Florida and the unraveling of civilization

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman has focused attention on Florida’s violence problem, especially with respect to the “Stand Your Ground” law. The Tampa Tribune produced an excellent investigation of use of the statute in criminal cases, showing that the law has been used to free drug dealers and gang members involved in fatal violence. The law has certainly not produced a decrease in lethal violence: Florida’s murder rate has gone up since its enactment. Stevie Wonder has announced he will boycott the state unless it is repealed.

“Stand your ground” is a bad law, but there is a clear logic to it: the 2nd Amendment makes it legal to own guns, and self-defense is a deeply held legal principle. Once possessed of a right to own weapons, why should you not be allowed to use them in self-defense? For a legislator who believes in the broadest interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, it makes obvious sense. The point of this post is not to debate what the 2nd Amendment means, but to describe the consequences of that broad interpretation for society. Those consequences are generally negative.

Two years ago Steven Pinker published Better Angels, in which he argues that human history has seen a dramatic curtailment in the use of violence. He attributes this to civilizing factors which we might simply call ‘governance’, and describes how those factors make violence unthinkable. The principle vehicle for this change has been the nation-state, famously defined in part by Weber as the political organization that “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order”. ‘Physical force’ translates to violence — it is this monopoly on violence which helps makes violence unthinkable. As Pinker demonstrated, this is an ongoing process, by which the scope of legitimate private violence is more and more restricted. The state has a strong incentive to do so, because any private violence is ultimately a threat to the state.

What Pinker missed, as I have argued, is that this process is then reflected back on the state. As the government restricts citizens’ violence, the citizens restrict the governments’ violence. Witness the decrease in the scope of legitimate state violence: public executions are gone, and increasingly executions are banned. Even in Florida, the electric chair was replaced with (presumably) more humane lethal injections. The ‘civilizing trap’ is a virtuous cycle that has helped make ours the most peaceful era in human history, outside of perhaps Eden. This has been true across the developed world, and much of the developing world, as it is true generally for humanity. There is still plenty of violence in the world, but much less than our ancestors endured.

In the U.S., however, the cycle has moved more slowly. One reason, perhaps the most important, is that the 2nd Amendment is an effective drag on the reduction of violence by the government. Private violence is not only thinkable, but explicitly condoned by the U.S. Constitution — at least in the broad reading of the amendment. The reluctance of American lawmakers to address head-on the 2nd Amendment means that violence is rather thinkable by private citizens, and every victory for 2nd Amendment supporters is a sanction for further violence in our society. When lawmakers stop a gun control law or enacts a “Stand Your Ground” law, the message sent to citizens is that private violence is okay.

Florida’s law-makers are apparently surprised that this happened in their state. The logic of “Stand Your Ground” was clear; few seem to have guessed that the law would lead to an increase in legitimate fatal shootings, if not an increase in killings overall. That is, I doubt the legislators who voted for the law believed it would legitimize many of the sorts of killings where it is now used as a defense. But the tacit message was also clear: in Florida, private violence is legitimate. The boundaries of that legitimacy are now proving more and more fuzzy. “Stand Your Ground” seems to have been designed to solve a narrow problem, without consideration for the broader implications for private violence (although some people in Florida did warn that it would get out of hand).

The interaction between gun law and private violence is not at all straightforward. Concealed-carry laws are widely seen as pro-gun; a Federal court recently struck down Illinois’ ban on concealed carry, in a decision hailed as a victory for gun rights. That is true, up to a point, but concealed-carry laws do two important things: first, they strongly encourage people to hide weapons; second, they usually come with a certification requirement. These can both serve to diminish the thinkability of violence, at least for persons not carrying weapons (although the classes tend to encourage the person carrying the weapon to think even more about violence). Absent an open-carry rule, concealed-carry may serve to hide violence, in effect to make it less obvious and thus less conscionable: “out of sight, out of mind”.  This is a much slower, more subtle process — and not at all the same causal mechanism — for reducing violence than direct deterrent effects posited by concealed-carry enthusiasts, whose claims are not supported by evidence. Florida is not an open-carry state — which is probably the next step in its devolution.

This is not just a problem for Florida, but for the country as a whole. When gun advocates argue for their right to protect themselves, they are arguing that they have a legitimate right to use violence. I suspect that many of them do so in good faith, believing sincerely that this is simply about their own protection and their own rights. That much is reasonable and decent. However, it does not acknowledge the social consequences of that message: to say that I have a right to violence is to deny the state its monopoly on legitimate violence. Absent the government’s ability to narrowly draw the limits of legitimate violence, the ‘right to bear arms’ becomes a license to violence as broadly construed as the arms-bearer wishes, and an individually-rational decision about violence becomes a societal problem.

Meanwhile the return leg of the cycle, by which government is restrained from violence by its citizens, also grinds slowly. A citizenry accustomed to thinking about violence may tolerate a great deal of it from government: wars, death penalty, massive imprisonment, pervasive surveillance, economic ruin. It is no surprise that the people most vocal about gun rights tend to be most approving of government violence — the very horrors the 2nd Amendment was intended to protect them from. And of course there are racial and other factors at work, but the underlying legitimacy of violence as both a private and public activity is crucial.

Thus the 2nd Amendment, in its broad interpretation, hinders the peace and harmony we wish for our society. It is the critical glitch in our operating system, the fatal fault that we cannot fix. The apparent intent of the article — to protect people from their government — is now laughably obsolete, even as it meanwhile prevents government from protecting people through a robust monopoly on legitimate violence. The 2nd Amendment denies the government its monopoly as it denies citizens they tranquility they expect from their government. It is not coincidence that Florida is compared to the ‘Wild West,’ another place where government authority was weak and citizens could not rely on its protections.

Florida is the current poster-child for this problem, but only that. To the extent that the arc of history has bent away from violence, and government monopolies on legitimate violence have made civilization possible, then every expansion of the 2nd Amendment and every victory for ‘gun rights’ is a step back from civilization, a step backwards in history.We cannot fix the Floridas in this country without a full reckoning of the costs and consequences of the 2nd Amendment for our society.


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