Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Just a little ranting about gun control in the news

Warning: No poker content.

Since about 1998, I have spent an inordinate amount of time on the subject of gun control--reading about it, writing about it, discussing it, lobbying for or against legislative proposals, etc. I'm particularly interested in empirical evidence about what can actually be shown to be effective or ineffective at reducing crime, and the results often--usually, in fact--turn out to be other than what one might expect.

The subject comes up now, obviously, because of the most recent mass shooting, this time in Tucson, Arizona. As predictably as the sun rising, politicians who hate having guns in our society (well, except in the hands of government officials, of course--such people always want to disarm only ordinary citizens) have responded with a flurry of gun-control proposals, some of them new, most of them taken down off of the dusty shelf, where they have been sitting, waiting for just such an opportunity.

Here's the basic problem: It's hard to make it more illegal than it already is to shoot a member of Congress through the head, to execute a federal judge, to murder a 9-year-old girl and several others, and to wound another dozen or so people by shooting indiscriminately into a mass of people. I mean, I suppose you could add a provision that the assailant be boiled in oil or drawn and quartered instead of just executing him in the usual ways, or maybe put his severed head on a pike as a warning to would-be copycats. Other than that, there just isn't any room for raising any higher the criminal penalties for this kind of behavior.

The despicable Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik clearly implied, soon after the events of Saturday, that part of the blame lies with Arizona's liberal concealed-carry laws. "I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want, and that's almost where we are." (Quoted here. See video clips of his statements here.) In order to accept such a causal connection, you'd have to accept this premise: That if it had been against the law for Jared Lee Loughner to have been carrying a concealed pistol, the whole calamity would have been averted. Apparently this moronic sheriff thinks that Loughner would have thought along these lines: "Oh, I am SO ready to go kill that Gabrielle Giffords and whoever else might be hanging around near her! And I'd do it, too, if not for that pesky law that makes it a misdemeanor for me to carry a gun in public! Curses--foiled again!"

(It's hard not to lapse into sarcasm when the position you're responding to is so patently ridiculous on its face. It's kind of like what I remember reading about Stanley Kubrick: He originally intended to make a serious film about "mutually-assured destruction" as our national nuclear arms policy, but found it so absurd that there was no way to take on the subject seriously, so instead he ended up making "Dr. Strangelove.")

Just as idiotic is Rep. Peter King's call for a federal law that would make it illegal to knowingly carry a gun within 1000 feet of a member of Congress or other highly-placed governmental officials. Once again, it's hard to figure out how he can be so stupid as to think that such a law would have prevented anything last week. If one is willing--eager, even--to commit mass murder, one more statute making illegal a preparatory step to that ultimate act is simply not going to work as a deterrent.

I understand the reflexive reaction that we collectively ought to do something to prevent this kind of horrible tragedy. But when you start sifting through and critically analyzing proposals, nothing really seems both possible and plausible.

I mean, you could propose repealing the Second Amendment, but why bother? There has never been a time since the Bill of Rights was enacted when you could get 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states to agree to such a thing, and I can't imagine getting anywhere close to that now. It's a non-starter, dead on arrival. Tilt at that particular windmill if you want, but you'll just break off your lance.

How about a ban on handguns? Well, first, you again run headlong into that niggling little Second Amendment problem. In 2008 the Supreme Court squarely ruled that a ban on handguns is unconstitutional. You may disagree with that decision, you may hate it, but there it is, and, unless the Court chooses to reverse itself later, there's nothing that can be done about it short of a constitutional amendment overriding it--which just isn't going to happen, politically.

Even if it did, you have the problem of millions upon millions of handguns already being in circulation. You can deal with that by excluding from your ban those already lawfully owned, in which case you won't see any meaningful drop in the number of handguns in circulation for many decades, since well-maintained firearms last longer than people do. Alternatively, you could take the harder route and make it illegal to own the ones already in possession. But do you seriously think that people will just hand them over if told to? Some will, sure, but if you think you'd round up even half of them that way, you don't understand Americans very well.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy sees this as yet another opportunity to try to institute a ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. (Actually, in interviews with her that I've seen, she usually says she wants to ban "clips" that hold more than ten rounds. But a "clip" and a "magazine" are two different things. Glocks do not use clips, nor do any other semi-automatic handguns that I've ever seen. Somebody who doesn't understand the difference between a clip and a magazine is too ignorant of the subject to be proposing federal laws about it.) This is based on the fact that Loughner is reported to have used one of Glock's 33-round magazines in his model 19. Let me list the problems with this dumb idea.

