Sunday, February 27, 2011

More guns for a sick, sullen society?

One of my Twitter followers wondered when I would post something on guns and "gun control" in Latvia.  He linked to a Libertarian Party (?) position advocating more or less unrestricted gun ownership. The issue came up after the movie theater shooting in Riga on Saturday, February 19, when a well-educated, seemingly stable person with a legal weapons permit pumped four rounds into a father of four who had objected to his loud munching of either potato chips or popcorn and generally disruptive behavior during a showing of "The Black Swan".
The issue of gun laws in Latvia is a rather difficult one, because there is more too it than legalistic or libertarian arguments. Indeed, the murder suspect was a doctoral student in law who had written in a Latvian law journal arguing for very liberal gun laws like those in many US states. The man even advocated free ownership of fully automatic weapons.
I think the issue of firearms in any society is not so much a legal or philosophical issue (although there are important points in this regard) as it is about the fabric (or lack of it) in any particular society or country. There is merit, in the abstract, to the argument that an armed citizenry is theoretically better protected against an oppressive government, foreign invaders, or crime waves, than a society where only the state, criminals or invaders have guns. However, as "future scenarios" dictatorship, foreign invasion and wild-in-the streets crime are not likely or frequent occurrences if we take a relatively stable, democratic society as a starting point.
I would instead argue that the likelihood of tyranny or mad-dog crime has its roots in the nature of the society we are dealing with. The nature of the society, its "health" or whatever you want to call it, also determines the real consequences of any given weapons control policy. In short -- the reason there is relatively little gun violence (aside from a few spectacular incidents) in heavily armed Switzerland and Finland is because these societies do not have  a "gun culture".  Firearms are not used for everyday dispute resolution, they are generally not carried around on a day-to-day basis and while accessible, their only thinkable use is for military (Switzerland) or hunting (Finland, if I am not mistaken) purposes.
So we have the rather paradoxical situation that there is proliferation of legal military assault rifles in Switzerland, but almost no drive-by killings. In the US, fully-automatic weapons are banned, I believe, by federal law, yet there are places where killing and maiming with automatic weapons (drive-by style) is a routine occurence.
In armed countries with no "gun culture" we see the kind of outcomes that gun control advocates in the US and elsewhere want -- very little gun crime. In places with patchy, but sometimes severe gun laws (parts of the US with handgun restrictions, registration, etc.), we still see crazed gun crimes and automatic weapons firing on the streets. The difference is cultural and the lesson is that the nature of a particular society, its health or illness, trumps any laws or lack of them.
In Latvia, we do not have a "gun culture" and except for the actions of a psychopath in a movie theater, we have very few crimes involving firearms (indeed, many robberies are done with "objects resembling firearms" and there is little actual gunplay -- the recent battle between "good cops"  and "robber cops" in Jekabpils being an exception).  In this regard, Latvia feels safer than the US. Any everyday dispute between strangers here is unlikely to end in a shooting. In the US, one never knows. Of course, the crime news here in Latvia does carry stories of knifings and deadly beatings and other forms of non-firearm violence, but nothing can turn a bad situation to the worst possible than using a high-powered firearm.  Knives, clubs, even fists can kill, but a hollow-point 9mm round is very lucky if it DOESN'T kill.
My impression of Latvian society is that it is anomic (people trust no one), depressed, distressed and in a state of passive-aggressive anger (people vent their hostility by non-cooperation rather than direct action). I don't know if I would want to spread more firearms in such a societal environment. I fear there could be a quick adoption of a kind of gun culture, of using firearms to vent the simmering anger and the collective inferiority complex (left over from Soviet times and augmented by what has happened since) that one senses here.
Another matter is that most people are not trained or skilled at using firearms. This explains the number of accidental shootings in countries where guns proliferate. One can also imagine what would happen if there were more gun battles between untrained, poor marksmen in situations where rage, rather than cool training (as with professional military and police) was the driving force of a conflict.
It is difficult for me to imagine that allowing everyone in Latvia to own guns would result in the creation of a noble "armed citizenry" that used its weapons with restraint and skill, that intimidated both state authorities (the parts of the police that are little more than armed gangs) and criminals in order to maintain  both freedom and order. I just don't see that happening. More firearms in this society would simply increase the level and lethality of senseless violence.  That is, perhaps, an inadequate but best effort answer to the issue raised in a "tweet" last week.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Popcorn critics overwhelm murder critics after cinema shooting in Riga

