some facts about guns, episode 7

I’m not even gonna lie, y’all: I stole some of today’s links from Fred Clark’s very funny ruminations on Texas and Florida. Sorry, Fred!

Let’s start off with your basic safety tips. Don’t do this:

Justin Holt, 22, and his girlfriend Erin Steele, 20, were visiting a friend this past Sunday when another friend arrived with a pistol that was passed around the group.

Authorities in Boca Raton say the four had spent the day “dry firing” the empty gun at each other before moving on to other things.

At some point, the gun’s owner, Joshua Henry, loaded the gun and set it on a counter.

Steele, unaware the gun had been loaded by Henry, picked it up and resumed the “game” by pointing the weapon at Holt’s chest and firing it.

Also don’t do this:

[T]he man said he had been driving toward Orlando on Interstate-4 when another driver allegedly flashed a weapon after the two had some type of altercation.

To protect himself, the man brandished his own handgun, causing it to discharge into his leg . . . .

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advises motorists to move out of the way of aggressive drivers, avoid eye contact and not to return offensive hand gestures.

Solid advice. One of the problems with having a weapon for self-defense, I think, is that (a) it can make you feel invincible, but (b) you might actually bungle the draw when the time comes and you actually need it. (Or “need it.”) Just something to keep in mind, guys.

Someone recently linked me to the amazing story of Mary Fields, the first black woman to work for the Postal Service, which in her day was really saying something:

Fields stood 6 feet (182 cm) tall and weighed about 200 lbs (90kg), liked to smoke cigars, and was once said to be as “black as a burnt-over prairie (black).” She usually had a pistol strapped under her apron and a jug of whiskey by her side . . . .

Born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee around 1832, Fields was freed when American slavery was outlawed in 1865.

She then worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne’s wife Josephine died in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida, Fields took the family’s five children to their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. In 1884, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana Territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, west of Cascade. Learning that Amadeus was ill, Fields hurried to Montana to nurse her . . . .

One schoolgirl wrote an essay saying: “she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.” In 1894, after several complaints and an incident with a disgruntled male subordinate that involved gunplay, the bishop ordered her to leave the convent . . . .

In 1895, although approximately 60 years old, Fields was hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses . . . . She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach.” If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.

So this brings up a point I’ve wondered about before: should the right to keep and bear arms be relative to one’s situation? Clearly being a black woman adventurer in the late 19th century, even in the comparatively egalitarian West, was a hugely dangerous undertaking. (Even if you’re 200 lbs and 6 feet tall.) There’s a quite serious argument that going armed helped this woman achieve a level of parity with white men that might otherwise have been out of reach. That certainly wasn’t the only factor in her success — apparently she could hitch a wagon like nobody’s business — but it might have been a crucially important one.

Whereas, equally arguably, a gun doesn’t provide that much advantage to today’s black female postal workers, who face far less danger overall and whose experiences of discrimination are likely to be on much more subtle planes. And they face less danger, less discrimination and less overt forms of discrimination because of the success of the rule of law, including civil rights law.

Should that matter? Here’s another example:

In November, a band of Tancítaro residents wielding wooden clubs and old hunting rifles joined forces with well-armed vigilantes from nearby towns to run off most members of the Knights Templar, a criminal gang allegedly involved in extortion, kidnapping, rape and homicide throughout the state.

“The people were sick and tired of the situation,” said Mayor Salvador Torres, who is now guarded round-the-clock by federal police because of threats. “A day didn’t go by that one didn’t hear about extortion, a kidnapping, or a violent death taking place in the municipality . . . .”

Tancítaro’s avocado growers and townspeople rose up in arms shortly after the early November kidnapping of Maria Irene Villanueva, the daughter of a local preacher and avocado grower, residents said. The young woman was raped and killed as her father prepared to transfer title of his grove to a gang capo after failing to raise a $600,000 ransom . . . .

Outraged after the discovery of the young woman’s body, farmers and pickers allied with dozens of armed vigilantes from self-defense groups that have sprung up in nearby towns. The farmers and vigilantes prevailed during a November firefight in the nearby town of Pareo that ended with the killing of two alleged Templar gunmen, authorities said.

A few days later, Jose Manuel Mireles, a vigilante leader and doctor, exhorted residents to fight until the gangsters were driven out of the state . . . .

These days, residents of Tancítaro said, kidnapping and extortion have nearly disappeared . . . .

On Monday, the federal government signed a treaty with vigilante chiefs that allows members of the groups to eventually join rural and town police. In return, the vigilantes promised to provide a list of its members and to register their weapons, including those illegal to possess here.

Most vigilantes say they are loath to give up their weapons because they have little trust in the government’s ability to dismantle the gang. Federal authorities and soldiers failed during years of fighting to do what civilian vigilantes have done in many places over a few months.

It seems obvious that in 1890’s Montana, or in contemporary Michoacán, the official sources of law and order were at best ineffective and limited. This seems to argue in favor of a right to arm one’s self for self-defense. But what about where law enforcement is generally effective, both as a deterrent to crime and as a means of punishing wrongdoers? Should people have less recourse to arms for self-defense?

Supposing for argument’s sake that we could quantify risk (including, perhaps, the risk of discrimination or unequal treatment) — would there be a level of risk below which the negative effects of the presence of arms among civilians (e.g., intemperate uses in road rage incidents) in the society outweighs their usefulness for self defense? Who would make that determination, and on what objective basis?

(As an aside, where there are dangerous conditions, should “well-regulated militias,” perhaps including a group like the Michoacán vigilantes who agree to register their members and weapons, be afforded more liberty to carry weapons than an unaffiliated — and therefore more vulnerable — individual like Mary Fields?)

And what about the quite common situation in American cities where different neighborhoods have radically different access to the protection of law enforcement? If you are living in a neighborhood where police presence is both scarce and hostile, should your right to keep and bear arms be greater than if you live in a safe neighborhood where the police are on your side? Justice Alito’s majority opinion in McDonald v. City of Chicago goes out of its way to point out that the petitioner was an elderly man living in a relatively lawless neighborhood, even though the ultimate holding, guaranteeing a broad right that didn’t rest on individual characteristics. Did Otis McDonald’s personal situation move the Court to a certain constitutional holding? Should it have? If the society is generally a safe one, does a right to arms for self-defense still carry moral weight as long as there are pockets of extreme danger?

In other words, does vast social inequality justify a broader right to bear arms? If so, that might go a long way toward explaining the difference in attitudes about gun control between America and many Western European nations, where society’s least well-off tend to live under somewhat less bleak conditions.

Leave the law out of it for a moment. As a moral matter, if you live in a safe city, or a very safe neighborhood in an uneven city, should you refrain from carrying a weapon? Ideally, people would self-identify as being subject to road rage (or other kinds of rage) and refrain on that ground. But it’s hard to know, sometimes, whether you are that kind of person in the abstract. Should the moral rule be that you don’t carry a weapon unless there’s a clear and articulable danger that makes carrying a gun more valuable than not carrying?

The religion I grew up in, the Baha’i Faith, forbids its members to carry weapons “unless essential.” A footnote to the sacred text explains what “essential” means:

With regard to circumstances under which the bearing of arms might be “essential” for an individual, Abdu’l-Baha gives permission to a believer for self-protection in a dangerous environment.

This strikes me as a good rule. Leaving aside the law, there’s something commendable, I think, about an individual choosing to bear a small personal risk in order to avoid being, himself, an unnecessary risk to his family, friends, and neighbors. (I also think there might be a similar argument for intermediate measures, like less-than-lethal weapons.)

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