These last few months, there has been a lot of debate in the US about violence in general and gun control in particular. I think it’s safe to say this is an emotional topic for a lot of people: there seem to be more knee-jerk responses from both sides than on most other topics. In many ways, I understand why this is such a hot-button issue. As this is a self-defense related topic I haven’t discussed before, I wanted to share my perspective with you here.
Before I go on, some qualifiers you should read:
- I am not a US citizen. I live in Belgium. So whatever happens in the US is far removed from my daily life. That said, it is still relevant because what happens in the US is used to pass gun control legislation here in Belgium. Our media usually describe the pro-gun camp and the US society in general as a collective bunch of gun-toting nutcases. There is very little nuanced reporting. The other reason it matters to me is that it’s a constant topic of debate for many American friends of mine. So I’ve followed this issue for a long time, without ever commenting much on it, until now.
- US law doesn’t apply to me. The Constitution of the US is irrelevant to me. I’m a Belgian citizen and we have our own Constitution. It gets raped and abused by our politicians here just as much, make no mistake about it. But a constitutional right to bear arms doesn’t exist in my country. This makes many of the traditional points in the discussion irrelevant for me personally. So as far as I’m concerned they don’t matter.
- I’m a cynic. I am not bitter and live a life filled with love for my children, family and friends while enjoying the good times I share with them. However, I don’t believe mankind is inherently good; I expect and prepare for the opposite.
- Hunting isn’t big over here. There is some hunting of course, but it’s not that big of a deal over here in Belgium. So that argument is moot for me as well.
- I’m not a weapons freak. Weapons are tools to me, nothing else. I can admire the skill a good craftsman puts into making a weapon or the hi-tech engineering that goes into it. But other than that, I don’t care much for them. Just as I don’t care about cars: they’re also nothing but a tool (get me from point A to Z).
The points I’ll make here are relatively straightforward, though they are in my experience very difficult to accept for a certain kind of people. Typically, this means those who have lived a comfortable, sheltered life in Western society. Even though they loudly disagree with me on those points, I usually only get emotional diatribes as a reply, instead of reasoned debate. It’s ironic that their reaction only proves what I just told them, but that’s another story. Anyway, here goes.
Human beings are a violent species
We evolved away from our animal ancestors to become the dominant species of this planet. Science has made a more than convincing case on this front. Even though there is still so much left to investigate, it has also made a damn good case for the way our brain and body works. Add to this a body of work from anthropology and a few other branches and the picture becomes pretty bleak:
Humans are no better than animals when it comes to ferocious violence, even though we like to think we are. But an abundance of proof is against us.
That abundance of proof comes from studying our biology (which I won’t do here because it would take too long) but perhaps even more convincing, from our history.
Throughout human history, there has been a consistent presence of violence. This is true for every culture, on every continent. A lot of that violence was conflicts between tribes or countries. But even more, was institutionalized or an inherent part of the culture. This is undisputed. I could go on and on about this but all too often, people think of this historical violence only in abstract terms. So here are a couple examples you might want to skip reading about if you are easily upset:
- The Judas chair was a torture method in which the unfortunate recipient was suspended via ropes above a pyramid-shaped structure. The victim was lowered so he was impaled upon it, slowly. Death took a long time to arrive… Impaling was used consistently in many cultures all over the world throughout history.
- If you think impaling only happened in the long-forgotten past, you might want to skip breakfast and lunch and eventually look at the picture of the torture of Captain Rosinsky by soldiers of the Red Army. I don’t recommend looking at this picture. Think before you click and at least make sure no children are around. If you still feel the need, the picture is here.
- Balthasar Gérard assassinated William of Orange and was sentenced to death in the following manner: burn off his right hand, tear the flesh off the bone in six different places, quarter and disembowel him alive, tear his heart out to throw it in his face and finally decapitate him… That would have been kind by comparison to the three days of torture he got instead, until finally being executed. Here’s the thing: regular people systematically took their kids to go watch these executions and acts of torture. It was a family thing people did back then, their version of entertainment for the masses.
- Milton Blahyi, who is now an evangelical preacher, admitted to the human sacrifice of children to pluck our their heart, divide it into pieces and eat it.
I could have gone back a lot further in time for tons more examples.
I could have given more examples from this day and age, all from our 21st century “civilized” societies.
I could have given examples of everyday criminal violence back then and today.
The results would have been the same: mankind is violent and always has been. Claiming otherwise is delusional to the extreme.
Why the history lesson?
Because it points out ever so clearly that violence is of all times and all places. It is a constant factor throughout our history. I believe I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s permanent and will never disappear.
However, the belief that societies can banish violence forever is relatively new. We can argue about this, but I’d say it really started with the Age of Enlightenment when some philosophers claimed man is inherently good. From then on and thanks to progress in science, medicine, and technology, violence has indeed become less present in most people’s daily lives. Especially when compared to how present it was in the thousands of years before. Perhaps because of this, modern societies have been latching on to the idea that violence can therefore be eradicated completely. That those who use it are sick, wrong, or need help.
I think this is wrong.
It goes directly against both science and documented history as explained above.
Case in point: Hurricane Katrina. It didn’t take long before the violence started in an otherwise modern state of a superpower nation. Just a couple of days of no running water or electricity, along with law enforcement and civil services down, and the citizen’s behavior reverted to primitive patterns. It took thousands of National Guard and other troops to restore order.
Case in point two: this is a video from about a month ago in Texas. It doesn’t really matter who’s wrong or right. Just watch how the two guys get those sucker-punches in and how this sets off the rest. It doesn’t take much for them to act like a pack of wild animals tearing into prey.
These are by no means unique events. But apparently, the belief that modern societies can be completely non-violent is rarely questioned, even though the proof that it doesn’t take much to scrape off that thin layer of civility is right there for all to see.