At the very end of a showing of the film "Black Swan" Saturday evening, February 19, at the Citadele Cinemas multiplex in Riga, a man was shot and killed by another man. The victim had apparently objected to the shooter's loud munching of popcorn and possibly other noisy behavior. The man who was shot died in the presence of his teenage or possibly younger daughter. The alleged shooter is rumored to have been a graduate student of law, licenced to carry the murder weapon. He was subdued by other moviegoers and taken into custody by police.
The incident has generated hundreds of comments on Latvia's main internet news portals:, and The main theme of these comments was ...popcorn. Not murder, not the batshit alleged murderer, but popcorn eating in movie theaters as a degenerate American habit polluting Latvian cinema culture.
In numerous comments, popcorn eaters are called pigs, hogs, animals and other epithets and the practice of snacking while watching films as a degenerate practice imported from a depraved and degenerate American "subculture". Rather than expressing shock and dismay that a psychopath (who like most moviegoers, likes popcorn) can bring a loaded weapon into a movie theater and fire three shots at someone who scolds him for eating loudly, the commentators (at last look, there were around 750 comments on one of the stories on the shooting) carry on and on about how they are disgusted by popcorn munchers, how it is uncivilized and depraved to eat at the cinema, that only pigs and barnyard creatures do so, etc. etc.
What is amazing about these comments is the ignorance, provincialism and bizarre hypersensitivity of commentators. Calling the US and other western societies with a higher standard of living and quality of life "degenerate" is almost a knee-jerk reaction in the Latvian internet "commentsphere". One only wonders why we are not overrun by refugees from the US and  Western Europe, fleeing the horrors of cinema popcorn and snacks.
In my experience (and I do share a big popcorn with my son when we go to a film), the sound level of most films at Citadele drowns out any munching sounds (people with steel teeth would have to be eating rocks to be noticeably heard above the soundtrack). There are long lines at the popcorn and snack stands on weekend nights, so it seems that most people take snacks to the movies in Riga and don't treat the movie theater like a church or library, which are places of traditional or enforced absolute silence.
Very few commentators look to the real issue -- what was an armed wacko psychopath doing in a crowded theater? What about gun laws and security? Fewer commentators, still address the issue of the weird provincial drivel making up most of the other comments. Not one WTF on this issue...What kind of people and society is this, 20 years after independence, 7 years after joining the European Union? I am sure someone will say that this is typical for internet commentators in Latvia.  That is neither an excuse nor a mere observation, it defines the problem.
And yes, I know,  googling "movie theater shooting" gets a number of results, many of them concerning incidents in the US, which is only more than a hundred times bigger in terms of population than Latvia. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Latvia proposes an internet kill-switch -- Mubarak on the Baltic?

Latvia's new draft law on a “ A State of Emergency”, which was presented to the meeting of state secretaries (part of the process of introducing it to the parliament or Saeima) last September, was way ahead of Egypt's authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak by granting the government the right to throw a kill switch on the internet and all other electronic media. They can also censor the press and all correspondence, too.
The draft law also contains provisions for regulation the movement of citizens during an emergency, for overruling the decisions of local authorities, for searches and seizures in private homes and a number of other totalitarian measures. It also provides for emergency allocation of resources, goods and services and other steps that are at least superficially reasonable in case of a natural disaster, war or insurrection.
What is worrisome is that a state of emergency can be declared for political reasons, such as “a threat of civil disorder”, and that the provisions for regulating media and electronic communications, especially the internet, are dangerous and disproportionate. It is hard to see what benefit the population could gain from being shut off from domestic and outside media during a major global or regional disaster. As far as preventing people in Latvia from disseminating information over the internet and social media, it looks like the main purpose of such measures would be to keep the outside world from learning of repression or other violent and irrational actions by Latvia's own government and authorities.
Let us assume that a megastorm, a Cyclone Yasi or Hurricane Katrina type of storm was raging over Northern Europe and about to hit Latvia, where a state of emergency had been declared. Why should people be cut off from looking at the Weather Channel, the BBC, CNN or other news sources on the internet or on their mobile phones for a “second opinion” in addition to what the government was saying in official announcements?
I don't think the government would cut off the internet simply because a storm was coming, but such measures could be used if there were mass demonstrations that presented a “danger of civil disorder” to police and government bureaucrats advising those able to declare a state of emergency. In such a case, the reason for cutting off electronic communications, including the internet and the social media that live on it, would be to prevent information about state repression from getting out and to interfere with efforts by dissident groups and civil society to self-organize using the internet.
In short, this is a dangerous piece of draft legislation that leaves way too much leeway for the state to censor, repress, and prevent the dissemination of information about its own repression. This law must be stopped and/or drastically modified so that it is not a compilation of “rubber clauses” that can be stretched to attack inalienable human rights in times of social and political tension. There shall be no Latvian Mubarak, no internet kill switch.