Friday, October 6, 2017

A polite and productive conversation on gun control

A friend of mine posted this link depicting the death toll from public shootings in the US on Facebook the other day (they define “mass shootings” in an atypical way designed to inflate their prevalence, but I won’t get into that here).  The following conversation ensued.

Friend: I ask people who oppose stricter gun regulations, is this acceptable? Seriously. I would like to hear why anyone would oppose gun registration, making armor piercing ammunition, automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal, background checks, limits on the quantity of guns and ammunition that can be purchased and stockpiled, and other attempts to save lives are unacceptable in light of the current epidemic of gun violence. Not talking about taking away someone's right to own a gun for hunting or home defense, but a lot has changed since the amendment assuring citizens the right to bear arms (muskets) was written. If anyone has an argument for why it should not be updated and enforced at a national level, why gun laws are actually becoming less restrictive, I would love to hear it.

Me: Before I dive in, I want to thank you for actually laying out specific policy proposals we can discuss.  That already makes this a more serious conversation than everyone vaguely hand-waving about “common sense gun reform,” as if there were any consensus (even on the left) about what that entails.  As you can see, I got on a bit of a roll and wound up writing too much haha – but that’s because I think getting detailed is exactly what’s needed to advance the dialogue beyond culture war virtue-signalling.  So, thanks for letting me get wonky.

I’ll go through your proposals one at a time, and try to summarize my stance as concisely as possible in layman’s terms before diving into the technical details.

1.     “Making armor piercing ammunition illegal.” You’ll be relieved to hear that most “armor piercing” ammunition is already illegal under federal law.  That which remains legal can’t really be distinguished from “normal” rifle ammo, which is the LEAST likely ammo to be used in a violent crime.  Banning this ammunition as well would have no measurable impact on gun deaths, while imposing comparatively massive headache for millions of law-abiding hunters and sport-shooters.  As such, it doesn’t make sense as a violence-reduction strategy. 

Whether a given bullet (aka “round”) will penetrate a given piece of body armor depends on dozens of factors, including the bullet’s size (“caliber”), shape, weight, density, material, and velocity (not to mention the type, material and thickness of the body armor in question).  This means there’s no neat line between which rounds are “armor piercing” and which are not. 

Federal law currently prohibits all *handgun* ammunition specially designed to be large or dense enough to pierce police body armor.  But because rifles fire larger rounds at faster speeds than handguns do, even most ordinary rifle rounds (the sort commonly used in hunting, for example) could pierce a Kevlar vest. 

Rifle rounds are legal, and with good reason: they’re the least likely to be used for malevolent purposes.  Rifles simply aren’t a practical tool for most criminals because they’re unwieldy in close quarters and you can’t conceal them in clothing; as such, they account for only a minute portion of the overall gun casualties in the country. 

Those who are shot by rifles are almost never wearing body armor anyway, which makes the whole topic sort of a red herring.  The only people who commonly wear body armor are police officers; on average, only about 50 policemen are killed in the line of duty each year.  Not all of those are killed with firearms, and those killed with firearms are sometimes shot in the head, where body armor is no help.  Whatever number remains is not a large enough portion of the 30,000+ gun deaths in the country to warrant our legislative energies.  And it especially doesn’t make sense in response to indiscriminate mass shootings like the one in Vegas, which rarely target anyone likely to be wearing protective gear.

2.     “Making automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal.”  Again, you may be relieved to discover that automatic weapons (aka machine guns) are already illegal (with the exception of those manufactured before 1986, which by this point are antique showpieces and cost at least $25,000 each).  Semi-automatic weapons, on the other hand, are not illegal, and that’s because MOST guns are semi-automatic: they have been around for hundreds of years, and they are EXTREMELY different from fully-automatic weapons. 

On a fully automatic machine gun, squeezing the trigger once and holding it down will cause the weapon to rapid-fire at a rate of hundreds of rounds per minute.  That’s obviously very dangerous – but again, these have been illegal for 30 years already.  On a semi-automatic weapon, however, only a single round comes out each time you pull the trigger, which makes it vastly less powerful.

