Gun Control

As with many hot-button issues, the problem with U.S. gun policy debates is that each side has a point (and therefore fallaciously concludes that the other side must be completely wrong). The first step toward resolution is acknowledging valid points on both sides. Gun rights advocates are right that a good guy with a gun at the right place can save lives, and wanting a gun to protect one’s family is not unreasonable.  When a deranged shooter opens fire in a mall or movie theater, I agree with my conservative friends that an armed bystander can make the difference between a rapid end and an escalating tragedy. But gun control advocates are right that a populace saturated with weaponry is a more dangerous place overall. It’s hard to believe that the discrepancy of 11,000 gun homicides a year in the U.S., compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK, is completely unrelated to a plentiful access to guns (and handguns in particular).  Put 5000 guns into one city and 50,000 guns into another city of the same size, and you will have more gun violence in the second city.

The second step toward resolution is weighing those valid points to see which side carries the most weight in terms of personal freedom and public safety. For example, of those 11,000 homicides, how many were “justifiable”? The number that can be assigned to the scenario my conservative friends rightly tout – where a good guy stops a major tragedy in a public place – is a very small number, but lump them in with self-defense and all other “justified” killings and you get about 5% of the total (FBI numbers for 2012). That still leaves about 10,450 criminal gun homicides, a number far disproportionate to those numbers from the UK or Spain. (And this doesn’t count suicides and accidents, which bring gun deaths in the U.S. to a steady 31,000 per year.)

From a public safety standpoint, this leads me to conclude that the valid argument against extensive gun ownership statistically carries more weight than the valid argument in favor of extensive gun ownership. Assuming that public safety is a compelling state interest, I think this is a starting point for discussion. At least some regulation is necessary. Then finer distinctions can be drawn.  Traditional hunting rifles have a valid recreational use and let’s assume are less prone to criminal use than handguns, assault weapons, etc. In any event, there is little or no interest on any side to ban hunting rifles. Different weapons – handguns, assault weapons, etc., each may warrant different treatment.  Another consideration might be jurisdiction. Is it true, as Obama said in the 2008 campaign, that there are two different gun cultures – a (primarily rural) sportsman culture and an inner city culture – and that the same approach might not work for both (i.e., different jurisdictions might reasonably want to enact different policies)? And it is reasonable to have background checks to weed out felons, mentally ill applicants, etc. Resistance to all compromise is not a solution. Witness the National Rifle Association’s hard lobbying against a bill that would bar people on terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns. As a staggering tribute to the gun lobby’s power, Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders spoke out against the bill and it failed. Thus, “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law” (GAO government report, 2010).

In any event, step one is acknowledging that just because you favor one approach (and I obviously lean to one side), it doesn’t mean that one side is 100% right and the other 100% wrong. Indeed the binary framework is itself misleading. It’s more like a scatter graph with “all guns should be banned” at one end and “access should be unrestricted to all guns in all places for all people” at the other end. Almost no one is at either extreme. It would be best if we could all resist the false binary of “us versus them” and negotiate our way through the many sensible compromise points along the gradient.

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11 thoughts on “Gun Control

  1. In the UK, people are allowed to own guns for certain reasons and subject to certain restrictions. These restrictions have been imposed step by step over a period of about 100 years. I see this as a workable solution to the US problem. After all, if gun ownership were banned overnight in the US, all the law abiding citizens would hand over their guns, leaving the criminals still with theirs.

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    • I agree, Steve. If only we could have this kind of rational debate within the U.S. But the NRA owns roughly 100% of Republican Congressmen and 60% of Democratic Congressman — and I mean “own” quite literally, as in “bought and paid for” — so I don’t expect rational deliberations anytime soon.

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  2. I suppose I can admit that there is some validity to the idea that if there was someone on a violent rampage then it would be good if someone there had a gun, assuming they would use it to stop them (notice I grant this only if two conditions are true). But conceptually I just don’t see the idea as convincing, because here all the this solution to gun violence amounts to is proclaiming that we should have “better” gun violence. It is not a serious proposal for lessening gun violence, and reveals that proponents of such a view don’t actually think there exists a “gun violence problem”. If proponents of this view admitted that there was a gun violence problem then they could not honestly say that this proposal is a serious solution, as it is no solution to say the solution to problem x is to make x better (that tells us nothing) or that the solution to problem x is for there to be more x (when generalized we see how poor this idea is). Given this it seems that a necessary step for making any progress on this issue is to admit that there is a gun violence problem in America, and that would, hopefully, lead to more reasonable/meaningful ideas to addressing the issue coming out of the pro-gun rights camp. But as you note above, the NRA refuses to concede there being any sort of gun violence problem, and our representatives, the best representatives money can buy, are in full agreement, so it seems unlikely that we see that camp admitting that there is a problem any time soon.

