Doing “something” about guns is a bad idea

December 12, 2015 — 

There seems to be an increasing sentiment that we should do SOMETHING about gun violence in general and mass shootings in particular. This makes sense because both media and politicians benefit from the impression that “things are getting worse.” They most certainly are not. For the purpose of clarity, some supporting evidence has been relegated to these info icons. For instance, you might like to know that the U.S. murder rate has been steadily decreasing for the last 300 years. Graph U.S. murder rate over the past 300 years

That said, the sentiment is valid. Gun homicide per 100,000 U.S. residents may have decreased from 7.0 to 3.6 over the past two decades, but it remains frustratingly far behind the 0.23 enjoyed by gun-friendly Switzerland. And these incremental gains pale in comparison to the accelerating returns found in other sectors.

If almost everyone wants to live in a more peaceful society, why aren’t we improving faster? For starters, a close look at the most popular SOMETHINGS that “need” to be “done” reveals that they don’t actually *do* anything of value.

Ten things that don’t work:

1. Moar “gun-free” zones! – Considering that 92% of mass shootings happen in these supposedly gun-free zones, it’s disgrace that this concept still exists. Imaginary lines do absolutely nothing to stop criminals and are often even ignored by otherwise law-abiding CCW holders.

2. Fewer “gun-free” zones – The Republican response to gun violence always includes some mention of more good guys with guns, which could be a reasonable response … in theory. Sometimes this happens in practice, but it’s relatively rare that someone is ready, willing, and able to intervene. As alluded to in the previous section, this isn’t necessarily an issue of people fearing gun-free zones or being blocked by present laws. There may be about 8 million CCW holders in the United States, but very few are actually carrying their weapon in public at any given time. To have stopped the Paris Bataclan attacks, the nightclub would have had to allow weapons, a sober CCW holder would have had to attend the show, and said holder would have had to take out three men with AK-47s … not a very likely scenario. Drastically increasing the number of people carrying weapons would bring its own liabilities, so we ought not place too much faith in this magic bullet.

3. Git them Muslims – While we’re talking about Republicans, we might as well address their other go-to response: blame it on the turrerists. Tur-rer-ist: someone who doesn’t look like you. Whether they’re arguing that Muslim citizens should be restricted from gun ownership, watched, detained, or deported, this is dangerously-bigoted, collectivist discrimination (in violation of the 1st and 14th Amendments). Furthermore, only a small percentage of U.S. gun violence is actually perpetrated by Muslims.
Diagnosis: HITLER

4. Moar background checks! – Background checks are probably the most reasonable of the popular solutions: do we really want violent felons, the clinically insane, or people on the no-fly list popping over to the local gun show for a quick purchase? Unfortunately, even the strongest federal policy would do nothing to prevent someone from stealing (as was the case at Sandy Hook), fabricating (attend a build party), or 3d printing (choose your design) a firearm. And there’s always the issue of private and black-market sales, so one must assume that a committed criminal would find a way.

5. Make gun owners buy insurance – This one makes no sense at all, so it must be scheme cooked up by the insurance industry. The whole point of insurance is to manage risk by distributing costs across a broad group. So the law-abiding citizens will subsidize the criminals? How would this prevent crime? Why would a criminal participate at all? What happens if the insurance lapses? And worst of all, how would police enforce such a law? As for the claim that this is similar to car insurance, sure U.S. traffic fatalities and total gun deaths both hover around 30,000 (about the same number die falling), but that’s where the similarities end. There are over 5.5 million automobile crashes reported each year, causing over 2 million injuries, and very few are intentional. Insurance is purchased in order to drive on public roads, not merely for private ownership, and the requirement is only enforced during registration or police encounters. On the other hand, two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, only about 1,500 are accidental, and the approximately 30,000 accidental injuries are covered by health insurance. These are not analogous issues. This is a non-solution to a non-problem.
Diagnosis: CRONYISM

6. Make “Guns and Ammo” more expensiveYes, that’s a hilarious reference to the magazine (er, uh, “clip” if you don’t know what your’re talking about). On the surface this seems similar to any other sin tax, but unlike alcohol and tobacco, a properly-cared-for firearm can remain operable for decades. As for ammunition, you need relatively little to inflict great harm. Committed criminals would not be deterred by such taxes. Law abiding gun owners, however, would be deterred from going to the range and practicing gun safety. And as with any other exorbitant tax, the black market would create a whole new class of criminals.
Diagnosis: BAD IDEA

7. Limit magazine capacity or total ammunition – Contrary to what you’ve seen on TV, swapping a magazine takes less than a second and is not some grand opportunity to rush an attacker. Feel free to watch this video and then get back to me with exactly when you’re gonna jump into action here. Much like a sin tax, limiting the amount of ammunition one could buy would do much more to prevent law abiding citizens from practicing gun safety than it would to prevent a criminal from accumulating enough ammunition to inflict great harm.

