The Gun Control Post (Part 2 of 2)

On  Monday, in The Gun Control Post Part 1, I focused mostly on the differences between how conservatives and liberals approach the issue of gun control. In short, liberals see gun control primarily as a public health problem. Guns, like asbestos or lead, are a dangerous part of the environment that lead to tragic deaths through suicide, murder, and mass killings. In order to limit this unnecessary loss of life, guns should be restricted. Liberals often include a condescending exception for “hunters and sportsmen”, but the real consequence of that rhetoric is to preemptively invalidate the conservative view of the issue. In reality their paradigm leaves little room for co-existence with guns of any kind. An ideal liberal society is a society with practically no guns in the hands of private citizens.

Of course I realize this does not describe all liberals, but I believe it is a good representation of the majority view on the American left. Furthermore, it is a reasonable position to hold. Societies like Japan and Western Europe, where civilian ownership of weapons has been heavily regulated for centuries (before firearms even existed, in many cases), have significantly lower murder rates and it is due at least in part to the fact that guns are extremely rare. A desire to move our society in that direction is neither intrinsically un-American nor a symptom of some nefarious desire for centralized control. Longing for a society where we are all safe from violence (and especially the most vulnerable) is a noble and American sentiment, and wanting to minimize the availability of guns in society to move towards that goal is rational. That is why the liberal position must ultimately entail not only limited measures such as universal background checks or bans on assault-style weapons, but in the end a near-total prohibition. The liberal vision is a society by and large without guns in the hands of private citizens.

It is worth pointing out, however, that the link between firearm laws or firearm prevalence and violence is anything but simple. This article has a rundown of some of the claims from both sides, and shows how each cherry picks (or in some cases fabricates) statistics to their liking. I also did some ultra-simplistic analysis on some data that was gathered and made available for download by The Guardian. One of the interesting observations in the article is that the US has–by far–the highest rate of civilian ownership in the world. In the US, there are privately-owned 88 guns for every 100 citizens. The runner-up, Yemen, has a rate of only 55 for every 100 people. Despite this fact, the homicide rate for the United States is nowhere near #1 in the world. We’re at #28. I put together a comparison of the firearm homicide rate per 100,000 people vs. the firearm rate per 100,000 guns for the United States and some comparable nations, and the results are pretty interesting.

Firearm Rate Comparison

When you just look at homicide rate per 100,000 citizens, the United States is a huge outlier (at least compared to this group). But when you consider the firearm homicide rate per gun (in other words, a very naive attempt to control for the fact that the United States has a lot more guns floating around), we go from being well more than triple the #2 country to placing fourth in the list. Portugal, Ireland, and Belgium all have higher firearm murder rates per gun than the United States, and other developed nations like South Korea aren’t very far behind either. Over all, the rates are much more evenly distributed. It would be very interesting to compare this data to aggregate crime data (non-firearm homicides along with assaults, burglaries, etc.), but in the meantime it’s a simple snapshot illustrating how complex inter-country comparisons can be.

Back on the conservative side of things, however, the American right does not see the issue in terms of public health but in terms of civil liberties. Conservatives believe that individual Americans have a right to personal protection and that in practice this means they ought to have access to the kinds of weapons they can reasonably expect to encounter. Furthermore, conservatives believe that the widespread distribution of arms throughout society acts as an important deterrent to criminals, a last line of defense against foreign invaders, and a vital check on the growth of centralized government authority. Fundamentally, conservatives recognize that there is a cost to be paid for preserving the Second Amendment, but they also believe that there would be an even heavier cost to be paid in sacrificing it.

Most of the debate, however, does not take place at the level of rational discussion, but at a much more visceral level. Conservatives and liberals increasingly behave as separate and opposed tribes within American politics. They fundamentally do not understand each other, and from that lack of understanding extremism spreads. Although I certainly have an opinion on the gun rights debate, and I tend to come down with the conservatives, I am also deeply troubled at the divide that I believe is growing within our society.

So my goal in my concluding post on gun control is two-fold. First: I want to critique the gun control policy debates and uncover what I see as a fundamental lie that both the conservatives and liberals engage in. Secondly, I’d like to present my own proposals which address the shortcomings in current proposals and at the same time seek to find common cause among liberals and conservatives. I certainly don’t think I have all the answers and I expect my ideas to take heat from both sides, but I’d at least like to be talking to rather than at both sides of this debate. So, here goes nothing.  

Current Proposals

Broadly speaking, there are three current proposals aimed at reforming gun laws in an effort limit mass shootings and/or violent crime in general:

  1. Restrict the types of weapons available (e.g. high capacity magazines of assault-style weapons).
  2. Strengthen the mental-health system to do a better job of preventing dangerous people from obtaining weapons.
  3. Create a universal background check (i.e. close the gun-show loophole).

I’ll tackle each one individually, and then in the next section I’ll present my own proposals (some new and some building off of these ideas).

Evil Black Rifles

You should never have your finger on the trigger unless you are prepared to fire. You should never have your thumb on the trigger at all.
You should never have your finger on the trigger unless you are prepared to fire. You should never have your thumb on the trigger at all. (That’s only the most egregious violation of common sense gun safety in this picture.)
Sen. Feinstein has been fighting to regulate assault weapons for decades, but still doesn't know not to put her finger on the trigger.
Sen. Feinstein has been fighting to regulate assault weapons for decades, but still doesn’t know not to put her finger on the trigger. Or not to hold a press conference with the magazine inserted into the gun. Or…you get the picture.

