Saturday, 3 March 2018

What's all this about assault rifles?

     Disclosure: When it comes to guns, I am neither an enthusiast nor an expert. That said, I aspire to Socratic wisdom in most subjects, which is to say that I try to learn enough to have a good idea of just how much there is I don't know. And in so doing, I often learn enough to recognize when someone else does not know what they're talking about.

     In the gun control debate, I am beginning to recognize a lot of that on both sides. I'm sympathetic to those gun enthusiasts who criticize gun control advocates for not knowing what they're talking about when they say they want to ban assault rifles and who seem to be concerned more with what the weapon looks like than how it works.
     The enthusiast may go on to cite that an assault rifle is defined as a select-fire rifle that fires an intermediate cartridge stored in a detachable magazine. Select-fire means you can switch between semi-automatic (the weapon fires one bullet per pull of the trigger) and automatic fire (it fires more than one bullet per trigger pull). And, since full-auto weapons are already largely restricted from civilian hands and the AR15 is normally only available in semi-automatic configurations, it's not even a true assault rifle and you dumb ignorant gun-grabbers don't even know what you're talking about so shut up.

     Well, that's true, as far as it goes. But the select-fire distinction isn't really quite as meaningful as that makes it sound, at least as far as assault rifles are concerned. And here's where I'm going to talk technically about guns without being an expert.
     Anti-gun people often like to say that assault rifles are designed to kill large numbers of people very quickly, but that's not quite true. They are designed to be effective combat weapons, which means they're meant to be used against similarly armed people who are also actively trying to shoot back. For combat, semi-automatic fire and a large magazine is essential. It just so happens that these properties also make them ridiculously efficient at killing lots of people who are not firing back.
     See, in just about any kind of combat, you have to commit yourself to an attack. While you're in the en garde position with a sword, for example, you are ready to strike, parry, advance, retreat, depending on what you need to do. But when you commit to an attack, say, a lunge, you move out of the ready position, and your options suddenly narrow for a time. That's why we train so often to recover from a lunge, so that we can quickly return to the en garde position; you're vulnerable mid-attack, or mid-parry, or mid anything other than a guard position.
     It's the same with firearms. When you're in a ready position, you can aim and fire at a target of opportunity, or duck for cover, or advance or retreat. When you commit to firing a shot, you lose these other options for as long as it takes for you to recover from the recoil and reload for the next shot. In the days of muskets and muzzle-loading cannon, this took quite some time, and in fact that's where the tradition of the gun salute comes from: by firing your gun into the air, you demonstrated peaceful intentions since your weapon was now unloaded.
     So just as fencers gain an advantage by being able to recover into the en garde position quickly, combatants with firearms need to be able to return to their ready position quickly after firing. This is what has driven so many advances in firearm technology over the years, from pre-measured paper packet of gunpowder to the Remington repeating rifle to the Colt revolver to the modern semi-automatic, where the gun automatically ejects a spent shell casing and chambers a new round after firing, so you are back in your ready-to-fire position a fraction of a second after pulling the trigger. And this is important because real firefights are not just blasting away at enemy targets; they involve cover and concealment, maneuvering for position, feints and withdrawals and all sorts of tactical stuff I don't know about, because remember that the enemy is also trying to shoot back. So the less time you spend reloading, the more time you are ready to act or react, and the more effective you'll be.