8. Ban body armor – There’s no evidence that any mass shooting would have been significantly cut short if not for the perpetrators’ body armor (the North Hollywood shootout is the most famous instance of this sort of standoff, but their body armor was homemade and only the perpetrators were killed). Banning a defensive tool like this would only leave high profile citizens, body guards, and security officers *more* vulnerable to gun violence. And just think of all the paranoid helicopter parents who couldn’t get bulletproof blankets to “protect” against the .000000001% chance that their child be killed via gun homicide at a school (never mind that they’re far more likely to drown in the backyard swimming pool). Stupid bullet proof blankets for schools
Diagnosis: BAD IDEA

9. Ban “assault” rifles – Invoking this argument does nothing more than prove you have no clue what you’re talking about. Most modern rifles are semiautomatic weapons, with long grooved barrels, meant to be fired from the shoulder. The only attribute that distinguishes what’s commonly called a “hunting” rifle from what’s commonly called an “assault” rifle is that the latter looks “scarier.” Both can be used for either hunting or criminal activity with equal effect.
Diagnosis: THAT’S IGNANT

10. Confiscate the guns! – Considering that Trump could well be our next president, this has to be the stupidest of them all. Despots can indeed rise to power, countries can indeed be invaded, and superpowers can indeed collapse. A completely unarmed populous is a horrible idea, but let’s also consider how we would get from here to there. SWAT teams would have to go door to door, searching houses, arresting violators, and murdering resisters. 3d printers and machines shops would have to be carefully monitored, and you’d still never stop a committed criminal. If the war on drugs is bloody, violent, and pointless, wait ’til you see the war on guns.
Diagnosis: DISASTER

At this point, you’ll kindly note that none the above analysis makes any mention of the 2nd Amendment or the right to self-defense. This is not meant to imply that Rule of Law or Natural Rights are unimportant, but rather that the above “solutions” can be easily dismissed from merely a consequentialist perspective.

So, if none of the cliches work, what are we supposed to do? Well, the goal is to replace a culture of violence with a culture of peace, and that’s a lot more complex than we’d like to admit. I’d put forth two main categories of *real* solutions that I believe have obvious benefits …

The “less government” category:

1. Stop meddling in the Middle East – The war on terror is an undeniable failure. With every secular dictator we topple, extremists take power. With every drone bomb we drop, the families of innocent victims are motivated to fight back. And through the destruction of resources and disruption of economies, we deprive people (on both sides of the conflict) of the benefits of cooperative trade that are the foundation of civilization. It’s time for the United States to step up as world leaders toward peace rather than war.
Diagnosis: NO-BRAINER

2. End the drug war – The war on drugs is also an undeniable failure. It has done nothing to reduce drug use in the United States. Instead, it drains resources from our economy, radicalizes those who are sent to prison, is the primary source of funding for gangs, and, because there is no legal recourse for those involved in drug trade, it forces people to resort to violence. Ending the drug war would result in an immediate and substantive reduction in gun violence.
Diagnosis: NO-BRAINER

3. Deregulate and demilitarize – In a more general sense than the previous two examples, we need to radically reform the way the various levels of U.S. government treat their citizens. Whether it’s by SWATing raw milk producers, spraying down protesters, murdering those who don’t pay cigarette taxes, or all the other horrible forms of state-sponsored violence, our ever-growing police state is all-too keen on using force to escalate otherwise-trivial matters. For those who doubt the existence of said police state, one need only look a growth curve of the world’s largest prison population (ours). Graph of U.S. Prison Population A drastic reduction in the size and scope of government would not only eliminate these harms, but also shift our cultural predilection for the use of force.

