Same set of facts, completely different conclusions

I'm beginning to think that "gun violence" is the Philadelphia Inquirer's biggest issue. It's gotten to the point where nearly every Sunday's front page is devoted to this tedious topic, with nothing new to say. Yes, Philadelphia has a huge crime problem, and many people are shooting each other.

There is a criminal culture which believes in using guns to settle disputes, and to the Inquirer (as well as people who agree with them) this means guns are the problem.

In today's piece (part of a series titled "A Summer Under the Gun"), a local professor often said to be an expert in these matters makes a cultural observation which is hardly new, but which I think illustrates a serious problem posed by any attempt at analysis:

The main job on the Street is drug dealer.

"By selling drugs," wrote University of Pennsylvania professor Elijah Anderson, an authority on urban street life, young inner-city males "have a chance to put more money into their pockets than they could get by legal means, and they present themselves to peers as hip, in sharp contrast to the square image of those who work in places like McDonald's and wear silly uniforms."

True. People who sell drugs do so for the money, and to be cool. (My response is that relegalizing drugs takes away the profit, and probably some of the coolness.)

Another factor the Inquirer has pointed out time and time again is the inescapable fact that having a gun makes people (including criminals) more powerful than if they didn't have a gun:

In prison for armed robbery, Antwian comes across as a mild-mannered 19-year-old who doesn't talk hard-core street lingo. He said his home life was rough, with harsh physical discipline.

Antwian didn't fully embrace the Street. But when problems arose, guns were easy to get. A friend whose father had a gun collection got him a chrome 9mm Ruger to deal with some guys in his Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood who "kept trying to roll me."

Challenged to fight one day, Antwian pulled out his Ruger from his waistband and placed it on the ground for all to see.

"Nobody wanted to roll on me then," Antwian said.

He was emboldened. Following an altercation with some guys at a park, he returned with the Ruger and started firing to scare them.

"After that, everybody at the school whispered about it," he recalled. "A couple girls wanted to associate with me."

He now had a reputation.

I might even start to empathize a little bit there. No one should be picked on, and everyone has the right to self defense. But the decision to be armed in self defense is coupled with a responsibility. Firing shots to scare people "following an altercation" is not responsible. It is criminally irresponsible.

Or doesn't that matter? Anyway, if you read on, his criminal irresponsibility gets worse and worse. (And silly logical me, I don't even think it's the fault of the gun "availability"):

He did a little drug dealing in Germantown before moving to the Northeast, but "it wasn't really me. I just did it to get a quick couple dollars."

He did try to work. He cut grass in his neighborhood. He sold knickknacks out of a catalog. He stocked shelves at a Rite Aid, served as a cashier at a women's clothing store, cooked and waited tables at a rib joint in Manayunk. He worked at McDonald's for a month and got fired for showing up late. His last and best-paying job was in construction: $250 a week under the table.

"But I was smoking so much weed I'd be broke every day," he said.

He decided, "I need something right now, something I could do tonight."

Antwian, then 17, had given the Ruger to a friend who'd sold it. So, he paid $100 to a construction coworker who was a crack addict for a sawed-off shotgun. Then, with a friend, Antwian said, he committed three robberies that night.

Wearing a black flight jacket with five shells in an upper-arm pocket, Antwian approached his first victim, an older man, and pulled out the 12-gauge.

"You know what this is!" he announced. His friend patted the victim down and found $200. They told him to turn around and they ran off.

"We was like, ‘Damn, it was that easy?' " Antwian recalled.

For the next six weeks, Antwian committed five more stickups before his arrest and conviction on the last one.

"It was like my mind-frame shut down," he said. "If I wanted to do something, I just did it."

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the above factual scenario is absolutely correct. I have a question: Is it an argument for gun control, or against gun control?

That's the whole problem in a nutshell. For some people, it is self apparent that it is an argument for gun control, while for other people it is a reason to be armed.

To me, the fact that there are people who'd hold a gun to my head and demand money is a good reason to be armed.

Yet to others, the presence of people who behave that way is an argument against anyone having guns. Even law abiding people.

I don't see any way to bridge this hopeless gap.

It reminds me of the sad fact I discussed yesterday: some people would take Coco away from me because bad people own pit bulls.

posted by Eric on 07.30.06 at 12:32 PM


The fundamental question is what you believe about humanity. If you believe that humanity, left to its own devices, is more good than evil, and is capable of greater highs than lows, you believe that human liberty is a sustainable, even attractive, state of being.

What makes for a better world? Taking guns away from everyone, or giving them to everyone?

One thing I should note is that drug dealers don't make minimum wage, on average. That factoid, and others, from Freakonomics.

Jon Thompson   ·  July 30, 2006 10:35 PM

"The fundamental question is what you believe about humanity."

Nice summary. It seems to me that this Locke Vs. Hobbes argument is at the root of most sociopolitical debates.

Mick   ·  July 31, 2006 2:28 AM

What the PI doesn't say, but implies, is that if there were no guns these criminals wouldn't be criminals.

They'd never use knives or clubs instead.

Grand Stand   ·  August 2, 2006 12:34 AM

I can't speak for the Inquirer, but the argument I often hear is that it would be better if criminals were armed only with knives and clubs, because fewer people would die. And we'd be more like England, where street crime is blamed on victims for carrying Ipods.

Eric Scheie   ·  August 2, 2006 12:04 PM

...or cell phones.

Grand Stand   ·  August 2, 2006 5:51 PM
Eric Scheie   ·  August 2, 2006 11:37 PM

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits