Sam Uretsky

Nothing to Fear but Trigger-Happy Gunmen

Maybe John Locke got it wrong, or maybe Florida and the NRA got it wrong, but anyway, it isn’t reasonable – at least not the “reasonable” part. Anyway, the State of Florida’s by now infamous Stand Your Ground Law begins, “A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if :..” There’s a lot of stuff after the “if” but most of it applies to things like who has the right to be in a house or a car. There’s nothing in there that changes the basic premise that if you’re scared it’s okay to shoot and ask questions later.

Now John Locke was a British philosopher, one of the utilitarians, a group of philosophers whose work influenced the founders of the United States. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition..” It may be easier to understand in terms of another utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, who tried to reduce good and bad to a mathematical model that whatever gave the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people for the longest period of time was the most good (in other words, Bentham would have approved of raising the minimum wage and taxing the 1% if necessary). Adam Smith would fit into this group since he believed that people could make reasonable economic judgements of values.

The trouble is, there have been repeated studies showing that liberals and conservatives have different brain structures and these differences translate into different thought processes. The studies aren’t absolute, generally they’ve been small scale, but grouped together they become convincing. Among the studies showing liberal vs. conservative brain differences, the most important may be “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults.” This was the study that showed that liberals are better able to deal with paradox and uncertainty while conservatives are more alert to threats. The conservative trait comes from larger right amygdala, while liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex. Other studies have pretty much confirmed that conservatives have stronger reactions to threatening noises and images than do liberals. There are also studies showing that conservatives sleep better and are generally happier than liberals. If you’ve ever wondered how a person who wants to cut off school lunches for poor children can sleep at might, the answer seems to be: very well, thank you.

The effect is that in a nation based on rational behavior, we have laws that permit life and death decisions based on the most subjective behavior. Florida’s Tampa Bay Times reported that the Stand Your Ground defense has been used 130 times, and more that 70% of these cases involved a fatality. “In 50 of the cases, the person who used force was never charged with a crime. Another nine defendants were granted immunity by a judge, and nine cases were dismissed.” The newspaper’s analysis also found that the law was being applied unevenly: “A case that’s dropped in Tampa might make it to a jury trial in Miami.”

These results are completely consistent with the scientific studies showing differences in fear response the district politics. It might be expected that highly conservative prosecutors and judges might find more cases of justifiable homicide than an area more inclined to elect strong liberals. In each case, the decision may be appropriate within the limits of the prosecutor’s or judge’s understanding of a threat, which in turn is affected by brain structure.

It also seems likely that those people who routinely carry a gun for self defense are more alert to and aware of threats than those who do not. According to Wayne La Pierre, executive vice-president of the NRA “ “After Hurricane Sandy, we saw the hellish world that the gun prohibitionists see as their utopia. Looters ran wild in south Brooklyn. There was no food, water or electricity. And if you wanted to walk several miles to get supplies, you better get back before dark, or you might not get home at all.”

This is the world Mr. LaPierre lives in, something out of Mad Max. After Superstorm Sandy there was some looting and there were fistfights – and there were 18 arrests. But according to Paul Browne, a spokesman for the New York City Police, “there were no murders, no rapes and no shootings.” It may not have been a good time to visit Coney Island, but there was nothing much to be afraid of – unless somebody who was afraid had been carrying a gun.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2014

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