An argument for gun control (Part I)

In an earlier post I argued that the numbers (yearly deaths by firearm) don’t make a strong case for gun control. Compared to other causes of death, there just aren’t that many people who die from firearm violence. Still, after the massacre at Sandy Hook, it’s really hard to look ourselves in the mirror and not wonder how we as a society allow such an event, rare as it may be, to happen. Even The Economist, not known for being a sensationalist newspaper, called it “evil beyond imagining”. The fundamental question is, “Should something be done to prevent this in the future?”

While almost everyone may agree on this, there are vastly different views on the solution. Let’s frame the argument by taking an eagle-eye view of the issue for a moment. Roughly speaking, the problem is made up of two elements: crazy people who would actually want to conduct a shooting massacre and weapons to kill with. Reduce either and you reduce the problem. In the land of proposed solutions, some people focus on reducing weapons (and pay varying degrees of attention to mental health issues). Others consider weapon ownership to be a fundamental right, so they try to limit the argument exclusively to mental health and criminology, usually by suggesting more weapons as a deterrent. The arguments between camps are animated, lead to political paralysis, and turn the answer the to the question, “should something be done” from a rhetorical but useless “yes, of course!” to a practical “no”. Clearly, there is a need for sensible dialogue on the issue at all levels.

This article explores some issues surrounding gun control, starting with the culture of gun ownership and then the different types of weapons involved in the debate. The conclusion, probably offensive to anybody on either fringe, is right in the middle of the road: it makes sense to forbid some guns and allow others. Part II will explore self-defense and tyrannical governments.

Culture: Enlightened, educated, urban liberals (in the American sense of the word) often gather over a glass of Merlot to muse on the oddities of redneck hicks and their guns. In a display of intolerance they would never allow against some of their own deeply held views, they explain away gun ownership as an unfortunate feature of the less civilized elements of society. Is this a caricature? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not rare and it is a major barrier in the debate.

There are parts of the country where people grow up with guns. They learn to use guns safely and practically never view guns as a weapon to use on humans. Owning and shooting guns in this context can be at times fun and harmless and at others useful for hunting. Speaking personally, while my social position puts me most often with “enlightened, educated, urban liberals,” I’ve done a bit of shooting, including shotguns, rifles (.30-06 and .22), and handguns (.50, .375, and .22). I am sure that I never thought of killing somebody when I was holding a weapon and I wasn’t concerned about my safety when somebody else was holding the gun.

All parties in the debate need to realize and admit that it is possible to own a gun sensibly. There are a good number of guns in the U.S. that don’t contribute appreciably to crime; were these guns suddenly to disappear, we’d see no difference in the crime rate. I am tempted to think that some part of the desire to enact gun control comes not from sensible argument but from intolerance and fear of the other. Cultural relativity can only be taken so far, but in this case, if somebody’s idea of a good life includes owning a gun responsibly, I’m OK with that.

The weapon continuum: This said, not every weapon is the same. Weapons differ in their killing effectiveness, killing purpose, and killing rate. Large caliber weapons can take down a bear; a small-caliber weapon may just anger it. Handguns are useless for hunting, but are easily concealed and useful against humans. Bolt-action rifles can shoot a few rounds per minute; fully automatic weapons can fire at peak rates of several hundred rounds per minute. Beyond this, knives are less deadly than guns and nukes are more deadly. These and other differences between weapons place them on a continuum. If we were to poll the entire U.S. and ask them for each weapon, “Would you be OK with your neighbor owning a weapon of this type?” we would find that the answers arrange themselves along a continuum as in the hypothetical figure below.

The Weapon Continuum indicating percent of population that might be OK with their neighbor owning different types of weapons.

The Weapon Continuum indicating percentage of people who might be OK with their neighbor owning the weapon indicated.

This exercise readjusts our thinking from the binary and toward the fuzzy, away from yes-no, either-or and towards a continuous scale. It seems safe to assume that there is broad agreement that it is OK for your neighbor to own a kitchen knife but not a nuke. While legally speaking, we need to draw at least one discrete line between kitchen knives and nukes, but there should be little disagreement that we need to be drawing lines somewhere.

Unfortunately there is disagreement. Some of the more vocal parties insist on sticking to their guns (pun intended) and refusing to admit that it is sensible to want to control guns at all in any way whatsoever. To these people I ask, if not at guns, where on the weapon continuum do you draw the line and more importantly why?

Coming next: self-defense and tyrannical governments.

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4 Responses to An argument for gun control (Part I)

  1. danielmullin81 says:

    It might be useful for your purposes to distinguish between gun control and gun bans. Gun control comes in degrees as you say and most reasonable parties to the discussion accept some regulation of firearms. A gun ban is an unlimited restriction on certain types of weapons, usually handguns and semi-automatic rifles. The “national conversation” about “gun control” in the US following Newtown is more accurately about gun bans.

