Gun Control, Part II

Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton.

Another week, another shooting, another month, another mass shooting, another quarter, another particularly startling mass shooting.  I’m actually writing this at the end of a week where we managed TWO mass shootings. [Edit: actually, there was another one the day I published this.

So, let’s take an updated look at some spurious claims:

Gun-Free Zones Endanger Civilians
Gun free zones aren’t intended to provide a force-field against rage shooters. Where they are most effective is when they protect the rest of us from legal gun owners that lack common sense, safety precautions, and decency, like open-carry groups at Target.  There are simply enough examples to show that loaded guns in public are unsafe, whether you are shooting yourself in gun safety class, shooting yourself in the movies, or the gun accidentally goes off.  It’s just a boneheaded thing to be doing.

Gun-Free Zones also mean the public doesn’t need to be qualified to do on-the-spot security assessments if we or professional Law-Enforcement Officers (LEOs)  see someone open carrying in the mall.  We can all safely know to run away and call the cops.

Other famous no-weapon zones: Dodge City, Tombstone, Deadwood, Ancient Athens, ancient Rome. In Athens, the belief was that it was disrespectful to the democratic project to open carry in the city area, and that the intimidation created by open-carrying “inherently undermined civic equality.”  Frankly, this seems both obviously true and obviously why most people open-carry: to confer an unearned advantage in any conflict.  Imperial Rome allowed citizens to own weaponry in the suburbs and rural areas, but they were forbidden inside of the urban center.  It’s also worth pointing out that these weapons had very little chance of being mishandled in a way that injured someone nearby.  A gladius doesn’t just ‘go off’, stabbing bystanders accidentally.  Further, a stabbing rampage is both a) identified and moved away from and b) dispatched quickly by any equally- or partially-armed group of larger size.  We see again and again that stabbers have limited body count because people run away.  In the most deadly cases the victims are confined or children.  A mass-stabbing is actually pretty difficult to pull off, unless you’re in an elevator.

Regulations Don’t Deter Criminals (e.g. Chicago)
Chicago has that many shootings despite stern gun regulations because as we now know, most of the guns are purchased outside of Chicago. The regulations are working and pushing that illegal commerce to the margins.

The unfortunate truism here is that the security fence is as strong as its weakest link.  Given this context, if you absolutely must purchase your gun in Chicago, this will have nontrivial cost implications on the black market (if you can find it, which may be more difficult for a maladjusted 16-year old wannabe-school shooter to do).

I don’t think this makes Chicago’s laws useless, but it does imply that they would work best if everyone else had them.   This brings us to an important bias we need to correct for in this discussion: we don’t need everyone to do it to see an improvement.

A common tactic on the pro-gun side is to point out weaknesses in any gun law in order to demonstrate them as totally ineffective, needlessly restricting legal gun owners’ rights.  But they don’t need to be totally effective: we aren’t trying to cheat death or stop all crime, any more than vehicle safety regulations ended all vehicle accidents.  Nonetheless, thousands of lives were saved by these regulations.

This brings me to my last point on this issue.  We need to stop underestimating the effect of small, incremental and meaningful changes.  If you believe in broken windows policing, lean startup methodology, or ‘Moneyball,’ you already know that small meaningful improvements aren’t part of the game– they’re the whole thing.  We now have research to back this up, as far as crime is concerned.  So sayeth The New Yorker:

“the central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one.”

Committed actors will always find a way.  But the spur-of-the-moment shooting can become (almost) a thing of the past.

Gun Controls Are Spurious Over-Regulation (or, the cars-and-pools-are-more-dangerous and spoons-make-you-fat-so-why-bother Defense)
If a poorly handled spoon could explode, making someone else fat, you better believe society would and should make you eat your soup with a straw. I’m beginning to feel debased by having to respond to such nonsensical fallacies, but someone always wants to make them. Let’s please not talk about cars or swimming pools after this, but one last time:

Cars
Most gun control activists would be delighted with an outcome on firearms comparable to that of cars.  Imagine what fantastic data we would have on our firearms if, like cars:
1. We had to register each weapon and re-register it annually, whether we intended to fire it or not.
2. We had to subject any weapon to yearly inspection to verify its suitability for use, and it was a misdemeanor to otherwise operate it.
3. We needed liability insurance for each weapon.
4. We needed to take a course and be licensed by a specialist instructor before firing a weapon.
5. We had a state registry of every extant weapon, and each carried three to five distinct ID marks, with two known only to manufacturers and law enforcement, and a set of easy procedures for interstate identification
6. Improper storage or display could get you a ticket.
7. Sale or transfer of a weapon involved an exchange of title.
8. We kept our weapons stored and locked.
9. There were additional taxes on bullets.

