Leatherneck Blogger

Socrates on Gun Control and ISIS: A Dialogue

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Thomas K. Hockel
The American Spectator
December 18, 2015

Socrates: Why have you come at this hour, Crito? It must be quite early.

Crito: Yes, certainly.

Socrates: What is the exact time?

Crito: The dawn is breaking.

Socrates: What is your reason for such an early entrance.

Crito: There has been another mass shooting in the agora.

Socrates: My thoughts and prayers are with those in mourning who cry out to the Furies for vengeance in this world or the next!

Crito: To Hades with your thoughts and prayers! We need to do something to stop these atrocities and those who commit them.

Socrates: Your passion is evident.

Crito: I tire of the senseless violence. This sort of thing happens far too often.

Socrates: Quite true, Crito. Surely the polis cannot survive when its citizens lack virtue.

Crito: Virtue? No one even knows what that means.

Socrates: If we have lost the meaning of virtue—the habitual inclination to choose the good—we have lost the path to happiness. It is no wonder we have so many of these problems.

Crito: Be that as it may, what we really need for survival is more gun control laws.

Socrates: Take care, Crito, when invoking the laws and in crafting them, for a free State cannot subsist where its decisions of law have no power, and are set aside and overthrown by individuals. What laws would you have the State enact?

Crito: We just need more gun control. We must do something!

Socrates: Action that is not directed at a specific end is like an errant arrow fired into the sky. One must take care, lest the arrow strike where it was not intended, for missing the mark generates vice and the tragedy that comes with it. Tell me, where would you propose aiming the arrow of the law?

Crito: We need to make sure that no one on the State’s no-fly list will be able to purchase a gun.

Socrates: Ah, so the perpetrators of this attack in the agora were on the no-fly list?

Crito: No.

Socrates: What does the no-fly list have to do with it, then?

Crito: I told you, we must do something! We need change! If we can prevent dangerous people from flying, surely we should prevent them from having a gun.

Socrates: Perhaps. On its face that seems to make some sense. But tell me, has anyone on the no-fly list ever committed one of these mass shootings?

Crito: No. But we can do it, so we ought to do it.

Socrates: The direction of your arrow has shifted, my dear Crito.

Crito: What do you mean?

Socrates: Your stated aim is prevention. If one wishes to curb a disease, surely one ought to take the medicine directed at preventing that disease. Taking any medicine whatsoever, regardless of its connection to the disease, would seem unnecessary and, perhaps, dangerous. Would you not agree, if prevention of these types of attacks is the goal, that we should pursue measures with some logical connection to the attacks?

Crito: All I know is we need to do something, because we aren’t doing anything now!

Socrates: I see. Well, tell me more about the shooting and perhaps we can discover what can be done.

Crito: The perpetrators used “assault rifles” with quickly replaceable, large capacity magazines and

sprayed the agora with bullets. They fired over 70 rounds in a few minutes. The carnage was unspeakable.

Socrates: Truly tragic! Charon has his work cut out for him!

Crito: Indeed. I just don’t understand why anyone would need to have such weapons.

Socrates: I agree with you, Crito. But what do others say?

Crito: Some say ownership of such weapons is a right under the Second Amendment.

Socrates: Surely there are limits to rights, even those guaranteed by the Constitution. Tell me, do you agree with those who say the purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure the ability of the people to form a militia capable of standing up to the government should it become tyrannous and turn on the people?

Crito: I have heard a convincing argument along those lines.

Socrates: Then it would seem we agree that the authors of the Second Amendment contemplated the right of citizens to keep and bear arms consistent with that purpose.

Crito: Yes, but at the time of the enactment of the Second Amendment, people fought with muskets. Now our government has the strongest military in the world with the most sophisticated weaponry ever. Surely the Second Amendment cannot guarantee the citizenry the right to arm themselves such that they might withstand our modern military. Do they have the right to missile launchers and nuclear arms, too?

Socrates: An intriguing point, Crito. But is anyone advocating for the right to so arm themselves under the Second Amendment?

Crito: No, Socrates.

Socrates: Then that seems a specious argument, and we must evaluate whether the same holds true for other weapons people actually contend they may own.

Crito: Yes, I agree. We should talk about “assault rifles” with quickly replaceable large capacity magazines.

Socrates: We already agreed that the individual right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment is a right under the Constitution?

Crito: Yes; we agree.

Socrates: And, like any other individual constitutional right, the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment is subject to limitations.

Crito: I’m no constitutional scholar, Socrates, but I believe what you say is true.

Socrates: It seems the common master of reason is leading us to explore the contours of those limitations.

Now, some say any proposed restriction by the State must withstand “strict scrutiny.” But even under “intermediate scrutiny,” the most relaxed standard that might apply, the State may restrict an individual’s right to keep and bear arms where the State has an important interest in restricting the right and the means used are substantially related to accomplishing that interest.

