FTR: Guns

guns 0I mentioned recently that I intended to write some “For The Record” (FTR) posts setting down — once and for all — my views on certain oft-debated topics. “Once and for all” is misleading, though. My opinions evolve over time, and no controversial topic is ever truly closed. “Here and for now” would be a better phrase.

This one will certainly draw a sand line where some will stand on my side and others — people I like and respect — will stand on the other. I’m not sure I believe there is a right answer here; it really depends on your worldview. If nothing else, this seeks to explain my rationale as well as my opinion.

So, for the record: here we go on guns!

Full disclosure and the punchline: I support private gun ownership, and I own guns. You might think this informs my opinion, but it’s the other way around: my opinion is what allows me to own the two that I do.

On the other hand, I have an extreme antipathy towards the NRA, which I think is very irresponsible on the matter of guns in the USA.

What I’d like to do here is examine and unpack some of the common assertions in the public dialog about guns. Be advised this runs rather long and has a minimum of editorial images.

Let’s start with a classic: “Guns are designed to kill people.”

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Ruger Mark II Target Pistol

If that’s true, one of the guns I own is a miserable design failure. Yet it is a well-engineered, well-crafted tool — in fact, a pinnacle of its breed. It does what it was designed to do very well.

And that is to shoot .22 caliber bullets at targets with great accuracy. Not all guns are designed to kill people. Some are for target shooting; others are designed for hunting, or defending against, animals.

It cannot be denied that some guns are designed as defensive — or even offensive — weapons against humans. So are most swords, some knives, and a variety of other weapons. What seems to bother some is that guns can be very effective weapons; in fact, that’s kind of the point.

It’s more correct to say that (some) guns are designed to stop people. Their size, portability, and power, make them effective tools for doing this. What’s often not considered here is whether it is sometimes necessary to stop people. In some cases guns stop people merely by being present, not by being used.

The classic counter is that: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

This is… kinda stupid. As with the first assertion, there is a grain of truth to it, but the reality is that (some) guns make it all too easy for people to kill people (unlike swords or knives).

One of the real problems is that guns make a passing idea of suicide all too easy to implement. Teenagers, in particular, go through severe bouts of temporary depression, and easy access to guns is a problem there.

Another frequent question is: “Why do you need guns?”

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Target shooting is a lot of fun. You’d be surprised how many people, male or female, who give it a try end up liking it.

Same reason I “need” music, or television, or pets, or skydiving, or baseball, or auto racing, or flavor in my food. Life is more than need. Life is also about fulfillment and enjoyment.

What’s really being asked is why pursue something as a luxury (excluding police, military, security guards, and hunters) that involves something problematic to society. It’s a fair question, but consider the implications.

Alcohol abuse kills over twice as many as guns do, and fast food arguably kills many, many times more.

Do we eliminate fast food (who needs it, right? it’s just junk!) and alcohol (also not needed and the source of much misery beyond the deaths it causes)? Do those who misuse or abuse something invalidate it for the far greater share who don’t?

Another meme: “The government will take your guns away.”

This is used to excuse a lack of background checks or licensing. It was even used as the basis for an insane Florida law that prevents doctors from asking about gun ownership.

There was a bit about this law on a recent The Daily Show. The doctor they interviewed mentioned talking to patients about many safety issues (such as swimming pools). And this information is not recorded (plus there are medical privacy laws).

The contrast between the owner of a swimming pool company owner (who applauded safety) and the asshole supporting the law was stark. His attitude is exactly why I think “NRA” stands for “National Rifle Assholes.”

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The 2nd Amendment is partially based on English common law from 1689.

Let’s talk about The Second Amendment. And let’s not play silly games with commas and “militias” and such. The Founding Fathers pretty clearly believed in overthrowing any government viewed as tyrannical — our country is founded on that idea, backed up with guns.

A government not of the people should damn well fear the people. Why we allow the present broken government to persist is both beyond me and a topic for another day.

A common counter to this is that no armed citizenry could hope to stand up to the weapons of a modern military.

Oh, really? I have two words for you: Afghanistan and Vietnam.

In the latter case, a bunch of guys running around in pajamas kicked our modern military ass. In the former, both the mighty USA and the mighty USSR found out just what people with basic weapons and determination can do.

Let’s talk about licenses and regulation (and training).

Driving a car requires both training and a license. In 2011, in the USA, over 32-thousand people died in car crashes. And that year was the lowest death count in 62 years! But compare this to the almost three-billion miles driven. It’s a death rate of 0.001% (based on mileage). [wiki]

Handgun deaths were as high as 15,000 (in 1993) and hover around 9,000 since 1999. General belief is that there are roughly as many guns in the USA as there are people: about 300 million. [wiki][wiki]

This translates to a gun death rate of 0.003%. That’s three times the mileage-based auto death rate. But we’re comparing units to usage (it’s hard to quantify gun usage). Looking at car units, there are fewer cars: about 250 million. The death rate per car is 0.013% (over four times as much)!