While many firearm libertarians will no doubt see any regulation as an unjustifiable intrusion,  I actually see this as a missed opportunity for the gun industry, even though many of these apply in certain states already.  If the car market is any indicator, there are tremendous business possibilities baked into the system here, in the regulations, the market and aftermarket, and more opportunities for customer touch-points. You can only lead a horse to water, I guess.

So, yeah– the car comparison is apt– and my side would be happy if it applied. It doesn’t.

Pools
First off: pools are indeed more statistically dangerous to their owners than guns.  That is very clearly true.

What seems less obvious  is that pools are statistically only dangerous to their owners and their families.  If you could bring a pool to the mall, or sneak it into the movies in your jacket, we’d be having a very different conversation about externalizing risk.  A pool also can be secured many simple ways that dramatically reduce the exposure to danger. It IS dangerous. But it’s statistically dangerous to you, the owner.

Finally, as Adam Gopnik points out, at this moment in history the proverbial pool of gun violence is overflowing with the bodies of neighborhood kids. Sometimes having a pool is nice, but with this many dead kids floating in it, we’d have to be monstrous not to have it filled.

Spoons Make You Fat
The pro-gun movement often advances the argument that guns, as inanimate objects, don’t cause mayhem any more than spoons make you fat.  This appears to be an attempt to create a reducto ad absurdiam, I hope.

It’s just a stupid thing to say, and you are stupid for saying it.

Guns Don’t Kill, People Do (and Mental Illness is the Culprit)
Actually, people mainly just injure, unless there’s a gun in the picture. It’s really hard to reliably kill someone without a gun in the same amount of time as you can do with a gun.  They’ll always find a way to do it, it’s just that guns remain the BEST way.  Or as David Frum put it: “Every mass shooter has his own hateful motive. They all use the same tool.”

Mental illness is indeed a culprit.  Also, sometimes carelessness, temporary depression, poor judgment due to alcohol and drugs and just generally being the kind of dipshit that points a loaded weapon at someone is the culprit.  Crazy happens. Stupid also happens– ask how many people in prison are there for something they did while drunk or high (spoiler: most).

There is no reason that a solution that addresses mental illness can’t work alongside a solution that reduces access to weapons in the first place, and that kind of cross-disciplinary solution is the only approach that is going to work with an issue of this complexity. That said, too often in this debate, mental illness is brought out as a tactic to distract from the core issue.

Here’s a statistic we never talk about because we can’t talk about it: the amount of killing/suicide that was averted because the household didn’t own guns.  This seems impossible to reliably prove, and yet our intuitions can readily extrapolate that given how many guns deaths we already have given x gun supply in y houses, how much of a spike are we looking at, given a gun in all houses? Certain countries (e.g. Switzerland) endure this already, and have extremely strong controls around the legal usage and transport of the gun.  The ammunition supply is audited.  The gun is kept locked in storage.  The weapon is envisioned for use in defense of the nation, not to protect the household.  This is a non-trivial distinction and constrains the likelihood of accidents.

Growing up, I knew kids whose parents had guns. Every one of them thought of themselves as responsible gun owners (one who I will not name was an executive in the NRA). And every time, EVERY TIME, that gun eventually came out, and about half the time, was fired, usually behind the parents’ back. So, I’m not surprised we see this kind of shooting. I’m surprised we see it so little. (Incidentally, the NRA kid actually defended his house from a home invasion. That ended with him cutting the robber, who was probably looking for a TV but would have found the mother lode of guns, quite badly with a samurai sword. The man of course, was trying desperately to escape when he was cut, so my friend didn’t need the gun in two different ways).

