I lied in court today

I lied in court today. Under oath. I had no choice.

The judge asked us, potential jurors, to speak up if we had any misgivings with applying the law as the court gave it to us. I remained silent.

At issue was jury nullification: a jury’s ability to return a verdict of not guilty even if the defendant has clearly violated the law. While jury nullification has a long history and sounds honorable and good, such disregard for the law can go both ways. While a jury can acquit a defendant wrongfully charged by a vindictive state, a jury can also close ranks behind one of their own and refuse to convict (as happened when white juries refused to convict whites accused of murdering blacks). Juries should consider nullification, but only rarely and with genuine effort among all jurors to get to the bottom of a case.

From a personal point of view, would you as a jury member be willing to nullify if you believed a guilty verdict to go against your conscience. How do you define yourself? Are you above all a law-abiding citizen, who follows the law, right or wrong, because that is what you’re supposed to do? Or, when the law gets it wrong, do you believe that you owe it to yourself to follow your conscience in spite of the law?

I hope that when the situation demands, I can follow my conscience in spite of the law, and it was because of this, this that I had to lie to the court. I could have told the truth: “your honor, I believe in the right of jurors to disregard the law if it violates their conscience,” but this would have been a self-defeating speech act. The very act of uttering it would have gotten me thrown off the jury. The very act of uttering it would have meant that while I made a grand gesture to feel good and righteous, I was woefully inadequate at following my conscience. The only way to be true to myself was to lie to the court.

I was eventually selected to the jury, but the case never went to verdict. Even if it had, the issue of jury nullification would not have mattered. It was a common criminal case involving minor charges. Still, even the remote possibility forced me to take a position. Am I a loyal subject to the legal system? Or am I a person whose morality can live outside the law?

[Editorial Note: The series on gun control will be finished shortly. I just found myself needing a rest from the topic, which is surprisingly stressful to write about.]

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An Execution

How would you feel during the moments before your execution? What would you do? Would you stare into the crowd with a contorted look on your face? Would you lay your head on the executioner’s shoulder?

Two Iranian men about to be executed

This makes me nauseous. Nauseous that two asinine young men would be publicly executed for a non-lethal robbery. Nauseous that two rich young men would never find themselves in the same place. Nauseous at how easily images like this slither into our lives.

Nauseous from empathy.

What were they feeling?
What thoughts were they having?
How would you feel during the moments before your execution?

Click here for full news article.

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An Argument for Gun Control (Part II): Self-Defense

Opponents of gun control often argue that gun ownership is a right that follows from the right of self-defense. In this article I argue that this argument is logically tenuous. After this I examine effective self-defense and argue that while gun ownership can contribute to effective self-defense, gun ownership is not central to nor does it alone prepare one for effective self-defense. All told, guns and self-defense just aren’t as linked as some people would like to argue.

It’s hard if not impossible to argue against the right of self-defense. Few things are as fundamental as preservation of the self. Nonetheless, as with all rights, the right of self-defense also has its limits. To give just one example, imagine a would-be victim shooting an assailant with a shotgun and in the process killing two other uninvolved bystanders. This reckless act would violate others’ right to life. Without delving deeply into the details of this hypothetical situation, the example does show that there must be some limits to the right of self-defense, and these limits are related in part to the harm caused to people other than the assailant.

Relating this to gun control, we have an axiom that says, roughly, “There exists a right to self-defense. This right is limited to not causing undue harm to people other than the assailant.” Following from this is a proposition that says “If owning guns for self-defense causes undue harm to people other than the assailant, then owning guns for self-defense should be limited.” What is not allowed, logically speaking, is to argue from the right of self-defense directly to the ownership of guns. That just begs the question of whether guns are safe enough in the first place. In other words, we can talk theory until we’re blue in the face, but that just doesn’t suffice. As the cliché says, the devil is in the details.

The details depend in large part on the numbers: crime rates, firearm death rates, and use of firearms for self-defense. While these are of vital importance to the issue, I’ll postpone that until my next post to limit the size of this article. In this post I explore general considerations of interest to the issue.

Guns and crime: A common argument holds that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens will curtail criminal activity [1]; the potential consequences to the criminal from armed defense will outweigh the benefits of the crime. This is certainly sensible, but there is another equally sensible argument. If the social drivers of crime remain unchanged, this would mean unchanged crime rates. If the would-be victims are now more heavily armed, this will only lead to more aggressive and heavily armed assailants and a vicious cycle of increasing weaponization, suspicion, and aggression. What actually happens is an empirical question and to my knowledge there is no basis for predicting one way or the other. Until we find data and statistics, these thought games are no argument one way or another. (What is certain is that many people will be unwilling to give up their guns. They may only be willing if they are certain that nobody else has any. In this country, that is unlikely to happen, making a total gun ban practically impossible.)

Effective Self-Defense: A second concern is with the unsophisticated view of self-defense that many people hold. Let’s be clear: owning a gun does not constitute self-defense. Using a gun effectively is a skill that requires hard work, practice, and discipline (this is part of the reason I don’t own a gun – I don’t have the time and energy to be responsible about it). To quote Sam Harris [2]:

…unlike my friends, I own several guns and train with them regularly. Every month or two, I spend a full day shooting with a highly qualified instructor. This is an expensive and time-consuming habit, but I view it as part of my responsibility as a gun owner.

Gun use requires real skill (especially in life-and-death situations in confined quarters). Additionally, guns are not central to self-defense. Instead, to quote Sam Harris again [3]:

This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape—not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.

Owning a gun, if one has the skill and wherewithal to use it properly, may indeed be part of effective self-defence. However, using self-defense just as a rhetorical excuse for gun ownership is dishonest and reckless. I suspect that a more sensible approach to the issue of self-defense is not further liberalization of gun laws, rather tightened controls on lethal weapons combined with liberalization of self-defense weapons such as mace, pepper spray, and stun guns. Whether or not this is a good suggestions, the main argument is that most people are not experts in self-defense. Owning a gun will not suddenly make somebody an expert; it will just make them more reckless.

In conclusion, self-defense and guns aren’t all that closely linked, either logically or practically. Stricter gun regulations are not in conflict with the right of self-defense. Stricter gun regulations can confine the guns to those who can show the good judgement and skill to use a gun in self-defense without being reckless.

Next post: The numbers on crime and self-defense, and after that, guns and the tyrannical government.

[1] This division into law-abiding and criminal is problematic. It simplifies a complex reality into two broad categories: the good guys and the bad guys. This is highly subjective and ignores that due to circumstances all of us could suddenly find ourselves in the “criminal” category. In a heated argument between two neighbors, they will each think of the other as the bad guy. Of course, if somebody is entering your house wanting to kill you, the distinction is clear, but in many cases it isn’t. On top of all this, the categorization tends to hide any social drivers behind actions. Still, the terms are convenient and common, so I use them.
[2] http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-riddle-of-the-gun
[3] http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-truth-about-violence.  These two articles are both well argued, level-headed, factual, and bound to challenge anybody’s unexamined assumptions. If you haven’t read them yet, I recommend them.

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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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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)


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_guns_per_capita_by_country
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate
  4. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_07.pdf (Table 1)
  5. http://www.irinnews.org/Report/87902/AFGHANISTAN-Landmine-deaths-injuries-torment-villagers
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I just don’t understand

If this blog has a purpose it’s to try to make some sense of this odd, complex world we live in. Sometimes it seems like I’m making little bits of progress. And then somebody shoots up a school full of children.

I wish the word “senseless” had never been used before, so it would be better at describing today. How can we even pretend that we’ll be able to understand. How can we ever fool ourselves into thinking that our world is comprehensible?

Perhaps the world is more about coping than it is about understanding. But how do we cope? How does a parent cope with the idea that their child may be gunned down tomorrow? Perhaps the lesson is that we will, someday, experience something that completely devastates us. We’ll never be able to predict what or when, but we can be sure it will happen. The person closest to you could die in a car wreck coming home tonight. But we need loved ones and we need to risk losing them; we can’t draw away out of fear. We need to give ourselves completely and unceasingly, oblivious to the possibilities.

If I draw a lesson from this it’s to love your people each day as best you can and let them know. Smile, hug them and kiss them.  Spend time with them. Cherish them. If the incomprehensible happens, you’ll know you’ve done everything in your power to live life as it should be lived. You will be destroyed, but you will persevere.

key words for search: sandy hook school shooting

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Living without CO2 in a Prius

Sometimes you are wandering happily into the local bookstore, when a blog post just punches you in the face. For me it was the personalized license plate I saw on a Toyota Prius:

The Zero CO2 Prius

The Zero CO2 Prius

For people unfamiliar with bizarre American practices, a personalized plate is one for which a person pays an extra fee for a special design or a customized message (instead of the ordinary sequential number). It gives people an opportunity to express their individuality [sic] and it gives the state a chance to profit from such silliness. Our Prius owner has done both, choosing the whale tail along with the personalized message, “SANS CO2”, meaning without CO2 in French.

This is so painfully arrogant… and so factually wrong. For starters, the only people living without CO2 emissions are living quite sedentary existences, like those in the photo below.

Living without CO2 (image from Wikipedia commons)

One may question the extent to which these people are living, but we shan’t bias our judgment solely on account of their death. And we won’t get into the environmental and social impacts involved with mining the metals necessary to make the battery packs for the Prius. Let’s just take a stab at a rough calculation of CO2 emissions. There has been much said on this topic (e.g., the Hummer v Prius wars), for people love to either love or hate the Prius. We’ll try to step above the prattle by being fair-minded and clear in our assumptions. We’ll make just four:

  1. A car takes 76000 kWh of energy to produce (call this Ee for embodied energy),
  2. A typical car takes 40 kWh/day to run (call this amount Fo),
  3. A Prius gets twice the fuel economy (at 20 kWh/day, which we call Fp), and
  4. Energy is a reasonable proxy for CO2 since most of the CO2 emissions are from energy production.

Remember, this is a rough calculation. The first two numbers are from a fabulous reference that anyone interested in sustainability should read: Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. The last two are just reasonable assumptions. Now let’s picture a scenario: you have owned a car for (forgive me as I get more mathy) No years. You are considering replacing it with a Prius that you plan to own for Np years. A second (do-nothing) option is to continue operating the old car for the whole NNp years. We’re interested in the annualized energy, so we divide the embodied energy by the total number of years the car will be in operation and then add in the yearly operational energy. This gives us for the following annualized energies for the do-nothing option:

Eao = FoEe/(No+Np)

and for buying the Prius instead:

Eap = Fp + Ee/Np.

After being careful to multiply Fo and Fp by 365 to convert days to years, we compare the Prius with the do-nothing option (percent difference = (EapEao)/Eao), looking at a range of values: No = 5, 10 or 20 years and Np = 5 or 10 years.

No (years)
5 10 20
Np (years) 5 1% 14% 28%
10 -24% -19% -13%

What we see is that if we plan on keeping the Prius for only five years, we break even at best. At worst we incur a moderate penalty in energy (and consequently CO2 emissions). If we plan on keeping the Prius for 10 years, we can realize some benefits up to a quarter less energy (and consequently CO2 emissions). This isn’t bad, but it’s hardly “SANS CO2”.

There are obviously plenty more comparisons we could make, but this is enough for now. Making decisions about these matters is hard and complicated. Purchasing a Prius may be justifiable, but let’s try to avoid walking around acting like Mother Teresa.

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