     Now, once you have a gun that reloads itself after firing, it's a ridiculously easy matter to make it fire again and again and again while the trigger is still held in the firing position, so fully-automatic machine-guns are a natural consequence of this development. Machine guns fire full auto, hosing down an area with a continuous stream of bullets. We think of the appalling slaughter of the early part of the First World War, where a single machine gun nest could mow down hundreds of soldiers at a time as they tried to charge. And not coincidentally, a weapon designed to efficiently stop a massed infantry charge is just as efficient against massed civilians in a shopping mall.
     Full auto is, to be sure, a terrifying thing, but it's actually not what makes an assault rifle effective. In fact, they tried having your basic infantry assault rifle be full auto for a while in Vietnam, but it turned out to be a really, really bad idea. It used up a ridiculous amount of ammunition (which is heavy to carry around and thus never available in unlimited quantities), and didn't actually kill more enemies. Sure, it has its uses, but that's why infantry squads have a dedicated light machinegunner. Today, the typical assault rifle's selector does not have a setting for full-auto; instead, it can be set to fire a burst of 3 rounds per pull of the trigger.
     Remember that the main value in a semi-automatic weapon in combat is that you spend more time in your ready position, and less time reloading between attacks (pulls of the trigger). The more bullets fired per attack, the fewer attacks you can make before you have to reload. So it's actually better, for the most part, not to be firing bursts all the time.

     So that's why I say that the distinction between the semi-automatic AR15 and the select-fire capability of a military assault rifle isn't really that significant. (I'm not absolutely clear on why military assault rifles even have a burst setting, though I imagine it's for when you're reasonably confident you're actually going to hit the target and want to make sure you do damage, while maybe semi-auto fire is more for covering fire, making the enemy keep his head down while your buddy moves to a better position, stuff like that.)
     They can both fire the same number of attacks in the same amount of time; on burst setting, the military weapon will make fewer attacks, but those attacks will probably do more damage with three bullets instead of just one. And when firing at unarmoured civilian targets, that's just overkill.

     So bickering about whether or not an AR15 is technically an "assault rifle" is an unimportant distraction from the question as to whether or not they should be restricted. Select-fire or just semi-automatic, the weapon was designed for battle. Not for hunting, not for target practice, not for home defence (the typical home defense scenario is not a prolonged firefight). Battle.
     I'm not going to argue here whether or not such weapons should be in private hands.  I've already made my position on gun control fairly clear in other posts, and we can argue in the comment threads there. But feel free to correct me if I've made factual errors in my discussion of weapons and tactics.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Passive Racism

     I was just arguing with someone about the definition of racism. He seemed to believe that racism was all about hate, that if you didn't hate you weren't racist. So I proposed the following thought experiment: Suppose you're a white person living in a society in which nobody hates anyone, but everyone believes everyone else is racist. You're sitting in a coffee shop full of white customers, when in walks a black customer. You don't mind, but you look around a bit because you want to see how the other customers react. The shopkeeper looks nervous, too, and seems to be trying to get the black customer to leave, pretending not to notice them at first, then when that doesn't work, serving them very brusquely and putting their drink in a to-go cup instead of a china mug. It seems a little rude, actually, but you don't say anything because, well, it's none of your business and anyway nobody else will back you up, since as far as you know, you're the only person who doesn't hate blacks. (You don't know it, of course, but the only reason the shopkeeper is acting this way is because she's worried she'll lose you as a customer if she doesn't get rid of the black customer.)
     This dynamic applies throughout this hate-free society. Black applicants have trouble getting hired, getting loans for housing, getting witnesses to exonerate them when accused of crimes, etc. Nobody hates them, but everybody thinks everybody else does, and nobody wants to anger the majority. Maybe some people even go out of their way to pander to what they think the majority wants. Maybe the coffee shop puts up a sign "No Colored" and refuses to serve black customers at all. Not out of hate, but just because they think (perhaps even accurately) that the black customers they lose spend less than the white customers they'll gain. Just a business decision, no racist motives involved. Maybe a politician decides to pander even more, promising policies of segregation and selective advantages for whites, not because he actually hates blacks but because he wants white votes. And, depending on how cleverly he makes his pitch, it might actually work. After all, if he offers a 10% tax cut to all whites, for example, it's pretty easy to rationalize that isn't really taking anything away from anyone else (even though it is), so hey, why not vote for it?
     And so, you could end up with a full-blown apartheid state, full of aggressively discriminatory policies and institutions, in which each and every person can still quite sincerely and honestly profess not to hate anyone. Not a single racist to be found anywhere, and yet a society that is every bit as thoroughly and consistently racist as if it were deliberately set up by racists. 
     Now imagine someone protests this state of affairs, and suggests that maybe we should reform some of these unjust institutions that just happen to have these racist effects. You might wholeheartedly agree in principle, because after all you’re not racist. But that 10% tax break for whites? Hey, you need that; how else can you afford to support your family? And you’re not racist; why should you be punished by a tax hike? That might be going a little too far, and so maybe you voice some opposition to the idea. Pretty soon you’re actively opposing efforts to implement the sorts of changes that a truly equal society would require. And now you’re acting like a racist, though not because you hate anyone because golly you know deep down you really truly don’t hate anyone. You just don’t think it’s fair that you should have to give up any of the advantages you’ve come to feel entitled to. But heck no, you're not racist, are you? Of course not! And anyone who says so just doesn't understand the real you, right?
     This isn’t quite the sort of world we live in, but only because in our world, there actually are people who genuinely and openly hate on the basis of race, though I suspect there are relatively few of them. Most people today really like to think they’re not racist, and if hatred were a necessary ingredient of racism, then they’d be right. 
But as the thought experiment shows, you don’t need hate to have a thoroughly racist society. You don’t even need indifference. Maybe you weep the sincerest tears of private anguish at the racial injustice of your society, and maybe your participation in these institutions and practices is with the greatest reluctance, but remember that every single other member of your society might be weeping their own tears just as sincerely over the very same injustice, and yet somehow it persists, because nobody is willing to do anything about it.

