Saturday, April 20, 2013

Background Check Gun Control Debate

A few days ago, the Senate failed to pass a watered down background check legislation, which was viewed by many as the last gasp of the post-Sandy-Hook gun control efforts. As expected, many liberals were exhasperated by the news. One of my friends, whom I'll call Sarah (that's not here real name), took to Facebook with her frustration. I commented on her status, and a reasonable, professional, educated debate with her and one of her friends (I'll call him John, although that's also not his name) ensued. I'll post the transcript here. Comments which aren't mine are in italics, while comments which are mine are in standard text.

Original angry status: This is quite sick. The fact that it was even plausible to have a debate about civilians owning assault rifles is sick, because really those are acceptable things to have around the house. The fact that this country is plagued by gun violence everyday and politicians don't even want to expand background checks to online or gun show sales is morally wrong. While the founding fathers put into the Constitution the 2nd amendment, times have changed from US citizens having red coats "threaten our liberty", and it has become an argument that is out dated. So, I guess the NRA has won. Paranoia, fearmongering and a hell of a lot more money have triumphed over reason once again. When will politicians realise that they need to think of what is right for the people rather than their party or their future or themselves? The logic behind this has baffled me. Thanks for nothing Senate.

Me: There are many reasons why your outrage is unfounded. Here are a few.

1. By definition, nothing separates an "assault rifle" from a normal gun except scary looks. They each fire one bullet per trigger pull. Fully automatic machine guns, which fire multiple bullets per trigger pull, have been banned for many years.

2. The country may be plagued by gun violence today, but it is plagued by it less so than it was in prior years with more restrictive gun laws. Violent crime rates have steadily decreased for two decades, corresponding with loosening gun control in many states. There is 0, repeat 0 statistical evidence that expanded background checks do jack diddly squat to reduce gun violence or crime in general in the United States. If anything, there is evidence of an inverse relationship between many of these measures. Using the fact that crime exists as an excuse to ignore those statistics has a term very similar to the one you used: "paranoia and fear mongering triumphing over reason." 

3. Yes, times have changed from the days when foreign governments with red-coated soldiers threatened our liberty. Today, local governments with multi-coated soldiers threaten our liberty. And if you feel the second amendment is outdated and no longer necessary, the solution is to repeal it via a constitutional amendment, not to ignore it because you find it inconvenient. Liberals don't do this because they know the people don't support it be large enough majorities to pass such an amendment, because for the most part they rather like that added layer of protection.

Stricter gun control didn't fail because selfish, greedy people who enjoy bloodshed corrupted politicians and silenced a rational debate. It failed because we had that rational debate, and a majority of Americans came to the rational conclusion that gun control is ineffective, dangerous and unjust.

John: I'm afraid you are mistaken on several fronts.

1. According to The Oxford dictionary an assault rifle is "a rapid-fire, magazine-fed automatic rifle designed for infantry use."[1] and by Merriam-Webster as a "any of various automatic or semiautomatic rifles with large capacity magazines designed for military use"[2]. By Normal guns I can only assume you mean Bolt action rifles which are defined by Merriam-Webster as “use[ing] a manually operated cylinder to drive the cartridge into the rifle's chamber, are the most common type for hunting.”
2. The trend of falling violent crime rates has been observed across the first world completely independent of the gun laws from the U.S. to Japan. For more on this I would recommend “The Better angels of our Nature” by Steven pinker. Please elaborate which study has shown that universal background checks and similar measures correlate to a rise in gun related deaths. Surly you understand my skepticism because in the United States in 2009 United Nations statistics record 3.0 intentional homicides committed with a firearm per 100,000 inhabitants; for comparison, the figure for the United Kingdom, with where handguns are prohibited was 0.07 per 100,000, about 40 times lower, and for Germany 0.2. [3] Gun Homicides in Switzerland however are similarly low, at 0.52 in 2010 even though they rank third in the world for highest number of guns per citizen. It undermines your argument to accuse other of providing false information without citing your own sources.
3. The second Amendment is outdated only in that if a serious rebellion were to begin, unless we allow civilians to own drones and other such weapons, we would be exterminated by a nation that already restricts the arms you could potential use to fight against it, effectively ensuring it always wins in an arms race against its own citizenry. I’m disinclined to speculate on the motives of “Liberals” or anyone because it’s improper to support such statements by my own anecdotal evidence
4. Gun control actually failed because a minority of the senate was able to filibuster the motion for cloture on the Manchin-Toomey Amendment although a majority of senators voted in favor of the motion. As for most Americans public opinion is far more complex than you illustrated with a majority favoring some measures such as background checks and opposing others such as limiting the number of guns each individual may own.[4]

[1] ( 
[3] ^ United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Homicides by firearm statistics.