Revolvers are semi-automatic weapons.  Police handguns (and really, almost all handguns) are semi-automatic weapons.  Many hunting weapons are semi-automatic.  Semi-automatic weapons are among the most useful and effective for self-defense.  Banning them would require confiscating hundreds of millions of guns from law-abiding people using them for benign purposes.  From my view, this plainly violates both the letter and spirit of the second amendment.  If you still want to ban all semi-automatic weapons even knowing the difference between semi- and fully-auto, then really what we should be discussing is whether it should be legal to own a gun at all.

One caveat, here…on SOME models, it is possible to alter a semi-automatic weapon so that it functions similarly to a fully automatic.  This appears to be what the Las Vegas shooter did.  This is usually illegal already, but if it turns out he found some loophole, I’d be all in favor of closing it and making that alteration harder to achieve.

3.     “Background checks.”  Once again, federal law already requires all *licensed* firearms vendors in all 50 states to perform background checks on all would-be customers, and lists criteria (like histories of violent crime) which preclude sale.  However, there is admittedly a loophole here, which is that unlicensed vendors (those who don’t sell as a primary business, but are selling second-hand from their private collection to a neighbor or friend, or at a gun-show) need not perform these checks.  These second-hand sales account for roughly 40% of all gun ownership transfers in the country, and a “universal background check” policy closing this loophole currently exists in only about 15-20 states.  Nationwide universal background checks is a reasonable proposal, and one of the top priorities of gun control advocacy groups like the Brady Center.

Like most Americans, most gun owners, and even most NRA members, I have no problem with requiring universal background checks.  The question becomes this: which traits, if discovered on the background check, should preclude gun ownership?  Gun control advocates typically mention two: a history of violent crime, and a history of mental illness.  The first I’m okay with; the second, I am not, for two reasons.

First, equality under the law means we cannot take away people’s constitutional rights unless it’s as punishment for a crime.  It’s plainly discriminatory to withhold rights from an entire class of people just because some tiny minority of them are stereotyped as violent and crazy.  That violates the 5th and 14th amendments as well as the 2nd.

Secondly, a law which deprives second amendment rights from anyone with a history of mental illness is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of mentally ill people declining to seek help – especially in the South, and especially among veterans.  There are enormous swaths of this country in which gun ownership is seen as an indication of manhood – where owning a gun is right up there with driving a pickup truck, drinking beer or watching football as a culturally important social outlet for men to talk about.  Not coincidentally, it is often these same social circles of conservative southern men who most struggle with a) PTSD from combat experience, and b) stigma about appearing weak by expressing their emotions, making them both the MOST in need of mental health treatment and the LEAST likely to seek it out.  That is a toxic combination; a world in which seeking help means forfeiting their guns and appearing even more feminine in their social circles would make it more toxic!  To the extent that mass shootings are a problem caused by both the availability of guns and the mental health crisis in this country, we need to ensure that the solutions we pursue to one problem do not worsen the other.

4.     “Limits on the quantity of guns and ammunition that can be purchased and stockpiled.”  This is two separate proposals: limiting the number of guns, and limiting the amount of ammunition.  For the first, my question is: why?  And for the second, my question is: how?

If war kicks off with North Korea tonight, the U.S. Army will send me into battle with one firearm.  That’s not reckless of them, and it’s not due to funding limitations: one weapon is really all you need!  People who stockpile weapons before going on a rampage are wasting their money, because you can only fire one weapon at a time with any accuracy anyway.  In the time it takes to grab a second weapon, you might as well just reload the first.

As such, limiting the number of firearms people are allowed to own wouldn’t do much at all to reduce the killing capacity of mass shooters – but it would sadden a lot of enthusiastic collectors, and inconvenience a lot of law abiding people.  For example, my father owns three shotguns for a perfectly sensible reason: my family of six likes to go skeet shooting sometimes as a family outing.  Having three weapons we can fire simultaneously minimizes the time each of us must wait for our turn.  So I guess my follow-up question is, how many weapons would you permit people to “stockpile,” and what would capping the number there really accomplish besides irritating conservatives?

