Saturday, December 15, 2012

"Guns Don't Kill People" / Sandy Hook

Although I tend to be (somewhat reluctantly, but not very reluctantly) pro-Second-Amendment, I was struck  pretty hard by the contrast between the Sandy Hook mass murder of school children and the case in China in which a man slashed 22 school children with a knife.

There's a certain type of pro-firearm person who is fond of saying "guns don't kill people, people kill people." A well-known response, of course, is that people with guns kill people. That's not accurate, of course, but the idea is: people who are killed are often killed by people with guns.

We don't get a great comparison in these two cases, of course, since the man in China seems to not have even been trying to kill the children. He was trying to hurt them. But even if he had been trying to kill them, a man with a knife is almost always less dangerous than a man with an AR-15 and two pistols.

But it's not clear what the role of such murders ought to be in our reasoning about firearms. Given what we know about people, and about our system overall, we know that there are going to be murders. And there are going to be mass murders. And there are going to be ones that are even worse than this one. A lot, lot worse. So it's not completely clear to me why some people seem to see this as an occasion for reassessing gun laws. We knew that roughly this would happen. We know that roughly it will happen again. That is the price of having a system in which very powerful firearms are very easy to get. If one person out of 300 million of us is crazy in approximately this way, people are going to die.

The thought has, roughly, to be: this and tragedies like it are the price we pay for refusing to grant the government a certain type of control over us. One might reasonably--or so I think--conclude that the price is too great relative to the payoff.

Anyone who thinks that the government is currently a threat that might require armed resistance is probably a nut. But we don't maintain our ability to fight back against the government because we think that it will go insane tomorrow, or next week, or next year. We retain our right to keep and bear arms because we think that the government will go insane some day. Sadly, I think the probability of that is something approaching 1. That is, I find the belief that the U.S. government will always be benign, no matter how long it lasts, to be incredible. I wish I could believe otherwise.

I have found that it doesn't pay for me to have conversations about this with people who do not see, even in principle, why citizens might want to retain the ability to protect themselves against their governments. However I do think one might fruitfully ask about the relative costs and benefits of the two possible courses of action. On the one hand, we might give up our firearms and thus make it extraordinarily difficult to check the power of a malevolent government. We would also pay a day-to-day cost by making it more difficult to fight back against certain instances of crime. The payoff would be that criminals would be less well-armed, and massacres similar to Sandy Hook would be almost impossible to carry out. The other course of action is the one we've currently chosen: we retain a great deal of power to resist a malevolent government and to resist certain types of crime (e.g. "home invasions"), but the cost is lots of well-armed criminals and mass murders. One might reasonably conclude that, overall, the expected gain of the former option is greater than that of the latter.

One reason actual crimes may be relevant to our deliberations is that decisions about gun policy are generally at least tacitly grounded in facts about us. If enough of us were crazy, it might be obvious that we had to ban firearms. If there were one mass murder per week per state, for example, our calculations might look different.

Of course the other most salient thought here is that governments simply have no authority to infringe the right of citizens to keep and bear arms...and that I haven't addressed.


Anonymous AB said...

The other course of action is the one we've currently chosen: we retain a great deal of power to resist a malevolent government and to resist certain types of crime (e.g. "home invasions"), but the cost is lots of well-armed criminals and mass murders.

I think there's a third possible course of action, which Kristof writes about today, that allows us to keep our 2nd amendment rights in a system that is more heavily regulated. It seems entirely sensible to me.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

This is a very weak argument. If I felt the need to protect myself from the US government, the last thing I'd want is a gun. It would just make you an obvious target.
Predator and cruise missile, MANPAD anti-air missiles, and maybe a tactical nuke would be a lot more useful.

12:52 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Pete, are you being facetious or is that an actual attempt at seriousness?

Because it's incredibly silly.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

I am completely serious, in a hypothetical way. In a serious consideration rebellion against the federal government, a gun stockpile would be next to worthless.

Yet potential rebellion appears to be Winston's argument against reasonable gun control.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Not so. Armed U.S. citizens radically outnumber the military. Small arms and improvised explosives have fought us to a standstill in Afghanistan for ten years. There is no doubt that an AR-15-wielding populace is a far, far greater danger to the military than an unarmed populace. Far from being "next to worthless," such arms are the foundation of the military.

Of course, the other half of the equation, as far as I'm concerned, is to weaken the military. This is the half that the right always forgets. They lock us in an arms race with our own military.

As for fully-automatic weapons, MANPADs, tanks, et al...well, as they say, you have to draw the line somewhere.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

As to AB's point:
Yes, as Kristof notes, we can regulate more without changing our basic commitment to an armed populace. I'm actually in favor of that--within reason, of course. But if we don't change our basic commitment--something I'm not endorsing--we'll always face these problems. Though that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to mitigate them.

5:57 AM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

Winston, this is where the well regulated militia comes in. A bunch of individuals armed to the teeth are far more dangerous to their neighbors than they are to a hypothetical Evil Government.
At the individual level, you are better off with one-shot weapons:
• the IED
• the sniper rifle
• the SAM-7

An individual stockpile of assault weapons will get you exactly nowhere.

My point is not to recommend legalizing these weapons. It is to point out that high-capacity repeater weapons don't make us any safer; they just introduce a perverse arms race between citizens and the police.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, that, of course, is roughly the worry. That technology has evolved to a point at which this policy does more harm than good.

But how to have a well-regulated militia that doesn't just turn into, say, the National Guard, which is now just basically another branch of the military?

Again, however, individual assault rifles get you most of where you want to go. They're the foundation of a modern military force. Sniper rifles and anti-aircraft missiles supplement, but are not superior to and do not replace, an infantry rifle.

Anyway, best not to delude ourselves that there is some alternative to an armed populace in this respect. We might--perhaps even rationally--choose to disarm ourselves. But we need to view the costs with clear eyes.

6:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most households in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule had an AK-47. And yet the populace never managed to overthrow their dictator. Meanwhile, Tunisia successfully threw off their tyrant while having one of the lowest rates of private firearms ownership in the world.

It also doesn't make sense that the Constitution, which specifically defines and proscribes treason, would also feature a provision intended to facilitate armed rebellion against the government, which is the definition of treason.

3:10 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Right--of course an armed populace is neither necessary nor sufficient for resisting a malevolent government. For one thing, the populace must have the will to do so. Anyway, such historical points should probably be considered pretty carefully.

As for the latter point: the Founders clearly recognized that the people have a right to throw off a tyrannical government, and that view is codified in the Declaration of Independence. It also seems to constitute the motive for the Second Amendment. And, besides, in this case it kinda sorts doesn't matter what the Constitution says. We have an inalienable right to resist a tyrannical government, and that right does not derive from any agreement, nor can it be revoked by one--that's the 'inalienable' bit, of course.

Anyway, note that, above, I'm not defending this view. I'm just acknowledging that it *is* our view. We might need to change it... But I'm skeptical.

8:40 AM  

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