     And believing “I’m not racist!” is one of the ways we tell ourselves we don’t have to.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Now is not the time

     After another shocking mass shooting, emotions are always high.  People are understandably afraid and angry, and desperately looking for a solution -- any solution -- without stopping to carefully and rationally consider how those "solutions" will actually affect their long term security. They just want to do something about it.
     And of course, there will be people who try to cynically exploit these passions for their own ends.

     But now is not the time to be trying to sell more guns. Out of respect to the victims, I am calling for a  ___ day moratorium on the sale of firearms, one day for each victim. Stop trying to monetize this tragedy!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Strange Pathology of Lying

     In my last post, I mentioned the Kantian analysis of the morality of lying, something I've been contemplating a lot lately. I've been trying to understand the reasons why people tell lies. Sometimes the reasons are obvious (using a falsehood to convince someone to give you something, for example) but sometimes it can be baffling. Especially confusing to me is the blatant, obvious lie, told directly to the person best equipped to recognize it as such. I've encountered this many times, but the first I can recall was way back when I was in junior high school. I went (as I often did) to the local convenience store with a friend for our usual dose of unnecessary sugary snacks. Having made my purchase first, I went outside to wait, and while sipping on my slush, a couple of girls I didn't know arrived with their dog, who (as dogs do) immediately started sniffing at my crotch. I look at it, it looked at me, and suddenly it yipped and bit my thigh. Playfully, I suppose; it didn't draw blood or even hurt, but it did tear a small hole in my trousers.
    I was startled, and said, "Your dog just bit me!"
    "No it didn't," the dog's owner said.
    "No, look! It tore a hole, right here!"
    "You had that hole before. I saw it," she replied instantly.
    That she would say such a thing surprised me even more than the dog biting me. I was so dumbfounded at the audacity of the lie that I just stood their blinking incredulously as my friend came out with his purchase, and we left.

     I have thought about this incident occasionally over the years, and others like it. For quite some time, I could not make any sense of why she would have expected me to believe her testimony against my own experience. In the moment, the strategy worked by simply stunning me; I just was not prepared for so brazen a falsehood, spoken with such confidence. But I found it hard to imagine that being a viable long-term strategy, because sooner or later people will stop being surprised.
     Eventually, it made sense when I realized she wasn't lying to convince me; she was lying to her friend, who would very probably trust her over a complete stranger, and feel obliged out of loyalty to back her up. She may also have been signalling to me that she was prepared to lie if I took the matter to some authority, and that I should expect her friend to support her story over mine. For her friend, it was a loyalty test.

