The gun debate irks me, as I’ve mentioned a few places, because I find an awful lot of overreaching of evidence. People have very entrenched opinions on guns and gun control, and thus they have a tendency to look at the evidence that supports their position and discount or downplay the evidence that does not.
Let me lay out a few arguments that I don’t find compelling in the gun debate. This is not an exhaustive list.
(edited to add) A goodly bit of the below is based upon what I’ve learned about social science research methodology and statistics. James K offers a fabulous contribution here. Go read it. (/edited)
There are no drawbacks to a gun registry
Yes, there are. There are at least two that I can think of, immediately. The first one is detailed pretty effectively here. There is no guarantee of access control over the database of gun owners. I think almost everyone on both sides of the gun debate would agree that the ability to publish a list of registered gun owners is an abysmally bad idea for at least one particular reason: it gives those people of criminal intent both a list of targets to avoid and a list of targets to acquire, if stealing guns is their crime of choice. The second one I can think of is detailed here and here. In California, the DOJ has the ability (through a process) to amend the list of banned weapons, and then demand that those who have purchased those weapons turn them in to law enforcement officials. You are required by law to register your guns. So I can buy a perfectly legal gun right now and five years from now, without legislative action by the citizens of the state, some very small number of people can decide, “nope, can’t own that any more” and I’m legally required to turn in my purchase or face felony charges. I don’t think this is a particularly good idea, myself.
That’s not to say that a federal gun registry couldn’t avoid these problems, but let’s just admit up front that it’s both very plausible that they can occur, and that gun rights activists have a historical track record to point to when they say they find gun registries potentially problematic, so calling out “Slippery Slope!” on them is hardly fair.
Some types of guns are more dangerous than others
Also known as “you don’t need that feature” or “let’s ban the assault rifles”.
This one is particularly troublesome because you can fold, spindle, and mutilate the definition of the word “dangerous” pretty much at will, and quite often anti-gun arguments will (over the course of a discussion) vacillate between multiple definitions of “dangerous”. As I alluded to here, the 5.56x45mm NATO round (the one in the AR-15, M-16, and the “Bushmaster” rifle) was chosen in the 1950s as a replacement for the 7.62x51mm NATO round as the standard infantryman round not because the 5.56 is deadlier than the 7.62 (because it isn’t), but because of the nature of deployed infantryman engagements. You can carry twice as much ammunition for the weight, and engagement tactics for unit-on-unit actions dictate advancement under suppression fire (where most rounds are wasted) until your attacking force is in the most effective kill range, at which point caliber is not quite nearly so important. Bolt-action rifles are more accurate than gas operated semi-automatic guns. Does that make them more or less deadly? A .700 Nitro express round will take down a rhino or a bull elephant, but the kick from the damn thing will probably come close to tearing your arm off, generating a whopping 10 times the amount of recoil of the .308 Winchester. If you’re shooting at rhino, you get pretty much one shot, so the recoil messing up your potential at a second shot isn’t an issue. On the other hand, nobody would use a .700 Nitro willingly in a combat situation unless we’re fighting zombie elephants (movie rights on that one!)
Pistols are used far more often both in violent crime and in homicide than long guns. Does this mean pistols are more deadly than a MP5?
The answer here is, “it depends upon what you mean by ‘dangerous’.” There’s an exchange in recent comments that illustrates the point. In Finland, Norway, and France, suppressors (generally termed “silencers” in the U.S., a misnomer since they don’t silence anything) can be bought over the counter and are unregulated, as they are considered safety devices. Here in the U.S., they’re regarded as particularly dangerous, for unknown reasons. Reminds me of the furor over balisongs in California in the 80s. They are perceived to be dangerous, ergo they’re dangerous.
Irresponsible storage or use of firearms results in a huge number of deaths
No, it doesn’t. Aside from the car vs. gun discussion that’s gone into the weeds on several of the comment threads on Symposium posts already, let’s just look at the raw numbers. In 2010, there were 33,608 unintentional injury deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents, 28.1% of the overall tally. Poisonings and falls account for another 59,000. Firearms, 0.5%. Total number of accidental deaths due to firearms, 606, out of a 2010 population of 308 million. That’s 0.0000196%
In statistics, we call that “noise“. With an estimated 200-300 million guns in the country, a accidental death rate that low makes the staggering majority of gun owners pretty safe people, by any estimation. The rate of accidental gun injuries, as opposed to deaths, is much higher… but then so are the corresponding injury rates for fire, burns, motor vehicles, Natural/Environment, etc.
Note: I don’t have a problem at all with requiring guns, particularly loaded guns, be locked up. I think it’s a minor imposition on your liberty to request that you have a gun safe or trigger locks, if you’re going to own firearms. Well, unless you’re a hermit.
But even in states where there are no gun storage requirements, accidental shootings are incredibly rare. It’s more likely that your toddler is going to get into Uncle John’s window cleaner than into his bedside nightstand. That stuff just doesn’t make the front page.
Cities/counties/regions with strong gun laws are safer!
Note the difference between the headline in this article and the first sentence of the article. This is very, very common. Again, this depends upon your definition of “safer”.
This has been sent my way a couple of times since Sandy by various people (I see that M.A. links it in this contribution as well, which as a post I like quite a bit, actually), but there’s a zero amount of causal linkage there. Do states with more guns have a higher rate of homicide because of the guns… or do they have more guns because more people are gun owners because they’re afraid of homicide? There’s also a criticism of this research methodology that all my “how to do statistical research” books frown upon. The redoubtable Mr. Thompson nails right here, which I will quote verbatim to save time, “you’re just taking an average and comparing it to an outlier, which is an absolutely awful way to do statistical comparison, reducing dozens of data points to two. Amongst First World countries, no one has ever disputed that the US is both an outlier in gun ownership (though it’s also kind of an outlier in that regard with respect to ALL countries) and homicide rate (it’s not an outlier in that regard when compared to the rest of the world, though). But without a lot more, that says next to nothing about either correlation or causation.”
This is what social science practitioners call a preliminary result, something that indicates that there might be something interesting to study, here. It’s not even particularly weighty evidence.
There’s a media bias against guns!
Now, pro-gun people often look at an article like the one just cited and jump to the conclusion that this represents a media bias. I’m not certain that it does, at least, not in the sense that “Big Media Is Out To Get Your Guns”, because there are lots and lots and lots of reports that don’t make it to the front page of Big Media that would support anti-gun sentiment in the country. Also, those same Big Media companies who run the news agencies are also the ones making commercials like the one Tod mentions in his post. That seems to tell me that either Big Media is not out to get your guns, or Big Media is the second stupidest group of evil overlords in modern society.
I think Big Media is out to put sensation on the headlines. Certain gun crimes are sensationalist. QED, we need go no farther.
The United States is uniquely violent in the world.
No, it isn’t. Or, to be far less cut and dried but more accurate, “I don’t think you can say this with any degree certainty, without a very specific definition of ‘violent’.”
It isn’t even particularly violent among the other “high income first world” nations that we hear ourselves compared to (here’s an example of that).
This is a terrible manipulation of data to make a vastly oversimplified graph. For starters, what’s the difference between a rate of 3.2 per 100,000 and 0.1 per 100,000, in risk to you? “ZOMG it’s 32 times higher!” is technically the correct answer, but it is misleading.
3.2 per 100,000 is 0.0032%. 0.1 per 100,000 is 0.0001%. You’re not 100,000 people. (edited to correct error)*
If you’re studying two samples where most everything is one thing, and only a tiny fraction of each is something else, just looking at the “something else” distorts your individual perception of the data, particularly when presented in graphical format.
You put this in a research paper and you will get frowns. From an epidemiology standpoint, granted, this can be important.
From a personal security standpoint, it isn’t. Basically, you’re not very likely to be murdered in either country.
In fact, given that 10% of the murders in the U.S. are family-related, and given that 74% of murder defendants have a prior criminal record, and 44% of murder victims have a prior criminal record, and that 82% of non-family murder victims are male, and 53% of non-family murder victims are black, and 38.5% of non-family murder victims are between 20-29, and that half of murders involve alcohol… the actual odds that you’ll be the victim of a murder, if you’re a sober, law-abiding middle aged white person who doesn’t piss off your wife or your children… is actually probably pretty close to the general murder rate in the U.K.
Granted, this tells us all kinds of important somethings about our law enforcement, poverty rate, and crime policy, but not much about safety and guns.
In England and Wales, for example, in the 2010-2011 reporting period, there were 45,326 reported rapes, 1,707,000 assaults, 248,000 robberies, and 642 murders. In the U.S., in a comparable reporting period, there were 847,767 rapes, 778,901 assaults, 367,832 robberies, and 14,748 murders.
So, comparing the two countries:
Assault – U.K., 1 per 32.6, U.S., 1 per 396
Rape – U.K., 1 per 1237, U.S., 1 per 364
Robbery – U.K., 1 per 226, U.S., 1 per 839
Murder – U.K., 1 per 87,383, U.S., 1 per 20,931
A couple of obvious things jump out here. It’s clearly more likely that you’ll be murdered in the United States than in the U.K., but you’re also more than ten times more likely to be assaulted in the U.K., and more than three times more likely to be robbed. Rape is worthy of special note because neither country regards its rape numbers as particularly reliable, due to historical problems with massive under-reporting.
Now, the pro-gun camp jumps on this and says, “See, disarming the populace makes more victims!” (see also: Australia – p.6, for reference) and the anti-gun crowd jumps on this and says, “See, fewer guns equals less murder!” (see also: Australia). Slate stepped in this one.
No! No, no, no. Even supposing that we were willing to only look at violent crime victims or murder victims and ignore the others, or we’re going to dance around what the definition of “mass”, is… this is still reasoning outside of your data.
First, because we don’t know the differences in crime reporting and categorization. We don’t know that what qualifies as “forcible rape” in the U.S. may not be categorized as “rape” or “domestic violence” in the U.K. (there’s 392,000 of those, by the way, quite a few).
Second, because as I pointed out here, we have pretty good reason to suspect that crime, in general, is linked to a number of socioeconomic factors (most strongly to income mobility, unemployment, education, poverty, and persistent discrimination, especially for males) and thus the U.K. and the U.S. aren’t even necessarily comparable directly, if you’re talking about guns as an independent variable controlling crime prevalence. Because we don’t know (on the basis of what’s offered here) what sort of other contributing factors to violent crime might be present here and lacking there, or vice-versa. In fact, I’m pretty sure that guns aren’t an independent variable, at all.
But at the very least, we can say that this data does not support any firm conclusion regarding gun laws, either pro- or con-. Note that this cuts both ways; guns are not quite as linked to crime as some say, but they’re also not really very likely to help you in a crime situation, because you’re unlikely to be a victim of violent crime.
Oh, the FBI’s UCRI (Uniform Crime Reporting Index) shows almost all violent crime occurs in large metropolitan areas with a population greater than 250,000. So if you’re a sober, law-abiding middle aged white person who doesn’t piss off your wife or your children and you live in the suburbs or in a rural area, you’re probably more likely to be killed or injured falling off a ladder. Perspective.
Banning guns, or certain types of guns, will stop mass killings
I already wrote that post. Suffice to say: not likely. See also: previously linked Australia.
The Second Amendment is about tyranny!
If you’re worried about tyranny, I will not go so far as to suggest that the U.S. could never devolve into one, because one can certainly make the argument that it has before, and in recent history, no less.
However, I will counter with this comment. The money:
So, if you’re talking about the U.S. possibly devolving into tyranny (and like all nations, there’s no reason to assume it can’t), then you’re either talking about really only two situations: needing small arms and IEDs, which you can have even with pretty widespread gun control, or you’re screwed. Because the army has nukes, and tanks you can’t blow up, and aircraft we can’t shoot down.
If you’re really worried about the possibility of tyranny, which again I grant for the sake of the argument is a real possibility, your number one, numero uno, top pick of the things which you should start doing right now today isn’t buying a bunch of your own guns. It’s cutting the military budget – like, gutting it, and paring the nuclear arsenal down to “not enough to wipe out much”.
Because then you have a chance to beat them anytime in the near future.
As I mentioned here, this isn’t a critique of the position that the Second Amendment is about tyranny… it’s a critique of those who often offer this argument, while also applauding other forms of government overreach or who are strong supporters of a large standing military. See Conor for more.
I get emails like these from people who also supported extraordinary rendition, torture, and the NDAA kill list provision. This seems odd, to me.
An armed populace is a safer (or more dangerous) populace!
Similar to the “America is uniquely violent” proposition, this depends on ignoring a lot of data, or comparing only certain apples to certain other things that the person is regarding as apples, without considering that you’re talking apples and oranges or ignoring a whole bunch of important apples. There are more than 875 million firearms in the world, 75% of them in the hands of civilians.
Here’s a ranking of gun control laws (by severity) per country.
The United States is 8.0, national (states vary)
The Philippines is 6.8
South Africa is 6.0
Switzerland is 6.0
Thailand is 4.2
France is 4.0
Mexico is 3.9
India is 3.7
Germany is 3.2
Norway is 3.0
Indonesia is 2.1
Canada is 2.0
The United Kingdom at 1.5
Japan is 1.5
China is 0.5
As we already pointed out above, the UK is more disarmed than the U.S. and has arguably as much violent crime, if not more. But generally, I can’t map the previous rankings of gun control in either a significant positive or negative correlation to the UN Global Study on Homicide. If you can, knock yourself out, I’d love to see an analysis that supports a correlation. Granted, enforcement is as much of an issue as “laws on the books”, but even to start, it’s a mess.
Wardsmith pointed me at something that may be interesting on this front, but I suspect I’m going to regard it as limited as most citations are, in this space.
I have the right to defend myself!
I’m not going to contest this one, overmuch (Tim does an excellent job in his post of laying this argument out).
Like the “Second Amendment is about tyranny!” argument, though, I do often see a link between people who make this argument (and pack guns for self defense), and people who have a lack of self-awareness regarding efficacy.
US Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall famously reported that, during battle, the firing rate was a mere 15 to 20 percent. Dave Grossman, author of “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in war and Society”, reportede that in Vietnam, for every enemy soldiers killed, more than fifty thousand bullets were fired.
There are severe methodological critiques of both sets of work. Please do not accept this as an endorsement of the results.
However, there is a large body of evidence (not to mention your own common sense) that when people experience high-stress scenarios, particularly unexpected high-stress scenarios, they suffer from degraded performance, to say the least.
78% of American gun owners surveyed in 1989 stated, “that they would not only be willing to use a gun defensively in some way, but would be willing to shoot a burglar.”
Allow me to be blunt, I think that a significant number of those people are fooling themselves. How many, I admit I don’t know.
If you’ve never been assaulted, you probably don’t know a thing about how you will respond to a violent assault. Just like book-trained first aid classes don’t prepare you for the sight of a compound spiral fracture (this is why you need to do an ambulance shift to qualify as an EMT in California). You have no idea if you’ll have the presence of mind to use a weapon effectively.
Of course, I don’t have any idea, either, and your rightful rejoinder can very well be, “Get stuffed, you don’t know me.” That’s right, I don’t.
But even accounting for that, I can also easily imagine many, many more cases where being armed would be ineffective at best and contributory at worst to a violent crime scenario than I can cases where it would be beneficial.
Take for example Russell’s contribution to the Symposium. Can you imagine that scenario playing out with a gun on the glovebox (or on his person) that doesn’t result in a free gun in the hands of two carjackers? Remember that in the vast majority of criminal assault scenarios, the criminal has a big advantage over his or her victim: they know the crime is about to take place. They choose the time, the location, the angle of attack, the weapon of choice, the victim (usually based upon victim behaviors), etc. With all of these advantages, the chance that you’ll have a practical window of opportunity to get the drop on an assailant are somewhere between “slim” and “you just won the lottery four weeks in a row”.
So you may have a right to defend yourself, but ask yourself honestly, is arming yourself in the advance of an attack that nearly by definition will come when you are not expecting it really improve your chances of survival? Or is it more likely to result in no change, or an escalation of violence leading to a probable fatal outcome, with you being the more likely victim in the exchange? Most robberies and assaults don’t end in death, they end in the loss of property. Add a gun to the loot or add a gun to a slow-on-the-draw robbery victim and what you have is a dead robbery victim, aka a murder statistic.
Basically, guns aren’t as dangerous as the gentlepersons of the Left seem to think they are, and crime isn’t as dangerous as gentlepersons of the Right seem to think it is (correcting for your demographics, of course), and I doubt that most gun control legislation will accomplish the goal of “making people safer”, and I doubt that “arming the populace” is much of an answer, either. And I think that people who generally believe either of those two things are badly misunderstanding the entire body of the available research.
Which makes me a big wet blanket, I know.
* Commentor Damien over at Joe Carter’s place noted that I made an algebraic error. Mea Culpa, I’ve edited this accordingly. It did fascinate me that he used this as an example that I didn’t know what I was doing, instead of noting that my error made my specific example more cogent to the argument in question by two orders of magnitude.