Challenging the double standard on violence

I was going to finish up the ongoing discussion of capacity this week, but something else has been rattling around in my brain and it has such a stranglehold on my cerebral cortex that every time I try to write something else it quickly devolves into the rattling preocupation.

I want to talk about violence. Particularly our paradoxical American attitude toward violence. Americans voraciously consume media content that is absolutely loaded with violence, and openly discuss this content in polite society all the time. Not long ago I was involved in a conversation where a few of the people wandered into the topic of a TV show called “Game of Thrones”, a series I’ve never seen, and particularly one episode of the series colloquially referred to as “The Red Wedding”. These people described, in excruciating detail, a scene of blood-soaked murder and mayhem all the way down to the sounds made when one character had her throat cut.

These same people get visibly uncomfortable any time the words “self defense” even come up. When I briefly and very generally described an officer involved shooting that an aquaintence had been involved in some time ago, they spoke as if the acquaintance must be some sort of moral degenerate or psychopath for actually stating that he had no intention of dying alone the day he was assaulted by a man wanted for murder.

I don’t get it. They’ll watch portrayals of violence on screen with relish and glee, never missing an episode of a show that almost fetishizes real acts of violence against largely undeserving people that have made the headlines. Yet if somebody mentions actually putting a bullet in one of the monsters who is causing all sorts of mayhem for real in a legitimate act of self defense, suddenly there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth?

It reminds me of a time when I was at a function with a girlfriend and someone in the group of her friends mentioned that I was an occasional hunter with the same look on their face a baby gets the first time they taste a lemon. One particularly smarmy dude in the group whom I had pretty much despised from the getgo due to personality flaws so big they could probably be seen from space, decided to announce that anyone who took pleasure in the death of an animal was some sort of psychopath. I noticed he was attempting this passive-aggressive callout in between bites of a steak while wearing a leather belt, expensive leather shoes, and carrying an expensive leather man-purse he’d picked up on a European trip. I don’t really do passive aggressive. I’m more aggressive-aggressive, and when presented with this nonsense I decided to (figuratively) choke him on his A1 flavored hypocrisy. I pointed out that someone who was crowing about a mouth full of critter dead at someone else’s hand probably didn’t have any real cause to feel morally superior to the guy who actually kills the critter himself before eating it.

Our culture seems intent on denying some basic realities of the world. People who will watch hours of blood soaked mayhem on TV for entertainment will turn right around and allege that violence never solves anything when the subject of self defense comes up. They’ll follow the exploits of serial killers and madmen with fascination but if a police officer or ordinary citizen fires on such a person and doesn’t seem to be much bothered by having done so, somehow the good guy is the monster? Hundreds or thousands can be killed by lifestyle criminals with long records of unjustified violence and it draws no notice, but if somebody actually shoots one of those perpetrators mid-act a bunch of people want to wring their hands and fret over vigilantism.

Violence is as much a part of the human experience as breathing. We all know this, even if we don’t want to accept it. It isn’t abhorrent to the human psyche…we’re actually entertained by it. We pay people to get into a ring and beat each other up for entertainment. We watch football or racing and replay the big hits and crashes over and over again in highlight shows. We pay good money to go see depictions of apocalyptic violence, sexual assault, and even genocide.

There is no moral or logical reason for we as gun owners and gun toters to tolerate or perpetuate a stigma against justified violence. The simple truth of our world is that there are people who will resort to violence to get their way and sooner or later those people will have to be dealt with by violence from good guys. It’s not a “tragedy” when a multi-time felon gets shot by the cops before he manages to kill any of them. When a couple of dudes try to rob someone at gunpoint and their intended victim shoots and kills both of them during the attempt, it’s not something to lament. In this world there really are good guys and bad guys, and the world isn’t diminished when the bad guys get shot.

Somewhere somebody is outraged when they read those words, but I bet you they were probably rooting for Dexter or Heisenburg.

I’m not saying you should get in somebody’s face and try to shout them into submission, but there’s nothing wrong with challenging empty-headed nonsense about non-violence in a world that has been built and sustained by it. Sometimes violence is the only answer, even for an honest, law-abiding person with excellent morals.

Don’t let people who substitute repitition of empty platitudes for a rational argument back you into a corner on questions of self defense or the just use of violence. Don’t be bullied by our thoroughly confused culture into believing that something must be wrong with you if you’ve considered the possibility of using lethal violence to protect yourself. The world really is loaded with very bad people who do terrible things to the innocent and the helpless. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in deciding you won’t be helpless. Remember that everybody who would call you names for being willing to defend yourself has no problem dialing 911 with the expectation that people with guns will come and handle a problem.

