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Guns, death, property and the state, in the US and EU

The gun culture in the US is something completely alien to the European citizen [I am not homogenising US and EU citizens, see below when discussing the possible disagreements]. The difference lies not so much in the perceived right of the individual to own a fire-arm but rather on the relationship of the individual and by proxy the state, with property and death. The issue of gun control is not one that can be strictly analysed in the context of self-defence or protection of one’s property. The right to bear a gun, and in extend to protect one’s life, family or belongings should be thought as part a wider rationale, that includes the death penalty and other actions that legitimise the removal of a life on behalf of the state or the individual. (Granted of course that the two are completely different rights, relying on different constitutional articles and laws. This is not a legal argument.)

There is a fundamental cultural difference between what people in Europe and what people in the US consider appropriate issues that are up for deliberation when death and property are at play. See the position of the European Union towards the death penalty  and the EU directive 2008/51/EC that aims to prevent the development of a gun culture similar to that of the US.

It seems to me that Americans have a more ‘intimate’ relationship with death, whilst in the EU, or at least in the UK and Cyprus that I live for extended periods, people are less likely to consider ‘death’ as a right, or as an accepted form of punishment.

Now, where does that leave us? Is it the more intimate relationship of Americans with death to blame when someone goes around killing people? Of course not, but it is not irrelevant either. If you consider death a worthy punishment, then it is not much of a shock when a mentally ill person, shoots someone because he considers them gravely responsible for the one or the other reason.

[I know that some might say that one needs not be mentally ill to go around killing people–like the Norwegian racist murderer–but I do not accept that this is the case, since I do not believe that someone in their right mind can commit such atrocities during peace period. The history of the previous century, with the highlight being the Nuremberg trials, demonstrated that perfectly healthy adults are capable of committing the most hateful crimes. The Nazi killings were committed during war and under a nation-wide and nation-supported panic, stress and propaganda. To construct your reality in such a way that would rationalise such violent behaviours during peace is I think, in itself, a manifestation of mental instability.]

We have so far touched upon the more intimate relationship of Americans and death. A similarly different and more intimate relationship is the one they have with guns. People in the EU do not go around carrying guns. Those who have guns, are either army reserves or hunters. Note that hunters in the EU are not allowed to use automatic weapons like their US counterparts who are allowed to carry such guns when hunting ducks [this is just one example]. People in Europe do not consider guns as something that would guarantee their safety, since they know that if they do use them for such purposes, they will most likely end up in prison.

A logical extension of the European detachment of gun possession and securitisation, is also reflected in their conception of what would constitute an appropriate reaction against the violation of one’s property rights. The way Europeans guard what is their own, seems to be different than the way Americans do. This might have to do with how people in the two continents experience their relationship with the state; the citizens of the EU tend to trust the mechanisms of the state more, whereas people in the US are characterised by a fundamental mistrust towards the institutions of the state [this, of course, can be explained both historically and empirically, but it is not of interest here]. The American scepticism towards the state might explain why a large part of the population seeks alternative ways to empower their position in an attempt to enhance their security. When people feel exposed, it is not surprising to arm themselves. In this context then, gun possession becomes a matter of securitisation.

There are two obvious disagreements with what I am saying here. The first disagreement would be that the gun culture, being a ‘culture’, is not something that is a product of autonomous reflection, or rational decision making. Fair enough, I do not dispute that and I do not suggest that I provide the only explanation of the gun possession frenzy that exists in the US. That being said and based on the same reasons, an argument which maintains that my explanation is not one that explains at least some of the proponents of gun possession rationales, cannot be sustained.

The second disagreement is related to the first one. It goes like this: you keep referring to ‘Americans’ or ‘US citizens’ in general, homogenising the different attitudes of diverse individuals and you provide a holistic account of what people in a vast country believe in response to a certain issue. This is a more substantial criticism, since it is one that needs more clarification. First of all, it is not the case that by ‘Americans’ I mean all the American population. We are obviously talking about a very specific part of the population, which is the one that carries guns, or the one that considers gun-possession a right worth preserving. It is obviously true that there are enlightened people in the US who consider fire-arms to be weapons of mass destruction that ought to be banned or more thoroughly regulated. Hence, if a group is being homogenised, it is the one who considers gun-possession as important. These different individuals are not arbitrarily homogenised–they form a group that can be rightly treated as a coherent whole, since their justifications follow a very similar pattern: they are either arguments for freedom or argument for security, or a mixture of the two justified by their scepticism towards the ability of the state to provide security without violating individual freedoms.