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In point of fact, both auto and gun fatality rates have decreased in the last decades.

Another way to look at it is per capita. Car death rate per capita is 0.011% compared to 0.003% for guns. Consider also that some gun deaths may be justified (unlike all auto deaths), and many gun deaths are suicides (and so are some auto “accidents”).

Airplane pilots require even more training and licensing (and oversight). Deaths worldwide from airplane crashes hover in the general area 1000 per year — only in 2001 did they exceed 1500 (4,140 that year). With roughly one-trillion passenger air miles flown per year, and three-quarters of a billion passengers, air travel really is the safest transportation. [wiki][DOT]

Everyone knows that a flying metal tube with wings is crazy dangerous, so we take it very seriously, both in terms of the operators and the equipment. There is also that airplane crashes — rare as they actually are — are huge and devastating news.

Likewise mass shootings — which all things considered are also very rare. Both affect us deeply when they happen. Yet somehow we continue to be head up the ass stupid about treating guns as the dangerous and powerful tools they are. Regulation, education, and oversight are critical.

To be clear, I am not opposed to powerful and dangerous tools. I think they are valuable when used appropriately and knowledgeably.

What about the idea of a gun-free world. Lovely idea, but impossible to achieve. Here’s why:

A gun-free world assumes no guns for military, police, or the security guard at your bank. Okay, but there’s a problem: guns are ancient technology. All you need is a tube, a projectile, and a propellant. Anyone with basic metal-working skills can make very nice guns.

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All you need is a metal tube, some sulfur, some charcoal, some manure, and a rock. The formula for gunpowder is even older than guns! (It makes such wonderful Chinese fireworks!)

Even if you freed the world from all guns, they’d be back almost immediately. Since the White Hats presumably can’t own or make them, guess who ends up armed?

The alternative is that the military, police, and security guards, can be licensed to have guns, but no one else can. But then they are made and shipped legally, which makes restriction much harder.

Which brings us to: “If guns are illegal, only illegals will have guns.” I’m afraid that one is true. It’s almost a tautology.

The failure of the “war on drugs” should give us an idea how well restriction will work. Plus, drugs are organics that — in theory — are detectable with something like PET or sophisticated “sniffer” technology.

Gun parts are metal and plastic, just like sewing machine parts. How are you going to spot the 100 gun parts hidden in 10,000 sewing machine parts? How are you going to stop anyone with a metal shop from making their own?

What about waiting periods for gun sales? The intent is to force a cool-off period for someone supposedly in a rage who doesn’t own a gun now but has decided he needs one right away to commit mayhem. One problem is that most who intend that kind of violence have planned it for a long time.

Is there some value in stopping the violent ex-husband who has decided to go after his ex-wife immediately (and doesn’t already own a gun, but has decided to get one)? Perhaps, but turn that around: what about the ex-wife who’s learned her violent ex-husband is out to get her. Should she be forced to wait a week?

“The presence of guns reduces crime.” I believe this is true. In fact, I think it’s self-evident. The only real controversy might be the degree of that effect. The infamous Lott study put it quite high.

guns 6It’s difficult to quantify how much crime is not committed due to a criminal’s fear the victim may be armed. Home invasions in England — where residents may not possess guns in their homes or on their person — might offer some clues.

According to one report, in 2009, in 280,000 total burglaries, householders encountered invaders 57,000 times and suffered violence on 23,000 of them. The population of England is about 50 million. That’s a per capita burglary rate of 0.5% with a burglary violence rate of 8.2%.

The US DOJ reported about 266,000 violent burglaries in a total of 3.7 million. That’s a burglary rate of 1.2% with a violence rate about 7%. So, we in the USA have more than twice the burglaries (and 65% of the time we know the burglar!), but fewer that involve violence.

Another report suggests that the UK has a violent crime rate around 2% compared to a 0.4% rate in the USA.

It would be interesting to look into crime rates in states that now have shall-issue or conceal carry laws. But this post is already way long.

A recent topic on The Nightly Show was the bid to allow guns on college campuses as a measure against violent assaults against women. I think most can agree that guns and college kids is a non-starter.

guns 7What I found interesting was that his four-woman panel, only one of which was clearly pro-gun, when confronted with hypothetical “Shoot, Shiv, or Shout” questions, all opted for violence (picking, without exception, either Shoot or Shiv).

I don’t know about “atheists in trenches” but it seems that most people, when confronted with violence, prefer to stop it, and guns offer a field-leveling way to do that.