There’s an acronym that the gun-rights crowd frequently uses when discussing military-style rifles: EBR. It’s a derisive term that highlights the lack of understanding that the gun-control crowd demonstrates whenever they talk about the word “assault-style weapons” or “assault weapons” or “assault rifles” or simply can’t keep straight the difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons. There’s a lot of truth to this, from picture of liberals brandishing AK-47s with their fingers on the trigger to this humorous clip of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy admitting that she has no idea what a “barrel shroud” is, despite the fact that her bill explicitly bans guns that have them.

Unfortunately, however, conservatives are also dishonest about the reality of guns in America. It’s just that, knowing so much more than the average public and especially journalists, they tend to get away with it.

Democrats want you to believe that there’s a bright line that differentiates civilian guns from military guns. Civilian guns are quaint and classy weapons that would never be of any use in a murderous rampage or a gang turf war. Military guns are fundamentally different: they are savage, dangerous, powerful things and there’s absolutely no reason a decent American would need or even want to possess one. The dividing line, according to Democrats, is at “assault-type weapons”. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no functional basis whatsoever for this distinction. It’s a purely cosmetic distinction that, in a nutshell, boils down to “rifles that are predominantly the color black”.  In the old 1994 assault weapons ban, you had a two strikes system: if your gun had two “bad” features (e.g. the infamous barrel shroud or perhaps the capacity to attach a bayonet) you had a devilish murder-gun on your hands. So, understandably, gun manufactures just retooled their designs to comply with the nonsensical, cosmetic regulation.

The Columbine  massacre, which took place during the first AWB, included only guns that were legal at the time (although not for high school students to own, then or now). The new version of the AWB is much wiser than the old one. Instead of using two irrelevant cosmetic features, they use one. Naturally, this changes everything. On the other hand, some aspects of the new assault weapons ban that really do try to address functionality are so draconian that, depending on interpretation, they would ban virtually all weapons in existence. (Given that the hastily-passed New York regulation forgot to include exemption for police and so rendered the entire police force criminals with the stroke of a pen, such a gross oversight is believable.)

barrel shroud
Oh that’s what Rep. McCarthy was talking about!

The ironic thing is that it’s not just Democrats that want you to believe in a mythical bright line between civilian guns and military guns. Republicans want you to believe the exact same clap-trap. The only difference is where they draw the line. Instead of drawing a silly line in the sand based on cosmetics, the gun-rights crowd picks the ostensibly rational position that it’s the function of a weapon which determines whether it is a military or a civilian weapon. Military guns are select-fire or automatic, meaning that you can pull the trigger a single time and get multiple bullets. Some military weapons fire continuously as long as the trigger is held, while others fire a specific number of times (usually three) for each trigger pull. All civilian weapons in the United States (with some very rare, strict, and expensive exceptions I’m not going to go into) are functionally different in that you get one bullet every time you squeeze the trigger. This, the conservatives confidently assert, is the bright line between military-grade and civilian firearms. That position is total rubbish.

Let’s start with a simple fundamental point: guns are designed to kill. Even hunting guns are designed to kill, and since people hunt large animals like deer and boar–not to mention bears,moose, and elk–a “civilized” hunting rifle packs plenty of power to kill a person and then some. The primary component of power is determined by the bullet: how heavy it is and how fast it goes. Currently, the standard NATO military round for combat rifles is 5.56x45mm. This bullet was derived from the civilian .223 Remington cartridge, and the two are almost identical. Military M4 carbines shoot the 5.46 round, and civilian AR-15s shoot the .223 and it’s basically half-a-dozen of one, six of the other on a bullet-for-bullet basis. Before the 5.56 round, NATO used the 7.62x51mm round which was based on the .308 Winchester. Even before that, NATO used the 7.62X63mm which is basically identical to a .03-06 Springfield. You might notice that the older bullets were actually bigger. The US military decided that being able to carry more bullets that were individually smaller was a better idea than carrying fewer bullets that were individually more powerful. The older, larger bullets are still used today, however (especially in sniper rifles and machine guns). This means the distintion between a military-grade sniper rifle and a very good hunting rifle is basically nill. A sniper might fire the 7.62x63mm, but you can go out to your local sporting goods store and get a deer hunting rifle in .30-06 calibers and you’ve basically got the same weapon (especially since the same manufactures sell to civilians, law enforcement, and the military). These rounds aren’t even the top of the scale in terms of power-per-shot, by the way. This graphic from Great Northern Outdoors hammers home my point that a bullet designed to take down a bear is going to put standard military rounds to shame, and therefore pack a much greater wallop in a civilian gun (bullet-for-bullet) then what you’ll find in a standard infantry rifle.

Great Northern Outdoors Bullet Comparison
Notice that the .223 Remington (used in the infamous AR-15) is near the far left of the image and is considered too small for deer hunting.

OK, so common hunting bullets are far more powerful than the standard round used in the military’s M4 carbine on a bullet-for-bullet basis, but what about the total number of bullets? If you have to fire much more slowly, then surely even bigger bullets would be less dangerous than smaller bullets, right? Civilian guns are semi-automatic after all, right? And if we limit the magazine size then we’ll slow them down even more, right? Surely that will help?

Not really. First, it’s important to understand just how fast even “slow” guns can be, so I’m going to post some videos of world-record fast shooting with the slowest of the slow: revolvers and pump-action shotguns.

Common speedloader.