This second disagreement would be more effective when applied to the way the EU or the European citizens are presented. I am indeed homogenising in respect to the EU, but not without some factual basis. One of the central practices of EU institutions is to encourage the standardisation of domestic laws across the different state-members. This is of course an ongoing process, one that is sometimes progressing and sometimes retreating. There are still obvious differences across countries, often labelled under the core-periphery, north-south, or east-west label, yet there is significantly more legal integration than a decade ago.

The overall conclusion of this post is that the people living in the two continents differ in how they approach the relationship of rights and death and the relationship of guns and securitisation, which has been explained as one that is fuelled by the trust or lack thereof towards the institutions of the state.

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  1. Hi George. I must admit that I was caught by surprise by your angle, especially the way you introduced the issue of death. Briefly (and I say briefly, and I apologize in advance because I read your article in a hurry, and I will probably be late in responding to your upcoming response), let me point out to something that I think you should also take into consideration: euthanasia. “It seems to me that Americans have a more ‘intimate’ relationship with death, whilst in the EU, or at least in the UK […] people are less likely to consider ‘death’ as a right, or as an accepted form of punishment.” Surely though, Europeans are closer to death as a right, with respect to euthanasia, than Americans are, would you not agree?

    (I am not sure what the consequences of my argument are, let’s see. I just thought of that as I was reading your lines)

    • I don’t know anything about euthanasia to be honest. From a quick search, it seems to be illegal in the US (my source is wikipedia, so don’t take my word for it) and there appears to be a disagreement across Europe (here is a BBC article from 2009 titled “Euthanasia: a continent divided” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7322520.stm ). It seems that it does not fit my generalisation [and this is why the 2nd part of the 2nd disagreement is an important one] 🙂

      • Okay, but what I am also saying, which persists despite the second part of the second disagreement, is that, regardless of which people we are referring to, if we are going to analyze the issue of gun policies (anywhere, it doesn’t matter) *from the angle of the relation to death*, we would have to see this relation from various angles, including euthanasia, which is the other side of the “death” coin

  2. First thank you for pointing out something I hadn’t thought of before, the importance of trusting the state or not as a main issue and difference between the American and European perspective. I guess I am an anomaly as an EU citizen who agrees with the american right to arms, mainly for this reason.

    “People in the EU do not go around carrying guns. Those who have guns, are either army reserves or hunters…People in Europe do not consider guns as something that would guarantee their safety”.

    I disagree with you. There *are* people in the EU who go around carrying guns and they are called the police. They have the kind of automatic guns that are the issue in the US. The police are the proxy gun users who “guarantee our safety”, in theory, and up to a point in practice, but in real life they are often corrupt, incompetent, mentally ill etc who sometimes shoot and kill unarmed people with a high tendency to go unpunished or receive highly reduced sentences for this.

    The gun ownership rationale is: why allow the right to bear arms to the police and not to me and you, especially in the US where illegal guns are available and armed people may threaten us or our families? The gun control rationale is: I trust the government to own the guns and use them properly; if I need security I will just call the police.

    Consider that within EU countries for example Spain was a dictatorship until 78, Greece and Portugal until 74, Germany till 45, Italy till 44 etc;.
    Consider also in Greece right now it’s estimated about 50% of the police voted for the fascist party and there are many documented cases of police and far-right hooligans working together.
    The point is that it is short sighted to assume the state is and will continue to be an entity that is working for the citizen’s benefits; even without taking into account the possibility of a dictatorship, right now for a lot of people the state is a hostile entity and the police are not someone to trust.

    Isn’t it a paradox that today it is ‘conservatives’ that claim the classical democratic ideal of the USA to allow its citizens to own guns to protect themselves against potential tyranny – but it is ‘liberals’ (you call them ‘enlightened’) who instead trust the state with “the monopoly on violence”?