1. Above is a photo (taken from here without permission) of this magazine. The pistol shown is a Glock 26, which is slightly smaller than the Glock 19, but you get the general idea. It's terribly unwieldy. I happen to own one of those magazines. It works in either of my two 9mm Glocks, but I use it only rarely because it's clumsy and heavy, and is more prone to jamming than regular magazines. (Indeed, though news reports are murky on the exact details, it seems that his magazine misfeeding a round was what stopped the shooting long enough for people to jump on Loughner.) My bedside pistol is a 9mm Glock model 34 with a 19-round magazine--much more manageable. I wonder how Loughner carried that thing, because it would be really difficult to carry concealed in any of the usual kinds of holsters. My point is that magazines like this are virtually never carried by either law-abiding citizens or by criminals. I've been paying attention to gun crime matters for more than ten years, and I can't remember another case of somebody using a pistol with this kind of magazine on it in a crime spree.

2. McCarthy's idea is that when a mass shooter has to stop to reload, that's an opportunity for him to be stopped. It's certainly true that points of reload have, in a couple of high-profile cases, been when a bystander has taken the initiative to intervene in a public shooting. But that's only because the shooters have been inexperienced. Want to see how long it takes to reload a handgun with practice? Watch this YouTube video: That's Travis Tomasie, whom most of you won't have heard of, but he's one of the best competitive handgun shooters in the world. I've seen him shoot in competition; in fact, I've been the range officer (safety official) for him at least once that I can remember, and so was watching him from about two feet away. He really is that fast. Yes, his superb proficiency comes from many, many hours of practice. But reloading quickly is not a complex skill, and it doesn't take very long to get it to less than about two seconds between the last shot of one magazine and the first shot of the next. Laws that depend for their effective operation on criminals being incompetent with their chosen equipment can't be more than marginally effective under the best of circumstances.

3. The United States had a ban on the manufacture and import of magazines of more than 10 rounds between 1994 and 2004. Did crime soar after the ban ended? No. It continued to decline, despite moronic "the sky is falling" predictions by Dianne Feinstein, John Kerry, Sarah Brady, and others of their gun-hating ilk. This is really not at all surprising. The vast majority of uses of guns by both criminals and by law-abiding citizens in defensive situations involve only brandishing the gun, not actually firing it. The minority that do progress to shooting, either offensively or defensively, usually extend to no more than a few shots fired over the course of a few seconds. There is only rarely either time or need for a reload. The proposed ban is sort of like legislating a 100-mph governor on all vehicles under the theory that this will limit the speed of bank robbers' getaway cars and make them easier to catch. It's just ludicrous, and out of touch with the reality of how guns are actually used in real-world situations.

4. The ten-year ban had originally caught manufacturers off guard. Literally the day it ended, manufacturers set their factories to working around the clock to produce an enormous stock of full-capacity magazines, so that if such a ban were ever enacted again, they could ride it out for a long time without losing business to competitors who still had such magazines available for sale. (Pre-existing normal-capacity magazines could still be freely sold.) Similarly, gun enthusiasts learned their lesson and have now bought many more than they thought they would need, just in case such a ban comes around again. Smart speculators had bought large supplies of the magazines before the 1994 law went into effect, and profited handsomely as relative scarcity set in and prices went up. Whatever the effect on crime may have been when the ban went into effect (I don't know of any empirical evidence that it did any good, and doubt that there is any), there would be even less if it were ever repeated, because now the supply of full-capacity magazines is much greater than it was before. Theoretically, you could make it a crime to continue to own such items (and some gun control proponents are pushing for exactly that), but politically it is extremely difficult to criminalize possession of something that is currently legal to own, especially when there are tens of millions of the objects in question, owned by millions of people. Americans don't take kindly to being made criminals by inaction.

