Talking about Gun Control

As has been in the news and breaking hearts all over the country, over a dozen elementary school children in Connecticut were shot and killed by a single gunman, who had earlier killed his mother before collecting the weapons for his slaughter. The shooter, Adam Lanza, age 20, was found dead in the school. As far as I can tell, motivation is uncertain at this time. That includes mental health reasons, so let’s not speculate until there are facts.

With such a tragedy, there is some level of reflection, but there is also reaction. The reflection that needs to happen is to talk about how this could have been prevented; the reaction has been “don’t talk about gun control, it’s too soon”. Fact of the matter is, we need to talk about gun control. Just the day before on the Daily Show it was joked about how there is almost no window of opportunity between gun-related attacks to make it possible to talk about gun control. That was tipped off because of a gun-related murder-suicide involving a football player for the Chiefs. And of course, this happened in the same year as the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado with the killing of movie-goers for The Dark Night Rises.

We keep being pushed on this because of tragedy, and that can bring out the best and worst in us. No one condones this attack, but how much we condone current gun laws is almost something we have to talk about. But there are lots of bad memes in the way. Let’s look at them so we can get to talking about something that isn’t a sound bite and has some substance.

Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. This is also added sometimes with ‘blaming your fork for why you are fat’. If someone wants to kill, they can do that. Most anything can be used as a weapon, even if it has normally peaceful uses. Metal water canteens, fire extinguishers, and of course kitchen knives. But the thing is this: guns are very good at letting you kill. Very quickly, with range, at a lot of people. A knife you need to get up close to attack a single person, and they are not that easy to use if you victim is struggling. With a fully-automatic rifle or semi-automatic pistol, you can drop a clip into victims very quickly and there is little a person can do. Guns are efficient for killing, and that makes sense because that is a primary purpose: lethal force. That isn’t true for most anything else you have. The idea that this meme has is that even if you didn’t have guns there would still be murders. Sure, but there wouldn’t be mass-murders.

This meme can also be put on its head into a reducto ad absurdum. “Nukes don’t kill people; people kill people.” Ought we let people arm up with fission weapons to defend themselves? I don’t think the NRA has a member willing to say that, at least not out-loud.

Now, let’s look at the murder-suicide I mentioned above. Looks like a crime of passion between two people romantically linked. Passions come fast and we often regret what we do. In a moment of passion you may slap, punch, or kick someone and you may regret it. There is plenty of domestic abuse as well. But in a moment with a firearm a fiery emotion ends a life, and there is far more than regret. Not having a gun close by when you are angry is a simple way of making sure you can’t use a gun to commit an action of passion that you will want to take away when you’re cooled down. It’s over, and at least one person is dead. If the Chief’s player wanted to kill his girlfriend, yes he could have, perhaps barehanded, but that presumes he wanted her dead. Hell of a presumption that every attack is to kill without remorse.

Simply put, guns are used to kill people fast and easy. If they are in fewer hands, then fewer people can use them for atrocities or emotional flare-ups.

Criminals break the law, so they’ll just get guns and leave everyone else defenseless. First thing to consider is this: while it is possible to break the law, it makes getting what you want more difficult. If you can’t just go to Walmart for your item of interest, it’s harder to get. Laws that limit guns make it harder for them to be had. Denying this is nonsensical. Moreover, most of the shooting sprees have been done with legally-bought firearms, including this most recent one. In this particular case, the shooter got his weapons from his mother, whom he killed. That also means that arming the innocent won’t prevent those willing to kill from getting weapons; if you can be the source of their arsenal, then you cannot blame it on gun laws letting criminals have these sorts of weapons.

Now, the idea that is trying to be encompassed here is the thought that if you are armed, then you give an incentive for killers not to strike, or if they do they can be put down fast. In the situation in Connecticut, we have 3rd graders. Do we really want to have them pack heat in case of such an event? We have to also consider that the users of these devices are going to make mistakes. In the US every year there are 500 accidental death of children. Usually this doesn’t happen in schools but at home. But now you want to concentrate weapons in a place filled with the innocent and most vulnerable? Putting guns in schools may prevent shootings like these or minimize their devastation, but the accident rate will certainly go up. That would be a zero-net gain at best and spread those deaths all over the country.

Simply arming people up to the teeth isn’t a solution. You allow accidents (and suicides) to increase or sudden urges to become tragic situations. Better gun safety will help, but you have to consider the statistics that not everyone will follow these safe practices–or they will think they did but were wrong. You can’t guarantee this gun safety any better than you can guarantee stocking up on firearms will stop criminals.

