January 3, 2013

The Gun Debate Is Not About Disarming 'Good Guys'

Since the Newtown shooting, many individuals, liberal and otherwise, have argued for stricter gun laws. These individuals, at least the ones of whom I’m aware, have not argued that we need to ban all guns. Rather they’ve argued that we need more sensible gun laws, laws that, for example, make it more difficult for criminals and schizophrenics to obtain firearms.

But instead of dealing with these specific arguments, many self-proclaimed gun-rights advocates have been attacking straw-man arguments. In a recent article in The American Conservative, for example, Rand Paul’s media director, Jack Hunter, writes that “[t]he calls for increased gun control after the Newtown shooting” are “demonstrably wrongheaded—and potentially deadly” and that they best way to prevent future Newtowns is to make sure that good guys have access to guns. As evidence for this, he adduces several armed citizens who have stopped gunmen[1] and then concludes:

“Banning knives would not have stopped Jack the Ripper. Banning guns will not stop the crazed few who seek to open fire on the public.

“To the degree that liberals get their way on gun control, there will be more deaths of innocents. I’m not saying that liberals would want the potential murders implied in the examples here to occur. But what they want legislatively would only—inevitably—lead to more killing.”[2]

But again, the liberals I’ve read and listened to over the past few weeks haven’t been arguing that we need to ban all guns. Most liberals seem to recognize that, even if desirable, that’s simply not going to happen, and they have consequently focused their energy on advocating specific, restrained measures, namely:

1) Banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.[3], [4], [5]

2) Requiring everyone to pass a criminal and mental health background check before being able to purchase firearms.

3) Making gun trafficking a felony.[6]

4) Abolishing the Tiahart Amendments, which, among things, largely prohibit states, cities, and local police forces from accessing the ATFs gun-tracing database.[7], [8]

Liberals after Newtown have been focusing on measures like these, not measures that would prevent “good guys” from having guns. If people like Jack Hunter would like to explain why these measures are so bad, then I’d be happy to listen. But they refuse to do this for the simple reason that these measures seem like no-brainers and have consequently gained the support of most Americans.[9]

Which is why extremists like Jack Hunter won’t debate these proposals. They know they’ll lose.

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[1] Not all his examples, I should point out, are valid ones. For instance, he writes: “On December 11 a man opened fire in a mall in Portland, Oregon—that is, until he was confronted by another armed man who had a carry-and-conceal weapon. The gunman who had fired on shoppers then took his own life.” Once you research what actually happened in the Clackamas Town Center, however, you realize that it’s not at all clear that the concealed-carry holder caused the gunman to kill himself. After the shooting started, 22-year-old Nick Meli pulled out his own weapon, but he refrained from firing, afraid that he might hit a bystander. Meli believes that the killer saw him and that he didn’t fire any more shoots, save the one that ended his life, after their encounter (Mike Benner, “Clackamas mall shooter faced man with concealed weapons,” KGW, December 17, 2012). Police were on the scene within a minute after the shooting began and believe that their presence might have impelled the killer to shoot himself (Mariano Castillo and Holly Yan, “Details, but no answers, in Oregon mall shooting,” CNN, December 13, 2012). From everything we know, it’s not clear why the killer shot himself (Anna Griffin, “Clackamas Town Center shooting: 22 minutes of chaos and terror as gunman meanders through the mall,” The Oregonian, December 15, 2012.)

[2]How Gun Control Kills,” December 27, 2012.

[3] The Brady Campaign offers what seems like a pretty reasonable definition of assault weapons (Federal Gun Laws: Assault-Style Weapons: Frequently Asked Questions.”)

[4] In response to those who claim that the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban didn’t work, I would just point out, first, that the ban contained numerous loopholes that greatly hindered it. Assault weapons and large-capacity magazines manufactured before 1994 were exempted from the ban, meaning that more than 1.5 million assault weapons remained in circulation. In addition, the country’s stock of large-capacity magazines actually continued to grow after the ban, because it remained legal to import them as long as they had been made before the ban. The law also inadequately spelled out what constituted an assault weapon, allowing “the industry to continue manufacturing guns similar to those that had been banned.” Second, a 2004 study financed by the Justice Department concluded that the ban did lead to a small reduction in gun crime (Michael Luo and Michael Cooper, Lessons in Politics and Fine Print in Assault Weapons Ban of 90s, New York Times, December 19, 2012).

[5] As proof that assault weapons can have defensive purposes, some have pointed out that during the LA Riots some Korean store owners used semi-automatic rifles to defend their grocery stores. Three points here. First, it’s not clear that assault weapons were used. In the following news clip, for instance, one individual (presumably a store owner or friend) can be seen with a more traditional hunting rifle and another with a handgun: Korean store owners defend their businesses during the 1992 LA riots. Second, it seems clear that assault weapons were not needed for defense. Evidently just displaying traditional rifles and handguns and firing them into the air was enough to deter looters (Ashley Dunn, Looters, Mercants Put Koreatown Under the Gun: Violence: Lacking confidence in the police, employees and others armed themselves to protect mini-mall,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1992). Third, even if assault weapons were in fact needed to keep back looters, it doesn’t follow that the benefits of allowing such weapons to remain legal outweigh the costs. As recent events have made clear, assault weapons allow deranged gunmen to murder large numbers of individuals in a relatively short period of time. Making it harder for would-be killers  to acquire such weapons would most certainly save lives, and achieving this goal makes a ban worthwhile, even if every few decades or so such a weapon might be used to keep a group of looters at bay.

