How not to argue for gun control

The Sandy Hook shootings were brutal; the gun control debate has reignited. I tried to make some sense of the debate by looking at the numbers involved, but it didn’t work out well. The numbers simply don’t provide a compelling case for gun control. If we want to argue for gun control, we need a different angle.

Let’s look at the numbers. In any given year, the chance of being murdered by firearm is the chance that you meet a murderer times the chance that the person actually has a gun to kill you with with (and manages to shoot you successfully). In the United States, the yearly rate of deaths by firearm due to homicide is 3.7 out of every 100,000 [1]. The average rate of gun ownership is 88.8% (wow!) [2]. With these numbers we can back-calculate a rough idea of the “craziness rate”: the average chance of encountering a crazy person who want to shoot you (and does so successfully). The resulting craziness rate is about 4.2 in 100,000.

(Yes, I accept that this is a really simple calculation that leaves out plenty of stuff including the facts that many murders aren’t totally random, that some people own many guns and that some murderers kill multiple people. It still gives us a rough idea of the size of the problem.)

For comparison, in Canada, a similar country with somewhat similar gun laws, the ownership rate is 30.8% [2], the death rate is 0.76 per 100,000 [1], and the resulting craziness rate is 2.5 out of every 100,000 – roughly two-thirds of the craziness rate in the U.S. Keeping the craziness rate in the U.S. unchanged, we would need to reduce guns to 20% of the current level to reduce the death rate to Canada’s level. Or we could work on the craziness rate and make it less likely that somebody out there wants to kill us.

Opponents of gun control will argue that more guns will actually reduce the craziness rate so much so to counteract the fact that there are more guns in the first place. Let’s test this. If we assume that all Americans are armed (100% gun ownership), we would need the craziness rate to drop to 0.76 per 100,000 to reach the mortality rate of Canada. That would be over an 80% reduction! It seems hard to believe that more guns can lower the rate by that much; and if they did lower it by that much, we need to ask if that world of fear is a world we’d like to live in.

So far, this is sounding like a good case for gun control, but a bit more context shatters the argument. It turns out that gun deaths just aren’t that common. For instance, driving fatalities in the U.S. are much higher at 12.3 per 100,000 [3]. There are no big news stories about driving fatalities; it’s a number we seem willing to live with. The top five causes of death are heart disease, malignant neoplasms, chronic lower respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, and accidents. The first two have death rates over 280 per 100,000 and they alone account for just under half of all deaths [4]. If all we care about is reducing the mortality rate, there are many causes of death that should frighten us much more than death by firearm.

But, alas, our brains work strangely – illogically – at times. In this case, we’re succumbing to the availability heuristic, our tendency to think that just because we hear about something a lot, it is happening a lot. It especially happens with dramatic events like airplane crashes or mass shootings, and our sensationalist news media has a lot to do with it. Compare the news coverage about Sandy Hook with the death of ten afghan girls who stepped on a mine just a few days later. Both stories are terrible tragedies for the people and communities. One story dominated the headlines for days; the other just flew by without much notice. The death rates for the two are quite similar [5] but we certainly don’t feel that way in our gut.

Speaking personally, the trouble is that I still do support significant tightening of gun regulations in the US. I just can’t find a rational, data-based argument for it. More precisely, I can’t find an argument for gun control consistent with utilitarianism (which roughly speaking seeks to minimize suffering and maximize happiness). Gun deaths just don’t affect the overall rates of suffering all that much.

If we can’t use cold, numerical calculus to argue for gun control, how can we argue for it? That’s another topic for another day, but we need to, because this it makes zero sense to me that this gun, a mildly handicapped, military-grade weapon, is in the hands of my neighbor… and in the hands of psychos who want to shoot up schools.

An AR-15 like the one that shot up Sandy Hook

An AR-15 like the one that shot up Sandy Hook (image from Wikipedia Commons)


  4. (Table 1)
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13 Responses to How not to argue for gun control

  1. Pingback: The Single Best Anti-Gun-Death Policy? « YouViewed/Editorial

  2. danielmullin81 says:

    Well said. I noticed the availability heuristic at play in all of the media coverage. It’s easy to overestimate how many deaths are caused by gunshot. Having said that, however, I read that one’s chances of dying by gun shot (excluding suicide) in the US are still higher than dying by fire or natural disaster. But, you’re right, traffic accidents and cancer are much bigger concerns.

