Shortly following my last criticism of Sam Harris’ article on gun control he posted a follow-up (FAQ on Violence) responding to various criticisms, many that overlap mine. In his prior article he slowly worked his way out on a limb of irrationality. In this one he takes a leap off of it.
I’ll ignore his initial discussion suggesting that other people “simply do not want to think about this topic in any detail”. It seems pretty clear to me that Sam hasn’t. He is back-end rationalizing and doing a very poor job of it.
Thankfully he lists addressed issues in FAQ format making it easier to respond. If you aren’t interested in the long discussion, here is a quick summary of my new criticisms:
(1) Sam Harris actually does support significant gun control laws. He just does not support banning guns from “good” people. It is a shame he doesn’t put his effort towards arguing for those gun control policies he supports instead of spending so much time arguing for the value of guns.
(2) He offers no means to determine who is a “good” person or any practical means of doing so, other than obvious restrictions on known criminals which exists already and does almost nothing.
(3) He confuses proximate choices to own a gun under current circumstances with ultimate solution of changing the current circumstances. You can argue for banning guns while owning one until it happens.
(4) He essentially admits to being irrational about protecting his family, that he’d rather put them in greater danger of being killed as long as it means they are killed under his preferred circumstances.
(5) He still makes one-sided hypothetical circumstances where only the good people have guns and the bad don’t.
(6) He builds his beliefs on contrived thought experiments and cherry-picked anecdotes while completely ignoring the reality of how violent crime actually happens statistically. Ironically, he accuses others of not addressing how it actually happens. It essentially comes down to his error in thinking only of the worst case at the expense of the likely case. This is the very definition of irrational fear.
(7) He believes himself to be above the statistics with no evidence to support this. While he makes arguments about why that might be, he neglects all of the ways in which being rational and competent do nothing for the risks and just doesn’t accept that he could be irrational about being rational.
(8) He completely fails to address his contradiction for the dangers in a world without guns with his belief they should be kept safely at home. In fact, he deepens the contradiction by giving great detail on the risks of carrying a gun in public.
(9) He continues to promote a more expensive and less effective option for solving just school crimes over the option that would be the less expensive and more effective option of significantly solving the greater violent crime problems.
(10) He doesn’t address how culture of violence changes, the norm cascades that I mentioned in my last criticism as described by Steven Pinker.
(11) He never realizes that he is part of the problem; that his belief that significant change can’t happen is a self-fulfilling prophecy because people like him are making such change harder.
(12) He doesn’t address Steven Pinker’s description of how violent culture changes via norm cascades.
Here are the issues he addresses one by one with my criticisms:
1. Other countries have solved the problem.
In my prior criticism this topic was a main thread throughout, and particularly critical of him not addressing it at all. He has redeemed himself a little by addressing it, sort of.
Harris takes a defeatist attitude that it can’t be done in the U.S. because of there are too many guns already and the Second Amendment requires amending to get rid of them, both for which there isn’t sufficient political will in America.
The problem with this line of thinking, as I pointed out last time, is that it is circular reasoning. There isn’t political will because people like Harris argue that it is futile and so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And people like Harris argue that it is futile because there isn’t political will. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When called to task that this defeatism is hypocritical with his promotion of atheism, which also has a huge uphill battle in America, Harris suggests
With respect to guns, I need to make a practical and ethical decision about whether or not to own one, given my specific security concerns and the level of violent crime in the society in which I live. This is not the same as deciding whether or not to write a book criticizing religion.
This is a strawman argument. It is one thing for Harris to own a gun for protection and quite another to argue that they are a good idea in general. Harris could write about how important it is for politicians to deal with the gun problem, the value of a massive buy-back plan and of amending the constitution, and he could do this while owning a gun and be entirely consistent and not be a hypocrite. Doing what is best under the current conditions and arguing for those conditions to change are different things.
This is common in a race to the bottom, like I have demonstrated many times with the Prisoners Dilemma. You can act on your proximate (local) best interests now while recognizing, and arguing, that everyone’s ultimate (global) best interest is served better forcing everyone (including yourself) to chose another option. This may be unintuitive, but it is not contradictory.
