Thursday, August 18, 2016

A brief and cordial discussion on the merits of banning handgun ownership

I recently discussed gun control with a smart friend of mine from college.  Here’s a transcript:


My Friend: The only area I've become less libertarian on in hand gun ownership.  The use of rifles in mass shootings and terrorism doesn't suggest restriction can be justified, because those events are so rare. On the other hand, handguns are responsible for a lot of dead Americans every year.  There is, I think, a pretty strong case for limiting their ownership to the same class of people that qualify for a concealed carry permit.


Me:  First, I’m glad you look at the numbers, instead of just the shootings that make the news.  It’s refreshing to see data-driven gun control proposals.

You’re right that many Americans die from handguns every year.  The bulk of those deaths are either suicides or gang-related.  I understand that suicides are often impulsive acts, such that having an easy means readily available makes it more likely to happen.  Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to assume that even without handguns, there would be a considerable substitution effect in the particular method chosen.  Suicide deaths would decrease a little in a world without handguns, but not by nearly so much as the current number of handgun suicides.

As for gangsters, most of them don’t even abide by the limited firearm registration laws that are already in place.  What legislation could you possibly craft that would convince the class of people that is both a) least likely to obey the law in general, and b) most in need of a handgun for self-defense, to turn theirs in? 

And if you agree that they likely won’t give them up, how are we justified in taking them from everyone else?  There are hundreds of thousands of “defensive gun uses” in this country every year (the exact figures are disputed, but some estimates reach several million).  Most of these do not even require firing the weapon, as brandishing it is often enough to send the assailant running.  Surely this saves some lives that would otherwise be lost.  It’s impossible to say how many, but whatever we suspect that number is needs to be deducted from whatever number of lives you suspect would be saved.

And of course, the same substitution effect applies for crime too.  In a world without handguns, the number of drive-by’s and nightclub shootings conducted with shotguns and rifles would not remain static.

Ultimately, I don’t think laws trying to take guns off the streets are going to be any more effective at doing so than laws have been at taking drugs off the streets.  Black markets thrive in both cases, and efforts to stamp out those markets will disproportionately target poor racial minorities, without noticeable reductions in the original problem.  The bottom line is that there are already 330 million firearms in the US, which to me means the cat is out of the bag.  Going door to door trying to confiscate them is going to result in more violence, not less. We need to come to terms with the reality that, for better or for worse, anyone who wants one badly enough can probably find a way to get it.

Lastly, I hope you recognize that what you propose requires a constitutional amendment.  The entire purpose of a “right” to something is that you don’t need anybody’s permission to do it, and requiring permits for anything is basically just making it illegal unless you ask for permission.  It’s reasonable to think that not everyone should have the right to bear arms, but if that’s what you believe, it warrants saying plainly.


My Friend: That was quite the wall of text. Your argument about substitution effects is worth further study, but merely pointing out the possibility without a firm prediction on magnitude does not invalidate the proposal.

As far as the existence of 330 million firearms already, what you need to know is the "time to crime." After all, those millions of law abiding owners would not suddenly start selling their firearms to shady people if you decided one day that only those qualifying for a concealed carry permit would be able to buy a handgun.

But even that does not really invalidate the proposal, if handgun limitations were considered worthwhile, reducing deaths years down the road would still be worthwhile.
As far as constitutionality, there are already established limits on firearm ownership (process to buying automatics, the stupid "assault weapons" ban), so the amendment argument does not stand.

I used to be a 100% gun ownership guy, so you probably don't have an argument I haven't used before. I actually did a major paper and oral defense in high school on preserving second amendment rights.


Me:  First, it isn’t me who has to provide a firm prediction of magnitude to invalidate your proposal; it is the proposer who has the burden of providing a firm prediction of magnitude, in order to subsequently argue that such an improvement justifies restricting people’s liberties.  For the reasons I mentioned, pointing out how many currently die from handguns each year doesn’t count as that.

How many deaths would banning handgun ownership among this class of people save, why, and why is that number so morally imperative as to justify the trade-offs?  Why is it more likely to reduce deaths years down the road than it is now?


Second, the existence of some legal firearm ownership limitations does not mean ANY firearm ownership limitations you want to dream up are constitutional.  DC v. Heller pretty clearly stated that handguns count as “arms” for the purposes of the Second Amendment, which makes them distinct from automatics and assault weapons.  There were also handguns around long before the time of the framing, which means that even the dumb “the framers could have never conceived of this type of weapon!” argument doesn’t apply here.  The courts have declared it flatly unconstitutional to prohibit handgun ownership from law-abiding citizens on multiple occasions, and they’re right.

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