I fully understand that by picking world-record shooters I’m not giving you a representative sample, but the device the man used to reload his revolver–called a speed-loader–can allow anyone to quickly load a revolver with only a very little practice. But what actually matters is that in real-life mass-killers just don’t have to be fast. During the Columbine shooting, the killers spent seven minutes in the school library. They slowly sauntered around while casually deciding who to execute, who to taunt, and who to allow to run away. The had plenty of time to stop and reload multiple times, and even used a table in the library to make it more convenient. During the Virginia Tech shooting the killer chained the doors shut before beginning his slaughter, ensuring that he had plenty of time and his victims had nowhere to go. It took one or two minutes from the first shooting before the first 911 call was even made, plenty of time to fire dozens of times if you’re in a hurry. But he wasn’t in a hurry. He spent 10-12 minutes on his killing spree. He carried 19 magazines with him (both 10- and 15-round mags) and he had plenty of time to reload. In fact, he revisited many rooms: shooting, walking away, and then coming back to kill some more. He used only handguns and mostly magazines that are not considered “high capacity”, and yet he killed more than the Sandy Hook killer did. In other words: the Sandy Hook killer might have had an AR-15 with 30-round magazines, but he didn’t need themThis was demonstrated in the Aurora shooting where the killer opened fire with an AR-15 that had a 100-round drum magazine, but the rifle jammed after only a few shots, and so he switched to his handgun and shotgun, unperturbed.

For those of you who haven’t shot guns, I’ve also got a YouTube clip that I found randomly. It’s not a professional (that I know of) or any kind of record holder. He’s just showing you how to quickly reload a handgun. Notice how (after the first illustration) he simply drops the spent magazine on the floor and inserts a new magazine. Even without any real rush or huge practicing this is something anyone can do in just a couple of seconds.

Look, in the preceding paragraphs I’ve been sarcastic and made some jokes, but there’s a really heartbreaking truth lying just beneath the surface. I don’t like writing about it, but it’s important to be honest. The reality is that when a man with a firearm walks into a school to shoot little children it just doesn’t matter how  many bullets are in his gun, what caliber they are, or how many he has in a given magazine. The power, speed, and volume of firepower that ordinary firearms have–the kind that look nothing like military hardware–are simply so much beyond what is needed to kill people who can’t fight back that tinkering around the edges is a totally meaningless endeavor. I don’t know if anyone else thought of this when looking at that chart of bullet calibers, but I had a hard time posting it because when I see that list of animals that the various calibers are suited to reliably killing (varmint, deer, sheep, elk, etc.) I can’t help but think about the fact that a common North American male deer is going to weigh around 200 pounds and my daughter, who is six and beautiful and tiny, weighs just a little over 30. There is no such thing as “safer” when it comes to shooting children. Or adults, for that matter.

The .22LR (left) is a relatively weak round, but it is the most deadly bullet in America. Despite the similar numbers, it is considerably less powerful than the .223 (right).

The Sandy Hook shooter happened to have a scary-looking rifle and 30-round magazines, but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. At Columbine one shooter fired his 12-gauge shotgun 25 times, meaning that he took the time to reload several times. (Pump-action shotguns don’t have detachable magazines, you have to load them one shotgun shell at a time.) He had 13 10-round magazines in his handgun for a total of 130 bullets, but he only shot 96. He committed suicide long before the SWAT team entered the building with almost 1/3rd of his bullets unfired. Small magazines were not the limiting factor in his killing spree. The other killer had a handgun with extremely high-capacity magazines (55, 32,and 28 rounds, respectively), but he only shot 58  bullets. What did magazine size have to do with anything? At Virginia Tech the killer used relatively small caliber handguns (a .22 and a 9mm) and fired 174 rounds using 10- and 15-round magazines. All of the victims who died were shot at least 3 times, and 28 of the 30 killed were shot in the head. When he committed suicide, he still had 200 more bullets that he hadn’t fired. What did assault rifles or high-capacity magazines have to do with the most deadly school shooting in American history? Nothing.

Anyone who tells you an assault weapons ban will prevent or alleviate mass shootings either has no idea what they are talking about or is lying to you. Any weapon that can be used to reliably and safely hunt wild animals is more than up to the task of killing very large numbers of defenseless people in a short of time. The round that accounts for the most deaths in the United States every year is the relatively tiny, weak .22LR (not to be confused with the .22 Hornet above, read more about it here).

In an actual fire-fight the difference between a .22, .38, 9mm, .45 or .357 (common handgun bullets) or between a 10- or 15-round magazine can be the difference between life and death. I’m not telling anyone that the differences don’t matter. They matter a lot if you’re in some kind of conflict where both sides are armed. That’s why gun-rights advocates react so strongly to bans. Gun rights advocates are not interested in shooting defenseless kids. They are interested in defending themselves from armed attackers, and in that scenario these things matter.  But in a mass shooting? It’s just  not relevant. When your victims have nowhere to run, nowhere  to hide, and nothing to fight back with the small distinctions between caliber size or magazine capacity are absolutely inconsequential. The impact of these laws on mass shootings would be literally nil, while the impact on sefl-defense while still small, would be greater than nil.

But that doesn’t mean that I can support half-truths, which is why I wanted to emphasize that there’s no bright line separating civilian and military guns. In the past couple of weeks I’ve’ seen several claims that automatic military rifles fire 900 rounds per minute, but civilian semi-automatic rifles can only fire 45 – 60 rounds in the same time period. There’s no way that’s an accurate statistic. Can you pull a trigger more than once every second? Then you can fire more than 60 bullets in a minute. A lot more. And as for magazines, you can either find a large, 200-round drum magazine or just quickly swap out the 30-round magazines. After all, to fire your automatic rifle 900 times in one minute, you’re definitely going to have to stop to reload that as well. Furthermore, soldiers are trained not to actually fire in continuous volleys of automatic fire. It’s very difficult to aim and therefore an ineffective waste of ammo (referred to as “spray and pray“). This means that the difference between semi-automatic and automatic rifles is not as great in practice as a comparison of theoretical bullets-per-minute would imply.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because of the technicalities of the way the ban on automatic-weapons is written (it’s actually a policy, not a ban, but I digress), there’s a simple way to circumvent it and get a rifle that, for all practical purposes, behaves like a genuine, military, full-auto rifle. It’s called bump-firing, and here’s an advertisement for a specialized stock designed to make it easy for anyone with a standard AR-15 (or similar rifle) to get what is very nearly identical to an automatic weapon.