So does Harris argue for the politicians to do this? Does he try to convince the public to support such efforts? No. He tells them all it is futile and it is better to give up and just arm and train everybody, especially schools. He makes it very clear (especially in answer to #3 below) that he does not support banning guns. It isn’t just pragmatism of his current situation, he actually believes a world without guns is a worse place, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Harris is a proponent of the options that costs far more money and lives. (As I pointed out in my prior article, armed guards in every school amounts to the order of $10 billion per year in perpetuity, yet he finds it unrealistic for a $100-$150 billion buy-back program over a decade or so.)
He then repeats his mistake of last time, arguing that some crimes are worse in other countries. He points to higher rape rates in Sweden and Australia and assaults in other countries. Yet those are not statistical arguments since, as I pointed out last time, the U.S. is consistently within the top two or three on rapes, and is by far in first place in assaults leading to death. Understanding why Sweden and Australia are high in rapes is a good case study, but not statistically representative of a correlation for guns versus rapes.
Personally, I suspect that it has more to do with the definitions of rape in those countries and/or the comfort and support that women have in reporting them, as many have pointed out. (Sweden is known to have very wide definitions of rape. Generally, there is an inverse correlation between cultural misogyny and reported rapes.) But again, that is all irrelevant since the statistics are clear that more guns doesn’t lead to less violent crime.
In fact, Harris repeats his single-sided delusions. He suggests that “we might want to give Aussie and Swedish women some guns”. Great, but that also means their rapists also have guns. More likely it means more raped and dead women.
2. Rarity of violence, even in U.S.
Harris here address the criticism, one I also brought up, that he contradicts himself by arguing the rarity of such violent acts means gun control laws aren’t necessary, yet argues for the benefit of arming oneself and preparing for the worst.
His counter-argument is that preparing for the worst, even if unlikely, can be beneficial in the sense of confidence. He goes about this by describing the value of learning Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and then extends it to gun ownership.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores the cost-benefit analysis. The benefits of BJJ may very well be as he describes, and may have many other benefits that include health, focus, and discipline. The question of whether the cost is worth the protective power, but whether it is worth all of the benefits.
Guns, on the other hand, do not have the same costs and benefits. Certainly there can be a confidence in having a gun (though a false confidence), but that is about it for benefits. Whether talking societal or personal, more BJJ does not put you at greater risk whereas more guns do. Even personally, no other person can make use of your BJJ but they can of your gun. There are no game theoretic problems with BJJ like there are with guns. A burglar who sees you gun, who might not have otherwise harmed you, now has to kill you or else be killed. This is not a problem with BJJ. If BJJ were to spread it is certainly possible that a burglar could know BJJ, but that doesn’t make them any more likely to kill you. In fact, learning the BJJ is more likely to provide them a discipline and mental focus that reduces their likelihood of even being a criminal.
Harris admits at least part of this problem with his argument, but doesn’t incorporate as any sort of invalidation of such an analogy even though it does invalidate it. Instead, regarding the increased risks that guns bring he claims:
I don’t think these broader statistics apply to me (and I don’t think this judgment is the product of a reasoning bias). Just as I can say to a moral certainty that I’m not going to open a meth lab or start a dog-fighting ring, I can say that I’m not going to commit suicide or murder my family. There are people who experience much more chaos in their lives who cannot honestly say the same. Such people should not own guns.
I’m in awe of the arrogance and stupidity of such an argument. This is a re-statement and an extension of his first article in which he says he sees nothing wrong with judging himself to be rational. OK, fine. Let’s unpack these statements to see what they include.
(1) Sam Harris is rational by his own judgment.
(2) Sam Harris is not irrational about being rational. In other words, he declares that he is not subject to the common problem whereby “people fail to realize the irrationality of their actions and believe they are acting perfectly rational, possibly due to flaws in their reasoning”.
(3) The statistics of the risks of guns are actually separable into “those with chaos in their lives” and “those who are rational with less chaos”, that these statistics only apply to the former, and that Sam Harris falls into the latter.
(4) Statements #1 and #2 above will not change for Sam, or if they do he will be aware of the change and will discard the guns.
(5) Statements #1-4 also apply to anybody who has potential access to his guns.
(6) Sam never makes mistakes when under pressure of rapid decision-making, such as deciding whether the person breaking in is a burglar (with a gun), or his spouse, children, friend, or even somebody that fits similar categories but is at the wrong house.
(7) Sam never makes mistakes as to keeping his guns under safe control such that somebody, especially his daughter, might access them.
(8) Sam is omniscient about who may have access to his guns and their applicability to all of the above statements as well.