[6] Michael Bloomberg, “6 ways to stop gun madness,” USA Today, December 19, 2012. See also Demand A Plan to End Gun Violence

[7] Tiahart Amendment Facts,” ProtectPolice.org.

[8] Another action that seems sensible to me: creating a nationwide database to track gun and ammunition purchases (Marc Parrish, “How Big Data Can Solve America’s Gun Problem,” The Atlantic, December 27, 2012).

[9]Poll: More see societal problems in Sandy Hook shooting,” Washington Post, December 20, 2012.

January 2, 2013

Some Things to Consider Before Buying a Gun (An Open Letter to a Friend)

So I hear you’re arming up.

I have to admit that I’m surprised. You’ve always struck me as something of a hippy. And I mean that as a compliment. I’ve always seen you as a Jesus-loving, pot-smoking (yes, I know you’ve been trying to stop) type of guy. Someone who isn’t above retweeting cute kitten photos. Again, I mean that as a compliment.

I understand that the Newtown tragedy has you rattled. I’m rattled, too. And I understand your reason for wanting to buy a gun and apply for a concealed-carry permit. I just hope you fully understand what you’re getting yourself into.

Along with its potential benefits, owning a gun comes with many risks. People with guns sometimes have accidents. Sometimes they mistakenly shoot themselves or others. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are around 15,000 accidental firearm injuries each year, around 600 accidental deaths.[1]

When you own a gun you also run the risk of your gun getting into the hands of someone who shouldn’t have it, for example, a child or criminal. Statistically speaking, when you purchase a gun you also increase your chances of committing suicide.[2] I know that your struggles with depression aren’t all that frequent, but at the same time I worry that during your darker moments it might not be good having a handgun so available.[3]

Of course, guns can also save lives. That’s why you want one. I get it. But I think you should know that the odds of this happening are infinitesimally small. You’re just not likely to ever find yourself confronted with a deranged gunman. This country is not nearly as violent as the media would have us believe. Senseless violence sometimes occurs, but the violent crime rate is actually at a 40-year low. The murder rate is lower than it’s been at any point since 1963.[4]

And even if you found yourself in the middle of a Newtown- or Aurora-like situation, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to save any lives. You just don’t have the necessary training, experience, and ability. Imagine that you’d been in that Aurora movie theater last year: it’s dark, smoke bombs going off, a gunman in full body armor firing an assault rifle. You really think you would have had any chance of taking him out?[5]

On those rare occasions when armed citizens have taken out gunmen, they’ve usually been individuals with sufficient combat training, usually off-duty police officers or retired soldiers.[6] According to Dr. Stephen Hargarten, a gun violence expert at the Medical College of Wisconsin, armed civilians in such situations are more likely than not to inadvertently “increase the bloodshed.” Even those individuals with the necessary training often fail to respond properly. Take the New York police officers who, while trying to take out a gunman near the Empire State Building last year, inadvertently shot nine bystanders.”[7]

None of which is to say that a gun might not end up saving your life. It might. I’m just not sure that the potential benefits of having a gun outweigh the potential costs.[8] In addition to the problems I’ve described above, having a gun has a way of changing one’s mindset. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, puts it, “If all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target.”[9] Having that piece of cold metal strapped to your ankle can engender an inflated sense of fear and paranoia.[10] It can cause you to lose trust in others. (In this beautiful yet tragic world, we need to do all we can to increase, not decrease, our trust in others.) It can cause you to make foolish decisions that you wouldn’t have otherwise made. Indeed studies show that most purported defensive guns uses occur in “escalating arguments and are both socially undesirable and illegal.”[11]

Anyway, I’m done. I’ve given you my two cents. For the record, I think that you, and other mentally-stable, law-abiding individuals, have the right to own guns. I just ask that you carefully think through this issue before proceeding. And if you decide to go ahead with it I ask that you get the proper training, that you keep your gun secure, and that you always follow the four basic rules of gun safety as though your life and the lives of those around you depend on it, for they very well might.[12]

* * * * * 

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Injury Prevention and Control: Data and Statistics.”

[2] Linda L. Dahlberg, Robin M. Ikeda, Marcie-jo Kresnow, “Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 160 (10), 2004.

[3] Over 19,000 Americans killed themselves with a firearm in 2010 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Injury Prevention and Control: Data and Statistics”).

[4] Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, “State and national crime estimates by year(s).” See also Andrew Mach, “FBI: Violent crime rates in the US drop, approach historic lows,” NBC News, June 11, 2012.

[6] Forrest Wickman, “Do Armed Citizens Stop Mass Shootings?” Slate, December 18, 2012.

[7] Mark Follman, “More Guns, More Mass Shootings—Coincidence?” Mother Jones, December 15, 2012.

[8] Some will tell you that citizens use firearms in self-defense over two million times a year, but as far as I can tell this claim has been entirely debunked. See David Frum, “Do Guns Make Us Safer?” CNN, July 30, 2012.

[9] Alan Jacobs, “A Christmas Thought About Guns,” The American Conservative, December 26, 2012.

[10] Alan Jacobs, “Guns, Risks, Safety,” The American Conservative, December 17, 2012.

[11] Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use.”

[12] From Jeff Cooper: Rule #1: All guns are always loaded. Rule #2: Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. Rule #3: Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. Rule #4: Identify your target and what is behind it.