The guns in that video are all technically semi-automatic because you have to pull the trigger once per bullet, but the stock is spring-loaded so that the entire gun bounces rapidly back and forth. The effect is basically to move the exact same functionality of automatic-fire weapons outside the gun by incorporating the shooters arm and trigger finger into a hybrid mechanism that, though technically legal, is effectively an automatic weapon.

Bump-firing is not identical to regular autoamtic weapon fire. It requires a little bit more practice and skill to use, but it shrinks the gap between civilian and military weapons even more. So far the only reason that no one has used this kind of weapon in a school shooting is what I’ve alluded to already: they don’t have to. (And why haven’t there been calls to ban it? Probably because the gun-control folks don’t actually know enough about the weapons they are trying to ban to have any clue that this exists.)

Thus you can see that the bright line that the conservatives draw between civilian and military weapons is also basically invented. Weapons are weapons. In military or self-defense situations, the very minor differences are potentially vitally important, but for the question of criminal violence–and especially mass shootings–they don’t really matter. Anything designed to reliably protect someone from a bear is going to be more than enough to kill other  human beings rapidly, easily, and in great numbers. (After all: if you make the bear-hunting rifle single-shot, it’s not much good to someone who might miss or only injure the animal with the first round.) There is no such thing as a bright-line between military and civilian weapons, because lethality is a very complicated formula that depends not only on a number of tradeoffs like power-per-bullet vs. number-of-bullets, but also on that situation. Keep in mind that the vast majority of murders in the United States are carried out with handguns, not rifles. Handguns shoot smaller, slower bullets than rifles do, but they are so easy to carry and hide that they more than make up for the decreased firepower. They are more deadly for civilian use (where concealment is vital), but less deadly on the battlefield (where trying to hide a gun would be absurd).

Some of the bombs that didn’t explode at the elementary school in Bath Township, Michigan. (They failed to detonate when the timer went off.) The ones that did explode killed 38 elementary school children and 6 adults.

And, on a final note, the next “record-breaking” (I’m using heavy sarcasm there, and we’ll get to it soon) school-shooting isn’t going to be a shooting. The original plan at Columbine was to set off a large propane bomb in the cafeteria. The killers made the bomb, hid it in a duffle  bag, and planted it in the cafeteria. No one noticed it, but luckily they screwed up and it never went off. Had it detonated, the death toll would have been in the mid-hundreds. In all, almost 100 bombs of varying sizes were used during the attack, but most of them were smaller and used only after the shooting started and were relatively harmless compared to the gunfire. The obsession with scary guns completely neglects the fact that the most deadly school attack in US history was based on bombs, although a lot of them failed to go off as well. One day, we’re going to see an attack with a competent high-school or college bomb-maker do in their school what happened in Oklahoma in 1995, and the death toll is going to be truly horrific. Maybe we should make bombs illegal?

Mental Health Laws

The first problem here is that there’s no evidence that shooters “snap” because of mental illness. Yes, some of the killers suffer from mental illness. So, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, do 26.2% of all adult Americans in any given year. The idea that you can predict a mass-killer based on mental health is a dangerous fantasy based on the false hope that there’s something qualitatively different about evil people who do evil things. We want to restore a sense of safety and order to the world by categorizing people who do horrible things as fundamentally unlike us, but they are not. They are, by and large, just regular people who make evil decisions. It’s a dangerous idea because measures that allow psychologists or psychiatrists to easily rule that their patients ought to have their weapons confiscated are going to do incredible harm just when so many of our returning soldiers are in crucial need of mental health care. Do you think that counselors who know that in the rare event that a patient kills someone they will be blamed are going to err on the side of gun rights? And do you think that many Americans who treasure their Second Amendment rights are going to believe or even exaggerate this, and therefore avoid treatment they might otherwise seek out? The potential for irresponsible, counterproductive, and dangerous legislation is very, very high in the area.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for reform, however. There absolutely is. The big problem is not that the mentally ill are escaping blacklists (although that is a problem and it should be addressed, but carefully). The big problem is the rampant de-institutionalization of mental health in this country.

A second explanation is the deinstitutionalization of the violently mentally ill. A 2000 New York Times study of 100 rampage murderers found that 47 were mentally ill. In the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law (2008), Jason C. Matejkowski and his co-authors reported that 16% of state prisoners who had perpetrated murders were mentally ill.

In the mid-1960s, many of the killings would have been prevented because the severely mentally ill would have been confined and cared for in a state institution. But today, while government at most every level has bloated over the past half-century, mental-health treatment has been decimated. According to a study released in July by the Treatment Advocacy Center, the number of state hospital beds in America per capita has plummeted to 1850 levels, or 14.1 beds per 100,000 people.

Moreover, a 2011 paper by Steven P. Segal at the University of California, Berkeley, “Civil Commitment Law, Mental Health Services, and U.S. Homicide Rates,” found that a third of the state-to-state variation in homicide rates was attributable to the strength or weakness of involuntary civil-commitment laws.

