My Thoughts on Guns
I’ll set the stage with just a bit about me and my view. I am not a gun owner, nor ever have been. The closest I can say I’ve come is owning an air pistol in my early 20s that was gifted to me. My parents did own at least one gun growing up but it was not much a part of family life and was kept out of sight and out of mind nearly all the time. I’m a very big man and in my adult life simply don’t get threatened very much. I’d be very low on anyone’s target list given how many more vulnerable people there are to choose from. I have never felt the need to have a gun as a result.
That said, by and large, I am a supporter of the right of American citizens to own and carry firearms if they so choose. I am not an advocate that they do so, only a proponent of the idea that they should be allowed if desired. I also think that it is reasonable and appropriate to have restrictions on what kind of guns people can own or carry. Finally, I think that it is also reasonable to require a license for owning a gun and to have guns registered. I’d like to get into the why’s and wherefores of each.
Why should we have guns?
There are a number of reasons for owning a gun that I think are legitimate. The most central for me is the idea that people should have the right to defend their lives and a means to do so that is under their control. A gun very much reduces the disparity of physicality and martial training between people. They are easy to operate, lethal to any person, and readily affordable to most people. Other means of self-defense often fall short on one or more of those criteria. They don’t render us all equal but they balance the scales considerably.
Ideally, we would live in a society wherein there was no danger, and then this argument would be moot, but that day hasn’t come. And even if it did, we might need such protection when traveling in the wilderness. Until that happens, people should be able to make their own determination if they need a weapon to defend themselves or not.
The second reason I offer is hunting and recreation. The pursuit of such pleasures is not as fundamental as the right to defend your life and person, but I think it none the less has significant value. There are substitutes for both of course, but by and large, guns are an excellent tool for hunting and they make for an enjoyable sport as well.
Last, and for me least, is the principle idea laid out in the second amendment of the US bill of rights. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Here we have the idea that just as we are a government by for and of the people, it is also defended by the people, or, in the extreme, overthrown by the people. I think there is nobility in the sentiment, and the principle is a good one. It is last on my list because I think it is impractical. The history of warfare is that disorganized militias rarely offer meaningful resistance to organized modern armies. The US revolution was not won by random colonists with guns, but by a colonial army with a lot of assistance from the French navy.
Yes, insurgencies can be hard to put down and for armies fighting far from home, they can wear out the will to fight off the invading country. But the US has a military that pretty much precludes any rival nation from invading, and if it comes to rebel US citizens vs the US army, well they are both on their home turf so most of the advantage insurgencies have is lost. Nor does the US rely on state militia anymore. They were almost never an effective fighting force at any time in US history, nor do men regularly train and fight to be part of a militia. The fantasy of the gun collector toppling the oppressive US government is just that, a fantasy.
Problems with guns
The problem with guns is they make it relatively easy to kill people. They are, after all, tools designed for violence, and most designed for violence against people. Even those made primarily with the intent to be used for hunting are very effective for killing people. This becomes harmful when either people intend to do violence to others, violence to themselves, or when they are not careful with their firearms.
A madman with a gun is demonstrably more dangerous to more people than a madman with a knife or a club or nearly any other readily available legal weapon. Bombs and chemical weapons are potentially as dangerous but are far harder to obtain and pose more risks to the perpetrator. According to FBI statistics for 2014 about 68% of murders were done with firearms, most of them with handguns. Of course, most of these statistics are for murders. Guns can and are used as a means to threaten violence in perpetrating crimes such as robbery, rape, and kidnapping.
Guns are also a popular and ready means of committing suicide. Suicide by firearm accounts for twice the number of deaths as homicide by firearm and accounts for about half of all suicides in the US. Hanging is the second most popular at around 24% with poisoning in at number 3 around 16%.
Guns are also responsible for accidental deaths, but my limited research shows that compared to other dangerous tools such as automobiles and industrial equipment, gun accidents are not especially common. Any reduction in dangerous tools in your life is a way to increase your safety but guns are not especially unique in accidental injuries and deaths as they are in murder and suicide.
Gun Violence Statistics
This is a tricky thing. I’ve been in a lot of gun debates and seen a lot of statistics based arguments for and against guns. You can get all kinds of data that show all kinds of correlation. Some show guns correlate with more crime, some show guns correlate with less crime. Some show gun restrictions correlate with more crime. Some show gun restrictions correlate with less crime. The challenge is that there are many other factors that impact crime, murder, and suicide rates which are hard to control for. Economics and culture are probably big ones, and they seem to trump the effects of gun regulations.