The person who will summon men with guns to protect them has no moral superiority over someone who will use a gun in his own hand to protect himself.



  1. “I don’t get it. They’ll watch portrayals of violence on screen…”

    This is your answer. Film and television violence are deemed appropriate by the entertainment industry. The entertainment industry is very closely affiliated with the news media. These people you’re talking about get most of their information about the world from these industries. So, while a character like Walter White will be almost celebrated, folks like you or me are caricatured in dramas while the news crowd provides the phrases and arguments for talking to or about folks like you or me.

  2. People who prey on the “weak” do not want or expect violence. But when you meet them head on with equal or greater force. Then wow they change their mind real quick if they have the chance.

  3. One of my favorite t-shirts reads “Violence isn’t always the best option…. but it’s still an option.” To me this means there are some situations that simply must be met with violence. Some evil cannot be stopped with words, and so action is required.

  4. Violence is not always the answer. But for those times when it is, it is often the only answer. Many people don’t realize the graveness of a violent encounter. You could go watch a Jackie Chan movie and be entertained by the fancy choreography, but go down the street and punch some big tough looking dude in the face and you’ll quickly discover that real fights are nothing like “entertaining” fights. There’s ball kicking, curb stomping, eye gouging, arm breaking, neck choking anger in a real fight. People have been so deluded by what a “fight” actually is, that when their little notion of what one looks like is shattered by reality they will reflexively say “No! That’s wrong!”

  5. The truth hurts. People have become so out-of-touch with where their food comes from it is sad. When you point at a cow in a field and tell someone that is where their quarter pounder came from and they won’t believe you, something is wrong. PC is making the majority dumber and dumber…

  6. This is all hollywood driven. Mostly by the ridiculous scenes where the cop puts down his gun to fight the kingpin bad guy hand to hand to the death. It is driven into peoples heads that using a gun is somehow unfair.

  7. Glad your mind wouldn’t let go of this topic; you done excellent! Now, if they would only apply the Ultimate Penalty more to those who end up in prison for heinous crimes, maybe there wouldn’t be so many people running around carrying out those Bad Deeds.

  8. This article’s very misguided, and misunderstands completely why many are suspicious of “self defense”. The reason many “liberals”, myself included, have such deep suspicions about self-defense is actually the same reason so many of us find Game of Thrones such a fascinating show.

    Game of Thrones is, ultimately, about a society with a very weak “state”. As in all feudal societies, in Westeros the monopoly on legitimate violence which Max Weber identifies as the sine qua non of the modern state is totally absent. Instead, the state, such as it is, subcontracts out to noble families and mercenary companies, using them to enforce the law and suppress rebellions. Rather than being predominantly loyal to the state, these groups are loyal to themselves and their families, and see each other as enemies or at best competitors. This ultimately results in a very nasty civil war, culminating in the gruesomely personal violence of the Red Wedding.

    At a lower level, the right to engage in violence, whether defensive or otherwise, is almost unlimited, at least for the nobility, and still very expansive for those commoners able to arm themselves. Unsurprisingly, this makes personal violence very common. So, what fascinates us about Westeros is not that it is romantic; far from it. We are attracted to it because it is a very realistic presentation of the dystopia fostered by a weak, pre-modern state dominated by local forces. It’s like staring at a train wreck.

    Those of us who oppose expanded self-defense rights do so, in large part, because we are afraid that it will make America more like Westeros. The state monopoly on violence, if properly checked by democratic institutions (nonexistent in Westeros, I’ll add), DOES reduce violence considerably–even if America as a whole remains a disturbingly violent society.

    Ultimately, we don’t think society is actually better off if armed civilians frequently shoot muggers, and we don’t believe that the best way to get muggers off the street is to arm civilians. The solution is better policing, better education, and more economic opportunity. Nor do we mourn the mugger; rather, we fear that an over-broad right to self-defense weakens that crucial state monopoly on violence. Innocents (and even petty criminals, who, no, do not deserve to die) are killed at the hands of trigger-happy amateurs. Worse, broader standards of self-defense shield violence that clearly isn’t defensive at all.

    Note that nowhere do I deny the usefulness of violence, nor that violence can be used for just purposes; far from it. Rather, while I recognize that violence is very useful, it is also a very dangerous tool, and one with undeniable social consequences. As a result, even if individuals occasionally suffer from restrictions on self-defense rights, society as a whole is much better off if violence is left in the hands of professionals in all but the most dire circumstances.*

    Ultimately, the liberal argument is that society is simply better off if you let the mugger take your wallet and call the police afterward instead of capping the SOB. And you probably are, too. Which doesn’t mean we can’t root for Dexter or Tyrion–so long as you recognize the shows they appear on are fantasies, and that if they existed in the real world they really would belong in prison.

