Monday, December 24, 2012

Anger is Not an Argument: My Thoughts on Gun Control

There’s a saying in American politics that a savvy politician will “never let a good crisis go to waste.” In times of disaster, emotions run high, and with the right rhetoric it’s easy to turn these emotions into impassioned support for a political cause. Republicans used 9/11 to justify two wars, a massive new Department of Homeland Security, the TSA and mammoth increases in defense spending. Democrats used Hurricane Katrina to criticize President Bush and catapult to huge electoral gains in 2006. Republicans tried to do the same thing with the Benghazi incident a few months ago. And last week, we saw gun control advocates employ the same strategy after the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Each time a mass shooting occurs in a public space, the debate over gun control laws in America reopens. Each time, gun control proponents try to use the new tragedy as leverage in the debate, and each time they are rebuffed by an American public that has repeatedly demonstrated they want nothing to do with such policies. Increased traditional media coverage, combined with social media’s unique ability to supply instantaneous reactions from hundreds of people at once, only magnifies this redundant drama. So when the news broke about last week’s tragedy, I wasn't surprised to see the same story play out on my Facebook news feed.

The brutal death of innocent young children is even more heart-wrenching than the death of adults, so much so that it made the President cry during his prepared statements on the tragedy. Whether those tears were real or not is up for interpretation (some commentators have expressed curiosity about whether he sheds as many tears for the hundreds of innocent children his drone strikes have killed in the Middle East, but that’s another matter). Either way, it appears gun control advocates were hoping this latest tragedy would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and once again began capitalizing on the massacre.

This is ironic because the people who drum up fear about guns are the exact same people who blame Republicans for “fear mongering” on other issues. When it comes to ridiculous, unsubstantiated conservative predictions that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya, or that terrorists are lurking around every corner, or that marijuana is an addictive drug that will melt your brain like an egg in a frying pan, they are right to do so. It is wrong for conservatives to use public fear about terrorism, foreigners, or drugs as a replacement for rational, objective arguments on those matters. But what Democrats do on gun control is the exact same thing.

We are all saddened by the events in Sandy Hook. We are all angered by these events. But anger is not an argument, and allowing it to shape policy is what’s most likely to make those events recur. Basing policy proposals off of emotional knee-jerk reactions instead of facts and logic is a recipe for disaster, because such policies have all sorts of unintended consequences that our emotions had not accounted for.

Like prostitution, dangerous drugs, and unhealthy food, guns can often have terrible consequences. And like those things, guns are either illegal or highly restricted in many parts of the world. The Americans who feel the United States should be among those places could never imagine wanting or needing a gun of their own, just like many people would never want to engage in prostitution, use drugs, or eat fast food. Each time these people hear news of another shooting it fuels their perception that the Second Amendment brings nothing but death, violence and heartache. There is a pervasive belief that banning or restricting guns is equivalent to limiting these things.

Unfortunately, those beliefs rely upon a misplaced faith in the effectiveness of state or federal gun-control policies at combating these crimes. Banning prostitution does not make it go away. Banning certain foods does little to make Americans healthier. Banning drugs does little to reduce drug use. And as statistics repeatedly show, banning guns does little to reduce gun violence in the United States.

Perhaps if guns had been banned and confiscated very early on in American history such that there were now zero-net guns in the entire country, we'd have less gun violence today. But didn’t happen, and as a result there are 300 million guns in the country – almost as many guns as there are people. 42% of Americas own at least one. The simple truth is that even the most severe gun control measure imaginable – a constitutional amendment banning them outright and subsequent legislation attempting to confiscate all of them – could not get nearly all of them out of the country. Such a measure would merely push the market for these guns underground, where they would be completely unregulated and anyone could get them. Studies have shown that it’s much easier for kids today to get marijuana from their high school dealer than it is for them to get alcohol from a store that checks ID. In the same way, it’d be much easier for dangerous criminals to buy unregulated, unlicensed black market guns than it would be for them to pass the background checks necessary to buy one legally today.

This is why comparisons to nations like Japan, which constitutionally banned guns from the outset, don’t work. Nor do comparisons to Britain, Australia, or most other countries. It is true, as gun-control advocates love to point out, that these countries both have fewer guns and much less gun crime; Britain and Japan have less than 100 gun deaths every year, while the US has about 12,000. But these comparisons don’t tell the whole story, because correlation does not equal causation. First, the USA has a much larger population overall than those countries, so the differences in absolute totals are more drastic than the differences in crime ratios. And as it relates to ratios, the US has higher rates in general (gun related or not) than any other country. When you remove the US from the picture as an outlier, the nations with strict gun control laws do not have significantly lower gun crime than the nations with relatively easy access to guns (like Switzerland and Israel). This suggests the culprit in the US may lie in cultural (are Americans more desensitized to violence?) socioeconomic (perhaps we have more poverty, and thus more desperation and crime), or legal differences (the war on drugs, mass incarceration creating a cycle of crime, etc.).