Crito: Again, I’m no constitutional scholar, but I’ll take your word for it.

Socrates: Well then, Crito, in any discussion about the limitations of the individual right to keep and bear arms, shouldn’t our starting point be to ask whether the proposed limitation is substantially related to furthering an important State interest?

Crito: Yes, it would seem so. But give me an example.

Socrates: I have heard that some people have proposed requiring insurance for gun owners.

Crito: Yes, I have heard that, too.

Socrates: Tell me, Crito, do you suppose requiring a person to purchase and maintain insurance is substantially related to furthering the important State interest of preventing gun violence?

Crito: I’m not sure, Socrates. I thought the purpose of insurance was to pay for a potential loss that might occur, not to prevent the loss from occurring.

Socrates: Precisely, Crito. And do you think someone who is determined to commit a mass murder would be less likely to do so if he could not make his insurance premiums?

Crito: That seems absurd, I admit.

Socrates: It hardly seems likely, then, that a law requiring gun owners to carry insurance would be substantially related to furthering the important State interest of preventing gun violence. Would you agree?

Crito: I agree, Socrates. But maybe it would make it more difficult for people to have guns.

Socrates: Your true motive has been revealed, Crito. You admit that the goal in mandating insurance would not be to further the State’s interest in preventing gun violence, but rather to deter people from owning guns they have a constitutional right to own under the Second Amendment.

Crito: Yes. I think we should make it as difficult as possible for people to own guns. People are dying. We just need to pass laws now!

Socrates: I see. But certainly you would agree that the State should consider carefully whether its proposed laws are viable under the limits set by the Constitution. Or do you think the State should engage in the practice of passing untenable laws just for show?

Crito: No, Socrates. I suppose you are correct about that. I can’t imagine a State where its leaders turned governance into an endless exercise in political theater. That would be a travesty, and certainly unworthy of any country that imagined itself to operate under democratic principles. Perhaps it would be easier if we just modified the Second Amendment or repealed it altogether.

Socrates: You have struck the target in its center, Crito. After all, the Second Amendment seems to be what empowers people to obtain guns and what restricts the State from controlling them. If people are serious when they say they want to eradicate gun violence by restricting or eliminating guns, don’t they need to begin with the proper preliminary questions about the Second Amendment?

Crito: I agree. That seems to be the starting point.

Socrates: And, if those who want to ban guns in order to eradicate gun violence cannot do so within limitations of the Second Amendment, it would seem that an honest debate about the viability of the Second Amendment must take place.

Crito: It would seem so.

Socrates: After all, it would be preferable to change the laws of the polis democratically, rather than ignoring them or allowing oligarchs to twist them into something they were never intended to be. Tell me, is there any open discussion in the agora about repealing or amending the Second Amendment?

Crito: No, Socrates. No one suggests that or even talks about it. Given the history of our country and its origins, our citizens feel very strongly about the right to own firearms. The Second Amendment is popular among our citizens. As such, even the politicians who clamor for more gun laws and want to eradicate gun violence by all means possible do not dare suggest amending or repealing the Second Amendment.

Socrates: I suppose the politicians might as well drink hemlock.

Crito: Exactly. Besides, all this talk of the Second Amendment is pie-in-the-sky theorizing. As I said, we just need to ban “assault rifles” with quick release magazines, and we need to ban large capacity magazines as well. This will solve the problem.

Socrates: Fair enough, Crito. Perhaps we shall return to the topic of the Second Amendment another time. Now, back to the topic of the weapons. I take it from your desire to outlaw “assault rifles” and magazines that those weapons and magazines are legal?

Crito: No. They are illegal.

Socrates: You confuse me, Crito. If they are illegal, how did the perpetrators obtain these weapons?

Crito: Well, it has been reported that the perpetrators legally purchased the weapons.

Socrates: You breed even more confusion. These “assault rifles” with quick release magazines may be purchased legally?

Crito: Well, no, Socrates. Assault rifles with quick release magazines are illegal where this took place.

Socrates: How is it that the attackers legally purchased illegal weapons?

Crito: The reports indicated that the weapons were purchased legally.

Socrates: But weapons that do what their weapons did are illegal?

Crito: Yes.

Socrates: Then it seems to me that the reports that the weapons were “legally purchased” are as misleading as Lysias’ sophistry. To change the accidents of a thing is one matter, as a flute painted black to brown remains a flute. But to change the substantial form of a thing changes the nature of the thing itself, as a block of wood carved into a flute is no longer a block of wood, but an instrument for making music. Just so, the weapons used in the attack clearly were not “legal” once they were illegally modified, even if they initially were in a legal form when they were purchased.

Crito: Certainly true, Socrates.

Socrates: But tell me, Crito, are the “high capacity” magazines used in the attack legal?

Crito: No, Socrates. Those are illegal, too.

Socrates: So, both the weapons and the magazines are already illegal?