    I wonder if you’d be willing to push the argument in a more affirmative direction. In addition to arguing that guns don’t contribute that much to overall suffering (the negative side) one could also argue that guns may actually diminish it (the positive side). The availability bias makes it easy to count the mass shootings and ignore the many times when gun use — in which I include brandishing and pointing, not just firing — has protected life and property. Granted, these cases are under-reported, because the would-be victims, having gone through one ordeal with the assailant, don’t want to go through another with the police. Nevertheless, I suspect that just the reported cases of guns protecting life vastly outnumber the cases of mass shootings.

    P.S. I don’t have a horse in this race; I live in Canada, which, as you noted, has lower gun ownership and gun fatality statistics.

    • So I trust the thesis defense went well?

      It’s a good point you bring up, and I haven’t given it enough thought to say anything terribly detailed. I’m sure that there are cases such as the one you describe. I also seem to recall that there is a significant number of accidental deaths and injuries caused by a gun owned by the victim or close family members. In any case, I do plan on taking this article further. I try to keep everything under 1000 words and I had to cut quite a bit of material to keep this post limited in size. There’s a lot of stuff out there on gun control.

      • danielmullin81 says:

        Yes, the defense went well, thanks. I’ll write more about it soon.

        I also may wade into the waters on the gun control issue once the emotions around the issue settle down a bit. In the meantime, a few of preliminary thoughts:

        1) Yes, obviously owning a gun increases the chance that you or a family member will be injured or killed by that gun. In the same way, having a swimming pool increases the risk of drowning. But that isn’t a prima facie reason for the state to get involved. Individuals will have to perform their own risk assessments.

        2) I’m not prone to macho posturing. I can’t imagine owning a gun myself. I do, however, feel safer knowing that my law-abiding neighbor does. It seems to me that gun ownership among the general population could have a salutary effect on crime. If the would-be assailant or home invader knows there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be met with armed resistance, he’ll have to perform a very different risk assessment. This keeps me, an unarmed citizen, safer than I would otherwise be.

        3) I’m wary of creating a society that criminalizes self-defense. I think we’re well on our way to that here in Canada and I suspect gun rights proponents in the US see us as the bottom of the slippery slope they warn about. This isn’t entirely without justification. There are restrictive laws here even with respect to non-lethal means of self-defense like mace. I’ve personally spoken to women who carry mace illegally. They reason that it’s better to risk the penalty than risk their lives. It strikes me as fundamentally immoral for the state to deny citizens the power to effectively protect themselves. In doing so, it only accomplishes two things: 1) empowering the criminals; 2) turning ordinary, law-abiding citizens into law-breakers because the law is ridiculous.

        • You make some sound points. There’s much more to say here than we can cover in the comments… I’ll try to address your comments more thoroughly in a future article. For now a few quick responses:

          1) The difference between a gun and a swimming pool is that the gun is a tool whose primary purpose is to kill. I think that an argument can be made – without much of a stretch – that the state has some role in regulating the use and access to weapons.

          2) While I agree with your comments about the utility of “good guys” having weapons at home to scare “bad guys” away for all of us, I am somewhat bothered by a paranoid person meeting me at the door with a gun when I come over to ask to borrow butter. I am downright afraid of widespread concealed weapons in public. Imagine the recent mall shooting if everyone had a concealed weapon – one stray shot from a bystander could have started an orgy of paranoid shooting.

          3) On the other hand, I am concerned about a society that places the burden of proof on a deceased alleged attacker, as the U.S. does in some jurisdictions with “stand your ground” and “castle” laws. I really don’t want to be shot dead with my killer getting off by just asserting that I was threatening him. As in everything, there are competing interests we need to balance.

          • Abandon TV says:

            “…The difference between a gun and a swimming pool is that the gun is a tool whose primary purpose is to kill….”

            The same can be said of ‘hands’. All killing carried out by humans (such as killing cows, chickens and occasionally other humans) is carried out using hands. Therefore by your argument we must chop off the hands of law abiding citizens. Only governments and law breaking criminals will then be in possession of hands and this will somehow make society safer…..?

            Of course guns (and hands) can (and often does) just as equally act as a deterrent to killing. But no one talks about this. It never makes the news.

            “…..I think that an argument can be made – without much of a stretch – that the state has some role in regulating the use and access to weapons….”