    • Thanks a lot for the comment. Very interesting perspective, although I don’t agree with it. [I agree with your portrayal of the police, a description which seems to be sustained across countries]

      Police uses guns everywhere, so what makes the US different from EU countries is that in the US, the polices does not have monopoly of force. So the Europeans trust the state with what you call “the monopoly of violence”. This fits quite comfortably with my argument about trust and freedom.

      To be honest though, I don’t really accept the argument that we need guns in order to protect ourselves from a future tyranny. It seems counterproductive. This is a similar argument advanced to me by a person who self-identifies as a left anarchist, who argued that we need to sustain the national guard in Cyprus, because it is only through the NG that we get guns (as reserves); guns that we can use when the time is prime to overthrow the regime and establish socialism. I understand the rationale, I see the point, but I don’t think it is a priority worth pursuing. Moreover, I think that it clashes with other priorities that outweigh it.

      Before addressing the issue of priorities, let’s first distinguish the two opposing principles. The first principle, is the one that you are defending (if I understood you correctly of course), that you want a gun to protect yourself. The other principle, which I largely subscribe to, is that I want the freedom to live in a pacifist world. So let’s call them ‘gun-as-protection’ and ‘pacifist-living’. Both are ideal, since they do not explain a realistic state of affairs: the fact that so many people are killed by hand-guns in the US demonstrates the problem with the ‘gun-as-protection’ principle, and the fact that police owns the means of violence exposes the ‘pacifist-living’ principle as problematic. So they are both ideals who both deal with ‘guns’ as their subject-matter. ‘Gun-as-protection’ advocates for the use of guns in a realist Hobbesian setting where everyone potentially owns a gun, and no one in the end uses one. ‘Pacifist-living’ advocates for the abolition of guns, so that again, no one in the end uses one. Same objective, exactly opposite solutions.

      When principles are applied beyond the ideal setting, we have several issues to address, the two most important being the feasibility constraints and the weighting of desirable principles against other (similarly, but not equally) desirable principles. This latter point is I think the most important challenge to the ‘gun-as-protection’ principle. The ‘gun-as-protection’ clashes with other principles that I consider (more) important.

      The ‘gun nuts’ as they are called, are often right-wing extremists, who live in hierarchical settings, promoting xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. You can very well argue that you are an obvious anomaly since you don’t fit that description. That doesn’t disprove the claim that most people fit my description. I would be surprised if the majority of gun owners do not match at least some of the aforementioned characteristics. [That being said, I do not have any numbers to show, so I am open to expert opinions that contradict the argument.] In fact, I believe something even stronger: that the desire to own a gun is but a manifestation of the aforementioned characteristics. You are an obvious anomaly because you give a non-conservative libertarian justification, yet as I argued before, I think you are a minority.

      Besides that and going back to the discussion about the state and trust, I cannot see how we can go around the following problem.
      (A) I do not trust the state and the police.
      (B) The state is the primary care-provider of mentally ill people.
      (C) People with mental illness should not own a gun.
      (D) I want to own a gun because of (A), hence thre relationship (D-A).
      There is an obvious problem here, because B and C seem to contradict D as a possible solution to the problem A. The is no way to support D without ensuring that C is guaranteed, hence there is to be a logical inconsistence in supporting D-A.
      [The mentally ill are not the only justification, not even the mosts important one. I do not suggest that this is the main reason why gun possession should not be legal. This is just one of the practical issues.]

      Anyway, I’ve said enough. Probably I could just say that my version of the good life does not entail guns and therefore the focus should be on how to abolish guns rather than on how to ensure that the existing guns are not

      • Hi Giorgo sorry I took some time to respond,

        You make several points and I have thought a bit about them:

        First is your priority of pacifism and the ideal goal of nobody having guns. I agree that I wish there were no guns. As a whole guns and weapons technology cause a lot more harm than good and without them the world would be much much better off. The weapons industry is disgusting and hypothetically if it was in my power I would erase it completely from the world right away. The people running it and profiting from it are in my opinion some of the worst scum in the world.
        But the reality of gun ownership begins in the existing world and the preexisting conditions in it. It is simple, if you have an enemy and he is armed then you must either arm yourself too or else you are forced into a position of powerlessness and victimisation. This is the constraint of reality, the setting in which principles are chosen and prioritised.
        The ‘enemy’ can be something like nazi occupation of europe for example in which case armed resistance was in my opinion the correct and ethical response to the situation.
        Or the enemy can be the ‘criminal’ i.e. someone trying to cause harm to me, family, friends etc. In the US and other places illegal gun ownership is so excessive that there is a very real possibility of coming into contact with armed people who, because they have guns, can choose if you live or die.
        In cases like this the ‘liberal’ position is to deliberately choose powerlessness (often with rationalisations that to choose to arm yourself makes you just as bad as nazis or rapists etc). I find this position to be irrational and pathological.
        If the ideal situation is total disarmament (I agree with this as a principle) then there is a balance of power that has to be maintained while moving towards it – disarmament is something all sides must do and it doesn’t make sense for just one side to do it. In this case there are three sides – A the state B illegal gun owners and C legal gun owners. A is the most heavily armed. With B it is very difficult to guarantee disarmament and to measure their gun ownership. C is the easiest to disarm. Disarming C completely without A and B doing the same is not a fair disarmament process and leaves C powerless.

        On the other hand in Cyprus for example I have never felt that I am in danger of being shot; unless you are involved with the underworld the chances are very close to zero. Living in Cyprus I have never wanted a gun. In fact in Cyprus when I did own one as an army reservist I was more worried about it being stolen and getting into trouble rather than the possibility of being threatened by someone else with a gun. But in the US for example when a burglar, gang, rapist etc has easy access to illegal guns, I think if I was a US citizen I would buy one and learn to use it, especially if I had my own family.

        Second, I disagree with the way you portray gun owners as a caricature of very reactionary ‘gun nuts’. Of course they exist but they are probably a minority given that
        45% of americans have a gun in their home,
        46% of men own one and 23% of women.
        73% of americans disagree with the government banning the possession of handguns.
        69% of americans have fired a gun.
        41% of Republicans and 28& of Democrats own guns.
        http://www.gallup.com/poll/150353/self-reported-gun-ownership-highest-1993.aspx
        http://www.gallup.com/poll/1645/guns.aspx

        You are right that people of the religious right (particularly in the rural south) are more in favour of gun ownership than educated liberals in big cities and it is easier to dislike the former as their opinions on other things like evolution, gay rights and so on are very stupid. But I think it is a mistaken way of thinking to equate the desire to own a gun with chauvinism, racism etc.
        One counterexample is Anonymous who I follow on twitter and they are clearly in favour of the right to own a gun.
        Here is a liberal pro-choice woman describing why she armed herself after being raped
        http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/25/do-u-s-women-need-guns-self-defense-expert-paxton-quigley-says-yes.html
        Here is an article describing how in california in the 60s conservatives were in favour of gun control and the far left Black Panther Party against it
        http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/the-secret-history-of-guns/308608/

        Generally when understanding situations with political polarisation, in order to get a clearer understanding I find it is better to distance oneself from both sides (in this case american conservatives and liberals) and identify what is good and bad in each one rather than identify with one side as ‘enlightened’ and demonise the other. In complex situations like modern politics I find this is the only way to make sense of the situation rather than to get pulled into polarisation.
        In the case of american conservatives personally I found this revealing:
        “There are two kinds of Americans. People who want to take care of themselves and those who want to be taken care of. The ones who want to take care of themselves are the ones who come into my shop,” (from a gun dealer, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/18/gun-sales-surge-newtown-crackdown )
        From this I could generalise that american conservatives place more value on autonomy and independence rather than dependence on authority; in this case I sympathise more with conservatives.
        On the other hand for example I sympathise more with american liberal positions on secularisation or abortion.
        But in general I do not identify with either side.

        This is a quite interesting talk about liberal and conservative value systems
        http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

        And final point yes it is problematic that the state is the one judging mental fitness to own guns but I don’t see any other solution. In general psychological diagnosis is problematic, very ideologically based, and also under huge pressure from the pharmaceutical industry which is just as big and bad as the weapons industry.