Disclaimer: I apologize to my virtually non-existent readers. I generally try to at least try to pay lip service to acknowledging the other side of whatever debate exists. But for this issue, the evidence is so overwhelmingly on one side that I can’t even pretend the NRA is anything less than an anti-democratic institution that falls so solidly on the Evil side of John Stewart’s Stupid vs. Evil question as to be a candidate for the antichrist, and my rhetoric will be both more black-and-white/polemic and crass/profane than normal.
In the wake of a mass shooting, like that which recently took place in Parkland, Florida, there’s a certain, disgusting predictability to the responses. More than any previous publicly touted mass shooting, my wife and I aren’t sad about it; we’re just pissed off at the bullshit responses from both the left and the right—though the right is clearly the bull with not just a lot of shit, but full blown diarrhea. Unlike after previous shootings, I’ve been just ignoring the news because I’m just sick of hearing the same tired platitudes. Though my wife, who has been continuing to pay attention assures me that those tired platitudes are still making the circuit just like they’re getting paid.
So when the overwhelming majority of Americans support some bare minimum of gun control—universal background checks, including at gun shows and, where possible, private sales—why hasn’t it happened? Tyranny of the passionate minority over the passive majority aside, what are the intellectual justifications that minority uses to invigorate their base and maintain a semblance of credibility with the general populace?
As far as I can tell, there are four main arguments against increasing gun control. In no particular order:
- Owning guns is a right of all citizens that’s protected by the Second Amendment and Heller.
- “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
- Additional gun control measures wouldn’t do any good—there are plenty of gun control laws on the books now, why would new laws prevent future shootings if the existing laws haven’t prevented current shootings?
- Broad appeals to natural rights, individual liberty, individual responsibility, and preventing government overreach.
As a Classical Liberal (or Libertarian, for want of a better label) with a pretty cynical view of humanity, I’m pretty sympathetic to 3 out of 4 of these arguments. In the case of most regulation and consumer protections, these arguments would be enough to convince me that Uncle Sam is intent on micromanaging us into obscurity and our economic growth into annals of history. But in the case of gun control, the empirical evidence is so strong as to render the above arguments not just false, but ethically reprehensible. I’m going to take these four arguments one a time.
The Second Amendment
James Madison was a genius. However, in his INTP-ness he forgot to include enumerated rights in his constitution, so two years after the US Constitution was ratified, we got The Bill of Rights, an omnibus of 10 amendments explicitly granting a variety of liberal rights, ranging from not needing to quarter soldiers (3A) to, most germane here, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” (emphasis mine).
Madison, Jefferson, Jay, Hamilton, and other Founding Fathers may have been ambitious geniuses, but they were still mortal men. The Constitution and the early precedents they set for legislation, executive privilege, jurisprudence, and general mos maiorum were forged in a specific time and place and within a particular context of politics, culture, and technology. Fortunately, these men were prescient enough to understand this fact, and built in a mechanism for altering the constitution. Among the more significant alterations to the Constitution as society changed are women’s right to vote, civil rights, presidential term limits, and, in fact, the freedom of speech and right to bear arms. In tandem with jurisprudence and Supreme Court precedents, the Constitution is, no matter what more conservative Justices may say, a very living and plastic document.
Given this context and relevant to this topic, I want to make a single rebuttal to the argument that we can’t have gun control because the Second Amendment obviates any attempts to regulate guns. Specifically, that rebuttal is that any argument that appeals to the Second Amendment as some sort of divine canon is a weak argument for weak-minded people. The Constitution is inherently meant to adapt to changing times, and correct itself when empirical evidence or technology makes such leaps or strides as to render constitutional precedent obsolete. For example, in 1933, the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment, which created Prohibition. Based on the overwhelming empirical evidence that Prohibition was a colossal failure, FDR famously declared that “what America needs now is a drink.” We can, and should, change the constitution when situation necessitates.
Just like the 18th Amendment, the 2nd Amendment was not necessarily a bad idea, given contemporaneous societal pressure, but both of these amendments were written in a context that no longer applies. In the case of Prohibition, no one really anticipated the wealth to be made from bootlegging and the technological advancements that rendered the 18th Amendment doomed from the start (missing market failure). In the case of the 2nd amendment, none of its authors could have possibly imagined the technological changes that would change a “gun” from a muzzle loaded rifle firing one shot a minute to an assault rifle with a range of 1000 feet or more that can fire at 9 rounds per second (with a bump stock); such a deadly device was inconceivable at the time.