Harris has had his turn at cherry-picking stories for fear-mongering so let’s try a few on him. How about the story of Michael Griffin. He was shot dead by his father, a retired police officer with 42 years of experience. Michael lived there but apparently his father thought he was upstairs asleep and so assumed he was a burglar. Is a 42-year police veteran well enough trained and rational enough in the use of weapons? Did he have “too much chaos” in his life?
How about Tyler Giuliano, a 15-year-old shot by his father after sneaking into his house. As it turns out, Tyler was apparently wearing a black mask and nobody knows why. Seems his dad did everything rational in the situation, yet he killed his son.
Or how about the completely rational people doing completely rational things that get killed solely because of their rational use of guns. Andrew Lee Scott, 26, simply answered his door with a gun ready and was shot by police. The police were incompetent in not announcing themselves and the mistakes that lead them to Mr. Scott’s house, but that doesn’t make him less dead. Was Mr. Scott’s life full of chaos? What rationality or training could have saved him from this outcome? What would Mr. Harris have done differently from his own training that would have saved him?
How about John Adams, 61, shot by police after they mistakenly broke into his house and he went for his gun to protect his wife, thinking they were burglars.
Then there is Jose Guerena, the former Marine and Iraq War vet, gunned down when police mistakenly busted down his door, entered his house, and shot him 60 times after finding him with a gun, presumably for protection against the home invaders he thought were coming in. Was this Marine not sufficiently trained? Was he irrational? Was his life in chaos?
These “death by incompetent police” problems are so wide-spread, particularly with no-knock warrants, that Indiana has even had to legalize shooting police who invade your home, as a means of self-protection. The irony is, perhaps, that this just makes it more likely they will kill you because now you can shoot without first determining if they are even police, and so the police are even more likely shoot back.
Of course none of this applies to Sam Harris. These cases don’t apply to him. He claims to keep his many ready-to-shoot guns near entries and in lock boxes. (See answer 7 below.) There couldn’t possibly be a risk with those, like perhaps some gun safes that can be opened by a three-year-old. No, Sam is rational and well trained, unlike police officer Ed Owens whose three-year-old son managed to open his gun safe and accidentally kill himself. If only Ed had been more rational and better trained, like Harris.
Ah, but these mistaken cases too are rare, right? I’ll let the rational Mr. Harris answer it himself:
I do not believe it is irrational to prepare for very low-probability events which, should they occur, would produce the worst suffering imaginable for oneself and those one loves.
By Harris’ own point, it is rational to prepare for mistaken shootings, mistaken police invasions, and kids accessing guns by keeping those guns the hell away from your house.
As to whether the broader statistics apply to Mr. Harris or not, I welcome his citation of references that demonstrate that his situation does not apply, except that he notes there aren’t any. He has simply assumed they don’t apply.
3. Non-lethal weapons
Although not part of my criticisms, others have brought Harris to task on the use of non-lethal weapons like tasers and pepper spray to address some of his points. His answer is that they have their uses but aren’t good enough:
But their limited range and cartridge capacity, along with other vagaries of their operation, makes them (in my view) inadequate for home defense.
Just to clarify, Harris thinks that a range of 15 to 35 feet is insufficient for home defense, so he expect to make life-or-death decisions from even further away and not make any mistakes about whom he is killing. This is sheer delusion. As to the “other vagaries”, that is a bit vague.
At least in this answer he does fully admit that he would fully support a ban on guns if there were a non-lethal option that worked as well. Just to be clear, from a utilitarian perspective, Harris believes that the benefits in the incredibly rare case of danger that only a gun can help more than offsets the risks associated with both owning that gun and in allowing others to access guns. This too is highly delusional. There isn’t a lick of evidence to support this. Even the cases where a gun can help don’t even make up for the risks statistically, yet he believes the small subset of those cases where other means are insufficient somehow does. I recommend remedial probability and statistics courses for Harris.
4. Violence against women
Harris responds to criticisms, mostly from Sean Faircloth, that guns are disproportionately used in violence against women. (This was not one of my original criticisms, but is a valid point from Faircloth).
Harris’ answer returns to his prior appeal to emotion and fear from his first article:
As someone who was raised by a single mother, and as the father of little girl, I tend to view all questions of self-defense through the lens of what will enable a woman to protect herself from a man who is bent upon raping and/or killing her.