Me: Jordan, you seem like an informed, intelligent and respectful adversary. Hopefully the discussion stays this professional.

1. By "rapid fire" and they mean "as rapidly as someone can pull the trigger", because by definition a semiautomatic weapon cannot fire more than one bullet per trigger pull. That's what separates them from a fully automatic weapon, which is already illegal. This gives it a very similar fire rate to other semi-automatic weapons, like hand guns, which is what I was referring to by "normal guns." I don't know why you "could only assume" I meant bolt action rifles, because as you mentioned they're much rarer and primarily used for hunting. Yes, bolt action rifles do indeed have a slower fire rate, but they're also not what comes to mind when people think of your typical self-defense household weapon. Similarly, most handguns and normal guns are also "magazine fed" - all that means is that you can load them with a clip of bullets, rather than one bullet at a time. And some handguns (like the very popular Beretta 92) are also designed "for infantry use". This doesn't mean they're only good for that use. This semantics game is exactly why liberals can't be taken seriously when they accuse the NRA of "fear mongering" - spreading fear by using scary words people don't understand has a huge part of the liberal strategy on gun control since the 1980's.

2. I've read The Better Angels of Our Nature. I also never made any reference to the effectiveness of gun control in other countries, but rather said it "was ineffective to reduce gun violence or crime in general in the United States." There are several reasons comparisons to European countries don't mean much regarding our own policies. One is that violent crime is lower across the board in Europe than it is in the US, regardless of the gun policies implemented by those governments (I give you credit for citing Switzerland as an example of that, even though it doesn't support the argument you seem to advocate). Another is that we already have 300 million guns in the country, whereas those nations never had such widespread ownership; it's much easier to ban something from the outset than it is to confiscate it after 200+ years of legality. As for statistics suggesting gun control hasn't worked in the US/gun rights are beneficial in the US, here you are:

"of the 30,000 gun deaths per year, more than half (18,000) are suicides. The number of accidental deaths is about 1000. Each year there are about 3000 deaths caused by med¬ical error, about 15,000 deaths caused by accidental falls, and over 40,000 accidental deaths caused by automobiles.
In comparison, civilians use firearms to defend themselves from criminals between 800,000 and 2.5 million times per year. About 8% of those (between 64,000 and 200,000) involve stop¬ping a sex¬ual assault.

3. There are many examples throughout history in which armies with inferior technology and training have prevailed. This is especially possible when they have strength in numbers and a morale advantage. Vietnam is one instance. Inversely, there are many examples in which government expansion and the quelling of rebellions has been made easier after disarming the populace. Several 20th century dictatorships fit that bill.

4. I agree with everything you wrote under 4. None of it is contradictory to anything I wrote.

John:  I hope the conversation can continue in such a manner. I am thoroughly enjoying it.

1) I’m afraid you've misunderstood my intention in citing those definitions yes semi-automatic firearms encompasses a huge range I was citing them for the reference to their use for “military” and “infantry”. The argument around what should be banned often falls along what should be used for civilian vs. military use and as such the definition of Semi-automatic rifles would indicate that some weapons which fall into that category are reasonable to consider for bans or registration with appropriate grandfather clauses. I assumed you meant bolt action rifles because the conversation around guns often includes hunting as well as self-defense I thought if you wanted to discuss hand guns you would have used the phrase so I defaulted to the most common hunting rifle. In terms of hunting and self-defense for the home few weapons above a handgun or a bolt action rifle are, in my opinion, needed. In terms of a semantics game I was merely pointing to the definition to establish a working definition, a legalistic idiosyncrasy I can’t ignore. Now of course some members of the Democratic Party use tactics that could rightly be considered fear mongering. That does not erase or forgive the fear mongering that the NRA has engaged in over the last 30 years. Also the fact that people don’t understand the terms “assault rifle” and “high capacity magazine” is the fault of an uneducated and/or lazy populace and should not impede debate on specialized topics.

2) I used the other countries because I thought it served as the best illustration of the contrast of ideologies not to impeach your words on the topic, do not worry. If you prefer we could examine in the United States where the Northeast and West coast have generally lower rates of gun related deaths than the Heartland and the South. [1] In terms of banning these guns no one that I am aware of is suggesting the confiscation of these guns after sales are banned. To do so would violate Article one, Section nine of the U.S. Constitution banning ex post facto legislation. All existing sales would have been grandfathered in to the new system. The problem with statistics is that they are often very counter-intuitive. New York has more gun related deaths yes but as citation one shows clearly less proportional gun related deaths which I did not see mentioned in any of the sources you respectfully provided. Unfortunately the websites listed, Cato most egregiously, claimed that there was no correlational link between legislation and gun violence simply by fiat as well.