So to appeal to the Second Amendment or the Founding Fathers as a justification for preventing gun control is just fucking stupid. The Founding Fathers were geniuses, and as geniuses they accepted that conditions would change such that the documents they were writing should be changed to adapt to new technological advancements. To pretend that what they said is immutable canon is an insult to them. To appeal to their insights rather than empirical reality that modern guns are insanely dangerous is to admit that you don’t have original thought or argument and is a complete misunderstanding of the role of the constitution. Changing the constitution should not be taken lightly, but it should not not be taken. (Furthermore, though this extends beyond my single rebuttle, Justice Scalia wrote into Heller that gun regulation is constitutional and should be taken; he explicitly wrote that Heller was not intended nor should it be taken as the end of the conversation.)
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”
This is just false. It’s like saying “you get thrown from the earth by centripetal force.” It’s not entirely outside the realm of hypothesis and postulation, but it’s empirically false, false, false.
Logic of the Argument
The logic of this argument is pretty straightforward. Suppose an individual, Jimmy, is on the fence about staging a public shooting. If more people at a given event—a concert for example—have guns, then Jimmy is more likely to be killed before he has a chance to kill that many people. On the other hand, if guns are relatively difficult to come by through legal means and Jimmy has some (through legal or other means), then most people at this event will not be armed, which means Jimmy will be able to kill more people before he’s either shot by security, overwhelmed by masses rushing him, or runs out of ammunition. If access to weapons is lax and many people have guns, then Jimmy’s expected body count falls. If the number of expected deaths is less than some threshold Jimmy deems utility maximizing, then he will decide to forgo his postal expedition, thanks to the fact that someone in the crowd is likely to kill him before he can exact his desired body count.
It’s not an unreasonable line of reasoning. While it may be analogous to the idea that putting a giant spike in place of an airbag is the best way to prevent car accidents in that only an economist could think of it, that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.
What does make it unequivocally wrong though is the data. Rowhani-Rahbar, et al find that about 21% of American handgun owners carry them loaded daily (35% carry them not loaded; presumably not on their person). This may sound like a lot, and it is, but this amounts to about 3 Million Americans, which is less than 1% of the population.
The argument that looser gun regulation has a deterrent effect on crime hinges on the idea that a would-be criminal will choose not to commit a crime because he or she believes that someone else in the area will have a gun and shoot him or her before the crime can be fully carried out. The problem with this argument is that the vast majority of handgun owners (~80%) don’t carry their guns regularly. So sure, if a would-be shooter thought that patrons of a nightclub were packing, s/he might look elsewhere to commit a crime. But the data don’t support the notion that more gun permits mean more “good guys” with guns in the places we need them. We would need a 5-fold increase in the number of gun owners to double the number of guns being regularly carried in public locations. The article says nothing about the nature of the public locations, but I suspect that nightclubs, concerts, and schools are not high on the list of places handgun owners carry their loaded weapons as a way to deter potential crime.
In other words, empirical data about how gun owners behave makes the claim that more gun owners deters would-be criminals highly dubious, to say nothing of the fact that gun owners themselves are a fairly small group who tend to own multiple—even dozens—of weapons, so loosening gun sales is unlikely to substantially increase the number of gun owners.
More Empirics on the Argument.
There was an academic in the mid/late 90s who claimed that increased rates of civilians utilizing concealed-carry rights lowered overall violent crime rates. This conclusion has since not replicated and deemed to be bullshit. Although I haven’t found another source claiming this, Dr. Malone told my class on The Economics of Crime that Dr. Lott (the aforementioned academic) wouldn’t share the data used for one of his studies with other academics on account of his graduate student “lost” the datasets. While not impossible given the times, this is an extremely dubious (even if not widely publicized) claim.
The consensus of academic research is that fuck no “more guns = less crime,” but that more concealed carry permits is highly correlated (adjusting for other factors to the point that I will claim a plausible causal relationship) with higher rates of gun deaths; both suicides and homicides. The Lott findings and discrediting remind me of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent studies about the MMR vaccine causing autism, which has directly lead to hundreds of unnecessary deaths because of fears related to vaccines, but that digression is for another post.
This is far from a comprehensive review of the literature, but here are some sources that explicitly cite Lott, contradict his findings, and have large enough datasets to be somewhat reliable:
- Dan A. Black and Daniel S. Nagin, “Do Right‐to‐Carry Laws Deter Violent Crime?,” The Journal of Legal Studies 27, no. 1 (January 1998): 209-219.