There is absolutely a crucial need to reform the mental healthcare system in this country, but  it is mired in the larger budget crisis (or perception thereof) which–not coincidentally–has healthcare costs at its very heart. The treatment of the mentally ill is actually something I want to spend an entire post on, so suffice it to say there is absolutely critical work that needs to be done in this area and that can have a real effect. It’s just neither as glamorous or emotionally satisfying as going after guns that look scary, no matter how irrelevant. (And, to the extent that budget-hawk Republicans stand in the way, they are absolutely culpable for the deaths that result. I’m not giving anyone a pass on this.)

The Gun Show Loophole

First, a quick explanation. If you are licensed firearms dealer, then you have to run background checks on everyone who buys weapons from you. But if you are a private citizen, then you don’t need to run background checks. This is terrifying or completely ordinary, depending on how you look at it. For example, ordinary citizens can go sell guns at a gun-show (they just can’t sell across state lines), and that’s where the name “gun show loophole” comes from. The frequently-cited statistic is that 40% of guns are bought this way, but it’s very misleading. Of that 40%, the vast majority are actually sales or transfer between personal friends and family (for example: buying a handgun for your daughter on her 21st birthday). That takes us from 40% to 11%, but once you deduct mail-order guns (which do require a background check, but at a different stage in the process) you’re down to 8%. About half of those (4%) are actually from gun shows, but most of the people who sell at gun shows are actually professional dealers (who have to run background checks, even at gun shows). A survey of actual felons convicted of gun-related crimes found that only 0.7% acquired them from a gun show. (Stats from the Washington Times.)

Still, even 0.7% seems too high to allow just anyone to walk up and buy a gun without any background check at all. It makes sense to work to close this loophole. The problem is that most efforts to close the loophole are not targeted at gun shows, but target all private sales and transfers including the example of a father giving his daughter a gift. Lots of gun collectors resent the idea that their family heirlooms would be traced in a government database, and the problem is severely exacerbated by the fact that requiring a background check for all sales and transfers would over time effectively created a comprehensive gun database. Although I sincerely believe that liberals who claim not to want to come and grab all the guns are telling the truth, there is a vocal minority among liberals who do want to grab all the guns (and some of them are Senators), and they all acknowledge the the first step is to compile a database. You can’t confiscate ’em if you don’t know where to find ’em.

The essential problem here is a failure of trust. If conservatives truly believed that their Second Amendments were not under fire, there would be much less resistance to a comprehensive database. Chicago is currently considering a law that would require gun-owners to immediately report the loss or theft of their firearms, for example, so that if a murder weapon is traced back to an owner they can’t just say “Oh, yeah… I lost that 5 years ago and forget to tell anyone.” There are obvious practical benefits to this, but as long as the liberals continue to talk about making exceptions for “hunters and sportsmen” (thereby omitting self-defense as a reasonable grounds to own a firearm), the gun culture will passionately resist anything that could possibly result in the formation of a comprehensive database.

This is an area where I would really like to see compromise. I would very much like to see the loophole closed and guns more carefully monitored, but liberals need to work to build bridges by being willing to make meaningful concessions to the Second Amendment as a statement about self-defense. As long as the emphasis is on irrational and baseless laws that have no realistic impact on either crime or shooting, there will be no compromise on this issue, and that will continue to fuel the pervasive existence of guns in the hands of criminals.

Modest Proposals

The theme for my proposals is this: compromise.

I believe that tighter regulation of guns, including addressing the gun-show loophole and making citizens responsible to report when their guns are lost or stolen, is both useful and within the  bounds of the Second Amendment. I think that in practice a comprehensive firearm database would be too hard to implement and offer very little benefit, but a database targeted at handguns (which do most of the damage) might actually have a real impact for good.

The problem, however, is that there’s a vocal minority on the American left that wants to use such measures as a beachhead to ban all guns. In addition, there is deep distrust caused by the cultural schism between the right and the left. In a world where a comprehensive gun ban was really off the table, I believe virtually all opposition to comprehensive databases would evaporate. But we don’t live in that world, we live in that one. And so there are two things we can do.

Regulate People, Not Guns

The first is to emphasize regulating people rather than firearms. For example, most concealed carry licenses require mandatory training, but the training is a joke. In Virginia you don’t even need any range time. You can take a 4-hour class (and get fingerprinted) and you get a concealed carry permit without ever firing a gun in your life. Now, this isn’t quite as bad as it sounds because most people who make the serious decision to carry a concealed handgun are dedicated gun enthusiasts who spend hundreds of hours at the range. But, as concealed carry spreads beyond the core population of gun-enthusiasts to the broader population, it makes sense to enact much more rigorous standards. A mandatory 20 hours of training including 8 hours and hundreds of rounds at the range over a minimum of a 4-week period seems like a good starting point. A standardized curriculum, serious written and practical tests, and regular re-certification requirements all make sense to me as well. People who get this concealed carry permit could then, with photo ID, purchase weapons quickly and easily without any need to track the guns that they had purchased. They could still be required to report the loss or theft of a weapon, but this would mean that the government would have a list of lost and stolen guns but not of rightfully purchased and owned guns. Private gun-owners could also buy, sell, and trade with other concealaed carry permit holders without the need for additional background checks. (In practice, I know that a lot of private individuals already refuse to sell to anyone who doesn’t have a concealed carry permit to avoid allowing guns to get into the wrong hands.) This would close–or at least drastically tighten–the gun show loophole and make citizens responsible for reporting lost/stolen guns without constructing a database that could be used for any kind of a gun seizure. That’s step one.