3) Yes History is littered with underdog stories the problem is that the gap in technology between the common citizen and his/her government has grown with time in the western world. The crushing defeats of the official armies of Iraq and Afghanistan to me show how deadly that gap can be. Any government so egregious that it must be overthrown is so insidious that it will viciously refuse to be. Such a government could pepper the countryside with missiles and drones, sending in an army with tanks and fully automatic weapons to slaughter civilians en-mass. Perhaps this scenario is opinion based but I would not be confident in semiautomatic and hunting weaponry in the hands of a relatively untrained populace to stand against such an assault.

4) I specified the information in my previous #4 because I thought that your contention about the only “rational” decision being agreed to by legislators and the American populace was too broad and as such slightly misleading.

Me: 1. "In terms of hunting and self defense for the home few weapons above a handgun or a bolt action rifle are, in my opinion, needed."

I don't think it's a question of what people need, so much as a question of what people want and feel more comfortable owning. This is because you are the one proposing a ban. You are the one suggesting the government wield force to restrict the freedom of its citizens. Therefore, the burden of proof lies with you. I don't have to prove why certain types of guns serve a particularly useful purpose in order to justify permitting them. On the contrary, you have to prove why certain types of guns pose a particularly egregious danger to justify banning them.

2. "All existing sales would have been grandfathered in to the new system." - This is one of the many reasons people are highly skeptical gun control can be effective. There are almost as many guns in the country as there are people. Keeping them out of the hands of criminals or "the wrong people" is essentially impossible - about as doable as keeping drugs out of the hands of people who want them.

3. "Any government so egregious that it must be overthrown is so insidious that it will viciously refuse to be." - Resistance of government doesn't just mean bullrushing the capital building and dodging drones. It just means resistance. Guerilla warfare. Hiding ones identity, popping out from behind a bush, firing a few shots, and running off. Being a pest. Making life difficult for the occupying force. Imposing non-casualty costs of energy and money. In other words, exactly what formed our country fighting back against a foe with superior technology and weaponry and manpower. And although technology has indeed advanced, there are recent examples of the same principle. I cited Vietnam as one example. The Mujahideen repelling the Russians was another. One could even argue the war in Iraq demonstrated the vulnerability of seemingly superior military forces to such tactics. Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, by contrast, couldn't offer much of a fight. Guerilla tactics don't work if you're throwing rocks or stabbing from close range.

Besides, self defense from lots of people at once needn't be just from government. The LA Race riots come to mind - many Asian store owners were looted by furious crowds, and some people even attacked and physically injured or shot. But one store owner and held out and protected his property from the hoards by camping out on the roof of his store with what you would call an "assault rifle".

Sarah: You are right that enacting new laws on gun sales won't keep the ones already out there in the country out of the hands of the "wrong" people, but the question is about the reasonable limits to owning a gun and being sure there is more adequate training rather than prohibition. Prohibition in this country has never worked, but being able to have a system that can monitor the types of people who own guns and the types of guns that should be owned is something that would benefit society as a whole.
Now, I think the LA Race Riots is an extreme case to compare advocating for guns since the conditions were quite different and do not really parallel today. In our time, is it someones right to be able to own a military style weapon on a day to day basis? This amendment was not going to take away someones gun, it was not going to even ban owning certain types of guns, it was just going to help as a tool to monitor more the people who are buying weapons.
I don’t think that it is fair to say that more gun control laws in our country will be ineffective. If you look at countries that have stricter gun control laws which limit access to weapons, studies have shown that there is less gun related crime in those countries. Look at Australia. There was a massacre which led to stricter firearm policy which led to less violence from firearms in the country and, “In the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 11 mass shootings in the country. There hasn’t been a single one in Australia since”. Sure, it did not eliminate all types of violence, but the data shows that having gun control policies has an effect on the level of gun related violence there. Of course we must take into account the different cultural implications and values of having guns, but not trying to curb these things from happening is worse than sitting by and waiting for another news story about gun violence. And within our own country studies have found that states with stricter gun laws have less gun related violence (
The reason we have regulations is so that we are protected, not so the government can infringe on our rights. Let’s look at how the government regulates driving. Now, in every drivers ed class the teacher mentions how a car is a weapon and that when we drive one, we are handling a weapon, so in order to own and operate a care, one must register, take a test to show they know how to use it, be licensed by the state, register the vehicle(s) they will be operating and periodically, have their license renewed. At Monsanto, they have all of the employees who have company cars take annual written and field exams in order to operate a vehicle. Yet, we don’t complain since all of this bureaucracy is there in order to protect us and keep others safe. The same type of process should go for operating a gun. And yes, even with driving, there are still the cases with drunk driving where people are abusing their right, but over the past decade, there have been declining incidents from drunk driving as a result of governments and states becoming more proactive by having better policing on highways and other regulations to ensure these do not happen.

