. The median household income in SF is higher than in the state of Maryland, which has the highest median household income of all American states, and the business press recently reported: “The cost of occupying office space in San Francisco soared the most of any market in the world as technology companies such as Salesforce.com and Mozilla Corp. fueled leasing in the city, according to broker CBRE Group Inc”

On the evidence, San Francisco is indisputably unrepresentative of America. The Mission District is the oldest part of the city – this video clip, with profiles of some recent settlers in the district giving their reasons for moving there, is impressive:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op26IK3UB2I

Business thrives on the flower-power ethic, liberal values and tighter gun control. I used to know of SF but little about the place until my son took up a job there in the computer industry. A recognised local social problem is the high cost of housing because of so many wanting to move there to work. Btw the combined populations of SF, Oakland and San Jose, in the Bay Area, is about the same as the population of London.

56. Richard Carey

@ Bob B,

“How about this one? The laws against burglary and robbery obviously haven’t prevented burglary and robbery so let’s repeal those laws as unnecessary infringements on the personal liberties of burglars and robbers.”

What a stupid thing to suggest. Don’t you have any idea what liberty means? No one has the ‘liberty’ to rob someone else. As Herbert Spencer put it:

“Each has freedom to do all that he wills provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other.”

Besides the obvious point above, which you should know, laws which forbid acts like burglary and robbery cannot prevent these crimes from being committed.

56

I suspect that Adam Lanza hasn’t read Herbert Spencer.

58. Richard Carey

@ Steveb,

I dare say, but it was Bob B that was suggesting, for some reason that escapes me, that laws preventing criminal attacks were an infringement of the liberty of criminals, and this was what I dispute, as this is a false idea based on not understanding or misrepresenting what the principle of individual liberty means.

Richard Carey: “What a stupid thing to suggest. Don’t you have any idea what liberty means? No one has the ‘liberty’ to rob someone else. As Herbert Spencer put it:”

Do try and keep up. I’ve already posted that quote @25 by JS Mill from his essay: On Liberty (1859) with a link:

“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.”

Which is precisely why we need mandatory gun control as well as why burglaries and robberies should remain unlawful.

Thanking you for inadvertently making the point.

The longer this goes on the more impressed I’m becoming with HL Mencken’s perceptive insight: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

60. Richard Carey

It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf.

H.L. Mencken

News update:

NRA breaks silence, pledges to help stop massacre

(Reuters) – The National Rifle Association said on Tuesday it wanted to contribute meaningfully to prevent another massacre like the Connecticut shooting, suggesting a sharp change in tone for the largest US gun rights group.

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/12/18/us-usa-shooting-nra-statement-idUKBRE8BH18820121218

Interesting.
Their argument “It is people that kill, not the gun” can be turned around into “well then, let us do psychological profiling on gun owners to screen out the potential mass murderers”. They will interpret that as the Big State coming to get them, but they can’t have t both ways.

@59

The longer this goes on the more impressed I’m becoming with HL Mencken’s perceptive insight: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

It’s sure looking that way – http://www.amendment2.com/shop/ballistic-backpack/

As an aside note, ever since Columbine most schools in the states require pupils to leave all their bags in their lockers or hung up outside the classroom…

News update:

San Francisco moves to ban hollow-point bullets

An earlier San Francisco plan to ban automatic weapons was thwarted by the court. The mayor says the latest proposal will likely face legal challenges.
http://www.ktvu.com/news/news/crime-law/san-francisco-moves-ban-hollow-point-bullets/nTcb4/

What curious folk must live in San Francisco. They keep wanting to pass gun control ordinances. They don’t seem to appreciate that is unAmerican. It’s the flower-power ethic there.


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