    Addendum: None of this is to say that there is no right to self-defense; just that it is a limited one, and must be very clearly and sharply delineated so that it does not weaken the state’s monopoly on violence. The duty to retreat when possible is a big part of this.

    *Note also that jury nullification and pardons are things; one of the major reasons they exist is to remedy situations where an individual acts justly, though contrary to the spirit of the law.

    1. Your post is very respectful, Mr. Mehlinger, and I appreciate that. That being said, I take issue with some of your assumptions.

      “Ultimately, the liberal argument is that society is simply better off if you let the mugger take your wallet and call the police afterward instead of capping the SOB.”

      That assumes that the mugger is going to simply take your wallet and leave you unharmed. I can spend hours citing cases of criminals who have killed perfectly cooperative victims, and no doubt one of the many police officers who reads our blog here can chime in with many more instances. The problem is you have no idea which are the guys who will murder you vs. the ones just trying to get your wallet until somebody pulls the trigger. It is unreasonable to expect law-abiding people to bet their continued existence on the moral recognizance of somone actively engaged in the commission of a violent felony.

      What you seem to be missing is that the moment where you are staring down the barrel of a mugger’s gun *is* a dire circumstance. It’s a lethal threat. Every state in the union recognizes that scenario as a lethal threat and authorizes the use of lethal force in response to it. Every police use of force continuum in the land recognizes it as a lethal threat and authorizes the use of lethal force in response to it.

      We’re not talking about pointing guns at kids who are playing ding-dong-ditch, here.

      In Virginia, my home state, we’ve had shall-issue concealed carry permits since the mid 1990’s. May issue existed and was liberally handed out by many jurisdictions stretching back almost 100 years prior to that. In all that time the number of permit holders who have committed a violent crime (because a permit is a permit to carry, not an extra-legal grant of authority to use lethal force, so permit holders are no less bound by the laws governing violence than anyone else) has been infintesimal. The worry that people who have permits are going to pull guns willy nilly and shoot at anything is not borne out by the data that has accumulated since the shall-issue movement made significant gains in the 1990’s. Again, one of the many police officers who frequents the blog here can tell you of their experience with concealed carry in their area. The fear of blood running in the streets due to law-abiding people having ready access to a weapon (because bad guys don’t give a darn about laws prohibiting possession or carry of weapons) was cited often in the debates against liberalizing laws on concealed carry…and now it’s plainly obvious that those concerns were dramatically overblown. There has been no rash of “Dodge City on a Saturday night!” style shootouts.

      The ability to pull a firearm from concealment has a dramatic impact on most attempts at violent crime. Most of the time when the intended victim starts to pull a gun the criminal aggressor will break contact and run away as fast as possible without any shots being fired.

      “society as a whole is much better off if violence is left in the hands of professionals in all but the most dire circumstances”

      Having logged *a little bit* of training time myself, you’d be surprised at how poorly trained many “professionals” are. I’ll point out, though, that the “professionals” like police officers often have a much more difficult time sorting good guys from bad guys than ordinary citizens because the officer is almost always showing up well after things have gotten bad. They have to sort out what’s in front of them and, sadly, this sometimes leads to tragedies like shooting plain-clothes or undercover police officers. Law-abiding citizens who are the victim of criminal assault don’t have to worry about that. Their problem is much easier to solve: Shoot the guy who is trying to kill me. This much less complicated decision tree makes for a higher percentage of correct outcomes. One of the things we’ve learned over the years of watching the behavior of permit holders is that the overwhelming majority of them are reluctant to use force. They tend to avoid pulling a gun even when they should, sometimes making their self defense problem more difficult. They’re not shooting anyone who looks at them funny…they’re often not pulling a gun until a criminal assault is actually in progress.

      The fear that your typical law abiding person is going to go out and make bad use of force decisions isn’t supported by reality.

      I’d also take issue with the idea that the state should have a monopoly on violence. A monopoly means exactly that: only the state gets to use violence. The 20th century is loaded with examples of what happens when the state commands a monopoly on the use of violence. As much as I hate to Godwin the conversation, since you brought up the idea of the state under democratic control I’ll remind everyone that the Nazi party came to power through the democractic process in the Weimar Republic. Laws persecuting Jews and other undesirables were popular and had popular support. Democracy in action…

      1. Thank you for your kind reply, Jim. So, I’m only going to focus on a few points here.

        First, I agree with you about your assessment of the “professionals”. Radley Balko in particular has done excellent, albeit terrifying, work on police violence and prosecutorial misconduct in this country.