Me: I read your post Sarah, but I've already rebuked some of the arguments you made (specifically the comparisons to laws/crime rates in other countries and in certain states, with the idea that association does not equal causation). You can read more about why these comparisons don't say much in the second half of this blog post:

The LA Race riots are an extreme case. It is also a recent case, which combats this idea that self defense was only necessary in the 1700's. And there is no reason to suspect violence (and thus, the need for defense) will go away in the future. Why can't something similar to the LA race riots happen again? And when they do, why must I peck away with an inaccurate short range handgun when superior alternatives are available? There is nothing remotely immoral about the mere ownership of an assault rifle.

Yes, regulations are designed for protection. So are guns. Like guns, regulation doesn't always work for its intended purpose. Like guns, regulation can produce negative side effects, among which is necessarily the infringement of rights. All regulation restricts rights to some extent. The situations in which that's justifiable are more rare than you seem prone to imagine.

A critical difference between weapons and cars is that the government owns all the roads - it can set whatever rules of using them it likes. It does not own us, our our houses or our land, and what we do or own on that land is normally not its concern. But even within the car example, some people do indeed complain about this bureaucracy. I myself have had some negative run-ins with it. Some feel it could function much more smoothly, fairly and efficiently with fewer rules and/or privatization.

John: 1)The law does not care what people what or what makes them comfortable when their desires could pose a distinct danger to those around them, which is why we cannot own fully automatic rifles for self-defense. You do not have to prove that however I feel this is a cop out since I didn’t commit a shift of the burden of proof; you raised the topic and I attacked your position. On a side not It’s a sign of cognitive dissonance to claim gun control laws are both ineffective and to be afraid they are a serious step toward a totalitarian government, either they are effective at removing guns from the populace or they are not.
2) Legislation is a gradual implementation we cannot expect any law to immediately change the entire country. Because we have a constitutional prohibition against ex post facto prosecution does mean we should not take precautions to prevent future criminals and mentally ill individuals from acquiring similar weapons that are dangerously and safely employed today. In a more personal note, speaking as someone with a personality disorder with a family plagued by mental illness believe me when I say a comprehensive background check system would be desirable to keep weapons away even from otherwise responsible citizens like myself.
3) Suffice is to say on this point while I see we have very different views and no impartial evidence to settle it that I am more concerned about the counter insurgency capabilities of the current global superpowers. The Vietcong incidentally had explosives and fully automatic fire arms. As did the Mujahideen which were armed and funded by the United States ironically. Iraq was a situation where we were actually stopping a sectarian civil war, not a concerted Guerilla war.
4) I would call the weapon used in that scenario an assault rifle because it WAS an assault rifle. I’m hardly claiming that we should ban all guns especially since guns legal under the Manchin-Toomey Amendment would have protected him. For every story of someone protecting themselves with a gun there is another similar to when at the Tucson shooting in 2011 a bystander pulled a gun and almost shot another bystander who was holding the shooters gun after disarming him. That’s why anecdotal evidence is so often ineffective. I know of no one who makes the argument we don’t need self-defense since the 1700s by the way. By the same logic that you justify “superior alternatives” you can daisy chain you way back to fully automatic and highly accurate weaponry which I assume you do not support legalizing.
5) On a side note by living under a government you are giving up a series of rights that is the nature of the social contract and subjecting yourself to that government is an integral part of it. If you truly believe the government does not effectively own your property research Eminent domain believe me I may be a socialist but there are plenty of reasons to cut back government authority in that area as well as violations of the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment let along police powers that are of tremendous concern. These violations include massive expansion of police powers that pose an immediate threat to the civil liberties of the populace, at least more so than universal background checks.

Unfortunately this will likely be my last response I’ll be away for several days and will not be able to get online to post but I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation.