            How so? The state is the biggest example in the world of unregulated use and access to weapons. The state funds its own weapons addiction by stealing money from the public at gunpoint, printing money at gunpoint and stealing from future generations also at gunpoint. In terms of actual numbers of humans murdered (presumably a useful indication) the state is the number one most dangerous, immoral and reckless wielder of weapons on planet earth.

            Can you imagine some ‘lone nutter’ or even some non-government funded terrorist group successfully stealing half of everyones wages in order to build up a massive weapons arsenal, and then going on a massive killing spree and murdering a million civilians (including plenty of children) and getting away with it?

            …. and yet governments routinely get away with exactly that kind of behaviour. Blair and Bush have even been convicted of war crimes under the Geneva Convention and yet they STILL walk free….. and you think governments have a ‘role to play’ in all of this?!

            What about government gun confiscation policies throughout history? With such a serious issue as this shouldn’t we stick to facts, statistics and historical precedent instead of blind faith that THIS TIME it will somehow be ‘magically’ different?

            • The first comparison is wildly off base. Guns are tools designed by humans, primarily for killing. The main purpose of hands isn’t for killing.

              Regarding the other point, I concede that state violence is an important issue and it’s good that you continue bringing it up. I know that it’s impossible to side-step the issue completely, but part of the gun control argument has nothing to do with the state. Even if we lived in some anarchist (or libertarian if you wish) utopia, we would still need to come to agreements and make decisions. In that world, I would probably still argue that I don’t want my neighbors having military-grade guns (or hand grenades… or nukes). You may disagree with me and that’s fine, but these are two different points you’re arguing.

              It’s been fun dealing with dissenting views. I will be posting about two more articles on the topic, dealing with such issues as self-defense, the state, cultural issues, types of weapons, and more. I welcome your comments there.

              • Abandon TV says:

                “…The first comparison is wildly off base. Guns are tools designed by humans, primarily for killing. The main purpose of hands isn’t for killing….”

                1. State ‘gun control’ is enforced by guns (and cages, tasers, clubs etc). If you advocate state gun control you are advocating for good guys to use guns to disarm the public (which you believe will make the country safer). Therefore you are advocating for guns to be in the hands of good people (cops) so they can do good in society. Your ‘gun control’ stance is therefore based on the premise that guns can achieve GOOD in society.

                2. IN REALITY, state ‘gun control’ will predominantly have the EFFECT of disarming good guys (law abiding citizens) who are far more likely to obey the law and hand over their guns. We ALREADY KNOW that people who murder with guns have no regard for the law. One more set of laws is unlikely to sway them is it? Look at the history of all forms of prohibition. Gun trade will become hugely profitable as soon as it is driven underground. Crime and *associated violence* will increase (look at the drug wars as well as the violence associated with prostitution).

                3. Seeing as how ‘gun control’ advocates have *already admitted* that guns in the hands of good guys is their preferred method for achieving good, why not let law abiding citizens hang on to their guns, thus increasing the percentage of ‘good guy’ gun owners relative to ‘bad guy’ gun owners?

          • danielmullin81 says:

            Yes, we can’t cover everything in the comments section. May I suggest some further reading? This article ( especially section 5 and following addresses many of the concerns you raise. Also, this article ( analyzes the negative effects of the 1997 gun ban in the UK (prompted by a school shooting in Scotland, incidentally).

  3. Abandon TV says:

    – The number of people killed at Sandy Hook was half the average number of murders in the US per day.

    – The number of people murdered by governments in Iraq is about a million and Blair/ Bush have already been convicted of war crimes under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

    – Over the last century democide (death by the hand of government) has been calculated to be about 250,000,000 and that is NOT including government sponsored wars.

    If we want to reduce the numbers of murdered civilians it is clear that guns need to be taken away from the state, not the public. Yet this is not possible because we are all forced (at gunpoint) to fund government wars and the military industrial complex from our wages each week.

    If you refuse to fund them the government will eventually send round some hired thugs (dressed in matching blue uniforms and armed with tasers, clubs and guns) to kidnap you and lock you inside a cage. If you try to defend yourself or your property from this kidnapping (or if you try to escape the cage and return to you family and job) they will probably shoot you.

  4. Agreed: state sanctioned violence can far surpass the evil witnessed at Sandy Hook – Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffice as examples. I don’t see clearly what you are suggesting. Are you proposing disarming BOTH governments and the public, or disarming governments while arming the public? The latter is terrifying (this post – – does a nice job of illustrating what that life would look like).

  5. Pingback: An argument for gun control (Part I) | weeklybraindump

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