      And so I can see how a narcissist can easily fall into the habit of lying like that. Quite apart from the fact that it often works (at least with people who are unprepared for it) to deflect an accusation, there must be a sense of power and affirmation, when your friend who knows you're (probably) lying, goes along with it out of loyalty to you. When you persuade your friend to do the right thing, you can't really take all the credit for it, but if you get them to do something wrong out of loyalty to you, you know you can take it personally. It must be quite a rush.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Guns for Self-Defense: A Kantian Answer

     I've always been fond of Kant's intensely logical approach to ethics that culminates in his categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."
     That's pretty dense text, so let me illustrate it with probably the most famous example, his stand on lying.

     Suppose you're in a situation where you might be considering telling a lie. Say, for example, you're applying for a loan, and the applications asks you to state your annual income. You know that if you put down anything less than $50,000 a year, you will be refused the loan.  You also know you only make $42,000 a year. So the only way you can get this loan is if you lie about your current income.
     Now, applying Kant's categorical imperative means that you should be able to wish that everyone in your situation would act exactly as you would. If you decide that you should lie on the loan application, then you're deciding that everyone ought to lie when it's the only way to get the loan. But that would mean that the loan officer would expect people to lie, and thus know that she couldn't rely on the information on the application form. And this, of course, would completely defeat the purpose of lying in the first place. Thus, you cannot rationally lie on the form while wishing that everyone else would do the same thing in your situation. You end up having to either accept that you have a moral duty not to lie, or come up with some special rule that only applies to you and nobody else. And while lots of people do indeed think they're just that special, it's kind of hard to get the rest of us to agree on who that one special exempt person should be. (And, in the case of lying, it still won't work because you need your status as the one special person to be a secret, or again, no one will believe what you say.)

     Well, there's a very similar logic to the issue of carrying guns for self-defense. Just yesterday I saw (again) one of those "share if you agree!" memes urging for Canada's laws to be revised to allow people to carry concealed firearms to protect themselves. And sure, at first glance, that seems like a reasonable thing to want. If you're afraid some random stranger might attack you, naturally you're going to want to be able to arm yourself.
     But what happens if you apply the categorical imperative here? You, in arming yourself against random strangers, must also wish that everyone else should arm themselves against random strangers who might attack them. And bear in mind: to them, you are one of those random strangers who might attack them.
     I often hear from gun advocates that we shouldn't be afraid of them being armed because obviously law-abiding citizens aren't going to shoot you if you don't attack them first. And yet, their argument for going around armed is based on a fear that they will be attacked by a random stranger they didn't attack first.
     The rule cannot be universalized. At some point they have to resort to special pleading. Their fear of random strangers is rational enough to warrant getting a gun, but our fear of random strangers is not rational enough to warrant prohibiting them from getting a gun. The problem is that there is no principled way to distinguish between good guys who just want to defend themselves and any other random stranger.

     In short, if you can't trust me not to attack you, why should I trust you not to attack me?

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Another idiot. Stay calm, people.

     Last night, in my home town of Edmonton, Alberta, someone smashed a car into a barricade and stabbed a police officer before running off. Later, in a rented truck, the same person (it's alleged) led police on a violent and dangerous chase, deliberately running down pedestrians before flipping the truck and finally being apprehended. It's being investigated by police as an incident of terrorism, in part because reportedly an ISIS flag was found in his car.

     Again, I want to urge people to keep this in perspective. Some idiot did roughly the same amount of damage as a single drunk driver; the only difference is that maybe he was drunk on ideology instead of whiskey.
     I've said most of what I ever want to have to say about this kind of thing. Here and here and here. These guys are idiots, and there's no reason to be more afraid of them than of a drunk or negligent person in any other capacity. And indeed, there's good reason not to be afraid of them, because unlike the drunk driver, the wannabe terrorist is actively trying to make you afraid; that's his whole goal. If we stop reacting as if these idiots are some huge powerful monster that Must Be Stopped, maybe they might figure out sooner that random acts of violence don't really advance their cause. (Yes, of course they must be stopped, but rewarding them by panicking in abject fear/rage is not an effective way to do that. They are basically criminals, and we have a legal system designed to deal with criminals; they're not an enemy army, as much as they may be deluded into thinking of themselves as such, and we don't need to treat them as one.)

