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Tuesday, October 3, 2017


According to this 2016 story in the Washington Post, only one-third to two-fifths of American households include someone who owns a gun, despite the fact that there are more guns than people in this country.  Gun owning households typically own four or five guns, and some own as many as twenty or thirty.  Since 1986, it has been illegal to buy a fully automatic weapon [one that keeps firing as long as you keep pressing the trigger], but it is legal to buy a kit that converts a semi-automatic weapon [one that fires again and again without reloading as you press the trigger again and again] to an automatic weapon, and there are YouTube videos showing you how to make the conversion.

America is not a nation.  It is a dystopian war zone.


F Lengyel said...
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F Lengyel said...

Almost immediately after the news of the Las Vegas shooting broke, one philosophaster lost no time disparaging gun control advocates who believe that the sale of fully automatic weapons is legal in the United States. The point was to belittle those who "purported" to care about gun violence without researching the law. This individual wasn't the least bit interested in pointing out that semi-automatic weapons -- more than deadly enough -- can be customized to get around the law. I was reminded of remarks by Bertrand Russell on non-epistemic uses of philosophy.

Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery.
-- Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 729

Robert Paul Wolff said...

What on earth are you talking about?

F Lengyel said...

I'm agreeing with you and contrasting your remarks with those of certain partisans whom I would prefer not to name.

Robert Paul Wolff said...


s. wallerstein said...

When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1950's, no one I knew had a gun, no one in my family nor in the family of friends. In general, I have the impression that gun-owning is not a Jewish thing (in the U.S.).

I visited my college girl friend's family in a mountain time zone state and her father, an educated man, a lawyer and politically a Democrat, had maybe 10 guns in a rack in the living room. A few years later I visited a friend from the university in the same mountain time zone state and he had a revolver.

Before I left the U.S. in 1977, I lived in the Bay area of California and no one I knew there had a gun. They were all peaceniks, even the ones who believed in armed struggle against capitalism and racism in theory.

So almost none of the Americans I have known have guns and to own a gun seems weird to me, although I realize that in some social circles and states in the U.S. it is normal.

F Lengyel said...

My apologies for venting without context about activity on other parts of the web.

I wonder whether an instinctual, unconscious recognition the hominid ability to kill conspecifics from a distance with projectile weapons plays some role in the American fascination with firearms.

If there were anything about homo sapiens that one might hold responsible for its fall from grace, the ability to kill conspecifics from a distance with projectile weapons would be it.

s. wallerstein said...

F. Lengyel,

If there is something instinctual about the fascination with firearms, why is that fascination confined to certain social groups in the U.S.?

Firearms don't fascinate me. I bet that they don't fascinate Professor Wolff or Noam Chomsky or Professor Leiter or Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein or most of the population of Japan and Holland, two countries where gun ownership is very rare.

Instincts are drives that all normal human beings have, not just certain social groups.

When I was 14 or 15, I went through a short period where guns fascinated me, but I grew out of it. Why can't others do that?

F Lengyel said...

s. wallerstein,

Of course I'm out of my depth. I had in mind some biological mechanism or predisposition that would express itself to varying degrees in some individuals and not others, and that might be exacerbated by US politics, etc. I don't expect molecular biologists to identify a gene whose specific function is to promote 2nd Amendment advocacy. Is it only a coincidence that gun ownership is typically connected in some people's minds with defense against a tyrannical government?

Human political organization has co-evolved with technological developments in projectile weapons. Some anthropologists have argued that the development of projectile weapons led to intense selective pressure on humans to cooperate, to develop facility in persuasion (e.g., "don't tase me bro!") and other prosocial capabilities that distinguish humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Perhaps there is nothing in biology to explain widespread intransigence on the subject of guns. Somehow I doubt it...

s. wallerstein said...

F Lengyel,

I don't think that it's a coincidence that defense against tyranny is connected with gun ownership in some people's heads, but is it genetic or the result of a specific culture,
reinforced by NRA propaganda, Hollywood movies, and gun company campaigns to increase sales?

If it's genetic, why do people, like my ex-girl friend, described above, who come from a mountain state time zone gun culture, leave that gun culture and the fascination with guns behind when they integrate themselves into New York City intellectual life?

It's very dangerous to naturalize (that is, say it's genetic) a negative cultural trait, which as Professor Wolff points out, turns America into a dystopian war zone.

If the Dutch can live without guns and use bicycles instead of SUV's, you and I can too.

F Lengyel said...
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F Lengyel said...