Where do the guns come in?
If violence is an integral part of human society, as I believe it is, then what are we to do?
The same thing as for any other problem: you prepare for it.
If you live in a cold climate, you learn to live with it. You make sure you have what it takes to survive in case the electricity and/or heating goes out and you need to keep warm.
I believe it is no different with violence.
If you live close to or with other people, you will eventually be faced with violence. So you need to learn to deal with it. The biggest part of the solution is prevention and evasion; violence can’t hurt you if you aren’t present where it happens. But if prevention fails, in most modern societies you have the moral and legal right to defend yourself. This brings up the question of how you should best do that. That leads us to weapons: weapons make it easier to effectively defend yourself, just like it’s easier to drive a nail into a wall with a hammer than by using your hand alone.
The reasoning is again very simple: An average 100-pound woman against an average 200-pound man, the man will probably beat the crap out of her while sustaining little to no injury himself. Give the woman a weapon and her odds suddenly get a whole lot better. So weapons can be seen as disparity of force equalizers. Granted, not all violence will be between two opponents at such an extreme end of the physical scale. But it’s smart tactical thinking to assume your attacker will outweigh you significantly and prepare accordingly
Taking this reasoning a step further: Give the same woman a stick or a knife and she has to close the distance (which is risky) and have a minimum level of strength and speed to be effective. So these weapons are by no means a sure thing as a means for effective self-defense.
Give her a firearm and her odds improve more: it takes less physical strength to pull the trigger and the need to close in with the attacker is gone too. So as disparity of force equalizers, firearms are generally a better choice than a stick, knife, or most other weapons.
This is just a pragmatic view of the problem of facing violence, leaving out all other considerations and factors. These other aspects (like training, morality, legal issues, etc.) are just as important but I’m not going to discuss them now, I already did so in plenty of other blog posts. For now, I think I’ve established the usefulness of firearms as a means to defend yourself in perhaps the most effective way possible.
Misuse of firearms and gun control
Of course, it isn’t as simple as that. Firearms are not always used for self-defense, as the Sandy Hook tragedy and other killing sprees have clearly demonstrated. Nobody in his right mind can deny that these are horrible events. But in my opinion, guns are not the issue there and gun control isn’t either.
The inherently violent nature of mankind, the need to handle violence in an effective manner; those are the real issues.
Given the exceedingly long history of weapons throughout human history, I’d say we figured this one out pretty quickly in our evolution.
Using weapons for effective violence was considered normal before firearms were commonplace and it will continue to be so even if all guns disappear overnight.
This idea of using gun control to stop or prevent tragedies like school shootings is ridiculous. Violent people (clinically insane or not) will find a way to get a higher body count, with or without gun control. Criminals already do and will keep on using weapons other than firearms to “get paid” and do their thing. Controlling whatever weapons people have access to doesn’t stop violence from happening, nor does it stop violent people from committing horrendous crimes:
- Post-WWII, martial arts like kendo were outlawed in Japan. People turned in millions of samurai swords, some of them of priceless value. It didn’t stop violence from happening. Today, Japan still has extremely strict gun laws which seem to be working: there are very few gun-related deaths. But that doesn’t stop violence from happening, it still does (even though it is a relatively safe country by most standards). It also doesn’t stop lunatics from assassinating people and mass-killing them with nerve gas.
- Post WWII, the Communist Party outlawed all traditional martial arts in China. It didn’t stop the Chinese from practicing them in secret. Violence also didn’t go away. Nor did it stop an increasing number of lunatics from going into (elementary) schools with a knife to kill and butcher children.
- Belgium has pretty strict gun laws too. It would be a long and difficult process for me to legally own a firearm. Yet that didn’t stop some nut-job from killing people with machine-gun fire and grenades on a busy marketplace. It also didn’t stop another idiot from killing and mutilating babies with a knife in a daycare center.
The list goes on and on, but you get the point.
It’s not about gun control. It’s not even about guns. Just as much as it isn’t about knives or any other weapon. It’s about the reality of violence is a part of life. Controlling or banning weapons does not remove the need for an effective way to defend yourself. Violence won’t suddenly vanish when the ban goes into effect. Believing that would happen goes against science and historical proof, as I have explained (ad nauseam perhaps…) here above.
So gun control is not a foolproof solution for violence because there simply is no such thing.
Gun control is an instrument politicians use to pretend they can control violence. They can’t. Never have (and in my opinion), never will. They full well know it, is my guess. But if there’s one thing a politician can’t do then it’s admitting he is impotent to solve a societal problem. This is what it basically boils down to: you can’t erase violence. Not with gun laws nor any other kind of regulation.
For those who are going apeshit after reading this, some additional points:
- Violence isn’t the only thing in our society. There is so much more, thankfully. But this blog isn’t about puppies and rainbows. If you want that kind of thing, this isn’t the place for you.
- I did not say we should just allow gun use across the board and have a good old shootout every day. I said no such thing.
- I selected a very narrow and specific line of reasoning to make a basic point. I do realize the issue is more complex than what I just wrote.
- Please read the comment policy before replying to this post. It’ll save you time and save me the trouble of deleting your comment.
For some more information and additional perspectives, I recommend the following resources:
- The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History This book makes a solid case for the thesis that violence is a part of human nature.
- War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage Dispelling the myth that violence wasn’t a constant of life in the past.
- The Bioarchaeology of Violence (Bioarchaeological Interpretations of the Human Past: Local, Regional, and Global) Delves into the far reaches of the history of violence and explores why violence persists throughout time.
- Status Anxiety. Some interesting thoughts on society in general and in particular on what it meant to be a man throughout history.
- Surviving a School Shooting. Developing an action plan for children and parents for when the worst does happen.
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