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    • We are on the same side. I am a little more willing than you to concede to my conservative friends that there are local scenarios in which a good guy with a gun saves lives. I believe this is a fair concession. I don’t want to be the guy who reflexively rejects anything the other side says. I’d rather find out where they have valid concerns or valid points, grant those points, and then try to show that for every 10 lives that “good guy” is saving, thousands of lives are being lost on the other end. But, as you and I have said, and everyone knows, the gun lobby owns Congress now and for quite some time to come, so our points will not be voiced any time soon in the Capitol (except maybe by Bernie Sanders, one of our rare Independents). Still, I find it worthwhile to try to soften public discourse a little bit away from the hardened “us vs them” binary that certain media outlets are reinforcing 24/7 at maximum volume.

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  3. I keep reading statements like “the NRA owns roughly 100% of Republican Congressmen” on American blogs and I literally have no idea what is meant. British politics is nothing like this. The idea that a lobby group could buy votes is preposterous. This is the kind of thing we might hear about in Africa, not in Europe or America. I have never heard anything on the news in Britain about corruption in US politics, apart from a story earlier this year about moving election boundaries in some city (NY?)

    Please can you explain what you mean. Does the NRA feed dollars into the personal bank accounts of all US Congressmen or what? I am not trying to be provocative or deliberately obtuse, I simply don’t understand.

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    • It may be hard for Europeans to understand the role money plays in U.S. elections. In the 2012 cycle, over $6 billion went into the elections (includes all money spent by presidential candidates, Senate and House candidates, political parties and independent interest groups trying to influence federal elections).

      The NRA exerts control through campaign spending and a rating system based on members’ voting histories. In the current 2014 election cycle, here’s the best numbers I can get on NRA political spending:

      For Democrats: $12,066
      Against Democrats: $14,474,618
      For Republicans: $12,071,028
      Against Republicans: $35,072

      51% of sitting members of Congress have received NRA money. Pete Sessions, who as chair of the House Rules Committee decides what legislation does and does not reach the House floor, has received $64,000 in direct campaign contributions from the NRA. The number “influenced” is much larger than 51% though, because 100% fear being branded and outspent by an NRA-backed opponent, as you can see from the numbers above.

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      • $6 billion is a staggering amount of money by European standards. But the $26 million spent by the NRA is a drop in the ocean compared with overall spending. Does it really have as much influence as you think?

        I suspect the fundamental problem for anti-gun campaigners is that half of the American public is against you. Until that changes, nothing is going to happen, regardless of who spends what.

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        • Hi Steve. Yes, you’re right that popular opinion has to change if gun laws are going to change. But as far as locking in the status quo among politicians and the public, I think the NRA has a larger influence than you might think. Besides that $26 million specifically dedicated to political campaigns (more than a drop in the bucket if they can target and sway specific campaigns in specific states), they have regular newsletters to millions of members, additional year-round non-campaign lobbying, and more importantly the “scorecard” distributed for every candidate (which costs essentially nothing but is feared more than Ebola or common sense on Capitol Hill). One could argue that 30 years ago the NRA represented the sportsmen that make up its rank and file. But now it is really just a gun manufacturers’ lobby, trying to maximize all gun sales at any cost. E.g., when the NRA lobbies against (and successfully kills) legislation banning members of terrorist organizations from buying guns, when the NRA lobbies against (and successfully kills) legislation banning juveniles from possessing semi-automatic weapons, or lobbies and kills legislation to limit purchases to one handgun per month (to stem the endless flow of illegal weapons into the cities) – all of these things serve the interest of gun sellers but not the interest of the average law-abiding sportsman. So the NRA basically markets the needs of gun manufacturers to Congress on one side and to the general public on the other – yes $26 million on direct campaigns, but with an overall annual budget of $300 million, plus the things that cost virtually nothing, like newsletters and Congressional “score cards,” they are fairly ubiquitous and a fairly common reference point in political discussions by regular people on the street here in the U.S.

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        • On the general issue of money in U.S. politics, Steve, here’s something from National Public Radio (NPR) says this: Between 2007-2012, “the top 200 corporations accounted for nearly $6 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions. Those same corporations benefited from more than $4 trillion in federal contracts and assistance.” (NPR, 2014-11-17, citing a Sunlight Foundation study)

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  4. This is a very nicely crafted post that tries to logically and sensibly look at the various facets of the gun control debate. I would like to add a few opinions of my own. First of all – for full disclosure – I am a gun owner (handguns, hunting rifles and “assault rifles”), a concealed permit holder and registered Independent (politically). I am also NOT a member of the NRA.