Oddly, the idea of making guns rare and thus reducing the danger to women seems to escape him. He proceeds to reiterate the argument that guns are an equalizer, even directly calling it true:
I will be accused of peddling NRA propaganda about guns being “an equalizer.” But it’s not propaganda if it’s true.
Except that it isn’t true. Yes, of course you can construct a scenario where a woman being attacked by a man can defend herself with a gun. It is most convenient if you make sure that he doesn’t have a gun in the scenario, but assuming he does and they are both equally trained you have now equalized her chances of survival to about 50%. Unless, of course, he was never going to kill her but has to now in which case she’s made her chances of survival much worse.
But contrived scenarios aren’t truth. They are hypothetical. Truth is statistical. Do readily available guns put women at greater risk or less risk. The statistics are clear that it puts them at greater risk. That is truth. As I pointed out last time, they do not equalize; they escalate.
5. Slippery slope of firearms
Another criticism I missed was the “why not a tank” argument. Harris’ response is that only sufficient stopping force is necessary for crime and nobody needs a tank, rocket launcher, or mass destruction for such purposes. I agree, which is why I never brought it up myself. But it is with great irony that he words it as he does:
Once again, the fault lies with an unwillingness to think about how violent crime actually occurs.
For him to say this while he is continually unwilling to understand how violent crime actually occurs is incredibly sad. The key word change says it all. Harris thinks his thought experiments trump reality. The problem is that his thought experiments are limited in scope and not at all representative of what really happens most of the time, including violent crime, accidents, and mistakes causing death.
6. Why does he have more than one gun for protection
Apparently some critics suggested he shouldn’t need more than one if just for protection as he claimed. This is not one of my criticisms. His answer is that he keeps them at locations around the house so that one is reasonably nearby should the need arise.
That is at least consistent with his home defense arguments, though following his prior article he might want to carry one around to save those women being raped he might witness and/or multiple attackers while he is out.
Of course, having more around the house significantly increases the risks of somebody getting access to them, including his daughter, or of using them mistakenly and getting killed for it. But since Harris is oblivious to how to calculate risks, apply probability and statistics, or perform cost-benefit analysis, I see no reason for him to address it for this circumstance either.
7. How can he be both secure and responsible?
Harris originally pointed out that he is responsible with guns and but most of his original arguments relied on having a gun ready to go. Some critics took him to task on this contradiction. His answer is a lockbox he can open in seconds.
The criticism is somewhat related to my original criticism on Sam’s Imaginary World Without Guns where people running home to get their guns isn’t helpful to his hypothetical victims. However, the lockbox doesn’t solve that critcism, so I’ll leave them unrelated.
As far as the lockbox, he’d better hope that no unauthorized people, like his daughter, ever learn the combination (or find the key). And to repeat myself, surely he couldn’t possibly have one with a defect that could be opened by a three year old who then might die from it. (Watch the video on that first link if you want to be scared about how easy it can be to open these.) Of course Harris is a well-trained expert on lock boxes too so he couldn’t be mistaken about the safety of his system.
8. The “swimming pool fallacy”
This one refers to the Sean Faircloth criticism, that the outcome is so rare that it should not be dealt with, referring to the risk of drowning in a swimming pool. Faircloth correctly points out that you need to do a cost-benefit analysis, as I have suggested throughout my two articles critical of Harris, where the costs are the risks of harm (probability of each consequence) and the benefits are the values gained, such as enjoyment of a swimming pool (or gun). This is very similar to #2, and a criticism I brought up as well.
Harris’ response is that he meant the effort should be proportional to the problem, or of deaths. This is close to the reasonable answer for prioritization but misses the mark, which I suggested it a function of cost-benefit, risk, and uncertainty.
The problem with his answer is that he doesn’t apply it to gun control or to his own arguments. He says gun violence is low risk, implying that the effort to fix it should be smaller than our other efforts. But gun control generally isn’t a big effort. It costs little to ban certain types of guns. It costs little, relative to what is spent on other problems, for background checks and registries.
Even the suggested one-time $50-$150 billion buy-back program to get rid of the 200-300 million guns in the U.S. is miniscule compared to the estimated $100 billion per year cost that gun violence causes in the U.S. Granted, it is unlikely that it will all go away and pay for itself in only one year, but realistically the savings in economic costs would pay for such a program on the order of a decade or perhaps less.