Empower Concealed Carry Holders

The second step would be to increase the freedom of those who lawfully carry concealed weapons. As Jeffrey Goldberg argued in the Atlantic, ” it is generally better to shoot back than to cower and pray.” This is a notable statement because Goldberg is not a member of the gun-enthusiast movement (notice that he even cites that fake 40% number about the gun show loophole). Goldberg questions several members of the gun-control crowd about whether or not an armed citizen could have prevented mass shootings, and their answers reflect their unwillingness to even think rationally about the question. “That kind of speculation doesn’t solve anything,” said the father of a victim of the Columbine massare. “I don’t know if that person might have shot my son accidentally.” This is a strange response, given that the worst did happen to his son. He was killed. How could a teacher trying to oppose the gunmen have made matters worse? DC mayor Vincent Gray, who is protected by armed guards, was even more dogmatic: “There are those who believe that if they have a weapon, they can combat crime, but I don’t think that way.” Other gun control advocates talked about how they believed that concealed carry permit laws would turn the streets into a bloodbath, and they clung to those views even when the statistics proved them wrong. John Gilchrest–legislative counsel for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police which unsuccessfully opposed Ohio’s 2004 law to allow concealed carry–stated that he “he tracks gun usage anecdotally” (I wish I was making this up), and that he’s confident that since the law accidents and murders have gone up. But there’s  no reason to guess. The statistics are in, and “the firearm crime rate in Ohio remained steady after the concealed-carry law passed in 2004.”

Goldberg’s article is great because he digs into some of the deeper levels of the issue beyond just the murder rate or mass-killing rate. He notes, for example, that in the United States (where guns are everywhere) only 13% of burglaries happen when the owners at home. In the UK, where guns are strictly forbidden, 45% of burglaries are “hot”. Are gun-owners really the explanation for this discrepancy? Well: “A survey of almost 2,000 convicted U.S. felons, conducted by the criminologists Peter Rossi and James D. Wright in the late ’80s, concluded that burglars are more afraid of armed homeowners than they are of arrest by the police.” So: yeah, I’d say they are.

And then, at the end of the article, Goldberg gets to the absolute worst of this entire issue: the stubborn refusal of schools and universities to have a conversation about mass-shootings that even remotely resembles reality. Here are recommendations from various colleges–all of which have strict no-gun policies–when it comes to dealing with an armed attacker:

  • Wichita State University counsels students in the following manner: “If the person(s) is causing death or serious physical injury to others and you are unable to run or hide you may choose to be compliant, play dead, or fight for your life.”
  • The University of Miami guidelines suggest that when all else fails, students should act “as aggressively as possible” against a shooter. The guidelines, taken from a Department of Homeland Security directive, also recommend “throwing items and improvising weapons,” as well as “yelling.”
  • Otterbein University, in Ohio, tells students to “breathe to manage your fear” and informs them, “You may have to take the offensive if the shooter(s) enter your area. Gather weapons (pens, pencils, books, chairs, etc.) and mentally prepare your attack.”
  • West Virginia University advises students that if the situation is dire, they should “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” These items could include “student desks, keys, shoes, belts, books, cell phones, iPods, book bags, laptops, pens, pencils, etc.”
  • The University of Colorado at Boulder’s guidelines state, “You and classmates or friends may find yourselves in a situation where the shooter will accost you. If such an event occurs, quickly develop a plan to attack the shooter … Consider a plan to tackle the shooter, take away his weapon, and hold him until police arrive.”

So you should “fight for your life” with “pens, pencils, books, chairs, etc” but you’re not allowed to actually have a weapon that would be of some use. Why? Well, it comes back to culture again, unfortunately. Universities are completely dominated by the people who are at the very core of the gun-control movement, and who view weapons with reason-numbing fear. A Colorado legislator who is trying to get the gun-ban there reinstated (public universities in college are prohibited by their Supreme Court from banning guns) said: “If discussions in class escalated, the mere fact that someone is potentially armed could have an inhibiting effect on the classroom. This is genuinely scary to faculty members.” Fear, not common sense, is driving policy.

There’s no better example of that then the following ABC “report” that was designed to try and prove that concealed-carry couldn’t possibly help prevent a mass shooting.

A quick list of the biggest problems with this experiment is that the participants weren’t actually concealed carry permit holders. There’s a huge difference between someone who thinks “maybe that’s interesting” and someone who has already gone through the process of deciding that they want to make carrying a loaded firearm part of their life. It’s not an easy decision to make. Furthermore, people who carry concealed weapons carefully select their clothes and holsters and usually practice to ensure they can draw reliably, but these individuals were given holsters, guns, and clothes they didn’t choose. Note the ridiculously long shirts, which are hardly optimal for drawing. In addition to that, they were all wearing gloves. You try and draw a pistol from under a long shirt while wearing gloves when you’ve never held a gun  before in your life. How would you do? Then there’s the fact that, rather than facing amateurs like the shooters at Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and basically every mass-shooting ever, they were facing armed professionals who had the added benefit of knowing that they were firing blanks (and therefore had no inhibitions) and of knowing who and where in the class the armed students were.

The ABC producers doubled the bad-guy count when they had someone in the experiment that had any experience with guns, and it seems clear from the helmet-cam that immediately after taking out the professor the “bad guy” explicitly targeted the armed individual. That’s not a mass-shooter. That’s a professional assassin. And yet–despite all that–Danielle actually manages to draw, fire, and hit her attacker. That is, quite frankly, stunning, but the report emphasizes the fact that she stood while firing (not a great idea) and that she also took a round. Which, bummer for her, but was that really any worse than what would have happened if she was unarmed?