Finally, there are vague assertions made by any number of politicians and pundits with access to a microphone about making it harder for mentally unstable people like Loughner to buy a gun.

Well, that's fine in theory, but how are you going to actually write and enforce such a law? We do not deprive people of their constitutional rights lightly in this country--and I hope we'd all agree that that is a very, very good thing. The standard now is that one must have been adjudicated as mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. That's a high standard, to be sure, but it needs to be. What objective standard less than that would you propose? Do you want to have entered into a governmental database and permanently banned from exercise of constitutional rights everybody who has, e.g., filled a prescription for Prozac or Xanax? Everybody who a neighbor has thought might be a little loony? Everybody who has been to a psychiatrist's office? So far I have not seen any legislative proposals that would specify what lower standard would be used for this purpose, but surely you can see that anything lower than the current threshold is going to sweep up many more unthreatening, law-abiding citizens than dangerously unstable ones.

I am opposed on general principle to legislative proposals that can reliably be predicted to achieve nothing useful, that have no empirical data supporting their claims for what they will accomplish, that are enacted only because they satisfy an irrational emotional need to "do something," that will infringe on law-abiding citizens' rights with no compensatory social benefits, and/or that are unconstitutional or politically unworkable. Every gun-control proposal I have seen or heard about in the past five days has fallen afoul of one or more of these problems.

The President of the United States may be the best-guarded person on the planet, but we still have occasional nutters like Lee Harvey Oswald, Lynette Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, and John Hinckley who either succeed or come very close to succeeding in their efforts at assassination. In an open society awash in firearms, these things are going to happen from time to time. We collectively decided a long, long time ago that we're not going to have a gun-free society, nor are we going to lock people up for being crazy, short of demonstrable threat to themselves or others. Once those two decisions are locked into place, there's not a heck of a lot that can be done to prevent the intersection of mental illness and guns from causing occasional horrific events such as Saturday's.

It's terribly sad when some nutjob's craziness is manifested in such a gruesome, public way. But that doesn't mean that we should rush to enact new, ill-considered, ineffective laws in the vain hope that we can prevent such tragedies in the future.


I have one other gun-related response to this news story. I read this story in Slate about a guy named Joe Zamudio, who was legally carrying a concealed handgun near the site of the shooting. He rushed from the store to the scene when he heard the commotion. In the process, he came close to shooting the guy who had taken the gun away from Loughner:

""I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready," he explained on Fox and Friends. "I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket here. And I came around the corner like this." Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire."

He says later in the interview that he has had no professional training in firearms. I could have guessed that. First, it's terribly dangerous to take off the safety while the gun is still in your pocket. Just like the rule about not putting your finger on the trigger until the gun is on target, so it is with the safety: It is not to be disengaged until you are on target and ready to shoot.

More importantly, though, his story perfectly illustrates why it's usually a big mistake to play the hero, rushing into a situation where you don't need to be, and which you don't understand. You run the terrible risk of mistaking the good guys for the bad guys, and being mistaken by others for the bad guy.

Had Zamudio gotten professional training, he would have known these two basic facts and avoided his mistakes. Some are calling him a hero. I consider him a fool. Well-intentioned, no doubt, but foolish just the same.


Alex said...

I find it interesting to read many of your opinions on issues like gun control or the other topics addressed in your blog. I’m not a particularly political person but I definitely lean left and the biggest reason I avoid political discourse is too often all the parties involved are busy yelling about what they believe and fail to make what I consider to be an effective and reasoned argument for/against whatever the topic may be. While I may or may not agree with you on all the topics you discuss I find your opinions well thought out and they make me think more deeply about what I believe. If asked I would say gun control is a good thing and while I respect the right of people to own guns if they wish, I don’t really have a problem making them jump through a bunch of hoops to do so. I’m sure that is because as I have no real desire to own a weapon I have not had to deal with whatever rules and restrictions are involved. I think it would behoove me to remember that although these laws may not affect me directly there could very well be a different set in the future that would hit closer to home and that I would care about.

