Friday, June 6, 2014

On gun Control

The recent surge in gun control commentary is really disappointing—nothing new, but still disappointing. I have a couple of acquaintances who know I’m a gun-guy. Some avoid the topic, some are interested in discussing guns, and others approach the conversation by lobbing verbal grenades in the hope of provoking something interesting. I respect the first group’s wishes, let the second set the tone, and use calm and principled logic on the third. Discussing gun control is as much about politics as statistics. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? More importantly to me, how much thought have you put into the validity of opposing stances? I don’t shy from the topic. Too often, I think we avoid discussing contentious issues. I don’t seek out the subject, but if someone puts it on the table I’m happy to engage.


I’m an information omnivore. I read Fox News and listen to NPR. I frequent several libertarian blogs. I’m not interested in what people want me to believe. I want to develop my own opinions—preferably based on objective research and sound principals. So after the recent California public shooting, I expected the obligatory outcry. Guns are bad! We have to do something! Ban guns! The NRA is evil! Murderers!!! Think of the children!!!! If a shooting meets certain criteria, media worthy, shock value, controversial, the last 200 years of history and debate gets thrown out the window. It’s as if the discussion has never happened before.

Some statements and my responses:

1. We need to compromise, have an honest discussion, and accept common sense gun control measures. When I think of compromise, I think of both sides of an argument walking away from a discussion with an agreement that gives them some, but not all, of what they want. A compromise might look something like unrestricting suppressors in return for “universal background checks.” That’s a compromise. Saying “universal background checks, 7 day waiting periods, assault weapon bans, and magazine capacity limits are just common sense isn’t a compromise. If by common sense people mean that agreeing with them just makes sense…then, again, we aren’t having a discussion in which both sides exchange viewpoints in a forum where shared sacrifice is possible. If you want to know why just about every gun control discussion ends with the people of the gun furious—that’s it. Over and over the other side comes to the table telling us to give just one more inch, just one more restriction. This will be the last time. Except it isn’t. There’s always one more stricture in the name of the common good. There’s no corresponding give and take.

2. “We need universal background checks.” We have universal background checks, or as close as we’re likely to get with our current constitution. Some states allow private sales, but they are the exception. If you own a gun “store” you are _required_ to have a federal firearms license. If you buy a gun through a FFL holder, you have to undergo a background check—no exceptions. If your state, like mine, has stricter laws than federal requirements, you have to abide by the more restrictive standards. These rules apply even at gun shows—background checks, waiting periods, restricted firearm types, and all. I don’t personally believe in background checks. Many states don’t bother reporting restrictive mental health and criminal incidents to the federal database. The government almost never prosecutes people who are shown to have lied on a firearms purchase application. Most important to me is that “universal” background checks wouldn’t have stopped any of the recent public shootings. All of those individuals cleared a background check or stole their guns outright. In the case of the California shooter, police knew there was a problem and couldn’t/wouldn’t act. I see the appeal of a litmus test—an impermeable barrier to evildoers. In practice though we have universal background checks already and they aren’t working.

3. A friend recently told me that “nobody needs a gun today.” I find this kind of logic intellectually dishonest at best. Here, right now, in my office at work, she’s absolutely right. I don’t need a gun for self defense…until I do. You could make the same argument for fire extinguishers, insurance, and car alarms. I really dislike this argument. On its face, it attempts to argue the legitimate need for a firearm. The subtext however is that because an outspoken part of society can’t see a need for guns, the rest of society should accept restrictions to firearm ownership. There are lots of things wrong with that argument—why do I have to prove a need? What other pastimes do we rate on a needs based scale? What makes one person’s definition of “need” more valid than mine? This is a straw man argument designed to logically mug me into supporting the illogical conclusion if I agree to the premise. Heck, it sounds like a challenge. I could sit here and justify my “need” all day; but the point is that “need” has nothing to do with the discussion. Our society is rife with excess material goods that nobody strictly needs. I’m not obligated to prove why I “need” a gun. It falls upon my ideological antagonists to prove that my ownership of the gun poses a clear and present danger to society—not the other way around.