Watching that report you would think that having a gun does you no good despite the fact that it actually did a lot of good in at least one of the test runs and did no harm in any of them. But there’s really no reason to just speculate endlessly about this. Civilians have already used handguns to stop in-progress mass shootings. The Volokh Conspiracy has one listSlate has another.

Concealed carry holders are not super heroes who can prevent all crime, and they are not the answer to every violence problem, but there is absolutely no rational, evidence-based reason for preventing them from doing whatever little they can to protect themselves and–more importantly–those around them. People who have concealed carry permits are generally not carrying because they fear for their  own lives. They do it because they want to be able to protect their families, their friends, and even complete strangers. And when the cops are minutes away, they are the only thing that can stop an unfolding massacre.

And yet when I go to school to pick up or drop off my kids, I have to leave my gun in the car. This is less safe (requiring me to take it off and put it back on), prone to scaring people if I’m not very careful to be unobserved, and obviously means that I couldn’t actually protect my child if something did happen while I was there. Schools are “gun-free zones”, which is another way of saying “a place where killers know their victims can’t fight  back”. This is why virtually every mass-shooting in modern American history has happened at a gun-free zone. If we’re going to increase the standards and training for our concealed carry permits, we should also allow them to go wherever it’s easy for bad guys to take guns. No more fake gun-free zones.

Private property is trickier. If a place of business wants to forbid firearms, that’s their right. I think it’s stupid and I hope that one day they are found liable for the needless deaths that result, but I am not eager to curtail private property rights. I will say, however, that I do not think that businesses should be legally allowed to bar their employees from carrying concealed guns in their cars. If my company bans guns in their own space, that is one thing, but barring me from having a gun in my car effectively disarms me completely, and I do not think that is justifiable nor should it be legal. A car should be sort of like an embassy: a little piece of my own private property even when its in a company parking lot.

Those are my two suggestions for new gun laws:

  1. Regulate people rather than guns by increasing concealed carry permit requirements and using them to tighten the  noose on the gun show loophole and create a lost/stolen gun database
  2. Get rid of fake gun-free zones and allow concealed carry permit holders to try and protect themselves and others

I have one additional suggestion, but it’s not a legal one.

Stop Glorifying Mass Killers

American reporter James Foley was kidnapped at gunpoint in Syria on November 22, 2012, but you didn’t hear about it at the time. Nobody did. The entire media establishment implemented a total blackout on the story to protect Mr. Foley. There was no legal requirement to do this. No law compelled them, and no government official made a deal or offered favors. I’m not endangering Foley or anything, by the way. His family went public more than  month after his abduction and then–and only then–media outlets began to report on the story. But for 44 days they kept the lid on a big, important story because journalists know how to protect their own. Your kids, though? Not so much.

The fact is that media coverage of mass-killings leads to more mass-killings. This is the simplest explanation for why, at a time when overall gun violence is falling dramatically, spree-killings are on the rise. As David Kopel writes:

Since gun controls today are far stricter than at the time when “active shooters” were rare, what can account for the increase in these shootings? One plausible answer is the media. Cable TV in the 1990s, and the Internet today, greatly magnify the instant celebrity that a mass killer can achieve. We know that many would-be mass killers obsessively study their predecessors.

Loren Coleman’s 2004 book “The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines” shows that the copycat effect is as old as the media itself. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 classic “The Sorrows of Young Werther” triggered a spate of copycat suicides all over Europe. But today the velocity and pervasiveness of the media make the problem much worse.

The media’s ability to sit on a story when one of their own is at risk shows that you can’t just blame this on the fact that the audience wants to know. The audience always wants to know, but if journalists want to have any integrity as human  beings, they ought to develop a capacity for some common sense. Just to reiterate: I’m not calling for any laws or penalties. I’m calling for some human decency.

Why was it that reporters on-the-site at Newton were interviewing first-graders before we even had a body count? And don’t tell me they got parental permission, do you think any parent is in their right mind at that moment? People do weird things in a crisis, and that was simply not OK. Or take the fact that even articles purportedly about the funeral of Charles Albert Poland, Jr–the bus driver who was killed trying to save his kids from being kidnapped–spent far more words talking about the kidnapper than they did about the hero. Going back to Newton again, the media was falling all over itself to get the killer’s name out there in 100-point font to the extent that they ran with the wrong guy’s name first, which could easily have compounded the tragedy.

I’m not calling for censorship.  I’m not saying we should never know these guys names. The info is all there on Wikipedia if you want it, and that’s fine. Including the names, once or twice, in a story makes sense once they are identified. But the pages and pages of speculation into motives, digging into their past, posting every damn photo of them you can find starting with the baby pictures, this has just got to stop. Immortality in our societal memory is something that should be reserved for the truly greats. For the scientists and the poets and the heroes. Sports stars too, if you must. It’s bad enough that we elevate politicians to celebrity status, but murderers? People who shoot children? They deserve a crown of glory?

They don’t, but that’s what we’re giving them. So far I’ve managed to write well over 10,000 words over the past three days about gun violence and not use a single name of a single killer. Not a single picture. It’s just not that hard. And I’m not even asking for the media to go that far, I’m just saying they could move the dial down from 11 to something like 3 or 4. It’s a matter of principle, and it’s a matter of safety, too. The way that the media talked about the Newton body count made you think that we were counting box office returns or consecutive free-throws to see if a new record was going to be set. And then when it wasn’t, you could almost sense the disappointment. Well, have no fear, there’s someone out there who for whatever twisted reason wants to get our attention and get their name recorded in history, and now they know the simplest, easiest way to do it.