     I think all I want to add right now is to just comment on how spectacularly pathetic this sort of terrorism is, when you stop to think about it. I mean, Edmonton suffers dozens of traffic deaths and hundreds of serious injuries every year, simply as a result of basic incompetence behind the wheel. "Meet our demands, or we will crush you with our mighty incompetence!"
     Look, all you devout DAESh sympathizers and wannabe martyrs. These vehicular assaults do not show you to be righteous or heroic or mighty or determined. You're literally doing what the rest of us do by accident. The message this really sends is that you are so miserable, powerless and desperate that you can't think of any better way to express yourselves than to make other people suffer unnecessarily. That's terribly sad on so many levels, not least of which is that you make it pretty much impossible for any decent person to actually help you. And the thing is, most of us actually want you to be happy and fulfilled. Happy and fulfilled people don't do that stuff.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

I will be forced to...

     There's something that happens a lot in movies and TV shows, and it always annoys me when it does. Scenario: Bad guy is threatening some evil act unless their demands are met. Let's say they're threatening to kill hostages if they don't receive a ransom. And then they says something like, "Do this, or I will be forced to kill a hostage."
     Forced. That's the part that always irks me, because it's such an obvious lie. Maybe it wouldn't bother me so much if it were actually refuted in words, but usually the hostages are rescued or the bomb is defused or the disaster averted by some heroic act of violence (usually aided by some clever detective work). I find myself wishing the negotiator or hero or whoever would just say something like this:

     "No. Let's be clear: Nothing I do forces you to kill hostages. You chose to create this situation, you took those hostages, and you are responsible for the choice to kill them or not. You don't get to pretend this is someone else's fault. You want to be in control? Fine. You're in control. But don't turn around and tell me I'm the one who decides whether they live or die."

     Of course, I'm not a trained hostage negotiator. I have no idea what they are taught about how to deal with this sort of situation, and it might be that what I long to hear in a crime drama is the exact opposite of what a knowledgeable professional would be saying in real life. Even so, in the TV drama, I'd like at least to hear the argument refuted, maybe not directly to the bad guy, but by someone on camera.

     To be sure, as I’ve written before, it can be rational to tie your hands, to make it impossible for you to change your mind about a course of action, so as to make for credible threats or promises. It can, therefore, be a perfectly sensible strategy for the hostage-taker to commit irrevocably to killing the hostages if the demands are not met. This was the whole idea behind Mutual Assured Destruction, which arguably helped prevent the Cold War from heating up. 
     But the antagonists in the Cold War went to great lengths to establish technical systems to actually take away the element of choice in order to render the retaliatory threat credible; the typical hostage-taker in a movie or TV show usually hasn’t had the time or resources to do that, and attempts to rely on getting people to believe them, that they’re 100% serious and they really really mean it, they’ll kill a hostage, they swear. And the trouble there is that it’s actually only half of what they need to convince people of, and the less important half at that; I might very easily believe you're willing to kill the hostages, but if I doubt you'll release them after I meet your demands, you'll have a hard time getting me to cooperate.  (This is probably the main reason there have been so very few airline hijackings since 2001; passengers and crew now believe there is absolutely nothing to be gained by complying or cooperating in any way.)

     So that's what bothers me about the "I will be forced to..." language. It's not just that it's a lie. It's that it's such a stupid lie, inconsistent with its own purpose on so many levels. It's uttered by someone who's trying to assert absolute control over the situation, while at the same time it disingenuously disavows that very control. Meanwhile, its success depends on creating trust (the trust that compliance will be rewarded) even as it undermines that very trust.