How not to argue against gun control

In the aftermath of a mass shooting the familiar arguments are revived once again. The past two years have been enough for a rough tattoo to imprint itself on my eardrums.

I don’t know what my exact position would be, if I had to draw a line in the current system. It is of course nonsense to say “pro-2nd Amendment,” since my interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is no more valid than whatever the basic line of the Supreme Court is at any given moment, and I have to assume some sort of Constitutional hermeneutics which I won’t be able to justify independently.

I know that I argue, most often, on the “pro-gun rights” side. There is, however, an argument I constantly see over on this side which is so obnoxiously foolish I feel the need to criticize it.

I’ve heard it a hundred times in different language. Here’s one version I just saw posted on Facebook in the middle of a really tedious argument:

[“There’s a huge correlation between all these shootings and the fact that people can easily buy guns at wallmart [sic]. Why are so many Americans denying that fact?”]

“There is a correlation between people being able to purchase guns and shootings? That’s enlightening. There is also a correlation between people purchasing cars and car accidents, purchasing fast food and obesity, etc. Go live in your padded room and leave management of society to the adults. There are plenty of examples of mass shootings, knife attacks, poison gas attacks, bombings, running people down with trucks, etc. If you think it’s the tool or method that’s the problem, you have guaranteed that you won’t really address the problem.”

This is an asinine response. It is the argument that “Well, if we ban guns, the killer will just use something else instead. Look at all these examples of spree killings with a blade, or just look at Nice two years ago.”

It says, explicitly, that the type of weapons we allow for civilian ownership do not matter, because massacres will either always happen anyway, or the killer will simply move on to the next legal weapon (which is basically the same thing).

Any time someone seriously makes this argument, we can simply respond, “Okay, so should we let civilians have nuclear warheads?”

Doesn’t it follow from their logic? Or maybe nukes are too non-analogous in terms of possible levels of devastation (like, you know, guns to knives); then we just ask, “Okay, so should we let civilians have RPGs? Or what about military drones? After all, it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the person.”

Of course, Recreational Civilian Nukes have become a sort of ironic platform of libertarianism online, but most of the people making this gun rights argument aren’t people who completely want to abolish the government and privatize the military — even if their logic implies that the scale of massacres won’t be significantly impacted by legalizing all sorts of elite weaponry for the public at large.

School shootings are horrible and frustrating. We should look at solutions first — find out what possible preventative measures are efficacious, if they are any — and only after that determine if they fit with our moral and political compasses. The above argument is clearly something that comes from a commitment to gun rights first and logic second.

And there is another ubiquitous gun rights argument that prides dogma before facts. Often times, pro-gun rights people will bring up how miniscule the percentage of deaths by firearm actually is in the States and across the globe. And when we look into the data on this, we see that the number one cause of death by firearm is suicide — I think 65% of the gun fatalities in the United States. From which, the pro-gun rights person announces, “See, these deaths couldn’t be prevented anyway.”

How absurd, both on the statistics and on simple reflection! The research on suicide indicates that the availability of highly lethal means does impact the decision to commit.

If you were going through suicidal ideation, do you think it might make a difference if your only available means were sharp objects (extremely painful), versus sharp objects and also a firearm? Or imagine if your only available means were pills (low probability of success), versus pills and also a firearm. Less lethal/more painful tools will have a higher ideational threshold for commitment — how much a person really wants to commit suicide — and plausibly lower the chance of someone committing.

There are Harvard studies on the correlation between highly lethal means and suicide rates which I can find if people are interested. But for the moment, I just wish the pro-gun rights crowd was a little more open to thinking about the facts and less about upholding their chosen position through sophistry.

Liberals and Conservatives should stop talking about guns

I’ve come across some great journalism on guns and gun control recently. Here’s the key points:

  • Most gun deaths are suicides. Many of these suicides would have happened were a gun not available, but many of them wouldn’t have.
  • Most gun homicides mostly affect young black men.
  • More guns does not equal less crime.
  • Gun accidents affect very few people.
  • Cost-benefit analysis would likely suggest improving safety other places would save more lives, given limited budgets. (e.g. changing attitudes on vaccinations)

A basic theme seems to be that government can do little on the margin to reduce gun deaths. Crime rates are uncorrelated with number of guns, or regulations in place. Upright citizens do not turn into Rambo when they see dastardly criminals mug little old ladies. Guns are actually sort of boring in practice.

It’s possible that the government could affect gun deaths with a comprehensive gun control policy backed by public opinion (the Australian option). But it would likely cost so much that you’d lose the budget and/or political capital to enact other reforms that would be less controversial and save more lives.

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We don’t torture people in America, Todd. That’s called one of the amendments.

What about the second amendment? The real argument for the second amendment is that having armed Americans around is pretty practical in general, but also important to prevent tyranny. In practice, guns aren’t half as practical, in terms of personal or national defense as back then. The capability of America’s military is so extraordinary that American’s don’t stand a chance of fighting a corrupt American government.

Let’s acknowledge that the Bill of Rights, though surely important, is ultimately a piece of paper that is neither sacrosanct nor a practical guarantee of anything in particular. The founders were brilliant, but fallible. The constitution is frequently ignored by governments, and citizens often do little to discipline such governments. Second amendment advocacy is mostly a symbolic gesture that probably comes at the expense of using political capital to protect the fourth amendment (the one that should protect you when the government decides to take your guns, cold dead fingers or no).

Conclusion

There are weak arguments to made in favor of gun control and weak arguments to be made in favor of protecting the second amendment. But mostly this whole debate seems like a distraction from more important issues. Symbolically valuable? Sure, but at what cost? The cost is the political will to make a bigger difference somewhere else. There are more valuable freedoms to protect, better interventions to pursue, and more lives to be saved.

Gun Control Works Just Fine in France

In semi rural Normandy, in France, a mass is interrupted by two young men who speak Arabic among themselves. They force the aged priest to kneel. They demand that some of the faithful present video the next scene. Then they cut off the priest’s head with a long knife. They don’t shoot him!

After this, they take several people hostage, injuring one seriously and they attempt to escape. The police are waiting for them outside and shoot the decapitators dead.

In this true story, only the police had guns just like liberals and President Obama want it to be the case in the US. The murderers almost did not commit their crime because they only had one gun that was not even functional, almost didn’t.

ISIS quickly claimed the crime as committed by some of its “soldiers” (brave soldiers, murdering an eighty-year old priest). One of the dead assassins was immediately identified as a local young man. He was on electronic bracelet parole after being arrested in Turkey and sentenced for trying to join Islamic State. The French authorities don’t joke when it comes to terrorism!

The main French imam condemned the crime immediately and in the most vigorous terms. He did not comment on the mode of the assassination, beheading. He did not speculate whether this could have some cultural resonance for some Muslims, given that the Prophet Mohamed himself demonstrated a certain preference for beheading as a way to dispatch his enemies. (References on request.)

The French are brain frozen. No one in France has wondered publicly about what would have happened if one of the faithful at mass had carried a hidden handgun.