Friday, August 14, 2009

Guns and Public Safety

New York City is a little safer today because an armed citizen with a steady hand blew away four armed men who were robbing his store. This account in the New York Times is moving.

They strode into the restaurant supply store in Harlem shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday, four young men intent on robbery, one with a Glock 9-millimeter pistol, the police said. The place may have looked like an easy mark, a high-cash business with an owner in his 70s, known as a gentle, soft-spoken man.

But Charles Augusto Jr., the 72-year-old proprietor of the Kaplan Brothers Blue Flame Corporation, at 523 West 125th Street, near Amsterdam Avenue, had been robbed several times before, despite the fact that his shop is around the corner from the 26th Precinct station house on West 126th Street.

There were no customers in the store, only Mr. Augusto and two employees, a man and a woman. The police said the invaders announced a holdup, approached the two employees and tried to place plastic handcuffs on them. The male employee, a 35-year-old known in the community as J. B., struggled with the gunman, who then hit him on the head with the pistol.

Watching it happen, Mr. Augusto, whom neighborhood friends call Gus, rose from a chair 20 to 30 feet away and took out a loaded Winchester 12-gauge pump-action shotgun with a pistol-grip handle. The police said he bought it after a robbery 30 years ago.

Mr. Augusto, who has never been in trouble with the law, fired three blasts in rapid succession, the police said.

The first shot took down the gunman at the front. He died almost immediately, according to the police, who said he was 29 and had been arrested for gun possession in Queens last year.... Mr. Augusto’s other two blasts hit all three accomplices, who stumbled out the door, bleeding. One of them, a 21-year-old, staggered across 125th Street and collapsed in front of the city’s biggest housing projects. ...[A]n ambulance rushed him to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where he was dead on arrival. The police said he had a record of arrests for weapons possession and robbery. Another wounded man left a blood trail that the police followed to 125th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The fourth wounded man was picked up, on the basis of witness descriptions, at 128th Street and St. Nicholas Terrace. Both were taken to St. Luke’s.

This is a television report on the incident.

As the WPIX video above reports, Mr. Augusto's shotgun is unregistered, so he faces prosecution for violation of New York gun laws. The laws covering shotguns are more permissive than those pertaining to handguns, however. They require merely a permit, not a license. Furthermore, the New York Times reports, "Under long-established New York law, a person is allowed to use deadly physical force when he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to meet the imminent use of deadly physical force and there is no reasonable chance of retreating from the danger."

All the same, if more people were legally armed--at the very least in their homes and businesses--there would be less need for being armed. It's paradoxical, but true. The same logic applied to the Cold War standoff between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. The existence of nuclear weapons and the credible threat of their use in response to aggression preserved peace between the two alliances. As Robert Heinlein is reported to have said, "An armed society is a politie society."

John Locke, the chief theorist of our liberal democratic system of government and way of life, would view Mr. Augusto's actions as perfectly reasonable and defensible. In the Second Treatise of Government, he argues, being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion; because such men are not under the ties of the commonlaw of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures, that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power.

And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for no body can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i.e. make me a slave. To be free from such force is the only security of my preservation; and reason bids me look on him, as an enemy to my preservation, who would take away that freedom which is the fence to it;...

This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it (sections 16-18).

In brief, anyone who would put me in his absolute power, for example at the point of a gun, should be assumed for the sake of one's self-preservation to have murderous intent. And so, being for the moment beyond the protective reach of the civil authorities, anyone in that situation has the moral right to protect himself with deadly force. Even viewing the matter from within a Christian moral framework, I am under no obligation to prefer the life of a murderous aggressor to my own or to that of my family or employees or, for that matter, any innocent person I find being threatened in that way.

This is the thinking of one local observer who was interviewed for the report: “If I were him, I would kill a dozen of them,” he said. “You have to protect your workers and your family. Case closed.”

The good sense of this statement is intuitively obvious. It follows that if people have the right to exercise that freedom, they should have the freedom to obtain the means to it, i.e., to own a gun. It follows in addition that training people in the proper use of fireams, so that in the event they should have to defend themselves they can do it responsibly and safely, is a public good. Instead of teaching children how to use condoms in order to make what some regard as inevitable teenaged sexual activity safer, the public schools (if we are to have public schools) should be training children in the use of firearms the same way they offer driver's education.


Rosey said...

May we extend Locke's thesis to healthcare? If someone comes at me with the intent to control what I may or may not do with my body in terms of seeking remedies to ailments, wherein I am willing and able to engage a physician with my own financial means (cash) or foresight (insurance)?

Should I not exert deadly force if necessary to prevent such theft of freedom?

David C. Innes said...

Ah, yes. That takes us to Locke's teaching on the right to rebellion. It is succinctly summarized in the Declaration of Independence. But it is worth reading in detail in the Second Treatise.

DenisEugeneSullivan said...


I grew up in the Bronx of the '50s and '60s, a time of demographic change. Part of the folk-wisdom in my neighborhood was, "I'd rather get caught with my gun than without it." Apparently, that tradition has survived to some degree.

Back in my youth, New York City had what were referred to as the "Sullivan Laws" which made it very difficult to get a pistol permit. Basically, you had to be politically connected, a cash business owner or a retired police officer (the police administered the program) to have or get a pistol permit.

Long guns were not under any governmental control. During the '70s that changed; the city started a program to "register" (no permission required) rifles and shotguns. Apparently, that program has morphed, as predicted at the time, into some kind of "permit" requirement.

Mr. Augusto's success may be a legal opportunity for a Second Amendment lawsuit against the City's program.

David C. Innes said...

Mr. Sullivan, as always I appreciate the wisdom and experience you bring to the discussion.

It's sad that the folk-wisdom from your neighborhood doesn't translate into folk-wisdom in the legislatures.