A thought experiment regarding Spider-Man, gun control

Spider-Man incapacitates the president for what is surely a good reason.

Spider-Man incapacitates the president for what is surely a good reason.

Let us say, by way of a thought experiment, the each of us has the ability to shoot a wide, viscous web from his hands. The web sets up quickly and dissolves after about 20 minutes, during which time we cannot produce another one. We cannot swing on the web or use it to become professional wrestlers, because that would be absurd. We can, however, shoot the web at another human being from a close distance and incapacitate him. So webbed, the other person can do the same thing to us. Then we both have to stare at each other for 20 minutes and think about how the system could be improved.

These are the terms of our thought experiment. Let us say that in this world, two people cannot agree what to do with a ham. Larry tries to take it for his family, and Julius webs him; Larry webs back and the two are at an impasse. The next day, Larry comes back with a friend to secure the ham while he and Julius are mutually webbed. It’s a genius plan, but Julius brought his friend, too. The four stare at each other in the clearing, just waiting for somebody to spin them webs, and after a while they edge away into the forest to recruit more people for tomorrow.

In this way, political governance is born. In a state of nature where each human being can exert a relatively equal amount of force, physical coercion becomes a matter of numbers. Ten people cannot make ten people do something, but eleven people can impose their will on nine. In this situation, force becomes synonymous with and then symbolized by numbers, and the more everyone accepts that principle, the more actual force becomes unnecessary. From this process emerges A) government and B) the government’s monopoly on violence.

What we are talking about, in a roundabout and vaguely Marxian way, is the social contract. Michael Boylan addresses the same concept in his interesting and then suddenly wonky consideration of gun control in the Times. It kind of falls into jargon midway through. One reads the sentence “This inability to adequately assess risk and socially responsible avoidance strategies causes irrational response reactions,” and remembers Pascal, who apologized for a long letter by saying he didn’t have time to write a short one. Still, Boylan’s analysis is instructive.

He constructs the human right to self-defense along two principles. The first is weapons control: given that we don’t want a scenario where everyone has a thermonuclear device, some limit on what the individual can wield must enter the continuum. Maybe’s it’s mustard gas; maybe it’s sheath knives longer than four inches. Ideally, we would establish this limit according to the second principle, that of least force. Whatever method allows the individual to protect himself from bodily harm while doing the least damage to his attacker—and bystanders—is the best.

The external element in all this talk of attacking each other and least incapacitating force is, of course, law enforcement. Sometimes law enforcement doesn’t work, though, and sometimes law enforcers are whom the conscientious citizen must protect himself against. So we need to be able to defend ourselves. We have a right to. As a society of individuals possessing this right, where do we want to place our weapons limit?

For the last few decades, the answer has been “somewhere between semi- and fully automatic rifles.” As the events of last week demonstrated, however, those weapons can violate the least-force principle in terrible ways. An AR-15 is only necessary for self-defense when you assume your attacker has an AR-15; if he does not, your self-defense needs can likely be met with a shovel. Or, if you don’t relish the idea of laying about yourself with the garden implements, there are a lot of situations in which you can just call the police.

But I digress—the point is that self-defense is an inalienable right, but exercising it with a particular weapon is not. The NRA is not lobbying for private ownership of rocket-propelled grenades, and lefties like myself are not advocating a return to long knives. The Second Amendment says “bear arms,” not “bear guns.” As a society, we are considering tweaking where we put our weapons limit. We are not talking about stripping individuals of their right to defend themselves. We are trying to figure out the best way for them to do it, and maybe letting everyone have a bullet hose is not it.


  1. Good link. Good article. The comparison of the two again raises the question, why aren’t you more famous? Your rhetoric rocks and is never empty.

  2. I know I said this already, but the Virginia Tech shooter killed 30ish adults with a .22 sig-sauer handgun and a 9mm glock handgun. There isn’t any way to downgrade from that without leaving the realm of firearms altogether. And I say these types of guns will be in the hands of criminals for decades to come, even if we outlawed them now and completely stopped all new manufacturing.

    There’s no real evidence for what I’m about to say, but I would hypothesize that we might have better outcomes if our gun massacres were all committed with AR-15s. the 5.56 bullet is small and has high velocity for accuracy at range and tends to punch straight through the human body and won’t kill unless it hits a vital organ or artery. A slow .22 pistol round tends to go into the shoulder and come out somewhere like the stomach having changed direction 90 degrees. They are small, and therefore a standard magazine holds more rounds. They’re cheap, and so an amateur is likely to have a lot more practice with it. I’m just sayin’.

  3. I think you have it backwards captain.

    “When the 5.56 round was first designed by Remington, it was meant to tumble through a target, not kill with brute force. It did this not only by the relatively blunt shape, but also by using a rifle barrel with less of a twist. Next time you look at an M-4 or an AR-15, notice it says “5.56 NATO 1:7” on the barrel. This literally translates into; “the bullet will make 1 full rotation for every 7 inches of this barrel.” This was not always the standard twist set for the new NATO round. The first AR-15 made by Armalite, had a 1:14 twist making it a very, very unstable round. One can only imagine the orientation of the entry and exit wounds. Now if you haven’t figured it out already, the less the twist, the more unstable the round is. (1:14 twist is less than 1:7) It is said in “firearm enthusiast” legend that the first tests were done on pig carcasses and that the entry wound could be on the lower right stomach with an exit wound coming out of the back upper left shoulder. It left horrific wounds and terrible internal damage to its intended target, immediately drawing the interest of the US Military, in particular USAF General Curtis Emerson LeMay. That’s right folks, you can thank we in the United States Air Force for the M-16/M-4 legacy (I say this without sarcasm). He thought it was an ideal weapon for his deployed members of the USAF Security Forces for guarding the perimeters of Air Force installations in such places as Korea and Vietnam. Before military trials, Armalite increased the barrel twist to 1:12 to improve accuracy. But when tested in frigid Alaska, accuracy was decreased because of the increased friction from the denser, colder air. Therefore, the barrel twist was eventually increased from 1:12 to 1:9 and eventually to the 1:7 you see it today. Although some bull-barreled AR-15’s and Stoner Sniper Rifles can be found in a 1:9, most issued M-16’s and M-4;s are primarily a 1:7 twist.”

  4. I’m not saying I’m still right about it. But a couple things for discussion. The website you referred to is discussing the 5.56 in military implications, and therefore is comparing it to the 7.62 round. The 5.56 is more dangerous than the 7.62 for a lot of the same reasons that I am suggesting a .22 pistol round is more dangerous than the 5.56.

    The longer rifling specification will indeed make the bullet more unstable and more likely to yaw on impact, but that doesn’t come into play as much when fired from short range. Also, if the bullet doesn’t pass through enough tissue or some sort of heavy military fatigue or body armor then it won’t yaw or fragment. Another reason for all the confusion on the matter is that these rounds aren’t manufactured consistently, and I know soldiers often get a batch that don’t break up on impact even with a high velocity and unstable flight. The round just doesn’t kill reliably when it hits an extremity, and that’s why swat and military operators are trained to land multiple shots center of mass before they consider a target incapacitated. A .22 may or may not be more deadly in the hands of an amateur, but history has shown a gunman can kill just as many victims without the benefits of an assault rifle.

Leave a Comment.