        Second, in the case of the mugging, you’re only considering what happens within the context of the mugging. The social cost of broad self-defense statutes (as opposed to permissive concealed carry laws, which are related but not the same) is not merely the occasional dead mugger. Rather, overly expansive self-defense laws risk shielding violence vastly in excess to that required to defend oneself, and, worse, violence that is not defensive at all. You say that “we’re not talking about pointing guns at playing ding-dong-ditch here,” and I believe you. But over-broad self-defense laws risk just that. I know I’m opening a huge can of worms by mentioning this, but George Zimmermann is not the only Floridian killer to be acquitted on very tenuous self-defense claims as a result of Stand Your Ground:

        Now, I agree that, when confronted with an assailant, one has the right to defend oneself–but only using a proportional amount of force. The case of the Florida man who pursued a burglar for a block and then stabbed him to death is quite clearly not legitimate as self defense. There’s also a wider risk, that if self-defense statutes are broadened too much, average people will become somewhat more willing to resort to violence. Arguments are more likely to be settled with fists, or something worse. After all, self-defense laws apply to everyone, not just to the admittedly self-selecting group of concealed carry permit holders. That doesn’t mean we’re going to see the OK Corral or Saturday night in Dodge City, as you put it. But it’s bad enough in its own right.

        Third, and most lengthily, I have to disagree with your assessment about the monopoly on violence, and where tyranny comes from. It’s important to understand that the Weimar Republic was only superficially democratic. Its fundamental problem, the fundamental reason why the Nazis gained power, is because its democratic institutions were extremely weak, and military, landowning, and business elites, as well as right- and left-wing extremists (the Nazis, the Freikorps, the Communists, and to some extent the socialists), were perpetually working against them. Its responses against these plots were, frankly, pathetic. Even when Hitler attempted a coup in 1923, leading to the deaths of four police officers, he was sentenced to only 9 months in prison.

        From the end of WWI to Hitler’s accession to the Chancellorship, the Weimar Republic failed to successfully maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. By 1933, street battles between the Nazis and the Left were ubiquitous. And the democratic government never effectively exercised control over the military, which, along with conservative elites, was responsible for actually putting Hitler in power. Similar patterns hold in the rise of the Italian Fascists, the Russian Bolsheviks, the Spanish Falange, and the Chinese Communists. In each case, extremist movements took advantage of weak states, states that could not maintain the monopoly on force. Often, the extremist movements would lend their force where the state would not or could not. For instance in Italy, local businessmen used Fascist squadristi to bust unions and break up strikes.

        In the so-called Third World, the rise of tyrannies and civil wars was facilitated by the power vacuums left behind by the old colonial powers, which often deliberately worked to prevent stable local institutions from developing. Probably the worst case of this was (is) in the Congo, though there were many others–Cambodia, Somalia, and Rwanda being just a few. In Latin America, jungles and mountains hidden from the eyes and power of the state fostered left-wing guerrilla movements, while military juntas overpowered weak democratic governments, usually with the backing of wealthy elites.

        So no, tyrannies don’t typically emerge from strong states. Rather, they arise from weak states, states where wealthy elites, armed extremist movements, and/or the state’s own security forces reject the democratic institutions meant to check and, in the last case, control their power, and where those democratic institutions lack the power to defeat challenges to their monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. This weakness has a tendency to spiral out of control, because to a very large extent the monopoly on violence is actually illusory. The state’s power, whether democratic or tyrannical, is in large part sustained by the people’s belief in that power. If private citizens begin taking violence into their own hands and are not checked by the state, others, either encouraged or frightened by the first, will likely follow, in turn frightening/encouraging even more to follow them, and so on. You see this in American inner cities, you see it in states weakened by war, and you see it in countries where the people have recently overthrown a previous tyrant.

        So my fear is that, besides the concerns I mentioned earlier, over-broad self-defense rights ultimately are not an effective bulwark against tyranny or chaos. Rather, they risk weakening the institutions that keep these forces at bay. That’s, ultimately, why I think they need to be clearly and sharply limited. Whether you agree or not, I hope you recognize that this perspective is not “Violence bad! Guns scary!”–and that it’s perfectly consistent with thinking that HBO makes good television.

    2. I also want to say that I appreciate your comment. The opportunity to respectfully engage someone who holds a different point of view is something we welcome.

  9. “we fear that an over-broad right to self-defense weakens that crucial state monopoly on violence.”

    I will resist your desire to establish a police state in America.

  10. “Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and — thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never solves anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor; and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

    —Robert A. Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”

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