- Jonathan Robert Brandt, MPAff, (2016) “Does Concealed Handgun Carry Make Campus Safer? A Panel Data Analysis of Crime on College and University Campuses.” Master’s Thesis.
- Jens Ludwig. (1988) “Concealed-gun-carrying laws and violent crime: evidence from state panel data” International Review of Law and Economics. Volume 18, Issue 3, September 1998, Pages 239-254.
- Crandall, et al. (2016). Prevention of firearm-related injuries with restrictive licensing and concealed carry laws: An Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma systematic review. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery: November 2016 – Volume 81 – Issue 5 – p 952–960. doi: 10.1097/TA.0000000000001251
- Kleck, et al. (2016). Does Gun Control Reduce Violent Crime? Criminal Justice Review. Vol 41, Issue 4, 2016.
Meta-point: some of the above articles are available in their full form; some aren’t. All of the abstracts are available on Google Scholar. Anyone with an internet connection has access to Google Scholar and can find the research—at least the abstract, which should have the upshot—with pretty minimal effort. This is not to detract from the value of reading full research articles or gloss over flaws in our research culture, but it is an illumination of the fact that research findings have been democratized and no one (with internet access) can credibly claim that reliable summaries of scientific studies are too difficult to find. Perhaps I’ll do another post on this too.
The upshot of the above articles is that all analyses by Lott that suggest that more guns means less crime is methodologically deeply flawed. For example, using Lott’s regressions/models and excluding the State of Florida from his dataset nullified his results. Further studies have found that the effects of looser concealed-carry laws unequivocally increases rates of gun homicides. Broader studies find wider prevalence of gun-carrying adults has at best a negligible effect on violent crime generally—not the general decrease imagined by the NRA—and increases violent crime for certain sub-populations: most notably armed robbery by alcoholics.
To conclude this section, would looser gun laws mean more good guys are carrying guns to stop criminals? Probably not: most good guys don’t carry their guns regularly and most guns are owned by a self-selecting group of people, meaning most people still wouldn’t buy guns (much less carry them) if gun control laws were looser. Furthermore, more guns around tends to lead to more gun deaths—mostly suicides, but also an unfortunately large number of homicides, especially unintentional, or at least unplanned, homicides.
Additional gun control measures wouldn’t do any good
A third line of reasoning behind preventing further gun control measures is that further measures won’t actually reduce gun homicides of violent crime. And here we finally come to an argument that is at least approaching intellectually honest.
Outright Ban leads to black market activity. If we banned all assault rifles, that would not solve any problems—this answer didn’t play well for Senator Rubio at a recent town hall, and Rubio didn’t sell it well, but he wasn’t wrong (though his answer was pretty weak). More concerning to me than having minor alterations take a gun from illegal to legal is that banning assault rifles will give a broader market for black market dealers, thereby increasing the wealth flowing into organized crime. As with all things, making it illegal does very little to decrease demand, even if it increases the price and therefore decreases quantity demanded. As long as demand exists, someone with flexible morals will find a way to meet that demand—whether it’s for drugs, prostitution, or guns. The difference is that when something is illegal, safety and quality standards of that product or service falls through the floor and all the (very sizable) profits go to criminal organizations, expanding their empire of enforcers, corrupt lawyers, money launderers, etc.
Let me be clear: I think outright bans of assault weapons would create as many problems as it solves, but this is hardly an ethically justifiable reason to forgo any new restrictions. Assault rifles, as their name explicitly states, serve one purpose: to kill. They are offensive weapons—not weapons for self-defense—and owners and manufacturers should be closely vetted and monitored.
This leads me to the next justifications gun rights advocates use to support the “it won’t make a difference” argument. Advocates of this argument (especially those on the blogosphere) like to cite quasi-arbitrary numbers about how much legislation is out there that curtails libertine gun ownership. And they’re right: there are a lot of gun laws out there. The problem is that almost none of them have teeth, and many of them would actually be illegal to enforce.
The real problem with this line of reasoning is not that it’s wrong—it’s not. Rather, the problem is that this argument ignores the real problem with the laws, and is therefore dishonest. Thanks to the puppets of the NRA who sit in seats in congress (and their blinder-wearing, naive, or credulous constituents who keep them in power) most gun regulation has been hamstrung from the start. There are bans on automated reporting, which allowed for a clerical error that allowed the shooter in a Texas Church to illegally obtain firearms through legal means. If we had a better technological infrastructure for sharing data, that probably wouldn’t have happened. but we don’t have effective background check databases because such improvements are currently illegal.