Now how about applying the same “proportional” effort to Harris’ suggestion of mass arming and training or his support of the idea of armed guards in every school. As I showed last time, and he agrees in this article, that alone would amount to about $10 billion per year just for the schools, every year in perpetuity. What savings would it generate? OK, assuming it worked completely as suggested and stopped school massacres completely (but not theaters!), there would be some economic savings (not to mention lives). But given how little those rare school shootings are to the total economic costs, such a program will never pay for itself.
In other words, the massive buy-back and banning of guns (except for hunting or other acceptable reasons, as in the Australian rules), would be much cheaper and pay itself back. It is a proportionately small cost compared to, say, addressing the swimming pool problem. In fact, it is a net earner over the order of a decade or so.
9. Trading murder for assault
Harris was criticized for pointing out other countries that had greater assaults and implied that guns would have helped there, even at the cost of more homicides.
His answer here is that he doesn’t know the value of trading, say, two homicides for 400 assaults in terms of human suffering, but that there should be some scaling. That might be a valid argument if there was a clear, statistical trade-off. But as I pointed out last time, there is no such correlation. The U.S., with all of its guns, is near the top in assaults as well, is far on top in terms of assaults causing death, is at or near the top in rape, and is at or near the top in most violent crimes. Adding guns doesn’t trade one violent crime for another. At best it increases violent crimes in a few areas and does nothing in others; at worst it generally increases all violent crimes.
To achieve his argument, Harris cherry-picks the one Western country, the U.K., with a worse assault rate. Outside the U.K., the Western countries with fewer guns tend to do far better than the U.S. The statistical correlation is actually in the positive direction: more guns leads to more assaults. The U.K. is the exception, not the rule.
Harris again pulls out irrelevant anecdotal evidence for his case, quoting an interview with convicted assaulters Steve and Nev who do not have to worry too much about their victims having guns. So based on this cherry-picked anecdote comes his belief that
I would rather that these brutes be obliged to worry that their next victim might have a gun.
As I’ve just shown, that doesn’t make any statistical difference, and in reality it more likely means more assaults, and more deadly assaults (where the U.S. is 3-4 times everybody else). Harris is generally aware of the problem of also arming Steve and Nev though but claims it can be done:
I wouldn’t want Steve and Nev to have guns, of course—and gun control advocates will insist on the impossibility of arming good people without simultaneously arming the thugs. But I’m not entirely sure this is true. Starting from scratch in a country like the U.K., it seems that it should be possible to keep guns out of the hands of violent felons while allowing responsible people access to them.
Where is Harris’ evidence for this? Who has succeeded in doing this? It’s not like people walk around with signs saying “I’m a bad person”. How does Harris suppose we find out? What would Harris add to the list already included in the Gun Control Act of 1968 that bans the sale of arms to people previously sentenced to more than a year (essentially all felonies), fugitives, drug users (whether convicted or not), known to have a mental defect, illegal immigrants, dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces, has denounced their U.S. citizenship, has been served a court order declaring not to own one, or has been convicted of even misdemeaner domestic violence.
If this hasn’t stopped the “bad” people from getting them, what will? Let’s also not forget that a large segment of violent criminals had no prior record of them being a “bad” person. In some states, up to 50% of felony murderers are first-time offenders. Department of Justice statistics show that about one third of all violent offenders with a gun are first-time. (Table 7 of the linked report shows this, with 31.1% of 155,195 state + 31.8% of 3952 federal first time offenders convicted of violent crimes with a gun, compared to 28.4% of 360,564 state plus 38.4% of 9866 federal recidivists currently convicted of a violent crime with a gun.)
The first-time offenders can’t be stopped by “good guy” checks, and the recidivists aren’t stopped by existing “good guy” checks. So what does Harris propose? So far, nothing.
Perhaps more embarrassing for a trained philosopher like Harris, his assertion relies on cartoonish essentialism, the idea that people have an “essence” that is good or bad and it is not hard to determine which is which. Where is the evidence for that. I’m not saying that there isn’t some component of probabilistic or causal relationships from genetics and/or environment, only that you can’t just lump people into universally “good” or “bad” for determining if they should get a gun. Most people fall into the grey area between and change over time. If Harris’ means something other than past records then his belief is passing uncomfortably close to Minority Report style “pre-crime” psychic prediction.