The problem is only getting worse. We have to ban guns. Actually, gun-related deaths are on the decline since the 1980s, though the US is still significantly higher than other industrialized nations.

Also, having legal guns doesn’t mean things will go mad. Canada has a significant number of guns per capita (about half that of the US; see here), but they aren’t so bad for gun-related murders. Eliminating guns isn’t necessary to keep such events from becoming rare. It’s also uncertain if completely eliminating guns would be the best solution. The tragedy from earlier this year in Norway is an example; perhaps someone having a gun would have made this atrocity come to a faster end. But then again, the accident rate with guns being what it is, it’s hard to know if there is an overall gain either way.

In sum, the situation is actually getting better, not worse, and it’s not clear that eliminating guns will stop gun-related tragedies. An approach with some moderation is needed. On the other hand…

In Switzerland and Israel they are loaded with civilian guns, yet they are doing fine on gun violence. Apparently it’s not the case that guns are so easily accessible in these countries. When I have been in Switzerland I haven’t noticed anyone who wasn’t a guard at a consulate with a gun, but that’s hardly a scientific assessment. However, Janet Rosenbaum at SUNY has researched this, and the picture isn’t so cut-and-dry as some gun proponents think it is. Her findings are summarized in the Washington Post. Basically, you need to have an excuse to have such a weapon; in Israel, people in settlements want firearms because of fears of attack (and I won’t get into the complex situation of Israel and Palestine here). Guns are not illegal there, but they also can’t be gotten with easy at a local gun show. As such, Switzerland has about half and Israel has about a 10th the gun ownership per capita as the United States. Both countries are trying to make their gun laws smarter, not become simply permissible nor simply banned. Switzerland in particular has had their gun violence go down, tracking their more restricted gun laws even though their deaths due to guns is much lower than in the US. Also, Israel’s laws are so restricted that 40% of applicants are denied their guns. Could you imagine that happening the US?

The US just has a violent culture. Killing will happen no matter what. This becomes a rather odd statement when it also comes from someone that has a great love of country and the Constitution, yet believing that we just can’t help ourselves from the killin’. But is our culture so overly-violent? Well, if that is so it has to be in some parts of the country more than others. The Southern US has the greatest deaths due to firearms, while the Northeast has the fewest.

(Do note that even in the most peaceful parts of the US, that death rate is still double that of more peaceful countries.)

It seems odd to talk of an American culture problem when it isn’t an American universal. Moreover, this seems to track with the laws of those states more than with the people. The South has less stringent gun laws, the Northeast has more. The South has more gun deaths per capita, the Northeast has less.

Now, I don’t assume that more strict laws == best laws about guns. There could well be a happy medium, and as I understand the models that look into these things are mixed; the result you get depends on the assumptions of the model. It’s a hard nut to crack. However, it should be obvious that there are some things the US could do differently; we can see that from state to state, and we can see that from the US to the rest of the industrialized world.

It’s those video games kids are playing. First-person shooters (FPS) need to be restricted. This is related to the culture issue mentioned above. This ought to be considered very unlikely for a few reasons. One is that gun violence is going down, but consumption of violence in games in going up. More copies are sold every year of games like Halo, Gears of War, etc. Yet we get less violent. Also, these games are popular in other major nations, yet they aren’t going mad. Canadians love their games, as do the Japanese and British, but they aren’t bloodthirsty animals. This question is also considered in Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Really, it looks like this cannot be considered a significant culprit in what leads to such terrors.

Those are the big memes I can think of that need to be addressed.

Now, what’s the solution to the problem? I do not know what the best course of action is. However, inaction is inexcusable. The US should be leading the world in science, technology, innovation, and freedom, not in our ability to kill ourselves. There has to be some better position we can take with our laws. I don’t know what laws are best. The ban on assault weapons seems wise at first, but it was semi-auto guns that killed in Connecticut. Background checks are highly approved of by the populace, but perhaps they should also consider the backgrounds of others living with a person? After all, if an outstanding citizen can purchase a gun that can then be easily accessed by someone of lesser moral fiber, then that check was a waste of everyone’s time and blood.

But we must have the discussion. We cannot hide behind the pain of the incident to not talk about this; we will just be waiting until it happens again, and again, and again. So let’s talk!


One thought on “Talking about Gun Control

  1. Pingback: Looking at the New Gun Proposals | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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