Sadly, this conversation continues.

Sandy Hook, Months Later.

All of us have recently watched the outpouring of sentiment in regards to the massacre of unarmed children at Sandy Hook elementary in Connecticut.  For reasons that should be tiringly obvious, the standard actors have been marched onto the stage in order to trumpet some despairingly familiar refrains.  For reasons I cannot readily identify, I’ve been moved to respond this time, despite the fact that this blog has been quiet on basically every other issue.  As a parent, and as a thinking human being, this one seems like a softball.


After all the body counts have been taken, after all the reactionary rhetoric on both sides has been exhausted, it seems agreed upon that inactivity is an unacceptable response.  The most important question, the one that should guide all our thinking is, what to do?  What is our strategy?  Specifically: what do we want to achieve?


In my professional career, I have rarely embarked on any long-term or large-scale project without a clear and concise answer to that question, as well as the implied followup, “and how will we measure our success?”  Since the pundits seem unable to answer this question and the entrenched interests are incapable, I’d volunteer an answer to this one right off the bat.  Our objective is to reduce the number of incidents of preventable gun deaths overall.


This statement should be uncontroversial, and it is worded quite specifically.  If you don’t agree, there isn’t going to be much common ground south of here.  Notice the characteristics of this statement:

1. We say reduce, not ‘end.’  We say this because we are working inside reality. While a 100% success rate would be wonderful, let’s just call that good news if it happens and continue to target realistic, reality-based improvements.

S2. We don’t say massacres, crime, threats, or accidents. We are keeping it to the simple and easily tracked death metric, which are reported more effectively than almost any other category.  Injuries are also ideal, if the tracking is there.

S3. The word preventable is almost redundant– are there any incidents that are not preventable?  But this also underscores the intention that is baked into the philosophy: we believe that there is a preventative aspect to gun violence and that it is appropriate to include preventative measures in the solutions considered.  We are not talking simply about how we choose to react to incidents.  Our objective includes avoiding incidents altogether.

S4. We say overall — including whatever form this violence may take, be it gangs, domestic violence, household accidents, rampage killings and so on.  Some are scarier than others.  We’re taking them all on.


I also offer a series of important assumptions, hopefully these are obvious:


A1. We know that we live under the second amendment, and that we are talking about real (if not wholly agreed-upon in their specifics) Constitutional rights.  Consequently, we assume that they are largely irrevocable.  However, we also understand and accept that the Constitution is considered a living document, not inviolable scripture, and is designed for amendment and interpretation.  So while any discussion of rights-modification is to be avoided, the territory is not Holy Ground.  This is not an opinion.  This is a matter of the constitution’s design.

A2. To a certain extent, the genie is already out of the bottle.  That is, we are not starting from a position of zero guns.  They are already out there, they are already someone’s property. The seizure of guns, despite what the cranks tell you Obama’s big plan is, is probably impractical politically.  Again, we’re basing this on the real world.  Any solution needs to acknowledge this.


Agreed? Great.  So what do we do?


It would seem that the first most obvious thing to do is commission serious investigation and research into gun safety, from credible, non-partisan sources.  What are the sources of injury?  Of death?  This has not happened.  More to the point, it has been aborted by the gun lobby, who (no doubt) correctly foresee real commercial implications to any possible findings.  So the first thing to do is demand this get research re-implemented.


But frankly, this response would strike me as the typical cowardly bullshit from the media that has us unable to recognize a fact when it’s staring us in the face, and lays us up against a typical hard-right avoidance tactic that we’re all a little tired of, having seen this applied to the case of global warming, congressional intransigence, etc.  That is: find counterarguments or extremes, regardless of how flimsy, use these counterarguments to sow doubt by citing a lack of consensus, demand further research, diffuse counterarguments with accusations of impartiality.


More tersely, say there is no global warming, or that it’s not proven to be caused by manmade factors, or that there is still a debate or lack of consensus in the scientific community.  The fact is there, and the fact that will be borne out here, is that there is consensus, specific research has already been performed, the facts are in, and they are not ambiguous.


In the meantime, while we wait for the results of those studies to come back, we have to live with this? What will inaction look like?


I think we all know.