If you look at the countries with the lowest murder rates, you see a range of gun laws. Iceland has a very low murder rate. They have moderate gun regulations and a fairly well-armed population by and large. Japan also has a very low murder rate, but they have very strict gun regulation and very few guns. Looking at nations with very high murder rates, Honduras is the king. They have fairly lax gun laws and fairly low rates of legal firearm ownership. El Salvador is second place but has significantly more restrictive gun laws.
The difference in murder rates between the highest and lowest countries is huge. The differences in their gun control regulations is not. You can find lax controls and high crime, or lax controls and low crime. High levels of controls can come with high and low crime. Whatever impact the gun regulation is having, it seems to be minuscule compared to other factors like poverty and social attitudes.
So what should we do about guns?
It is clear that gun regulations in and of themselves are not a panacea to end gun violence. Many nations with restrictive gun laws none the less have lots of gun crime. That said, it is possible that gun laws can have some impact in the margins. How many lives need to be saved before a piece of legislation is worth enacting? It is a difficult question to answer. Any law we make regarding firearms has the potential to do both good, in preventing violence and bad in limiting people’s legitimate use of firearms for defense and recreation. Thus the goal is to look for laws that maximize reductions in violence while maintaining the good uses of firearms.
Boston University conducted a recent study trying to correlate fatality rates with gun legislation of various sorts. They found that most gun laws didn’t seem to have any impact. A few had a small negative impact, such as stand your ground laws that allow fatal force in home defense, though presumably, the deaths were not murders but self-defense. Of those that had a positive impact, universal background checks for buying guns and ammunition led the list. The only other significant positive association were laws requiring ballistic signatures in guns.
Background checks don’t have a whole lot of negatives either. They do incur some additional cost for gun transactions and there are concerns about faulty information in the checks that could deprive someone of the use of a gun. Some would argue that any ability for the state to determine who can or can’t have a gun is dangerous, but again, I don’t put much faith in the notion that gun owners can actually resist the US government in any meaningful way and we can always monitor and audit how the government performs these background checks through the courts. Hurray for checks and balances.
Another means for looking for good laws is to look at those countries with the lowest murder rates and see what they are doing. Those policies may not be the source of their civil virtues but they certainly aren’t doing much harm. Registration is probably the most common theme. Most countries require some kind of license to own and use firearms and the registration of those weapons. Again, the harms here are mostly cost, and if you are paranoid, the idea this information will be used against you somehow. There are benefits are likely not a reduction in gun violence, but an increased ability to recover stolen weapons and trace those used in crimes.
What should we do about crime?
That is a more difficult question and I think a more important one. Looking at countries with low crime rates we can see some patterns. They are generally wealthy nations and poverty is rare. They are small to mid-sized countries Japan being the largest. They tend to have well-established systems of governance, though some are relatively young countries. They typically have fairly robust social programs which partly accounts for the lack of poverty. Some have relatively homogenous populations, though not all. Singapore, for instance, is ethnically diverse but tries to maintain a strong national identity.
Not surprisingly, most of these nations have a law and order culture of some kind. In some, penalties for crime are very harsh and they maintain a robust police force relative to their population. Social stigma for those who violate the law, even in small ways is also prevalent in many of these nations.
I think if we want to be serious about reducing violent crime, we have to focus on a few of these areas. We need to work on reducing poverty and creating a society in which it is hard to become completely destitute. We need to at the same time work to keep overall prosperity high as well. We have to embrace a cultural norm that cooperative social behavior is important and that victimizing other people is a terrible act. Law enforcement needs to be robust, and people need to be able to have trust in the authorities.
I think it is fair to wonder if America is too big and too populous to make these efforts realistic. And because america is a federation of semi-sovereign states, our ability to create one national environment is much more difficult than in these other nations. We could look to each state to try and achieve lower crime, but here too there is the challenge that they are dependent on national policy. So in the US it takes both a national effort and a state-level effort. Our cultural and political differences make that a real challenge.
I think in principle, we need to avoid actions that make people become angry and desperate. We also need to cultivate a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. And finally we need to be watchful for people who seek to victimize others and try to head that off whenever possible. If we can measure each personal and political action with those things in mind, we can move towards a society with less crime and internal violence. Ultimately these things will do far more than trying to dicker over how many bullets a gun can have or how long a barrel can be.