Bottom line for me, absolutely, no question, we:

  • License all gun sales.
  • Require background checks for all gun sales.
  • Require gun safety classes for all gun owners.

Anything else is foolish — perhaps even insane.

But this is, perhaps, all moot. Guns aren’t the root problem, although they do amplify it. The root problem is us and a culture steeped in casual violence.

The naked human body on TV is a real problem for a lot of people, but the nightly shootem-up show — that’s just entertainment. The level of violence in our TV shows is jaw-dropping when compared to, say, 20 years ago. (The weekly guaranteed gunfire is one reason I no longer watch NCIS:LA.)

guns 8Here’s an experiment for us all: Count the number of times a gun is fired each night for a week. Also count the number of times a gun is drawn each night. Depending on what you watch (sitcoms versus police dramas, for example), the numbers may astonish you.

We’re mired in a gun debate that is arguably unsolvable and may miss the point entirely. Overwhelmingly, most people who use guns (or alcohol) do so reasonably and without harm to themselves or others.

The real problem we face (that women especially face, by the way) is our belief that violence is an acceptable solution. That it is a useful solution. That it is not the final, last-ditch, nothing else worked solution.

We are, after all, a country that thought torture was a viable idea. We wallow and glorify the idea of force as a means to an end.

Why are we not deeply, deeply ashamed of that?

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Note: statistics not vetted. Consider them suggestive.

 

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

12 responses to “FTR: Guns

  • Hariod Brawn

    A well-balanced, and as ever, thoughtful and well-written article Wyrd. Perhaps the problem with analysing and drawing conclusions from a broad statistical category of ‘violent crime’ is that it distorts perception of potential individual impacts. For example, as a resident of England I would rather that my chances of being subjected to violence during a crime were double that of my American counterpart, given that I am more likely only to suffer a few bruises and perhaps the odd broken bone, as against a bullet passing through my chest.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It’s true that you are nearly five times (4.7) as likely to be murdered (using any means) in the USA as in the UK, but the overwhelming percentages of murders are done by people you know. So stay on good terms with people you know!

      The report of 2,034 violent crimes per 100,000 people (2%) seems much higher than the USA’s 403 per 100,000 (0.4%), but a skeptical analysis suggests the UK figure that better compares to the FBI’s definition of violent crime (one involving injury) is 776 per 100,000 (0.7%), which is still higher than the USA, but is under twice as high rather than five times as high.

      Being shot may sound much worse than being beaten or knifed, but that may not be the case, depending on the weapon and where you’re hit. Something I was told long ago is that many people “fall down and die” when shot because they believe in the fatality of any gun wound. Belief is a powerful thing, and while it’s debatable how much effect your belief actually has in this case, it’s worth remembering.

      If you ever are — heaven forbid — shot, try not to take it too seriously. 😮

      • Hariod Brawn

        It would be interesting to view the stats once drug and gang-related crime were removed. As you say “people you know (of)”, rather than random encounters with the nation’s populace.

        And of course, it’s where you live in the States or England that renders the earlier stats largely irrelevant to the individual. I live in the middle of nowhere, yet with immediate neighbours, so I think that’s relatively safe.

        That’s encouraging news on the effects of being shot, though I did say “in the chest”, which is probably quite painful. But listen, I’m certainly going to argue with you a lot less in future my gun-toting friend! 😉

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh! Nah, you’re safe (especially safe in virtue of loving both dogs and beer). I only shoot words at people!

        I agree location makes a huge difference. I live on the outskirts of the cities, practically in farming country, so I have a similar security.

        And it’s true that, at least in the USA based on FBI stats, a large fraction of violent crime and homicide is gang-related. However, even absent gang- and drug-related homicide, murder has always usually involved someone you know. And to be clear, not “know of” but “know!” Spouses and other family members are the most likely to kill you. (Which actually kinda makes sense — who else but a “loved one” is likely to get murderously angry with you?)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Anyone notice the glaring spelling error on the “Primetime violence” graphic? o_O

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Living in the south, I grew up with guns, and currently own several. But I agree that the NRA is an out of control organization. It’s really the National Protection of Gun Industry Profits Association than anything else.

    I agree with just about everything in this post, but one.
    “Which brings us to: “If guns are illegal, only illegals will have guns.” I’m afraid that one is true. It’s almost a tautology.”
    For many of my friends and relatives, this in an unquestionable maxim. Technically it’s true, but we have to look at how many criminals would have guns in each scenario. Looking at any other country where guns are illegal or hard to obtain, the number of gun crimes is a fraction of ours. Looking at the US, the number of crimes committed with fully automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and other hard to obtain weapons, is also very low. I think the idea that restricting access to guns, or certain functional classes of guns, doesn’t reduce crime with those guns is untenable. (Note: “functional classes” doesn’t include scary looking weapons. That part of the assault weapons ban was asinine.)