The next time someone shoots up a school or a church or a restaurant or an office–and there will be a next time–when the bombs go off and the body count rises like one of the games at a county fair, keep in mind that the reason they’re doing it is, at least in part, because we keep handing out prize.

Final Thoughts

I’ve covered a lot and I’ve written too much, but I wanted to get this off my chest. Despite the fact that we’ve got opposing cultures here in America, I believe there can still be compromise and common ground. We all want what’s best for our kids, and if we are rational, open-minded, and give each other the benefit of the doubt we can come up with solutions that–while not optimal–are improvements. I think that I’ve proposed some here, and I also hope that I’ve put out some useful information that will help people be more informed about this issue.

The stripped down part in the bottom is the (lower) receiver. As far as the law is concerned, that is the firearm. It’s also the part you can 3d-print.

There’s one last thing to consider, however, which is that all this talk about gun control might already be a century out of date. Glenn Beck’s The Blaze (of all places) has a run down on the WikiWeapons project, which aims “to create freely available plans for printable 3d guns.” Right now the materials that you can use in 3d printers are not strong enough to create an entire gun, just the receiver. In United States law, however, the receiver technically is the gun, even though it doesn’t include a barrel or other necessary parts for a functioning firearm. So you could just take a gun barrel and other components (all of which are not regulated because they are not technically a gun) and then print your own receiver and magazine. High-cap mags banned? Print your own. Full-auto banned? Print your own.

This isn’t just theory, either. Defense Distributed has already printed and used a 30-round AR-15 magazine.

The world’s first partially 3d printed gun was also fired last year. It’s a .22 caliber “pistol” made by 3d-printing out the lower receiver and then adding on a commercial upper-receiver. The resulting gun has been successfully fired more than 200-times.

The world’s first partially 3d-printed firearm. Yes, it works.

Of course legislators are already talking about banning 3d printing of guns, but the problem is that the same 3d printer that can make you a nice plastic tea set for your kids can also churn out the lower receiver for your firearm. What are they going to do, ban the digital blueprints? Ask the RIAA how squelching illegal file-trading has worked for them. This just shows that while we’re all busy arguing with each other about how to regulate 20th century weapons, 21st century weapons are already starting to arrive. It’s also another reason that I think focusing on regulating people is better than regulating guns.

The reality is: guns are here to stay. We’ve got to learn how best to live with them.

9 thoughts on “The Gun Control Post (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Okay, 30-06 is the caliber/rifle name. Just wanted to toss that out there. Of the rounds in your picture I’ve fired .22, .223, .308, .30-06, and the .300 Winmag. I’ve also fired a few non standard rifle rounds. Of all those the .300 winmag kicked more than I liked (I fired all of 2 rounds total). Of the others my hunting rifle is the 30-06 because I want to be sure what I shoot goes down whatever size it may be.

    To split hairs, I believe the pistol and shotgun are slightly modified to handle shooting faster, but it’s still not anything that makes it into a class that causes problems. The cyclic rate of a fire arm that is semi auto is dependent on a few things for it’s speed and while the 60-75 is slower than what is capable from an AR-15 most people without a little training can’t shoot reliable higher than that. By little, I mean an hour or two and they will need some capacity to keep the muzzle in a proper direction. I’d say it’s more about 90 unless you have a 100 round drum that can be relied upon to not jam (which is actually fairly common).

    I honestly wouldn’t mind ‘closing the gunshow loophole’ but exemptions should be made for transfers within family. I don’t plan on selling my guns, though one day it may happen if none of my children want mine. However I don’t see paying someone $20+ just to tell me something I already know about my children.

    I concur completely with creating a more strict and set requirement for not only range time but better teaching in concealed carry classes. I think it’s a great idea despite the fact that it would mean I would be required to spend more time to get mine (I plan on doing so this fall).

    The ABC ‘proof’ thing is all crap. It just shows that your average citizen is neither prepared or ready to be handed a gun, shown which end is the bad end and then stuck in a small classroom. Not to mention they were seated front and center in every single one. Everything they did is nothing I would have done, and the end result is that it proves their lack of trying to actually cover the issue.

    Just to be clear on that notion, a point which you bring up, I know atleast one person who has a CCW permit and has to my knowledge never had to use it. Instead he uses persuasion, talking, and de-escalation measures to try to resolve or get out of sticky situations that he’s encountered over the years. Just because you run into a confrontation doesn’t mean you pull out the gun and use it. In fact I would think having one would make some more inclined to take confrontations completely differently than if they didn’t have a gun.

    The reason the lower receiver is considered the ‘gun’ is because it contains the firing mechanism (trigger, hammer, springs and such to make it work).

  2. Many of the things you said were pertinent, and it transitions well between topics within the subject. It’s not always about how long it is but how well it reads.

  3. I wanted to say thanks for doing this series. Had to read it in spurts (kids tugging at pant legs, you know) but I made it through the whole thing! For someone like myself who is uninitiated into gun culture and whose gut reaction to guns is the typical liberal abhorrence, I found it very informative and useful. I really, really appreciate the lengths you went to to explain the liberal and conservative approaches to gun control in empathetic ways. That kind of respect for the humanity and intelligence of people you disagree with is something I wish I could say I saw more often. :(

    (This may be my first comment, but I should confess that I’m a long time fan of your writing and am really enjoying your blog now that you’ve started one. Especially loved your epistemic humility series at T&S – it gave a name to a subject that has been on my mind for years!)

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