On this issue specifically I find your argument here quite good in that we have reached the limit on what gun control laws we could pass. I agree with you in that the recommendations made by some of those in government as a result of this event are pretty foolish I would be interested in seeing what a more well thought out argument in favor of them would be. Again, it gets back to stop the knee jerk yelling and give me a reasoned argument on the issue.

As with everything political, and I hope I’m not alone here, I am sick and tired of all the finger pointing and what I perceive to be willful ignorance and interpretation of facts and lowering the bar to the lowest common denominator when discussing any issue of importance. I think the American people are smart enough to understand the shades of grey in any issue, be it gun control, health care reform, taxes, budget deficit, etc…

Chappy & Bailey said...

"The despicable Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik clearly implied, soon after the events of Saturday, that part of the blame lies with Arizona's liberal concealed-carry laws."

And why is he "despicable?" Because he has a different view on gun control than yourself? Your tone is quite typical of the vitriolic and uncivil nature of political debate in this country nowadays. It's not enough to just disagree with the other side anymore.... now anybody who doesn't agree with you is evil and hates the Constitution. Thank God the only weapon you use against others in your life is your keyboard and perhaps some poker chips, despite the obvious stewing hatred in your heart for those who are not aligned with your political ideals.

NT said...

As a culture, we often call upon violence to solve problems, we find depictions of violence entertaining, and we equate the ability to wield lethal force with independence and self-reliance (our prime national virtues). Guns are an asymmetric weapon: they make it easy for one person to kill, but don't make it much easier for responsible people to stop that person from killing.

What are guns good for? Killing people or wounding them grievously.

What else? Hunting (which I understand some people either need to do or find morally acceptable). And demonstrating skill at target practice.

Our country is awash with guns. If we stopped manufacturing and buying them now, there'd be plenty of guns to go around for generations. How about a moratorium on ammunition instead? (Note to Strict Constructionists: I don't think the Constitution mentions ammunition. Humor FTW.) Even if the Supreme Court interprets the 2nd Amendment to say that you can own and wield a gun does not mean that it's a good idea. A right to do something does not automatically make it a virtue to be promoted.

The American romance with the gun is expensive. (It is also contagious. We spread it to other nations through our entertainment media.) I don't think it's worth it. But until we change the way we think about guns, no amount of legislation will change the daily balance of gun violence or prevent the occasionally horrific outbreak of senseless slaughter.

Guns are implements of death. They should be respected for what they are, not glamorized, fetishized, or minimized as merely a maligned tool that is occasionally misused. Those of you who find guns fun or cool, for whom shooting is recreational, is there no other skill-based activity that you could find to enjoy, one that does not require a potentially lethal instrument?

Guns are designed to make it easy to kill. Let's stop loving them.

Instead, let's spend our time promoting effective conflict resolution techniques, providing affordable, accessible, and effective mental health care in a non-stigmatizing way, and — as a society — condemning incivility and violence as unacceptable ways to engage in debate or settle disagreements.

NT said...

My thoughts on the topic are here.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for writing in such detail. I know little about guns, having chosen to avoid them all my life. My arguments about gun control are quite simple (too many, too available, etc.), but I appreciate your arguments here.

Anonymous said...

There really should be a 6-month moratorium on gun legislation proposals after an emotionally charged shooting.

I'm generally on the anti-gun side of the debate and I think it's despicable how people are trying to cram through legislation by preying on the peoples' emotions. F'in A, if Democrats wanted to pass gun legislation so bad, they had two years of complete control to do it.

Lucki Duck said...

Blaming a gun for a murder is like blaming your pencil when you fail an exam.

Anonymous said...

Well said Grump. It is against the law to kill people with a car yet it happens everyday. It is against the law to kill a person with a knife yet it happens everyday.

All you anti gun people please give up your cars, red meat, smoking, trans fats, snow shoveling, running marathons, and everything else you can die from.

You people don't like guns.....fine don't have a gun. It is your right to own one or not. Do not tell us that we don't have the right. Cops are responders after the fact. They don't stop the crime that is a threat to you right at the moment. I like my gun. I figure the dog will slow down an intruder and that will give me time to get my gun and protect myself. Thats my right.

astrobel said...