    The gun debate, like many such debates, is a tension between different moral impulses: freedom versus safety. Some people are willing to sacrifice more freedom for safety than others, and vice versa. And, as you discuss, restricting guns may increase the incident of violent assaults and batteries, which are notably higher in many countries that ban firearms.

    Everything in life has a cost.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m not sure we do disagree on the tautology — as you say, it’s technically true. The deeper question involves its application, and I basically agree with your points there. TV has conditioned me to believe rocket launchers and fully automatic weapons aren’t all that hard to obtain, but I have no idea how big a challenge that actually is. (I do assume the latter are a lot easier than the former. There certainly is easily available information for modifying various semi-automatic guns to full auto.)

      Regardless, there are laws about crimes committed with weapons, and I believe the penalties are worse when illegal weapons are involved. It seems self-evident these forms of regulation must have some effect.

      As you say, this is fundamentally an issue debating safety versus freedom. Ben Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The question boils down to what liberties are truly essential and how safe we believe we can make the world. A key player in this is our sense of fear — what we fear and how we deal with those fears.

      Like I said at the top of the post, “it really depends on your worldview.” I tend towards libertarian views, and I’ve always like the phrase: “You can’t child-proof the world, you can only world-proof the child.” I continue to hold dear the idea that education — a broad and thorough education — is a vital component in a safe freedom.

      One thing (among many) that makes me ill about the debate is how uneducated about the issues so many of the participants seem to be. As with so many of our critical social debates, emotions seem to vastly overwhelm rationality here. I don’t at all deny the importance, or inevitability, of our emotions, but I wish the dial was turned a bit more towards the rational.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Strictly speaking, I think we do agree on the tautology. My point was that the number of criminals running around with a weapon is lower if that weapon is more difficult to obtain.

        Personally, I think requiring that someone hold a license, that requires training and a thorough background check, and which must be renewed at least as often as passports, before being allowed to buy guns and (more importantly) ammo, would do a lot to reduce the number of gun crimes. But that’s far too extreme for the NRA (mainly because it would hurt industry profits) or most gun rights activists.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I honestly don’t know (meaning ignorance, not disagreement) how much difference making guns illegal or highly restricted would have. I am pretty sure it would impact law-abiding folks (who aren’t really the problem) a lot more than those who already are on the wrong side of the law. Would it reduce gun violence? I dunno; it might. I continue to believe the deeper problem is our violent society — that’s what we really need to fix.

        A notable characteristic of USAnians is that we’re natural law-breakers. It permeates our stories and was instrumental in the formation of this country. Cheating on your income tax is almost a badge of honor!

        Restriction and illegality doesn’t seem to have had a huge impact on illegal drugs. And in their case, there are no legal means to make, sell, or buy, many of them. Worse, there are a small number of people who’ve been attracted to drugs because they’re illegal (kids mostly in defiance of their parents). Forbidden fruit thing.

        I do agree about licenses and required training (and background checks). You can’t use a credit card most places without it being electronically confirmed as valid, so it’s not like we don’t have the technology.

        I think you’re right about the NRA, at least in part, representing the interests of the gun industry, but there is also a large component of this driven by gun lovers. It’s like the fashion industry. There is definitely an aspect of selling more clothes, but it’s also true that a lot of people are way into fashion.

        With the NRA I’m more concerned about its extreme irresponsible and unhelpful position — the how rather than the why, so to speak. It seems like they would enable gun sales just as much, if not more, if they advocated responsible gun use and supported reasonable laws. Folks (like me) who don’t like their tactics might support them then. Car makers are extremely safety conscious, and that hasn’t hurt car sales in any real way.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On gun restrictions and violence, I think if you compare our gun crime statistics with those of other countries with restrictive gun laws, they speak for themselves. The real question is if that reduction in gun violence is worth the restriction in freedom and possible increase in assault and battery violence. I’m not sure there’s any one objective answer to that. It’s very much a value judgment that people will come to different conclusions on.

        When I looked into this, I discovered that what really affects crime rates is a combination of GDP / capita and how robust a country’s social safety net is. The second part is something I wish more law and order conservatives understood. Fewer desperate people equals less crime.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Totally agree on your second paragraph!

        The problem with comparing the USA to other countries is that the USA is pretty unique in lots of ways. Our love of violence, our repression of sexuality, our views that laws are made to be broken, our wealth and resources, the sheer size and demographics of the place (how do you govern a country with such diverse cultures as the deep south, northeast, northwest, midwest, Texas, Florida, and crazy California?). It really seems an apples and bicycles comparison.

        But as we started off agreeing, it’s a safety-freedom equation that different folks see differently.

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