As an example of the flaws with this argument, I’ll cite the Dickey Amendment. Not because it’s inherently the worst offender, but simply because John Oliver did a nice clip about this, and I might as well jump on the bandwagon there. Also, data suppression is a hug pet peeve of mine. The Dickey Amendment created restrictions on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can study with regards to gun violence, and resulted in an almost total defunding of all gun research by the CDC (a scant $100,000 in 2013). This lack of funding for gun violence research makes evidence-based policy much more difficult (though not impossible, as I’ve shown above). Absent evidence from research aggregation institutions like the CDC or National Institutes for Health (NIH), it’s not surprising that the primary voices are those of lobbyists like the NRA, who have much larger budgets and more passionate speakers who don’t feel the need to be tied to silly things like “empirical evidence,” “data,” or “truth.”
Lastly, we come to an argument that is (almost) completely true, and completely misses the point: the real issue isn’t guns; it’s mental illness, immigration, NAFTA (and unemployment), gangs, black people, etc., and if we ban guns, these would-be killers will just use other weapons like knives or bombs.
I don’t think immigration or global trade are the issues, but it’s true that systemic disenfranchisement and racism and mental illness are absolutely the root cause of most gun homicides—mass or otherwise. However, there are two problems with this justification. The first is that advocates of of this argument are rank with hypocrisy–cutting funding for mental health programs before and after advocating those programs as an alternative to gun control. The second problem is a level of willful ignorance. Just because the root problem is mental instability doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prevent mentally unstable people from obtaining weapons that are highly effective killing tools (more effective than homemade bombs or knives). To his credit, at least Senator Rubio claims that he doesn’t want mentally unstable people to own guns, but absent any system of gun monitoring programs with teeth it’s perfectly legal for them to buy assault weapons that, when equipped with legal augmentations, can fire 30 or more rounds in a matter of seconds.
Broad appeals to natural rights, individual liberty, individual responsibility, and preventing government overreach
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m sympathetic to this argument, and I fear government overreach more than I worry about personally getting caught in the crossfire of a mass shooting (being a white, upper-middle class introvert has its advantages). I fully endorse Smith’s and Hayek’s indictment of the “man of systems” and skepticism of “scientism.” If the government is going to deprive anyone of their ability to do something—say, own a gun—then they better have a good reason for it. John Stuart Mill put it far more eloquently in On Liberty: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
I fully believe in these principles and would defend them with my reputation (not that that has much value) and even my life if I thought it would do any good given the situation. (Fortunately, it’s hard to imagine these principles being violently suppressed V-for-Vendetta-style anytime soon, but it’s hypothetically possible.)
That said, even natural rights for larger group can and should be curtailed or superseded for individuals or subgroups who do threaten to use those rights to harm others. Take, for example, alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious problem that affects millions of people—both as alcoholics and their loved ones. But from both a natural rights standpoint and from empirical evidence from a historical experiment that prohibition of alcohol is a bad idea. Instead, we appeal to personal responsibility: Please Drink Responsibly.
However, we still have limits on alcohol sales (must be 21 or older, local restrictions on where and when you can purchase alcohol, etc.). We can debate the merits of those regulations and their efficacy and unintended consequences (and I have), but even a Libertarian like me agrees that after some number of drunk driving offenses—fatal or not—the state is justified in pulling someone’s license or compelling them to install a breathalyzer on their vehicle. (Again, I’m talking about precedents and principles; not specifics.)
The number of gun homicides per year and the number of fatalities from drunk driving collisions are both around 10,000 people per year in the US (give or take 15%). Yet, we don’t have a mechanism (in most states) for confiscating guns the way we do drivers licenses. There are a number of critical differences between gun homicides and drunk driving deaths, but the analogy holds as an example where something is inherently risky, but outright banning it is ineffective and potentially even more dangerous. Personal responsibility is important, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any restrictions or recourse to curtail people’s (natural?) rights when they have shown, either individually or as a group, to be irresponsible and that irresponsibility threatens the safety of others in the community. Given the aforementioned differences between drunk driving and irresponsible gun use—most notably malicious intent, potential scope of harm (eg. small car pileup vs. Las Vegas shooting), and general lethality—how much more so should this principle apply to guns?
I don’t want capricious government, but the solution to that is evidence-based policy; not government inaction.
I don’t want excessive use of coercion in government, but this is only to say that coercive action must have a damn good reason; not that coercion is never justified.
I don’t want government overreach, but that is not to say that government should have no reach.
