The debate on U.S. gun control

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First aired on Day 6 (18/01/13)

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In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting and U.S. President Barack Obama's stricter gun law proposals, the longtime debate of gun control has reached a fever pitch. It's certainly true that, out of the developed countries, the U.S. has the highest rates of gun ownership and sees far more gun violence. But it's more than just a numbers argument, as many Americans feel they have a constitutional right to have guns of all kinds.

To gain more insight into the socially and politically complex issue, Day 6 got in touch with philosopher and author Sam Harris, one of the most outspoken voices of New Atheism and a proponent of scientific skepticism. Harris, who owns several firearms and trains with them regularly, said he stands on "both sides of the debate," and his recent essay "The Riddle Of The Gun" in support of gun ownership has generated plenty of mixed reaction.

In Harris's estimation, the two extreme sides of the gun control argument are being unreasonable. On one side of the coin, Harris laments the many gun-rights advocates who "reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public," he wrote in his essay. He has major issues with untrained citizens walking around the streets with guns. But he says that those who wish to see a complete ban on guns are proposing to eliminate the most effective way for people to defend themselves against home invaders or violent attackers.

sam-harris-profile.jpg"A gun is the only thing you can give to a 110 pound woman who is not a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that will give her a chance of fighting off a 250 pound predator who has come into her home for the purpose of raping and killing her," Harris said to Day 6's Brent Bambury.

"The ethical burden for anyone who wants to ban guns is to argue why shouldn't a woman, or a single person, in such a situation, have access to that kind of weapon, given the disadvantages of being attacked by someone stronger, younger, more powerful, more violent than yourself? Unless you can make the case that a person in that situation shouldn't have access to such a weapon, I think there is no case for banning guns."

Those who advocate for banning assault weapons and high capacity rounds, but allowing people to keep hand guns out of respect for the Second amendment, are pushing for policy changes that would ultimately do little to curb gun violence in the U.S., Harris also argues. The vast majority of gun deaths in the U.S. occur in the country's inner cities, involving handguns. Mass public shootings involving military-style assault weapons are dreadful and disturbing, Harris says, but statistically very rare.

"[For strict pro-gun control advocates to say] that you respect the rights of sportsmen and hunters and the legitimate need for home defense just gives the game away, because any gun that is good for home defence, and any gun that's good for killing a deer, is perfectly good for killing innocent people."

Passing a total handgun ban in the U.S. would be a monumental political challenge to say the least, and then there would be the extraordinarily complex matter of what to do with the 300 million firearms already in American households.

Harris's controversial essay also caused a stir when the author, who says that while he believes in carrying firearms at home he's highly critical of the "odious" National Rifle Association and "would be happy to see [it] destroyed," found himself agreeing with one of the lobby group's recent assertions: that the best defence against bad people with guns is good people with guns.

Harris said he understands this is an uncomfortable notion to many people in our society -- that to protect our children from weapon-wielding maniacs is to surround ourselves with either far more police officers or well-trained citizens.

"The truth is, the only remedy for someone who has walked into a classroom and begun blasting away -- if you don't have trained people ready to take him down, hand-to-hand -- the only remedy is someone with a gun."

Do you agree with Harris's assessment?


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