    Point #1: I am in favor of measures that reduce violent gun crimes. I do think it is justified that if you are a felon or have a history of violent mental health issues, then it is only reasonable that you should not be allowed to own a firearm. My main issue is how the laws are crafted and who they target. Most of the gun control measures typically affect the individuals trying to purchase guns legally. So if felons (convicted criminals) already cannot “legally” purchase a gun in a gun store or at a gun show, then how do stricter laws targeting these areas actually affect criminals? I say craft legislation that targets how and where criminals purchase weapons, not just at areas that are easy to statistically quantify results. How does making it harder for me to purchase a gun affect crime in a positive manner?

    Point #2: As a parent and gun owner, I feel that it is imperative that you not only properly educate your children respect for firearms but that you also lock them up properly. I have always been a proponent of being responsible for your children’s actions, so I am not opposed to laws that can legally punish the parents of children that use firearms in violent crimes. Especially if it can be proven that the parent was negligent in securing the firearms properly. I have taken both of my children shooting on numerous occasions (I go hunting with my son) and they respect what a firearm can do. Additionally I have taught them how to react if they see another child with a firearm. Knowledge is always power.

    Point #3: As with anything in politics, you should educate yourself on the topic and not just assume the politician is knowledgeable or telling the truth (usually neither in the American political system). This is not only with gun control but any political debate or stance you have. So let me “shatter” a few misconceptions that I have seen. First – AR does not stand for “assault rifle” but actually stands for Armalite which is the first company to design and manufacture the model. Second – The basic AR that most individuals own shoots a .223/5.56 caliber bullet. This bullet is marginally larger than a .22 that you can shoot in the Boy Scouts, though admittedly it travels at a faster velocity. If you look at it in terms of lethality, most hunting rifles shoot a much higher caliber of bullet because the round is unsuited for killing larger animals (i.e. deer or hog which typically mass less than an average human). Third – the AR is the focal point because politicians find it to be a convenient target, but the typical gun control laws are so specific to that model that they do not address the variety of other models that are readily available that have similar specifications (i.e. Mini-14/30, Remington, FAL). Also when laws are passed to limit magazine capacity, that is just window dressing in my opinion. The time to change a magazine is roughly about 3 seconds. So tell me how 3 seconds will reduce gun violence?

    Point #4: One of the reasons I have not joined that NRA is that I do not like to support any lobbied interest group. While the NRA has donated quite a bit of money, do not be naive and think that they are the only ones doing it. Here are some other groups and what they contribute politically: AFL-CIO ($282+ million), Auto Workers ($73+ million), Electrical Workers ($24+ million), Finance/Insurance/Real Estate ($333+ million). Hell the Las Vegas Sands Corp, a casino, contributed over $11 million on its own. So to vilify the NRA for trying to influence politics, well get in line with every other special interest group. Even though they do spend millions, they are by no means the absolute biggest lobby out there.

    Point #5: Gun violence is by no means the leading cause of death. According to WHO (World Health Organization) 2000-2012 statistics: 7.4 million died of heart disease, 6.7 million due to a stroke, 1.5 million due to HIV/AIDS and 1.3 million due to road injury. Now admittedly there are world statistics but to put it into perspective, according the the CDC in 2011 there were 11,068 firearm homicides in the USA. So if we want to talk about numbers and where our focus and funding should be, what becomes readily evident? One thing you have to realize about statistics – yes numbers do not lie – but it is how you are presented the numbers that can make it untruthful.

    Anyways – just felt like this was a great opportunity to express my opinions. This was a good post and the comments seemed to be moderate and well thought out with great questions. As a gun owner, I am all for reducing guns used in violent crimes, but I am also a proponent of sensible laws and placing responsibility where it lies.

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    • Thanks, Vic. As a non-gun-owner in favor of sensible gun laws, I have no objection to any of your personal practices for yourself or your family. Obviously if all gun owners were so responsible, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. In today’s spectrum, I am “left” of you on the issue, but I think you and I could agree to much and compromise out the rest. Alas, our representatives are not likely to do so. My only devil’s advocate comments/questions would be to the political side of your post (not your personal practices). As far as how hard should it be to buy guns, I think it’s important for people to hear the side you eloquently expressed and to hear the other side – i.e., that closing loopholes at gun shows, limiting the number of guns per month, etc., would undoubtedly burden some legitimate buyers but would also undoubtedly limit the black market flow of guns into cities – if only our legislators could weigh both sides and then come up with proposals. I wasn’t trying to say that the NRA is the biggest interest group, but that they’re the biggest interest group dedicated entirely, or almost entirely, to gun control issues. The influence of money in American politics is much, much larger than the NRA, but when looking at lobbying per gun control, NRA seems the big dog on the block. And I do think that 31,000 deaths per year due to gun violence (U.S. numbers) is serious enough to warrant a close look by policymakers. Etc. Bottom line, again, is that you and I bring some different points to the table but we can work with each other in a way that our policymakers can’t or won’t.

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