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:

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.

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.

A Few Quick Remarks on the Illuminati

Not long ago, I found myself the passenger in a ride to the airport with a most unique cab driver, who warned me how we were all going to die.

8118181_sGiven the distance to my destination was often up to an hour, I knew I’d have to overcome my NYC sense of anonymity and learn to make polite conversation. Repeating this trip many times, this became standard practice. As a side-effect I came to recognize many of the drivers, their peculiar quirks, styles and stories.

There was the overweight man who looked like George R. R. Martin, so cloistered to his white Prius that the foul smell attached to the car forced me to ride with the windows down. I hated riding with him, but I began to suspect that he might be homeless and slept in the cab, and couldn’t smell the difference.

A personal favorite was the athlete, a lithe, mustachioed black man who looked well-younger than the 50+ years he happily claimed. On any given ride you might hear about his kids, or his days as a boxer, or, if he were feeling in a particularly chatty mood, his time as a exotic dancer and gigolo, and the depraved sexual needs of the local women, which he embellished lavishly. I appreciated his sense of storytelling form, the way a gun knows another gun. I assumed it all to be tall tales, of course, but his sense of detail, the clear-eyed way he seemed to be not inventing, but recalling memories, impressed me as a fellow student of the craft.

While he was a favorite, there were also the occasional Asian man and frequent Arabs, not newly arrived but still with the unmistakable optimism of the newly immigrated.

Then there was this guy.

He was overweight, maybe 50 pounds, enough to gently rest a roll of back fat on the single seat that separated us. Round-faced, African American– but his hair was long, either braided or straightened into a tail, shaped just like a Pharaoh’s beard. His reversed cap gave it shade.

As was the custom, we rarely made eye contact, but I could feel him scan me over as midway through the ride, he mentioned something that caught my attention. He had mentioned he would be leaving the area soon, and then veered off into something else, presumably the rationale. I think I had drifted off and had been caught ‘yessing’ him.

“The who?” I said.

“Bilderbergs. They control it. Don’t you know what they are?”

“No. What is it?”

“The Bilderberg conference. New World Order. All the highflyers, luminaries, world leaders. They go there. It’s a hotel, where they decide everything.”

Well, I thought, this is getting interesting. “Like the Illuminati?”

“Basically, yeah. They decide money policy, oil, war, you name it. They control everything.  Greenspan.”

The conversation went on in this vein. After a period of time ascertaining my interest, he really flew right off the rails. He’d had all this explained by a close friend who had been in Canadian intelligence, he explained. Their ultimate plan was, you guessed it, MASS EXTERMINATION. Not total extermination, mind you. Just enough to get the population to a manageable level. Just enough to save the earth from environmental disaster. To save what was left and worth saving, for the 1%. They had an optimal number in mind, and it was in the tens of millions. So obviously, a lot of people were going to have to die.

To give you a sense of the time and date, I took this to basically be an elaborate pitch about Gold prices or Peak Oil, which were the standard go-to’s of the period. I did not realize what I was actually getting was a preview of a new kind of conversation.

“So how are they going to do this,” I asked.

“A virus, hidden in vaccines. Everyone who gets vaccinated will get infected with the disease, but it will be dormant. Harmless. What it needs is the catalyst. When that gets released, they know there won’t be any stopping it. So it’s not about when they are going to do it. They’ve already done it.”

“What about the catalyst? When does that get released? When do people start dying?”

I was expecting an indefinite answer, something suitably millennialist and forever at the horizon. His directness startled me.

“Sometime between March and May. That’s why I’m leaving. I’m moving my family to Canada, you should too. It’s gonna start to get pretty messed up around here.”

Indeed. Now, this was probably in 2012, so V-Day has apparently already arrived. I often think about what an awkward April he must have had. But! There is a teachable moment, here.

People believe all kinds of stupid shit for no good reason. Otherwise smart people. People, who frankly, ought to have known better. I actually found his cool craziness to be so jarring that it confused me. “Wow,” I remember thinking. “You speak English really well.”

I have a close friend with cousins who, sometime after Y2K, had to make the decision to sheepishly pack their shit and come up out of the bunker. Professional people, with real jobs. This happened.

I repeat: people believe all kinds of stupid shit, for no good reason.

So, of all the reason’s I’ve heard not to vaccinate, his was by far the most ridiculous. But when I hear modern anti-vaxxers on go on about their rationales, I do see them as not comparable but I do see them as an expression on the same spectrum.