I agree with NT 100%. It's a sad, sad state of affairs.

geezer said...

I've had guns my whole like we used to bring then to H.S. to shop class (have them blued)...we now live in a world we have seen the rise in drug use and destruction of the parental and family responsiblilty...and the solutions we are given is more government control on guns, next is diet and speech

Jeff Simpson said...

Too many Americans have an unhealthy love of guns and other weapons. I think it is a mental disorder.

John Hartness said...

I am in favor of gun control. I control mine by leaving the chamber empty and the safety on.

People are bad. While I think there are instances where gun laws are too easily avoided or manipulated, like straw purchases and other things that frequently go on at gun shows and swap meets, this was not such a case. This was a case of a nutjob buying a gun legally. And how can you keep nutjobs from getting guns?

You can't, because my definition of a nutjob is so vastly different from everyone else's. So all we can do in this case is mourn the dead, pray for the living, and work on improving our security and the training of our security officers.

And we can thank the people who stood up and tackled the SOB before he hurt anyone else.

zippyboy said...

I can think of a couple solutions to the problem, though neither would ever get passed.

Chris Rock suggested in his comedy act that guns are not the problem, it's the abundant cheap ammo that's the problem. If every bullet cost $5000, criminals would think twice about who they shoot.

Another way to hopefully prevent senseless killings like in Tucson, is if the government implemented mandatory concealed carry laws. Protecting yourself and ones you love is a responsibility for everyone, not a privilege for those who pass certain criteria. Just like sex education, nutrition and driver's ed, gun safety should be taught in elementary schools on up, and by parents who would've undergone the same teachings when they were young. Government requires us all to carry ID, have car insurance, etc., so why not a means to protect yourself? People call the police when there's an intruder in their house because the police have guns. Why not cut out the middleman and take responsibility for yourself? When I was growing up in Texas, practically every pick-up truck had a gunrack in the back window with a shotgun or rifle. We kids used to take our rifles and ride our bikes into the canyons for target shooting. No one thought anything of it.

I bet Loughner wouldn't have been so trigger-happy if he knew 70% of the audience were carrying pistols, and would've dropped him before he got his second shot off.

Concerning that 33-round magazine, I just can't imagine how hard it must be to hand-load those last few cartridges in there! Must take Popeye the Sailor with a thumb of iron, even if using a loader.

Shrike said...

Disclaimer: I am a Canadian lawyer, not an American one. I am far from an expert on the Second Amendment. I simply have trouble with the concept that American citizens have a constitutional right to own and carry semi-automatic weapons. This may in fact be the case - I haven't done the legal research - but for the life of me I can't fathom why, in the 21st century, modern legislation hasn't been enacted to account for the fact that i) armed militias are no longer in a position to overthrow a tyrannical federal government (you know, the Framers were quite paranoid about bad government) and ii) you can still preserve the core right to bear arms whilst proscribing concealed carry and military-grade guns. Surely fewer people would have been injured or killed in this Arizona incident but for the permissive state gun laws.

Oh wait, let's not try to make it more difficult for dangerous people to legally buy guns.


timpramas said...

Thank you for the thought provoking post. My general criticism of many gun control proposals is that the people who will comply with the regulations are not necessarily the people you had to worry about. As you point out, a law breaker intending to commit a felony and harm someone won't stop merely because they are breaking another law concerning gun possession or use.

That being said, although I agree with your conclusions regarding the ineffectiveness of proposals such as ones making it illegal to carry guns within a certain distance of members of Congress, I think you are too harsh in your language. The idea is that with such a law, a law enforcement official could stop and detain someone like the Tucson shooter for violating that law rather than having to wait until the shooter is about to use the weapon and violate another law. It is analagous to not allowing people to carry guns into courthouses, schools, government offices, etc. I agree with you that such a law would be ineffective in preventing tragedies such as these, but I think the argument in favor of such proposals is a little more reasonable than the disdain expressed in your post.

Big-O said...

I thought this might interest you. As I said I've been reading Stephen Hunter books and have been trying to figure out the best order to read them. In doing so I ran across this.