4. “Statistics say guns are evil”. Someone smarter than me once said that there are lies, damned lies, and then there’s statistics. First, let’s accept the fact that if we play with numbers enough we can make them say anything we want. For example, if I want to make violence statistics look better than they are I could say, with complete honesty, that we should remove suicides from gun violence because modeling shows that suicides occur independent of means—if someone is going to kill themselves they’ll do it with or without a gun available. If I want to challenge child firearm death statistics, I would point out that most child firearm related fatality statistics include “children” meaning anyone under the age of 18—including all the youth gang shootings in that population. This adjusted perspective obviously paints a very different picture. I’ve not even started talking about the methodology of certain studies or the linguistic tricks one can use to tweak perception. I don’t argue statistics much because there isn’t anything worth arguing over. I can find numbers that support what I believe and the other person can do likewise. Decent google-fu will let you grab about any number you want from wikipedia. But then there’s the claim of “sight your sources.” I’m just not that good at remembering specific reports, scientists, and studies. I know the general results. If you want me to get into the down and dirty, we’d better keep it to email where I can point to something more reputable than some article I read a few years back. Don’t get me wrong, numbers are important. It’s just I find they cause more problems than they solve in casual conversation.

5. “The second amendment only applied to state militias.” This is actually 100% true—though it pays to build some context. The constitution was drafted after the colonies had fought a protracted war for independence with a totalitarian monarchy. Colonists were arrested for no reason, forced to house British troops in their homes at their own expense, pay excessive taxes without any representation, had their property confiscated without trial, executed, raped, harassed…etc. They fought that war with hunting rifles, dueling pistols, and anything that came to hand. It’s no surprise then that the former colonists wanted to severely limit the power of national government. The states wanted to be 100% sure that if their newborn union ever turned on them they would have the means to fight back—hence the militia language. Nothing said that the states themselves couldn’t limit the rights of their citizens—but the federal government would have no such power. Any place in the constitution where the states were limited, they are specifically addressed. You can see this language in both the first and tenth amendments as well as in the body proper. Go ahead and read the transcripts from the various state conventions and the later federalist and anti federalist papers. The country was just as split then on the role of government as it is now—possibly more so. The point being that the commonly accepted means of self defense and states’ rights enforcement was the armed citizen. The United States didn’t even have a professional standing army till World War I. The citizenry was the army. Whatever the intent of the second amendment was, times have changed. Specifically the civil war and the 14th amendment happened. In order to make sure the 13th amendment applied to everyone, the survivors of the civil war passed the 14th amendment which essentially incorporates the rights confirmed by the constitution down through the states. At the time the constitution was drafted, most of its language was mirrored in the various state constitutions; but to make sure slaves were freed, the 14th amendment was necessary. There has been much debate over which parts of the constitution the 14th amendment “incorporates” back to the states. A self-serving reading of the language would indicate that all of it is incorporated—meaning that state and federal governments can’t restrict the right to bare arms. In practice the courts have “selectively” incorporated the various amendments back to the states—forcing a geologically slow sequence of Supreme Court cases to validate which amendments apply to the states and to what degree. It’s generally accepted that the right to bare arms applies to everyone at the state and federal level. It’s the “shall not be infringed” bit that’s been the sticking point. What exactly is “infringed?” What “arms” are citizens entitled to bear? These aren’t clear-cut questions any more thanks to two centuries of judicial decisions. Suffice it to say that those who distill this issue down to “the second amendment only applies to militias” at the very least lack historical perspective.



To me, gun control comes down to fear—fear of the unknown, fear of the uncontrolled, fear of mortality. Let’s face it, murder has been illegal since before I was born and people still kill each other. Gun control doesn’t change that fact, much as we wish it were otherwise. For me, supporting the second amendment is about trust and faith—faith in the inherent goodness of my fellow man, trust that in 99.99% of cases people aren’t homicidal nut jobs. I believe that people should be judged innocent until “proven” guilty. I believe that the law should do it’s best to protect the rights of the majority regardless of how loud the nay-Sayers object.

Guns are tools. They have no agency of their own. When someone drives drunk we don’t blame the car and we shouldn’t blame the weapon when someone commits a crime with a firearm. I hear a lot of people talk about equality, tolerance, freedom, and nondiscrimination. It’s very easy to say those words. It’s much harder to live them when you have to go outside your comfort zone. That is my greatest issue with the gun control movement. It seeks to control me, to inconvenience me, to demonize me not for anything I’ve done, not for anything I am going to do, but because they are afraid. I will not live in fear. I will not predicate all my decisions on the idea that everyone is dangerous when provided with merely means—not motive. It isn’t always an easy choice, but it is far more rewarding than the alternative.

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