Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Few Things on Gun Control

First of all, an article on how stricter gun control in Australia led to declining homicides and suicides.

Also, while it is true that gun control won't prevent mass assaults of the kind that recently happen here, it does seem to vastly reduce the casualties. China experienced a mass stabbing on the same day that we had a mass shooting occur in the US. A key difference is that in China, no one died, and there tends to be more wounded than fatalities in events of this type in China.

Unfortunately gun control is one of those issues where the US is deeply irrational. Gun control works, anyone denying this is either uninformed, lying, or exhibiting an extreme version of motivated reasoning. As long as we are weighing real benefits vs. imaginary benefits, like tyranny prevention, personal safety, and crime prevention (none of which firearms possession can be shown to contribute to statistically, though some people do appear to feel an increased feeling of personal security even though statistically their security declines through gun ownership) a mature conversation on this topic is impossible. For us to have an adult conversation on the topic will require that we admit the effectiveness of gun control measures, and then to decide how to weigh the public health (suicide prevention), crime prevention, and general personal safety benefits against the fact that some people have moral beliefs about the role guns play in our society and gain a feeling of personal safety from them.

Or to put it another way, gun control is a case where we are letting the moral and emotional concerns of a few prevent measurable, universally agreed upon benefits that would accrue to everyone. Maybe we believe that the concerns of these few should trump measurable benefits to the public at large, but if this is what we are doing we should admit to it, rather than continuing to repeat bullshit about guns which just isn't true.


  1. I'm not a gun owner, and far from a gun nut, but I've always been queasy about most gun control because I don't see the problem it solves. Edge cases like in the US or China kill people regardless. I have to respectfully disagree that spree killing fatalities will necessarily decrease as a result; you don't need to stretch the imagination to know the rate of fire one can get with a slide-action rifle or the killing power of a pump-action shotgun with 00 buck. Someone who wants to kill without semiautomatic weapons will find ways to kill. I'm glad at least that you're observant enough to admit that no amount of gun control proposed aside from an outright ban can prevent spree killings like the ones we saw.

    I also have trouble viewing gun control as a solution to the public health problem that suicides pose - that merely removes one avenue to an end that, it seems to me, shifts the numbers to somewhere else. And finally I have bucketloads of trouble seeing how a blunt instrument like a ban is the just way to control crime with illegal guns. Punishing law-abiding citizens for the actions of criminals doesn't seem like a just solution to me, especially when drug enforcement in this country gets several times the budget of anti-weapons trafficking. It also ignores the inertia posed by the millions of illegal firearms already in circulation.

    From my point of view, what I'm weighing are two major detriments from our current gun ownership regime - that is, relatively easily laundered guns to criminals and the availability of these guns to maniacs - against our current regime. I see no solution for the second problem and easily implemented, but not proposed, solutions to the first.

    In a small way, many gun control advocates remind me of the justification GOP politicians in Florida or Pennsylvania used for Voter IDs. They claimed a problem existed, but then proposed a solution that didn't address the problems at hand.

    The other thing that bothers me about the reactions to the massacre in Connecticut the most is the nature of moral panic-style legislation. That similar national attention gave us Megan's Law and the PATRIOT Act should be signs that in many ways, the proponents of restrictive legislation are as irrational and incapable of "adult" discussion as the ones in opposition.

  2. I agree that a ban isn't the way to go about gun control. Another block to rational discussion is that in the US a mention of gun control always elides into a discussion about a gun ban, yet virtually no gun control advocates ever mention a ban.

    By gun control, what I have in mind is primarily mandatory registration and tracking of sale, similar to what they do in Switzerland. Bans on certain weapon classes have also proven effective at lessening the casualties, but not eliminating entirely, of these events.

    But my overall point is that all the statistical evidence of cross-national comparisons, as well as most time series, supports the efficacy of most gun control measures.

    Ezra Klein had a good post looking at Israel and Switzerland, an interesting point regarding suicides is that suicides among IDF forces declined 60% after they banned taking guns home on weekends, with no associated increase in suicides during weekdays.

    I don't really have a story to tell, but all the evidence I've looked at does show that suicides and homicides decline with stricter gun control. As close to a story I can get is that guns make killing easy; but I don't really trust stories anyway. I trust statistical evidence and if it's showing that gun control is associated with declining suicide rates and homicides in a large number of otherwise dissimilar cases I'll trust that evidence even if I don't have a good story to back it.

    Now, I agree that spree killings aren't the major reasoning behind gun control; but these do seem to be opportunistic and limiting access to more efficient tools does seem to lessen the damage caused. The public health benefits seem robust, however, guns are just the easiest way to kill oneself or others so it isn't surprising that limiting access lessens these events at the margins as opportunistic killings fail to occur when less efficient tools are all that are available. The only dissenting studies I've seen on the topic regard comparison of internal US jurisdictions and since we are a free trade area it is plausible that the easy availability of firearms in some jurisdictions is limiting, or eliminating, the effectiveness of these regulations.

    I do agree that moral panic legislation is generally a bad thing, but gun control doesn't even get talked about except when a tragedy like this happens so may as well bring it up when the topic is hot. I'd rather see this discussed when tempers are calm, but I don't think it would be brought up at all.

  3. Why do we have to hedge these statements that are on their face true? Access to guns increases the likelihood that people will die from them, and access to more-lethal guns, which is absolutely a real concept, increases it even within the realm of free gun ownership. When AK's started showing up on the streets in the 80's, the cops noticed the increased firepower immediately just from bodies taken into the coroner's office.

    In Casper, WY recently, a deranged kid killed his father, a college professor, in front of his class with a crossbow. Not only did the father not die immediately, but he wrestled his son, allowing help to arrive, before expiring. "Killers will kill" pales in comparison to what could have happened if this killer had an AR-15 at his fingertips.