05 February 2009

Weasel words: liberal (and gun control)

Though I still describe myself as a political liberal (I was a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party when it existed), it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what "liberal" means in conversation, whether written or oral.

As an ordinary adjective, "liberal" can mean free, generous, or unrestricted.
  • "Liberal abortion laws" are laws that allow unrestricted abortion.
  • "Liberal drug laws" are laws that allow unrestricted drug use.
  • "Liberal gun laws" are laws that allow unrestricted gun ownership.
Well, not quite, because the way many people speak and write, "liberals" are in favour of "gun control" (whatever that means).

At some point there is a cross-over from "liberal" in a general sense, meaning having few or no restrictions, and "liberal" as a political philosophy. And sometimes there is another inversion there too.

People often speak of "liberal" in the sense of a political philosophy as if it were the opposite of "conservative".

Perhaps that is a hangover from 19th century British politics, when, from 1850 to 1920, the Liberal and Conservative parties were the main players on the political stage.

In fact the opposite of "liberal" (in the political philosophy sense) is not "conservative", but "authoritarian", and the opposite of "conservative" (again in the political philosophy sense) is not "liberal" but "radical".

The result of all this is that when people use the word "liberal" it is often difficult to know what they are talking about without asking for more information.

And then there is the "gun control" that "liberals" are alleged to be in favour of.

It is rarely defined by those who use the term, so it is difficult to know what it means, other than that, whatever it is, those who use the term are against it.

But I assume that it means that people who are against it believe that owning a gun should be like owning a camera rather than like owning a motor vehicle.

When one buys a motor vehicle, it is registered, and has a distinctive number plate so that it can be identified, and one needs a licence to drive it on a public road, and in order to get a licence one needs to pass a test to show that one is competent to drive it without endangering other road users.

When one buys a camera, one does not need to register it, and though it has a distinctive serial number from the manufacturer, there is no central registry keeping track of who owns which camera.

The difference is, of course, that when used incompetently, carelessly or recklessly both guns and motor vehicles can cause damage to property and injury or death to other people.

So I wonder if those who are against gun control are also against motor vehicle control and testing the competence of drivers. Do those who say that gun control means that only criminals will own guns also believe that only criminals own motor vehicles?


Anonymous said...

Here in the USA, those who oppose gun control tend to paint a picture of "liberals" that want to keep people from owning guns. Some go so far as to raise the specter that gun control proponents would eventually even outlaw private ownership of hunting rifles and pistols. Others are a bit less paranoid (and I'd even say paint a picture that isn't entirely inaccurate) and simply say that gun control proponents would take away their right to own certain times of firearms, such as fully or semi-automatic weapons. I actually know gun-control proponents who subscribe to that viewpoint. So like I said, that's at least an accurate depiction in some cases.

On the flip side, I do think those who support some levels of gun control paint caricatures of those who oppose them, too. Truth be told, the gun control issue is very complex and I'd imagine that very few if anyone falls at either end of the spectrum. For example, I don't personally know anyone (though am willing to accept that such people exist somewhere on the fringes) who would outlaw private ownership of all firearms. Similarly, I doubt anyone -- again, except possibly someone on the fringes -- would want a state of affairs where a convicted felon could walk into a store and walk out five minutes later with a military-grade assault rifle.

But both "sides" of the gun control argument tend to paint the other side with wide brush strokes, and usually end up with an extreme caricature.

Steve Hayes said...


Golly, it's even worse than I thought!

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered; if 40% of traffic fatalities are caused by drunk drivers, then aren't the sober 60% of drivers actually criminal by neglect or disregard of other's safety? Perhaps they ( the majority of drivers ) should be forgiven for their recklessness, even though they haven't even the excuse of being drunk.

Perhaps most drivers are actually criminal ( but who can accuse the majority? ), and perhaps criminals may very well posses all the weapons. Or the police, take your pick...

I personally won't own a gun, because I hate to clean them, especially the assault rifles ( by the way assault is a verb, not an adjective ) as they get the dirtiest.

All sarcasm aside, thanks for a good post...

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late to party here, but I came over from the link on the Khanya blog.

As an American ex pat in Britain, I can tell you take the American fear that goverment might want to take away everyone's gun has been amplified by the actions of the British government in 1997 actually taking away everyone's guns. No one is allowed to own a handgun and the ownership of long guns is severely restricted. Anyone possessing a handgun or unregistered long gun in their home is subject to an automatic mandatory 5-year prison sentence. Unlike with robbers, burglars, and those who commit bodily violence, the judge has no power to mitigate or suspend the sentence.

This scared Americans because by and large the support for unresticted gun ownership has nothing to do with hunting weapons. The Second Amendment is about protecting the citizenry from oppressive Government, not muggers, burglars, or white-tailed deer. Home protection and hunting are just by-products of the right to bear arms.

I would say that it is safe to assume that most people who oppose gun control believe that owning a gun should be like owning a camera rather than like owning a motor vehicle. Most would say that it is like other potential dangerous things. Power tools are also not registered or licensed by the government. The electricy running through homes is very dangerous, but while it has to be manufactured and installed in accordance with government regulations, no one has to have a license to plug in an appliance (or a power tool). After all, when used incompetently, carelessly or recklessly both electricty and power tools can cause damage to property and injury or death to other people - in fact, they sometime do.

Or you could argue the flipside. A camera can be used to produce child pornography, which causes damage and injury on various level to various people. Can we trust just anyone with a camera? Shouldn't there be a central repository of camera licenses and a requirement to manufacture them so that any picture taken can be traced to a specific camera, so that the illegal use of cameras can be effectively policed?

Motor vehicles and drivers are licensed because there are thousands of drivers coming into near contact with thousands of other drivers daily, often moving in excess of 100 feet per second. It is therefore important to public safety that vehicles be road-worthy and that drivers understand the complexity of regulations to deal with the muliplicity of possible movements and the coordination of operating as many as four mechical devices simultaneously, each with a different body appendage, at the same time as having one's actual attention on the road.

As someone with long experience of both, I assure you that using a gun safely is much simpler than driving a car.

As one of those who says that gun control means that only criminals will own guns, yes I also believe that only criminals will own motor vehicles if motor vehicles, like guns in some jurisdictions already, are outlawed.

Anonymous said...

I apologise for all of the typos in the previous comment. I also intended to comment on Wallace's comment.

Traffic fatalities caused by sober individuals are often prosecuted. There has been a particularly high-profile case in the UK this week. Not all fatalities are caused by neglect or disregard. Sometimes accidents are accidents (though this hasn't kept many of my fellow lawyers from getting very rich from personal injury suits).

I don't know what dictionary Wallace is using, but "assault" is both a noun and a verb. However, etimologically, the verb (15th century) is derived from, and defined by, the noun (14th century). Merriam-Webster defines the verb "assault" as either a transitive verb "to make an assault on" or an intransitive verb "to make an assault".

And surely Wallace is aware that nouns and verbs can be used adjectively.


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