GMU conference, Part 4
I'm back from the GMU conference on the second amendment, trying to catch up, but will blog it as time permits. I'd like to start with the last two speakers, as I found their presentations the most interesting.
Prof. Renee Lettow Lerner, of Geo. Washington Univ. law school, gave an interesting presentation on recent expansions of self defense rights via statute -- the castle doctrine laws (no retreat) and the presumption of right to use deadly force when a home is forcefully and illegally invaded. She pointed out that this field of law traditionally had a major gap between opinions of the ordinary citizenry, and law, which reflected opinions of the elite.
The legal view had for decades increasingly focused upon proportionality. Deadly force can only be used to meet deadly force. You can't shoot a burglar to prevent the burglary as such, or to prevent him from leaving with your property, or to keep a thief from taking your car. But among the general populace, there is wide support for doing just that. Proportionality is rejected, in part because the burglar or thief is seen as invading your autonomy, the area where you ought to be let alone (and where even police have to obtain a search warrant before entering to do their job).
She also pointed out that some European countries, pushed by feelings of the public, have expanded the right to self defense, and had a VERY interesting survey of European law on the subject, showing how it differed. One curious fact was that many countries have a special category for use of excessive force caused by panic, anger, or any excited mental state caused by crime. In some this is an absolute defense, in others it reduces the offense from, say, murder, down to manslaughter. The idea appears to be that if the criminal's actions cause a mental state in the victim, this is either a complete defense or a matter of extenuation for the victim.
Then came Brian Patrick, a prof. of communication at the Univ. of Toledo, and author of the book The National Rifle Ass'n and the Media: The Motivating Force of Negative Coverage. He began by asking how the gun movement had survived in the first place. Communication has for a century or so been taking a vertical mode. No voter can possibly know, personally, all the facts necessary to taking action. He's not been to Iraq, has no time to study its politics, is not in the Capitol watching debates about gun laws, etc. In the vertical form of communication, the government and mass media serve as interpreters of reality. They have the info (or at least are believed to have it), digest it and give a short summary to the masses, whose understanding is limited to that summary.
But for decades these interpreters have carried the message that guns are bad, gun owners are dimwits, NRA is evil, all gun laws are enlightened reforms. How did the gun movement survive?
He said that the gun movement created horizontal patterns of communication. Small and large groups which communicate within. Gun owner can't keep up with how each congressman voted... but they can check NRA and GoA ratings and know in seconds. The gun groups, large and small, serve as interpreters of reality, and are trusted above the mass media. In his book, he demonstrated how negative coverage of NRA was directly related to increases in its membership, because small groups cohere when attacked. The other thing to note is that vertical communication can change minds, but horizontal communication changes minds AND motivates to take action. This could explain why polls from time to time indicate that a majority wants more gun laws, yet they are not enacted. The majority is passively receiving the basis of its opinions from the vertical pattern, forming opinions but not acting upon them (i.e., voting upon them), while gun owners receive theirs horizontally, and do vote and volunteer and organize based upon them.
He added that he found McCain Feingold most disturbing in this respect, since it hinders private groups, horizontal groups, from expressing their views, while leaving the vertical communication of the media untouched. The Framers, when they wrote of freedom of speech and assembly, had in mind these small, horizontal groups, not something like the mass media. Newspapers of their time were largely scandal sheets, or rabidly partisan pieces of no reliability. Reporters were somewhat disreputable, and often expelled from society weddings and suchlike. Modern reporting really began with the Civil War correspondents, and only became an institution, an interpreter of reality for the masses, a century after the Framers.
He also remarked that European countries are quite lacking in horizontal groups, whereas Americans love them. Europeans tend to consider this an American quirk, quite beyond explanation. (At dinner later, the example of American universities came up. In the US, even public universities are semi-autonomous. In Europe, if a fellow wants to teach law, he takes certain tests, and if he passes, the ministry of education assigns him to a law school.