Besides, the reasons why gun violence is more abundant here than it is there say nothing about the effectiveness of certain policies at curtailing it. Even if we assumed the guns themselves were the driving cause behind increased gun crime, several critical differences exist between the US and more restrictive nations which demonstrate that the effectiveness of their policies may not be matched if they were tried here. For one thing, Britain, Japan and Australia are all islands, making smuggling illegal weapons into the country much more difficult than it is in a nation with 7,000 miles of territorial borders. Secondly, at no point in Britain or Japan’s histories were their people as thoroughly armed as the US populace currently is, meaning their relative success in getting weapons off the street does not attest to its chances of success here. And finally, Americans are much more rebellious and distrustful of government, and would not hand over their weapons so willingly as would nations like Japan, who are relatively submissive to government authority. Good luck trying to confiscate 300 million guns from ornery NRA members.

Within the US, there is certainly no association between states with more stringent gun control laws and lower crime rates, if anything an inverse relationship. As of 2000, the 31 states that had "shall issue" laws allowing private citizens to carry concealed weapons had, on average, a 24 percent lower violent crime rate, a 19 percent lower murder rate and a 39 percent lower robbery rate than states that forbade concealed weapons. In fact, the nine states with the lowest violent crime rates are all right-to-carry states. The number of privately owned guns is increasing by about 4 million a year, and the right to legally carry weapons has been expanding over the last two decades, yet over that time we have seen a 41 percent decline in violent crime rates. Since the 2004 expiration of the "assault weapon" ban, murder rates are down 15 percent. The type of gun doesn't matter. The size of the magazine doesn’t matter. What does matter is that while anyone who is deranged enough to go on a shooting spree will not be deterred by any law telling them what they can and cannot own.

What they might be deterred by is another gun. According to self-reported survey data, Dr. Gary Kleck of Florida State University found that guns are used for self-defense in this country over 2 million times a year (as of 1993). 13 prior studies had placed the figures between 800,000 and 2.5 million a year, and even the most conservative studies cited by gun-control advocates place the figure in the hundreds of thousands. Compared to 30,000 gun deaths a year (a figure which includes 18,0000 suicides and 1,000 accidents), this suggests guns play an important role in protecting people’s lives and property in the aggregate. Nor does this mean violence is necessary to end violence, as in over 80% of these DGU (defensive gun use) incidents, no shots needed to be fired. Merely brandishing the weapon was enough to scare the assailant away.

These statistics testify to the effectiveness of self-defense. But at a more fundamental level, what really matters is the principle behind it. Any nation which prides itself on the freedom of individuals to provide for themselves and their families should extend that freedom to include the provision of security. The 2nd amendment guarantees Americans the ability secure their own peace of mind, without being dependent on government to secure it for them. Regardless of it’s effectiveness for society at large, the right to defend oneself at an individual level is a fundamental human freedom. That it also appears to decrease crime overall is merely a perk.

Like it or not, we live in a country in which guns themselves aren’t going anywhere. Within that country, all the evidence suggests that the right to own guns legally does much more good than bad.  Even without the statistics, this just makes sense: with access to guns an inescapable reality, it is better that this access not be restricted to those willing to break the law. If the problem of gun violence can be solved, it will not be by making it more difficult for law abiding citizens to defend themselves from it.

It is easy to be angry about gun crime in the wake of a tragedy, but it’s also critical to remember there is no evidence these tragedies happen any less frequently when we restrict the ability to legally own guns. If we want to prevent these events at the root, we have to change the people who do them, not the tools they use. The debate over firearms should remind Americans that not all problems can be solved by more government restrictions. In the vast majority of cases, the urge to ban things we don’t like in society proves more dangerous than those things themselves. Guns are no exception.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. We shouldn't compare ourselves to countries with lower ratios of gun related deaths because their populace was never as well armed as ours. I assume what you are trying to say is, "Be realistic. Since we can't take the ones people have now away, just let everyone have them." I'm not sure how healthy that response is or how positive and hopeful it is, but if that is your definition of "realism", let it be.