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How to survive in a violent world

08 August 2007

Americans do not believe that the state can protect them, says Harriet Baber

The governing body of one of our state university systems is considering a plan to arm professors. In response to the Virginia Tech shootings on 16 April this year, the Nevada Board of Regents has proposed sending professors on a training course, and deputising them so that they can carry firearms on campus legally. “God, guns, and guts make America great”, as the old bumper sticker had it.

Why do we Americans like guns so much? Because we think we live in Mogadishu. Somalis won’t lay down their weapons because they know that if they give up their firearms, but others don’t, they’ll be shot by members of rival clans. If you live in a failed state you can’t count on the government to protect you; so you rely on God, guns, and guts.

Large numbers of Americans believe that every state — including the United States — is a failed state; that government is the problem, not the solution. We’re convinced that the private sector can always do things better. We believe that the market will do better at promoting general welfare than a welfare state, and that citizens with guns will do a better job of maintaining public safety than restrictions on gun ownership.

Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech undergraduate who killed 33 students and staff during his day of rage earlier this year, had multiple firearms, even though guns were banned on campus. Would this mass murder have been averted if Virginia had had more stringent gun control regulations? Or would it have been better had students and faculty been armed, so that someone could have killed Cho first?

Gun control means fewer guns, and fewer murderous lunatics with guns, so less need for citizens to defend themselves. No gun control means more guns for lunatics and thugs, but also more respectable citizens with guns to shoot them first. It is an empirical question which way things will go. The experience of affluent countries comparable to the US suggests that fewer guns for all make everyone safer than escalating the domestic arms race, but which way we bet depends on whether we believe the state can keep us safe, and whether we believe that, apart from a few crazy people like Cho, people are not out to do violence.

We don’t believe that. And it isn’t primarily insane Korean undergraduates who scare us; we’re convinced that there is a violent underclass whose members cannot be improved, but only, at best, contained. We believe that the only way to keep safe is by segregating them, imprisoning as many as possible, and moving away as far as we can from their turf — to outer suburbs, or, if we can afford it, gated communities.

We don’t believe the US is like France, Japan, or the UK; we think it is like Somalia, or other Third World countries, where an impoverished underclass engages in crime and violence, where anyone who can afford it lives in a gated community patrolled by security guards, and where everyone relies on God, guns, and guts to protect themselves.

That is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.

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