I can abide a certain amount of bullshit, some play in the system. I love ideas, of of all kinds. I’m willing to give a compelling idea its due, and, I hope, duly suspicious of unchecked authority– governmental or corporate.  But the one thing I cannot abide is a conspiracy theory. It’s hard for me to think of something that will drop my estimation of someone’s intellectual capacity, faster. Even a wanton racist or sexist remark can be forgiven, in the context of age or isolation. Sometimes people really don’t know better, or have been taught improperly. But a conspiracy theory has baked within it a contemptuous desire toward contrarianism and secret knowledge. Please. This is how stoned teenagers see the world, and it needs to stop by the time you are 21, for real.

So I took this man’s story as fascinating, and appreciated it the way one loves any well-told bedtime story. But I didn’t take it seriously.

I look back at it now as a distant cousin of what I hear now in conversation about vaccines.  I don’t take anti-vaccine hysteria very seriously either, but when I hear about BIG PHARMA OMG know that my mind is spray-painting BILDERBERG across whatever you are trying to say.  As in, ‘you bet, jackass’.

Educated people are willing to draw all kinds of fantastic conclusions because they feel they can draw a straight line of cause and effect that aren’t there. Recently I found myself in an online debate with a German kid who suggested that Vice was printing articles questioning the extent of the Fukushima radiation globally because Vice has media ties to General Electric. You know, one of the biggest companies on earth. Why? Because one of their divisions makes equipment used in reactors.

Clearly, the weekend edition of Vice News, demographically targeted as it is, is the soldier standing on the wall that will protect the future of nuclear energy via a throwaway Sunday evening blog post.

Yet the idea that a site served via WordPress and bills itself as a leading natural news source and makes most of its ad revenue through selling natural dietary and exercise supplements to boost your immune system has no conflict of interest in a discussion on vaccines. Outstanding work. You are the Hardy Boys of the Internet. Erin Brockovich, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Nader beckon you take your seat at the table.

That said, I respect your skepticism.  We’re just going to need to work through it.

Number one, internet-shaming people into vaccinating, while useful in the short term, may create a bit of a backlash.  There is no convincing people that have been put on the defensive,  I have never, ever seen this work.  Here’s how we can open the door to a positive outcome.

We need to address scientific illiteracy, full stop.  This goes nowhere if we can’t agree on what constitutes evidence or a reliable source.  A domain name alone does not confer any authority on a topic.  Putting commission, committee, foundation, etc, in front of your nonprofit doesn’t either.  As long  as we’re at it, it’s probably worth revisiting some of our blind spots and self-deception.

We need to converge on what constitutes a federally-recommended vaccine schedule. Oh right, we did that. Well, check, then.

We need to acknowledge that the fears of antivaxxers contain a lot of valid elements to them. Unfortunately, they provide cover to some of the more irrational distortions and confabulations, and these should be extracted and addressed.   The same in reverse: one can be tarred as an anti-vaxxer for not opting for the Hepatitis vaccine, but this is quite different from not vaccinating for MMR.  These are two totally different levels of risk exposure and, accordingly, public obligation.

The idea that the government (or big-business, depending on your political orientation) can decide what should be injected into our children should absolutely concern any conscious person and make us pay really, reeeealy close attention.

However, there is a spectrum of risk and trade-offs that vary.  Ebola is a public menace.  A vaccine is literally all that stands between crashing and bleeding out of your pores.  I could easily see how such a vaccine could or should be both desirable and mandatory.

Measles, mumps, and rubella are not at the same level of lethality.  Nonethess, they are quite debilitating and dangerous, and lethal for many. Not a risk a society that can avoid it, should have to take, and certainly worthy of some societal coercion.

Chicken pox, by contrast, are inconvenient, pose a modest danger, and are routinely survivable.  That said, it’s not clear to me why, if we can vaccinate for them, we shouldn’t, but I do understand that plenty of parents would opt not to, especially, as will be likely, if they survived it themselves.  It’s also an uncomfortable fact that there is a point of tension that there will be things we can cure artificially, that we just won’t need to, and a democratic society must make gestures to leave a lot of choice on the table.

An appropriate balance must be struck: I do not accept that my sense of acceptable risk will track with modern helicopter parents who call the cops when a kid is left in the backseat.  Conversely, nor do I elect the bark-eating naturalism of befuddled hippies.  I will indeed want to choose, but I will also want my choice to be constrained by governmental requirements that accord with a sensible assessment of risk.

Or, you know, Greenspan will just decide for us.