Crito: Yes, Socrates. That is true.

Socrates: Then why are you clamoring for gun control laws when the gun control laws you seek are already in place and did nothing to deter the attack?

Crito: We need to have these same laws everywhere across the country, not just where this attack took place.

Socrates: Did the lack of such laws in other places lead to this attack?

Crito: No, Socrates. There is no evidence of that.

Socrates: It may be wise to enact uniform laws, Crito. I agree. But the fact is the lack of uniform laws had nothing to do with this attack?

Crito: That’s correct, Socrates.

Socrates: It would seem, Crito, that the laws you seek have little to do with this attack. Instead, your desire seems to be to use the attack as an excuse for passing further gun control laws, regardless of their logical connection to the attack. Is that true?

Crito: I must admit that is true, Socrates. After all, one should never let a serious crisis go to waste.

Socrates: Anytus would be proud. Tell me, Crito. Is there not some way we could focus on the motives of the perpetrators of the attack so as to prevent similar attacks in the future?

Crito: Our leaders seem extremely reluctant to talk about the motivation for the attack.

Socrates: Surely we must know something about the attackers and their motivations, do we not?

Crito: Yes, we have learned that the attackers professed a devout belief in a god who, according to them, commands them to kill those who resist rule by their god. The attackers insist that such attacks are a sign of obedience to their god, and that attacking non-believers and sacrificing themselves will bring them a great reward. The attackers, and others who share their particular beliefs, have sworn to carry out such attacks and warned that such attacks were coming. Other attackers who share their radical beliefs have committed countless other attacks all around the world. The attackers were in contact with a formal group that has incited and carried out similar attacks, and the attackers pledged allegiance to that group during the attack. We also know that the attackers planned the attack well in advance and stockpiled weapons, ammunition, and pipe bombs for the attack. The attackers even left their young child with relatives ahead of the attack.

Socrates: Now you tell me all of this, Crito! Given what we know about the attackers, do you think that a no-fly list, mandatory insurance, more ammunition restrictions, or the duplication of gun laws across the country, regardless of whether those might be sensible ideas, are reasonably calculated to prevent further such attacks?

Crito: It seems doubtful, Socrates.

Socrates: Would you not agree that, of all the people in the world, these attackers, and people who hold the same beliefs as the attackers, will be among those who would be least deterred by any gun laws or the illegality of anything they do.

Crito: I am compelled to agree.

Socrates: After all, wouldn’t you agree that these attackers, who are highly motivated by deeply held theological beliefs to carry out such attacks, exhibit no regard for laws or life?

Crito: That certainly seems to be the case.

Socrates: Why then, Crito, in response to this attack, have you been insisting upon gun control laws you know will not stop such attacks? Should we not instead focus on ways to disable these types of attackers before they strike us, given what we know about the attackers and the beliefs that motivate them?

Crito: We cannot talk about their beliefs, Socrates! In fact, we must be very careful not to use the name they use for themselves, suggest that their beliefs are part of their religion, or discuss the theological basis for their beliefs.

Socrates: Why is that?

Crito: Because there are other people who profess belief in the same god as the attackers, but they are peaceful people who do not believe that their god commands them to carry out these attacks. They insist their religion is peaceful and these attacks are against their religion.

Socrates: That seems favorable, then. Surely, the non-violent adherents to this religion are capable of explaining the distinctions between themselves and the attackers, such that they will not be considered the same. Maintaining distinctions is crucial to rational thought.

Crito: Well, Socrates, our leaders insist that the attackers do not believe in the same religion as the peaceful people at all.

Socrates: Do our leaders have the authority to declare such matters?

Crito: No, Socrates. They have no such authority.

Socrates: Then it would seem rather arrogant for our leaders to presume to know better than those who profess belief in the religion of the attackers. It would seem that this is a matter for the adherents of the religion to determine.

Crito: I agree, Socrates. Nevertheless, they say we should avoid using the name of the attackers’ religion when talking about the attacks because the non-violent adherents to the religion might be offended by any talk of their god in connection with the violence of such attackers. Doing so might alienate them, or even incite them to commit acts of violence.

Socrates: Are they easily alienated or provoked? I thought you said they are peaceful people who do not believe their god requires them to carry out attacks.

Crito: Yes, they insist they are.

Socrates: Then it would seem what is needed is more discussion of the basis for the divergent understandings of their god’s commands, and who better to address it than those who profess the beliefs?

Crito: But that would require a great deal of effort. Besides, what difference does it make?

Socrates: My dear Crito, the aim of philosophy is to follow reason to discover the truth about things. If we cannot even call things by their names and have open dialogue about such important matters, we will never come close to discovering the truth about anything at all.

Crito: Perhaps that’s just the state of the polis, Socrates.

Socrates: In that case, I am left weary and thirsty from all this talk. Do me a favor and pass me that cup.

© Thomas K. Hockel

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