I'm not excusing it or suggesting that the only factor is genetic. I'm wondering whether such factors exist and whether they are significant. Why suggest such a thing? Because of the role that the development of the ability to kill conspecifics from a distance with projectile weapons played and continues to play for human political organization and prosocial behavior. If that development played no further role after it appeared, then I'd be guilty of the genetic fallacy. So I must be guilty of some other error.

I'm doing my best to live without guns. I don't own any, and I don't own an SUV (or any other vehicle--I'm a city dweller).

What I am attempting to do is suspend my distaste for guns to entertain the possibility that there is something in the evolutionary makeup of humans--something beyond culture--that contributes to our present uncivilized state.

s. wallerstein said...

F. Lengyel,

No one doubts that there's an aggressive component in human nature, but some cultures are less homicidal than others: that is, they have developed cultural norms and/or an educational system (in the broadest sense of the term "educational system"), which makes it much less likely than they will kill each other.

I've lived in Chile for almost 40 years now. Our homicidal rate is way too high, although less than in the U.S.

However, never in Chilean history has anyone walked into a school or a shopping mall and begun to kill people at random. No one has ever killed people shooting from a tower or a high-rise hotel. That's never occurred in most societies either, except in specific ideologically motivated terrorist acts against the civilian population.

I don't believe (please correct me if I'm wrong) that there is any society on this planet except the U.S. where people habitually kill others whom they do not know at random, not in a robbery or a gang war (as occurs in Chile) or out of jealousy (that happens way too much in Chile), but for no known reason at all.

You'll say that people who walk into a school and kill students or the guy who killed 59 people from his hotel room yesterday are mentally kill. People are mentally kill everywhere, and they don't walk into a shopping mall with an M-16 and open fire on everyone around them.

Are people more mentally ill (whatever "mentally ill" means, if anything) in the U.S.?
Or is there a culture which promotes a certain kind of violence, not to mention lax gun control laws?

s. wallerstein said...

Freudian error on my part:

I wrote "mentally kill" when I meant "mentally ill".

F Lengyel said...
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F Lengyel said...
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Paul Kern said...

Dystopian war zone...yes, that's what it is except the dwellers in that space are so alienated they don't/can't know it.

Anonymous said...

I certainly don't have the intellectualism of Dr. Wollf or any of the other commentators on this post. However, I have lived in six different states in the U.S. over the last 46 years and the love of guns is everywhere but Texas was probably the worst.

I think most males in this country think you can't be a real man unless you love guns and American football. I have hated football since a high school friend died from a broken neck playing a sandlot game after school when we were 16 years old. I've hated guns since my father was murdered with one in 1973.

The glorification of violence in sports and entertainment has to be at least partly responsible.

Matt said...

I think most males in this country think you can't be a real man unless you love guns and American football.

Why bother with such wild over-statements. At noted above, only a minority of households even own guns, and it's perfectly possible to own a gun but not have crazy views about others who don't and don't want to. The same is obviously true about football, too, which is popular, but watched by a minority of the (male) population. It's good to note let one's self get too out of whack over this stuff.

Attitudes towards guns really vary by region, as well. I grew up in Idaho, and it wasn't unusual for people to own guns. My father was a police officer and so we had several in the house. He wasn't much of a hunter, but hunted once in a while, and had a rife and shotgun. My older brother loved to hunt, and so had a rife and shotgun, though I don't think he does it anymore. I liked target shooting with pistols, but haven't owned a gun since moving from Idaho is 1999 - I moved to a place where guns had to be licensed and registered, where target shooting would be harder, and didn't think it was worth the trouble (and expense.) In Philadelphia, where I lived for a long time, it was very unusual to own a gun - many people I knew had never held one or shot one and were afraid of the very idea of them. This large cultural difference is one reason (not the only one, by any means, but one) that gun control is harder in the US - partisans often see the other side as crazy and alien, and as attacking their culture in a way that understandably, if unfortunately, makes people very defensive. It's hard for me to know what the answers are here. To me, it's a bit of evidence for the view I've had for a while that the US is just too large to be well governed.

LFC said...

Re differing attitudes to guns by region: the regional cultural differences in the U.S. have spawned over the years a kind of pop-sociological literature (of course there is a large scholarly lit. on the distinctiveness of the South, but put that aside for these purposes). Specifically I'm thinking of Joel Garreau, The Nine Nations of North America (1982) and more recently Colin Woodard, American Nations (2012). Haven't read either one, though I did glace in a bookstore at Woodard's 2017 book American Character, which I didn't, on brief perusal, find to be too impressive.