In the interest of offering content both didactic and accessible, the following Serious Topic will not include proper source support. This means you shouldn’t believe any of it. If you find the discussion compelling, however, I encourage you to pursue a more demonstrable truth.
Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, there’s been a lot of discussion about gun control, and naturally, the public discourse on the subject has been pretty poor. It never ceases to amaze me how even the most basic of syllogisms seems the farthest place from where people want to start the discussion. Criticism of politicians, the media, etc., aside, I’d like to talk about how we should think about the gun control issue.
It will perhaps serve me first to inoculate against any potential accusation of political bias; in fact, though I’m Republican, I’ve never fired a weapon before (nor owned one), and I really have no objection to harsher gun control (or even a firearms ban). I simply remain unconvinced doing so would be sound policy.
Whenever a highly-publicized tragedy occurs, people get reactionary. Making sweeping policy decisions at these moments isn’t advisable, however, and even sad stories like Sandy Hook deserve a measured response. In fact, the amount of outrage we want to feel over school shootings is itself a symptom of our socialization. Every day, many more people die from, for example, car accidents. We feel no outrage until we know one of them. It’s fallacious to an extent to compare the two—car accidents are the result of necessary daily activity ubiquitously performed and mass shootings aren’t—but keep in mind also that car accidents are just as preventable as mass shootings. We as a society could opt to lower speed limits, raise the age of eligibility for a license, increase the force of highway patrol officers, improve public transportation, and make any number of other adjustments to save lives. We don’t. Why not?
Well, ultimately, it’s a question of money. It’s less than romantic to think about the problem this way—it even seems morally perverted—but we have collectively decided that getting to work a little faster, having a little more leeway on the road, and spending less time in traffic are worth thousands dying every year. Every time we speed, we are implying that the value we gain in reaching our destination sooner is greater than the risk of death or injury to ourselves and others.
I’ve gone a bit afield with this allegorical argument. What does this have to do with gun control? Well, two things. First, it goes to show that the tragedy of death does not excuse a reasonable approach to the problem. Second, it demonstrates what that reasonable approach is: A balancing test between cost (or risk) and benefit (or gain). Pro tip: This is true for pretty much any decision you can make.
So in the context of gun control, where the goal is presumably to limit unnecessary injury and loss of life, the salient question is: Would stiffening gun control protect more lives than it endangers?
Seems logical enough. But here’s where the rational analysis breaks down, and I think it’s because we just don’t have enough information. Lots of people think that the widespread ownership of guns in this country is a deterrent to crime, increases the odds of positive civilian intervention during attacks, and creates a general air of security.
I think this is true. Knowing guns are out there seems like it should deter anyone looking to transgress. Some reports have shown higher crime rates against tourists in states allowing concealed carry permits, and I read somewhere (quite memorably) that even during World War II the Japanese opted against a ground assault against the United States in part because they knew such a large proportion of the civilian population was armed. Also, lost in the Sandy Hook coverage was another attempted mass shooting that was quickly squelched by a civilian (actually he might have been off-duty military) who plugged the would-be shooter in the chest before he could do any harm.
So this is to say that guns to offer some value. Now to qualify this. I’ve never seen a study or report supporting this position that I find reliable. I also have no way to quantify that value against the potential downsides of liberal gun allowances.
Advocates for higher gun control point to lower rates of gun violence overseas and to the disturbing number of mass shootings we see here in the States. They have good points. Even if a snap reaction to the tune of “people got shot so guns must go away” is inappropriate, mass shootings are a real problem—not to mention all the accidental deaths we see every year.
But even here the analysis leaves much to be desired. In fact, our world doesn’t offer what you’d call a “sufficient sample size.” It’s appalling to me how often totally unsubstantiated claims are given the illusion of reasonableness with an example from another country. On a planet where every country has a different culture, history, and system of laws, it’s difficult to draw meaningful comparisons. It’s possible to point out low gun violence rates in the U.K. and conclude that stricter gun control would draw similar results in the U.S., but there are plenty of other countries with much less strict gun control laws who share in the U.K.’s low violence rates and plenty others with strict laws who share our violence problem. If we had a thousand universes across which to test our laws, we could find an optimal solution. We don’t. So instead we have to accept that there’s only one intellectually honest to our fundamental question.
Would stronger gun control laws reduce the overall loss of innocent life? We don’t know.
The United States is a violent country. Our gun violence rates are much higher than those of many other Western European countries (who, though I maintain my reservations about any comparisons, offer the best match), but so are our non-firearm-related violence rates. We’re just a violent people. This just highlights another good reason why comparisons between us and, say, the Swedes are often less than apt. But we let our violent people buy guns! That’s scary, right?
Unfortunately, we just don’t have a test for “are you going to use this to kill innocent people?” We argue about gun control as if waiting periods and psychological screening will solve the problem. Preventing the small sector of the population we want not to have guns would mean preventing a huge swath of the population from having guns—including those who we can all agree should be allowed (i.e., those responsible gun owners who pose zero threat to society and produce some value with the weapon). Well, everyone reasonable can agree on that point, anyway.
Then again, screening out that large swath of the population is also going to weed out gun users who detract from society via the use of their weapon, but who also aren’t risks for mass shootings. I don’t know what you imagine that is, but I think of a thief who uses a gun to threaten people but wouldn’t actually shoot anyone. I doubt there are a lot of these people, but it would be unfair not to consider them.
Finally, let’s just get real here: How much would gun control even matter? It’s true that most perpetrators of the sorts of shootings that get so much public attention attain their guns legally. However, I wonder what overall percentage of guns used for murder are obtained legally? People are shot dead every day—for example, in cities (ask Detroit)—and the coverage is minimal because the victim wasn’t 20-something children. But isn’t it arbitrary to weigh the victims of high-profile shootings with legally-obtained guns more heavily than the victims of ignored shootings with illegally-obtained guns? And are we really convinced that making it illegal for the unbalanced would-be shooters among us to obtain a weapon (even if we had some flawless way of doing so) would prevent them from getting guns anyway?
The conclusion is inevitable. We don’t know whether increasing gun control would have the net effect of protecting innocent life. We don’t know whether it would even have the effect of keeping guns away from people we don’t want to have guns. And we don’t know how the externalities of gun control would affect society on the whole.
So we’re operating on hunches here, and perhaps poorly-drawn data (no better than a hunch, and probably worse). So here are my hunches:
-I think that for gun control to actually reduce the number of innocent lives lost, it would need to broader than is politically possible right now, and many years to adjust and acclimate would be required. I think a half-hearted attempt at gun control will take the weapons only from those who least wish to use them, and those are exactly the people we want in possession of guns.
-I think the black market for guns will move inversely proportionally to the legal market for guns. This is the same argument everyone makes for weed; why are guns so different? The product is different, sure—guns kill people—but the market dynamic isn’t.
-I think America’s gun culture is so strong that guns will remain ubiquitous, regardless of the law, for years and years to come.
What a miserable argument though. A good statistician (or actuary) will agree that with any guess or projection, the only certain thing is that the anticipated result is not quite the real result. And that’s when we’re dealing with good information. Here we’ve got nothing but outrage, tears, and a wasteland of fallacy.