Perhaps an even harder problem than determining who is good or bad is how to keep all of those guns from getting into the thugs hands via indirect routes. The other two thirds of violent criminals with guns who are recidivists have no problem getting those guns despite it already being illegal.
Making guns rare goes a long way to solving that problem by both making them hard for thugs to find and by making them very expensive due to scarcity combined with high legal penalty for being caught with one and/or selling one. Harris doesn’t even address this issue in allowing “good” people to have guns, even if we could figure out who they are.
He finished off by repeating his “defeatist” claim:
In any case, all of this is beside the point in the U.S. Here, Steve and Nev already have guns, and no one has a plan for taking them away. Given that fact, we must decide how difficult we should make it for law-abiding people to have guns as well.
To which I have the same response as in #1, that he is confusing two issues: immediate need for guns under the current circumstances and general solution to the problem of guns. If the U.S. is going to continue to allow easy access to guns, then there is a case (though statistically wrong) for a personal value of guns. But that does not preclude also promoting and supporting methods to fix the problem of ubiquitous guns by banning most of them and removing most from circulation, thereby changing the circumstance so that there is no case for the personal value of guns. Harris has fallen into the Prisoners Dilemma trap and can’t see it.
10. Contradiction of rape witness and Seal Team Six
This was a criticism of mine that was so obvious that I turned it into open mocking. He argued that in a world without guns a rapist could keep a crowd of witnesses at bay with a knife yet argued even a trained Navy SEAL would need a gun to fight off more than one attacker.
His response is no better. It essentially comes down to every criminal being better trained and more courageous than everyone in the public sphere, hence the (well-trained) rapist could keep the (cowardly) crowd at bay whereas the (cowardly) Navy Seal could not fight off the (well-trained and willing to die) criminal crowd. His answer is that a gun gives you range and therefore courage.
As to why it doesn’t also give the criminals range, he is mute. Let me spell it out for you, Sam. Guns escalate violence; they don’t equalize it. A gang with guns will more likely kill you, especially if you have a gun too. Showing people beating each doesn’t change that. A rapist will a gun will kill you faster than you can determine if you should shoot him. (Harris himself explains why this is so in #11.)
Following Harris’ argument, since these are all career criminals they are better trained with guns than you. They are a better shot and less hesitant at pulling the trigger and killing somebody. Guns do not solve this problem; they escalate it.
In case you were thinking of arguing this is why people should get trained better with guns, so that they aren’t at a disadvantage to the criminals with guns, the same argument applies to Harris’ point about criminals knowing how to fight with knives. In a world without guns, if knives are a risk then getting better training on them is the solution, or self-defense in general. Making guns more ubiquitous makes you less likely to survive due to your lesser skill, not more likely.
11. Delusions that statistics don’t apply to Sam Harris
He was called to task for suggesting statistics don’t apply to him, as I have done in #2 above. His response has three parts. First he separates out the unstable elements and claims to be among the stable side, yet can quote no statistics to support that even the “stable” aren’t still at greater risk.
Second, he admits that he actually could be delusional, but he doesn’t see any reason to believe so. This is, apparently, as opposed to the delusional and irrational people who do see the reason to believe they are.
Third, he states that even if he actually is putting his family at greater risk of being killed then it is still rational:
I am willing to incur some additional risk to be better able to respond to a very low-probability, worst-case scenario.
Under what line of reasoning is this considered rational? That is no different than the rationality of spending $10 in gas to drive to a further gas station to save $1 in gas. I can’t find a single definition of rationality that this would fit. He would rather increase the odds of having himself and/or his family die or be harmed as long as those harms of the more likely sort of deaths by guns, and not the rarer sort. WTF?
I’ve already linked to the definitions of irrationality above and in my prior article, so I won’t repeat them other than to say working against your own best interests is a key part, as is completely failing to notice that you are being irrational.
What is Harris’ explanation? Well, he does other things that are riskier, like taking them skiing. Again this fails the cost-benefit test, also described as the “swimming pool fallacy” by Sean Faircloth. You get enjoyment out of skiing and the risks are low, so the benefits outweigh the costs. The benefits of keeping guns for the worst case scenario do not outweigh the costs of the added risks to their lives; that is the very meaning of “greater risk” in the statistics. In an effort to keep his family safe he has made them less safe. In an effort to keep them from being killed, he has increased the odds they will be killed. These are net odds, already accounting for the cases where guns actually do save lives.