The same question applies for ammunition limits: what should the limit be, and how would you enforce it?  Ammunition is expensive, so many sport shooters buy in bulk to save money. If you prohibit them from buying in bulk, they (and would-be mass shooters, for that matter) will just split their purchases into smaller increments from multiple stores or online locations, so as to acquire the same overall amount they initially wanted. 

Perhaps you would make people register and report how much ammo they have on hand; if so, how do you ensure they are reporting honestly?  For example, suppose you make a limit of 100 rounds “stockpiled” per person.  In June, I buy 100 rounds – then I go to the range and shoot them.  In July, I want to buy 100 more rounds; do you let me?  If so, what’s to prevent me from lying about how much I shot, and buying 100 more every month to eventually get 1,000? And if you don’t let people buy more over time, doesn’t a limit on the ammunition you can “stockpile” basically amount to limit on the amount you can ever fire?

Friend: Andrew, you make some great points. I truly appreciate all the time you have put into explaining the issues involved in gun regulation from the perspective of a responsible gun owner.

I totally agree with you about the problems of trying to deny gun purchases based on any mental health issues. There is such a huge spectrum of mental health that it makes it difficult to draw the line. And you make a great point about how it may actually exacerbate mental health issues for some. I think we need to expand the availability of care, especially for our veterans. I also think we have some major cultural problems in our country (and beyond) that are not easily solved with legislation but need to be addressed. The identification of emotions as weak/ feminine combined with guns/violence as an expression of masculinity has no easy solution but, as shown by the fact that the vast majority of shooters and other perpetrators of violence are male, this issue needs to be put out in the open and addressed.

We need more open discussions between people with opposing views because I think we share the goal of wanting to reduce gun violence, but we need to understand the issues involved. Clearly this is not going to be solved by just one solution but by a combination of closing loopholes, making sure others are not opened, and attending to the mental health of our citizens and culture. I'm still going to advocate for gun control which may involve some compromise on the part of gun owners and sellers of guns and ammunition, but will definitely take into account the concerns of our country's responsible gun owners. I'm not happy about airport inconveniences or having to show ID to buy Sudafed, but if it makes our country safer, I'm will to do it. Thanks again and I really hope you don't go to North Korea.

Me: Totally understand where you're coming from, and in many cases those compromises are perfectly reasonable.  Of course I share the goal of reducing violence – shouldn’t everyone?  It’s for that exact reason, though, that I’m wary of giving government a blank check to solve complex social problems, and I think the TSA and Sudafed analogies you made are perfect examples.  Both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs were waged in the hopes of making us safer, but wound up going much too far, with the result being more violence instead of less.

It’s funny you mention Sudafed, actually, because I think that the single most effective way to reduce gun deaths in this country would be to legalize drugs.  An enormous portion of the “mass shootings” depicted on this link are gang related; guess what the gangs are fighting over?  From 2006-2013, Mexican drug cartels alone killed an estimated 60,000 people in drug-related violence.  Prohibition sends these cartels lucrative profits by shielding them from competition and taxation; inversely, legalizing marijuana would divert money away from gangs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product.  Pot smokers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and bloody turf wars between rival distributors would disappear as the demand for their services dried up.

Legalization would also decrease gun violence in other ways by rebuilding America’s poorest and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which only increases crime down the road (among both the children who grow up without a father, and also the fathers who struggle to find legal employment after their release thanks to a criminal record).

I’m getting carried away again, but the point is that many laws intended to make us safer fail to do so, and even those which do often come with significant tradeoffs to liberty, equality, prosperity, or other values.  When faced with those tradeoffs, it’s not enough to say “if it makes our country safer, I’m willing to do it” across the board – it’s important to quantify just how much safer a given policy is likely to make us, and at what cost to competing considerations.  Hopefully enough of our legislators – perhaps in calmer times – will have enough talks like this one to find that happy medium and make reforms we can all agree on.  Say hi to John for me!

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