Gun Homicides and the Honor Culture by Christopher G. Moore

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In Asia, the idea of face is not unlike the concept in the West of dignity or respect or honor. Add guns to the torque of argument, honor and liquor and the probability of shots fired rise dramatically. Pinker concludes in The Better Angels of our Nature, page 99, that: “The essence of a culture of honor is that it does not sanction predatory or instrumental violence, but only retaliation after an insult or other mistreatment.” The issue of fitting the culture of guns with the culture of honor raises a number of issues, such as how available guns should be, the kind of weapons that should be allowed in civilian hands, and the role of the government in regulating guns in places where an insult to honor is avenged with violence.

In Thailand, on 27th December, a policeman in the southern province of Phatthalung pulled his gun and killed six other police officers. The gunman and his fellow officers had been engaged in a drinking session in the border patrol police camp canteen. Someone must have said something that didn’t go down well. The gunman then walked 200 meters outside the canteen and turned his assault rifle on himself. The investigators’ theory is that a ‘personal conflict’ led to the shootings. That is a Thai code phrase for an insult to honor.

Police are trained (in theory) in the psychology of diffusing personal conflicts, and convincing someone with a gun to drop it.  Using lethal force is restricted in Thailand, as in most places.

The point is that Thai cops are products of their culture, and a face culture is an honor culture. Is this true for other cops around the world? Their attitude toward guns, threats, violence, insults and honor differ according to tradition, history and attitude. When the cork flies out of the bottle in an honor culture, it is best the man this happens to does not have a weapon. When cops are involved in an insult to honor, supposedly their training kicks in and they exercise more self-control. That training has its limits.  Cops inside an honor culture have same human emotions that flare up during drinking sessions. An insult, a slight, a roll of the eyes may be all that is needed to trigger the lethal response. Without guns having been present, it is highly doubtful anyone in that canteen would have died.

No one suggests after such a massacre that the police should be disarmed. Notably, in England most of the police are not armed, and the murder rate is significantly lower than places like Thailand where the police are armed. Yet, a fairly significant number of the population there also carry guns.

More difficult is the private citizen in an honor culture who is allowed by law to carry a handgun. The Americans are undergoing a debate about expanding the right to carry concealed weapons, and to allow someone with a gun permit to carry that weapon anywhere in the United States. More than 3.5 million Americans in 40 States have permits to carry concealed firearms. Keep in mind there are approximately 100 million guns owned by Americans. Remember that on your next visit to the States only a small percentage of them have anywhere near the experience of my fellow blogger Jim Thompson with a handling guns. The overwhelming number of gun owners are like pilots who’ve logged a couple of hours in a small plane seated next to an experienced instructor and think that experience makes them Ace fighter pilots.

Some states have more lax gun permit regulations and even more lax rules to revoke a permit if the gun owner has committed a crime. The New York Times reports about a cyclist in Asheville, North Carolina, who had an argument with a motorist. Words were exchanged and Diez, the gun holder, pulled his licensed handgun and shot at the cyclist. The bullet slammed through the cyclist’s helmet. Diez later pleaded guilty to a felony count of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Pinker also notes the Southern United States has had a long tradition of an honor culture and self-help justice.

The proponents who argue for expanding the right for civilians to arm themselves with concealed weapons say it will allow the ordinary law-abiding citizen to protect herself or himself. The idea is that the bad guys are armed and the innocent are not; that, if the bad guys had knowledge that the innocent person might have a concealed weapon, they’d think twice about committing a crime against them. Also, they point out, an armed citizenry is the first line of defense against tyranny in government.

That is the deterrence argument that propels many to support legislation authorizing widespread gun ownership. There are a couple of problems with defending this position.

First, America is one of the few places where there is no historical consensus that the monopoly of violent force should be exclusively reserved to officers of the state. Unlike Europeans, the United States never succeeded in disarming its citizens before the citizens took over the government. Most of other countries in the West (they are democracies, too) do not sanction widespread gun ownership among the civilian population. They have a different history and tradition of gun ownership. And, in European countries, fewer people die of gunshot wounds than in America.