Mr. Harris has essentially admitted here that he is being completely irrational, without using that word. He just seems to think there’s nothing wrong with being irrational because he judges himself to be rational.
12. Contradiction between protection outside the home and being against ordinary citizens carrying guns
This contradiction was one of my criticisms as well. Harris’ answer is, well, he doesn’t answer it at all.
What he does do is explain in greater detail why he thinks carrying a gun in public is much more problematic and prone to error and danger than using it for protection at home. Agreed. But this doesn’t address the contradiction.
Let me make it clear what the objection is. In his first article, Harris claimed that a world without guns is a worse place because rapists with knives can hold off a group of witnesses, which he claims is solved if the witnesses have guns. He also claimed a gang of attackers could easily overpower an individual, even a member of Seal Team Six, unless that individual had a gun. Yet that same problem exists if those rape witnesses and Seal Team Six member leave their guns at home. Harris’ world with guns is no better that his world without guns as far as the very examples he used to demonstrate what is wrong with the latter.
In fact, his world with guns is worse because he’s increased the odds that the rapist and gang now have guns. He has created worse world, not a better one, following his beliefs. (This too fits the definition of irrationality.)
And he has no answer for this contradiction.
13. Calls to ban guns
Harris originally claimed that gun control advocates were not calling to ban guns, but just assault weapons. His critics have pointed out that many people do suggest a ban or heavy restriction on most guns except for hunting rifles and a few exception where demonstrable need exists. The Australian gun laws of 1996 are a good example of this and many have suggested it as a model for the U.S. I too suggested such restrictions and buy-back in my criticism.
Harris clarifies that he was talking about politicians and pundits. He also makes some important clarifications of his position. He does support most efforts on gun control that make getting a gun as difficult as getting a pilot’s license, even more than many public gun control proponents ask for, and this makes him different from the NRA.
That clarification should be the main theme of his articles. Instead, both articles spend the vast majority of their effort arguing for the value of guns and ease of access for “good” people. Where are his detailed arguments for such laws? I request Mr. Harris to provide a detailed article explaining the reasoning behind those laws and why he supports them. That would actually be helpful. But he still doesn’t acknowledge that many people do want an Australian-style ban and buy-back.
Politicians are the wrong measurement stick. They have constraints that keep them from openly taking such a position. If they said they wanted to amend the Constitution and ban guns they’d only get votes from people who support that. If they dial it back a bit they still get those votes as well as the votes of people who generally want gun control but think it is unrealistic to go further (like Mr. Harris). What policies they support behind the scenes is really up to them, but we can’t ignore political limitations in vocalized policies.
Harris also repeats his error of confusing the issue of a proximate solution in current circumstances versus an ultimate solution to change the circumstances. He points out that although Gabby Gifford and her husband, Mark Kelley, are strong gun control proponents they own guns, implying a contradiction. As I have pointed out several times, this is not contradictory since the two are independent decisions. If the circumstances change due to policy change, that you support, you can revisit your personal decision to own one.
Harris finishes with a false dichotomy whereby he says the only options he sees for school massacres are either doing nothing or putting armed guards in every school. He doesn’t even entertain the notion that a less expensive buy-back of guns and a comprehensive ban could work.
At this point the conversation has gone full circle as now he is back to his self-fulfilling prophecy. If he, and other public intellectuals, laid out the logic of how such a change would solve the problem, as it has in other countries, and convinced enough brave politicians, then it could happen just as in the norm cascades that brought about the end of racial segregation, voting rights and equal rights for women and minorities, and the near elimination of capital punishment in the Western world. It is Harris’ defeatism that justifies his own defeatism. I wish he addressed the norm cascade point, or at least how cultural violence does change.
The situation is very much like the saying, “Whether you believe you can do it or believe that you can’t, you are probably right.” That applies culturally as well. Some people are ready for the hard work of convincing and bringing about valuable change. People like Sam Harris get in their way.
It would be more helpful if Mr. Harris wrote about his support for those gun control laws he does support. It would be more helpful if Mr. Harris wrote about how getting rid of the guns and changing U.S. gun culture, if possible, would make the U.S. a stronger, safer nation. By helpful I mean “leading to an increase of well-being”, which by his own moral landscape beliefs would be a better moral position. Instead, he just perpetuates the problem.
I would even rather he just wrote nothing about it. That too would be far more helpful.