    Might also practical considerations make legal line-drawing largely redundant? Most weapons used for the purposes of violent crime or self-defense must meet certain criterion. For the most part, they need to be concealable, easy to use, and less likely to result in injury to the user than the target. Most of the more extreme weapons on your continuum fail on at least one of these grounds. Hand grenades are concealable and easy to use, but can easily injure the user. Fighter jets are neither concealable nor easy to use. Ditto for the other items on your scale to the right of assault rifles.

    The reason guns, especially handguns, remain popular for both crime and self-defense, is that they’re concealable, relatively easy to use, and represent more danger to the target than the user (or at least the risk is an acceptable trade off). As such, they will be more numerous among the population at large than fighter jets or nuclear missile silos. Moreover, attempting to draw legal lines around handguns is less likely to be effective than drawing legal lines around nukes, because the latter are unlikely to proliferate among a civilian population anyways, with or without laws that prohibit them. For this reason, people who argue that since bans on missile launchers are effective, a ban on guns would be, are mistaken. The effectiveness of the ban in such a case is largely illusory.

    • Sorry for the delay responding. Work has to be done at times. Thanks for taking the time to write a long response. I appreciate being made to think.

      Regarding terminology, you’re correct. I’m talking about controls in general, with an all-out ban being the most restrictive control.

      I do see your second point about the dual purpose of handguns, and perhaps this is where the issue is the most interesting. I know of countries (e.g., Japan) that have successful near-complete bans on guns. Thus, the issue isn’t whether gun bans are doable, but whether they are doable in a specific country. In the US (or Canada) if there were no guns at all, people could feel safe without a gun. But seeing as there are guns out there then it makes sense that some people want to protect themselves by purchasing a handgun. In this atmosphere, a ban is may be unlikely to succeed.

      Still, I don’t see how this has any bearing on the issue of controls (as regulations, not as bans). It’s arguable that concealable, semi-automatic weapons should be more tightly controlled. As an example far beyond what is done today in the US, we could require yearly re-registration of the weapon combined with safety re-training, a background check, and a psychological interview.

      As far as assault weapons go, I have a much harder time seeing a place for them in civilized society (to use an ill-defined platitude).

      • danielmullin81 says:

        Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post in the first place. Also, thanks in no small measure to our discussion on your blog, I’ve waded into the troubled waters of this debate myself. If you’d care to read my post over at my blog, I’d appreciate your feedback.

        Perhaps gun bans are doable in some places. I haven’t done any research on Japan. I’ve done some homework recently on the US, Canada, UK, and Australia (just because they’re English speaking countries that are similar culturally). I’ve come to the conclusion that gun bans don’t work particularly well in those countries. Maybe a sociologist could tell me why.

        I’m quite happy to have all of the regulations you suggest. And I agree with something you said earlier (maybe on another thread) that I wouldn’t be comfortable if my neighbor owned an assault rifle. I also think that legislation wouldn’t be entirely ineffectual in, say, reducing the number of large capacity magazines. But, at the same time, I wonder if the talk about assault weapons isn’t a distraction. Handguns are still the weapon of choice (as I recall, the Virginia tech shooter was armed with two semi-automatic pistols) and Europe, despite appearances to the contrary, have had their share of mass shootings since 2001 ( — yes, the article is pro-gun and from a right-wing publication; the facts are no less true for it) and the perpetrators didn’t need assault weapons to inflict their carnage. Modern handguns are plenty deadly. Also, those in the media who talk about ‘just a hunting rifle’ as if it were a pea shooter, are misinformed. If you were under fire from some maniac in a clock tower, it would be little comfort to know that he was armed with ‘just a hunting rifle.’

        My point, if there is one, is that these weapons are unlikely to be banned anytime soon. If the next mass shooting is executed with legal handguns or rifles, what then? Sorry for yet another long comment. I appreciate the rational way that you conduct yourself on an issue that can be emotionally charged. I look forward to the rest of your series on this subject.

        • I saw your post. You linked to an excellent article and made some sensible points. I only gave it a brief read. I’d like to digest it carefully before saying more. This is another busy week at the day job, so I’ll be a bit slow. Hope that’s OK.

          I’m certainly becoming convinced that a full gun ban in US-style countries, if not impossible, would require a significant effort, many unknowns, and the chance of policy blowback. Going back to the first post in this series, given the relatively low level of harm involved (not the mention the potential benefits), it doesn’t seem worth it. We do seem to be in agreement with the need to regulate more carefully.

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