Appeals to liberty and rights are great. I don’t want Uncle Sam arbitrarily doing what special interests want, but that includes the special interests of the NRA. I want a free society that can do largely as they see fit with their own lives rather than Washington DC telling us what we can and cannot do… unless there’s a good reason for telling us what we can’t do. And empirical evidence gives a damn good reason for limits on individual freedom. The fact that the vast majority of gun-owners never violate the law (at least beyond basic civil infractions) is justification enough on the grounds of liberty that guns should not be outright banned. But subdividing that group to identify (even by close proxy) those would be irresponsible and/or lawbreakers is not an unreasonable infringement or limitation on liberty. Personal responsibility begets personal liberty, but empirical evidence and general gravitas of the content necessitates that the progression run in that direction, so when personal responsibility proves insufficient to protect society, personal liberties may be taken away for those persons.
My Humble Policy Reform Suggestions
I intentionally call these suggestions rather than solutions, because, as I said earlier here and in my last post, the root problem is not guns per se. The reason mass shootings (and all other gun homicides) happen is that mankind is dark and depraved. Still, it is in our collective interest to make it more difficult for the darkest and most depraved among us to get access to devices that were designed and created specifically to kill other human beings as efficiently as possible.
These are (roughly) in order from least effective to most effective, but also from most immediate to most long-term.
Banning truly anti-social augmentations
First, there’s no reason a law abiding marksman or hunter needs a bumpstock or high capacity magazines; let’s make it illegal for civilians to purchase or own them. I’m not so naive as to think that banning them will eliminate them from the market, that people won’t develop their own, homemade bumpstocks, or that the black market won’t fill in some of the missing market created by such a ban, but my hope and expectation is that making it illegal will deter hobbyists enough that only criminals will seek these, which is a much smaller pool of consumers—small enough to severely curtail the production of these items.
Gun Registries for Law Enforcement and Research
Second, let’s make registries available for both law enforcement and academic institutions to study gun owners and gun homicides. This starts with universal background checks, including for private sales and gun shows, and then quickly moves to repealing the Dickey Amendment (something Representative Dickey himself supports) and make it not just legal, but encouraged, for independent institutions like the CDC and NIH to study gun violence and gun control legislation. Furthermore, let’s have a registry that tracks every gun by serial number from the time it comes off the line through each individual sale thereafter. Anyone who buys more than 2 guns in a one month period should have a longer wait times for each subsequent gun purchase within the next 9 months. Registries should be comprehensive and secure; just used for law enforcement investigations, background checks, and research (much like CMS Claims). Going along with this, let’s cut through the red tape that prevents sharing of information between enforcement agencies and just generally streamline and automate the process of getting information into and out of this national gun database.
Working to Alleviate the Root Cause
Third, let’s actually fund mental health programs, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and inner city revitalization programs based on evidence. This includes enforcement and ATF confiscation of firearms from people who no longer pass background checks, but it also includes evidence-based public health interventions to improve economic conditions and public safety, thereby lowering demand for guns and gun violence. Much of that evidence could come from aforementioned gun registry. These are complex, multi-causal problems, and multi-pronged approaches stemming from the marketplace of ideas and research will be needed to address them. That’s why this is my last category of suggestions: it’s very, very long term, but also it’s the only thing listed that could sustainably curtail gun violence.
Conspicuously absent from my list of suggestions are appeals to human decency, reason, or changes of heart. I wish these options were on the table, but they’re just too quixotic and impractical. I don’t expect that any of the logical points or empirical evidence I enumerated in the first half of this polemic will actually persuade anyone since experience and cynicism have convinced me that logic and evidence have very little persuasive power for most people. Alas.
What I hoped to accomplish with this post (besides organizing my thoughts, like all posts), is to find a middle ground, and make arguments and suggestions that start with right-wing premises and show the justification of action and irrationality of inaction. Impassioned calls from the left or the upset concerned citizens in the wake of a shooting to ban all assault rifles for everyone are only going to alienate gun enthusiasts and convince them there is no middle ground to be had. Contrary to that notion, all of my policy suggestions have come (roughly) from Republican lawmakers. There is a more fertile, middle ground between the extremes of banning all guns and libertine free reign. Neither extreme will meaningfully or sustainably address the societal concerns about mass shootings. There is no legislation that will permanently stop all gun violence or mass shootings. But there are data to be gathered. There are truths to be discovered. There are hurting people who can be helped. Shifting the conversation from the irrational and delusional (on both sides) might, just might, help us attain these noble goals.