Me: 1. Yes, you did attack my position, and no, you didn't mention burden of proof explicitly. But the way you attacked my position (and supported banning a certain type of gun) was by saying you didn't feel that type of gun was "needed." But what you feel people need doesn't matter, because that'is not the question. "They don't need it" does not justify banning something - there are lots of legal things nobody really needs. Inversely, I don't need to prove people need that thing to justify keeping it legal. Rather, in order to justify a ban of something, you have to prove mere ownership of it poses what you called a "distinct danger to those around them." This is not a cop out - it's an important and relevant distinction many gun control advocates fail to understand.

"Either [gun control laws] are effective at removing guns fro the populace or they are not." - This is a false choice, because it makes it seem as if the populace must be either entirely armed or entirely unarmed, without acknowledging the possibility of middle-ground situations in which only certain types of people are armed. Banning X type of gun takes X type of gun out of the hands of people who wish to obey the law - but only from those people. From this perspective, it is effective at decreasing the amount of guns in circulation. However, it's ineffective at reducing crime, because those law-abiding people are very rarely the ones who use guns to initiate violence in the first place. Therefore it renders these law abiding people defenseless not just from their government, but from the criminals who ignore gun control legislation and acquire them on the black market.

2. You said that just because we can't take guns from everybody doesn't mean we shouldn't "take precautions to prevent future criminals and mentally ill" people from getting guns. But how would these laws do that? All they would do is make it illegal for people to sell them guns - just like it's illegal to sell people weed. People who want weed can still get it rather easily. Just because something is illegal doesn't make the demand for that thing go away, it just pushes these transactions to the black market where, by definition, the only people who can get it are the people with a demonstrated willingness to break the law. AKA, criminals. If you want to stop them from breaking the law, making another law saying they're not allowed to do it is intuitively unlikely to work. 

As for the mentally ill, the same principle applies - the only mentally ill people we need to worry about are the ones who might commit crimes, and therefore become criminals. But besides, I was unaware mentally ill people had fewer rights than everybody else. If they've done something wrong or illegal or violent in the past, their rights can be restricted as punishment just like everybody else's. But holding them to a different legal standard than others smacks of discrimination. It's the equivalent of saying "you're too stupid and crazy and abnormal to be trusted with the responsibility we give to other people," and that strikes me as belittling.

3. The underlying point here is that the government should not have a monopoly on the capability to use force. You're correct that "we have different views and no impartial evidence to settle it." But if your view is that "well the government already has complete power so we're fucked whether we have guns or not", hopefully you can understand why I find that unsettling and dangerous and something we should change.

4. "By the same logic that you justify “superior alternatives” you can daisy chain you way back to fully automatic and highly accurate weaponry which I assume you do not support legalizing." - You assume too much haha. I'm a libertarian - there is very, very little I do not support legalizing. You are right about the anecdotal evidence though. I wish all gun control advocates would apply this standard for statistical evidence instead of citing individual stories of heartbreak. If they did, each new shooting story on the news wouldn't strike them as more evidence that we need gun control.

5. "On a side note by living under a government you are giving up a series of rights that is the nature of the social contract and subjecting yourself to that government is an integral part of it." Really? That's odd - I don't recall signing that social contract.


  1. "By definition, nothing separates an "assault rifle" from a normal gun except scary looks. They each fire one bullet per trigger pull. Fully automatic machine guns, which fire multiple bullets per trigger pull, have been banned for many years."

    You are wong, or thinking of the term assault weapon. An Assault Rifle is a select-fire weapon that uses an intermediate round. A select-fire weapon is a weapon that can alternate between a safe/semi/fully-automatic(or burst, in the case of the M16A2/A4) and an intermediate cartridge is a cartridge that is between the power of a submachine gun round and a full-sized rifle round. Assault rifles are, by definition, fully-automatic (or burst fire) weapons.

    You are also wrong in another way. Fully-automatic weapons are perfectly legal in the United States. I know several people who own them, and they own them legally.

  2. My mistake, I was referring to assault weapon. The assault weapons ban is the one currently being proposed, and it's definition is based on largely cosmetic distinctions with the intent that people have the exact same confusion I just had.

    As for the fully-automatic weapons, that depends which kind you're referring to. Only automatic weapons manufactured and registered with the federal government before 1986 can be bought, owned and sold - it is illegal to have one made after that date, I believe due to the Hughes amendment. Additionally, even those from before that date require submitting fingerprints and photographs to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, going through an FBI criminal background check, and paying a $200 tax, among other hurdles.

    The weapons your friends have were probably grandfathered in before 1986. MODERN fully automatics are illegal, and the more time goes on, the less likely it is one will be able to find a legal one at all.