Second, it conflates democracy with gun ownership; that armed citizens are the best defense against a State turning rogue against its citizens. Americans have a culture of distrust of government that is closer to the attitudes found in Third World countries run by dictators. The reality is that guns are artifacts from the analog past. Modern governments have multiple digital tools to oppress and repress their citizens and these weapons of intimidation are more widespread and potent than guns. CCTV cameras, predators (soon to appear in your neighborhood), data mining your email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, acquiring your health, financial and education records. A population armed with handguns is no match for the arsenal that the world of 1984 brings.

Third, the idea of “protection” against the bad guys is always one that has everyone nodding their heads in agreement. However, the statistics show that the self-defense theory is not a solid argument, especially in an honor culture. The reality is that human beings are emotional creatures who are quick to anger. Alcohol and drugs makes them unstable. Diez, the fireman from North Carolina who almost killed the cyclist, is not uncommon. The cyclist wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t threaten Diez. He had an argument. Diez felt insulted, his ego was bruised and he tried to kill a man over “honor.”

I’d be willing to bet that if you graphed the percentage of people who have used a handgun to protect themselves against a criminal (the self-defense claim), it would be a much smaller percentage than the percentage of people who used a gun because they felt a slight to their honor. By increasing gun ownership, I would anticipate a rise in the number of homicides where the underlying motive was to avenge the loss of face, the slur, personal argument, or the insult. People kill each other over honor. Give them licenses to carry handguns and Diez-type cases will increase. Diez lacked self-control in this situation. This is not abnormal. Expand gun ownership and that will be a good test of exactly how normal the Diez case will prove to be.

Thailand has more than double the United States’ annual death by firearms rate.

Anyone who has looked at the debate on gun ownership understands that statistics are often unreliable, and are often used inappropriately, such as failing to compare like with like conditions, traditions, histories and omitting crucial variables that make for complexity. Scholars have cautioned against concluding that widespread gun ownership causes higher murder rates. Russia, for example, has stringent gun control laws yet, between 1998 and 2004, its gun-related murder rate was four times that of the United States. Could an entrenched honor culture in Russia offer insight into the higher murder rate by firearms? The same scholars insist there is no correlation between the strength of gun laws, availability of guns and the homicide rate. Let’s admit that evidence of such correlation isn’t available. What is left unaddressed is the role of the honor culture.

Another killing in Thailand this week bears an emotionally twisted thread that links it to the Diez type of case. An arrest warrant was issued for a member of parliament, Khanchit Thapsuwan, who allegedly followed a rival politician into the toilet of a petrol station and shot him in the head eight times. He left ten .40 caliber casings scattered on the floor of the restroom where the shooting took place. There also were witnesses. Given this is Thailand, the police issued a statement, “If we knew his hideout, we would arrest him without heeding his social status.”

In Thailand the gunman’s social status is a significant factor that in some cases trumps the evidence of murder. But, in Khanchit’s case, with the social status of shooter and victim being approximately equal, the gunman is in deep trouble. What is the theory of why Khanchit shot the victim? They were political rivals and according to the Bangkok Post, “Whenever the two met, they were often heard making sarcastic remarks against each other.”

Two days after the killing, MP Khanchit showed up for a session in the Thai Parliament. A decision has yet to be made on the question of whether parliamentary immunity will be waived.

The final consideration in the argument to expand gun ownership is the costs. Gunshot victims place a significant burden on the health care resources of a country. One scholar, Phillip J. Cook, estimated that gun violence costs Americans alone $100 billion annually.” That would fund a lot of schools, clinics, bridges, roads and student loan programs. With that kind of money, a decent health care system could be universally available to all citizens.

Honor. Face. Dignity. Governments would do well to closely study the correlation of these cultural factors and how they factor into gun-related homicides before they go about authorizing the carrying of guns in the larger civilian population. Dismantling the culture of honor might, in the long run, be the best way to reduce gun-related murder rates. But that approach wouldn’t sell to voters. Arming voters does sell for those standing for election. Politics is a clash over “honor” and sometimes, as with the aforementioned recent murder in Thailand allegedly by an MP, the end result is the delivery of eight rounds to the head.

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