Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Since I last wrote about gun control in the middle of December, I have continued to read and
gather as many facts as I could find that might contribute to real solutions to the gun violence
that is so prevalent in the United States. What I have read and what I understand leads me to
conclude that there may be a few ways to reduce gun violence and the number of deaths from
guns, but that is far from certain.
A poem by Carl Sandburg that was just discovered in the archives of the Rare Book and
Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests a view of guns
from an ethical perspective:
Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court,
nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and
interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief
that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.
Sam Harris, who is an author, philosopher, public intellectual, and neuroscientist, also proposes
an ethical framework from which to consider self-defense and guns. Most people I know who
want a gun or guns for protection (self-defense) don’t consider that the decision has ethical
dimensions, but it does. How those ethical dimensions fit into a discussion about gun control is
what interested me in Harris’s thoughts on the subject.
To begin his discussion of the ethics of self-defense, Harris cites the data: “In 2010, there were
403.6 violent crimes per 100,000 persons in the United States. . . . Thus, the average American
has a 1 in 250 chance of being robbed, assaulted, raped, or murdered each year. Actually, the
chance is probably greater than this, because we know that certain crimes, such as assault and
rape, are under-reported.”
Harris begins with the premise that “dialing 911 when an intruder has broken into your home is
not a strategy for self-defense.” He begins by suggesting three principles relevant to self-
Principle #1: Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places.
The primary goal of self-defense is to avoid becoming the victim of violence. The best
way to do this is to not be where violence is likely to occur. Of course, that’s not always
possible—but without question, it is your first and best line of defense. If you visit
dangerous neighborhoods at night, or hike alone and unarmed on trails near a big city, or
frequent places where drunken young men gather, you are running some obvious risks.
Principle #2: Do not defend your property.
Whatever your training, you should view any invitation to violence as an opportunity to
die—or to be sent to prison for killing another human being. Violence must truly be the
last resort. . . . Unless you or another person is being physically harmed, or an attack
seems imminent, avoiding violence should be your only concern.
Principle #3: Respond immediately and escape.
If you have principles 1 and 2 firmly installed in your brain, any violence that finds you
is, by definition, unavoidable. There is a tremendous power in knowing this: When you
find yourself without other options, you are free to respond with full commitment.
Harris offers what he considers the core principle of self-defense: “Do whatever you can to avoid
a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of
escape—not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your
goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that
seems necessary to ensure your escape.”
One very practical thought that Harris offers is to remember that “anyone who attempts to
control you–by moving you to another room, putting you in a car, tying you up–probably intends
to kill you (or worse).
Much of this will seem counter-intuitive, especially to many men (and some women) who are
brought up with a macho mentality, whose inclination will be to fight, get revenge, teach the
hoodlum a lesson, or assure that he is prosecuted for his criminal behavior. For those with
special martial arts training, there may be a tendency to think that this is what the training was
for. But for every person with a black belt in Jui-Jitsu or another martial art, there is a story that
did not end well for the trained victim. After all, no one is really as good as Jack Reacher.
But Harris appreciates martial arts training because it may help a person respond more quickly to
the threat, provide a person with more confidence, provide psychological and social benefits, and
give a person the mental preparation necessary to focus on what is most important– escape from
All of Harris’s arguments about self-defense and guns can be read at the following links:
The Truth About Violence <http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-truth-about-violence>;
The Riddle of the Gun <http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-riddle-of-the-gun>; and
FAQ On Violence <http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/faq-on-violence>.
Even in a home invasion, where many gun owners think that they can repel the attacker or
attackers with a weapon, reality does not support such a proposition. Harris reminds us that the
police, who are trained to remove an invader from a house, will approach their task with perhaps
five officers, heavily armed and in protective gear. The average home-owner cannot come close
to matching their level of skill and equipment, and, unless everyone in the family has managed to
escape, they will all be in great danger.
Harris’s views on self-defense help inform a discussion about dealing effectively with violence,
especially gun violence (though Harris also discusses knife violence). Over 300 million guns are
in circulation in the US. There is little likelihood that their number will diminish. In fact, in
December, there were 2.2 million new background checks for gun purchases. Not only will lots
of the good guys have guns, but probably most of the bad guys will have guns, also.
As a good guy, according to Harris, I have to make a practical and ethical decision about whether
to own a gun or guns, “given my specific security concerns and the level of violent crime in the
society in which I live.” For Harris, who lives in the Los Angeles area, “[t]he choice to own a
gun comes down to this: If I hear a window break in the middle of the night, I want to be armed
with more than my idealism.”
Harris’s ethical concerns about self-defense lead me to think about ethical concerns about gun
ownership. From his ideas, I draw several propositions, none of which Harris should be blamed
1. Every gun purchaser should be carefully vetted by way of a background check for mental
illness, violence, law-breaking behavior, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and gang involvement. By
gun purchaser, I mean everyone to whom a gun is transferred, either by gift, devise, or for
2. Every gun purchaser should be psychologically screened at least as thoroughly as a candidate
for police officer is screened. Even with the level of screening that police officers go through,
some of them prove to be unstable and a danger to the public. Without comparable screening for
civilian gun owners, we significantly increase the possibility of increasing the danger to the
3. I can see no reason why all gun owners should not have to be as well-trained initially about
guns and their use, and receive continuing training, as are police officers. Such training is even
more important for those who have a carry permit.
4. Bans on ammunition magazines that can hold over seven bullets (the New York standard)
would mitigate against the number of deaths that occur during mass killings. Such bans will not
assure that fewer innocents will be killed during such events, but there is a likelihood that a ban
on over-size magazines will diminish the number of deaths. Such a ban, to be effective and
constitutional, will necessitate a buy-back program for over-size magazines and will require stiff
penalties for possessing them as a deterrent.
5. Putting well-trained police officers in every school may seem too costly, and it is certainly
unsettling to think that the possibility of violence in our schools requires making them fortresses,
but that may be the reality of America in the 21st century. I have been unable to answer
satisfactorily why this is such a violent culture, but there is no doubt that it is, even if it has
improved (see The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Steven Pinker). Either we decide to live with
this reality or we respond to it with reasonable precautions. That’s a decision every community
will need to make for itself.
6. We should eliminate all restraints on the ATF with respect to inspections of gun dealers and
allow ATF to enforce all laws and regulations regarding guns, gun sales, and gun ownership
without limitation, and eliminate the requirement that the Director of the ATF be confirmed by
the Senate. The NRA, with the collusion of some politicians, has succeeded in preventing the
ATF from doing an effective job. Let’s see what happens if the ATF is given the resources and
actually allowed to enforce the 20,000 gun laws (according to the NRA) we now have.
I have no quarrel with the gun-control recommendations of the Obama administration, with the
exception made above regarding the size of ammunition magazines. Neither Obama’s proposals
nor mine will make this a perfect and safe society, but it is better to have public policy set for the
protection of the vast majority of Americans than to please the NRA and the gun manufacturers
for which it shills.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.