4. Increase school choice – Much like our meddling in the Middle East radicalizes terrorists, our meddling in children’s lives undoubtedly compels some of them to violent outbursts. I addressed this two months ago after the Oregon shooting and would encourage you to read this piece for more detail, but suffice it to say that our school system is broken. We cannot continue to pretend that a one-size-fits-all approach can properly address our children’s diverse needs. If we want a well-adjusted and peaceful populous, school choice will have to be part of the solution.
Diagnosis: SACRED COW

5. Improve our mental health programs – On the surface, this may not seem to fit into the “less government” category, but it most certainly does when one considers the present alternatives. By treating drug addicts (alcohol and pharmaceuticals included) instead of incarcerating them, we could save billions. The more nuanced mental health issues are difficult because they’re often impossible to cure and only a tiny fraction of the mentally ill are ever compelled to violence. That said, it’s hard to imagine the downside of improving access to psychiatrists and treatment options. Government spending ought be a lot more focused on addressing root causes, so that we can spend a lot less on treating the “symptoms.”

Long story short, the U.S. government is the leading perpetrator of violence at home and abroad. And because it’s much easier to take responsibility for one’s own actions than to anticipate and control those of others, a serious discussion about government reform is an obvious place to start. But this also sets an example for our second set of real solutions …

The “more self-improvement” category:

6. Model and encourage non-violent behavior – Well most of us do right? Not quite: every year, over 2 million Americans are either sexually or physically assaulted; 70% of Americans still think that children deserve a “good hard spanking” as discipline; and the rate of microagression on college campuses is skyrocketing! Well, that last one’s a joke, but a truly nonviolent society *would* follow the Non Aggression Principle, which precludes fraud and coercion in addition to explicit force. Have you manipulated people or facts to gain an advantage? It is only by holding ourselves to high standards that we can expect others to do the same.
Diagnosis: NO-BRAINER

7. Foster community and empathy – Continuing the theme of things we think we’re better at than we actually are, we should take a hard look at how inclusive and accepting our culture really is. A pretty solid argument could be made that we’re far more obsessed with celebrity, status, conformity, cliques, exclusion, and/or judgement than with supporting any sort of happiness sought by our fellow humans. One particularly counter-intuitive manifestation of this is the present emphasis on self-esteem. And these sort of cultural norms can indeed breed violence. Are there better ways to conceive our self-worth and to treat others? Surely. Can I offer any conclusive path forward? Sadly, not so much. Good luck!

8. Create something of value – Whether it’s an invention, business, or creative work, contributing to the well-being of your fellow humans is the anthropologically clearest path to a more cooperative, peaceful society. The trick to this one is that signing a petition, idolizing a politician, or arguing about policy doesn’t really count (government force is the tool of the lazy and unimaginative). Despite certain recent rhetoric, the only means of creating lasting progress is to build it yourself.
Diagnosis: REALLY HARD

9. Learn gun safety and go to a range – It’s easy to fear what we don’t understand and, for all-too-many modern Americans, that means a fear of firearms. There’s no need to buy a gun or go hunting, but some basic experience will give you a much better understanding of the subject. Additionally, almost all accidental gun injuries and deaths could be easily avoided through proper gun safety. Learning a few common sense principles will protect you and your loved ones if you’re ever in the presence of a firearm.
Diagnosis: PRETTY FUN

10. Refine your thought process – We all want to believe that we have the answers and should just argue harder. Unfortunately, the extent to which the gun control debate is dominated by ideology (rather than well-reasoned, statistical analysis), is clear proof that the majority of Americans are woefully incapable of evaluating public policy. No matter how good we are as people, or how good we are at our jobs, there’s always room to improve our critical thinking skills. Why not try some free Coursera classes? Here’s five to get you started:
Introduction to Logic
Welcome to Game Theory
Basic Statistics
Statistical Inference
Think Again: How to Reason and Argue


Change happens slowly

The depressing truth about guns is that we’re unlikely to see an end to mass shootings in our lifetimes, much less an end to all gun violence. But we can take solace in the knowledge that gun violence is decreasing, that we’re living the most peaceful time in human history, and that the Internet is ushering in a new era of vast cooperative effort.

Remember, we are NOT facing crisis. Gun deaths represent just 1.3% of preventable deaths; gun homicide represents just 34% of gun deaths; and mass shootings represent less than 0.5% of gun homicide (0.002% of the total, if you’re counting). Anyone who tells you otherwise probably has a hidden agenda and ought be viewed with extreme skepticism. These self-serving politicians and the media are keen on knee-jerk reactions, but their “solutions” are almost always quite the opposite.

If you want to live in a more peaceful world, then let’s think calmly and rationally about the facts at hand. Let’s fully evaluate the policies we advocate, giving particular consideration to the unforeseen consequences of any such actions. Instead of doing SOMETHING, let’s do SOMETHING THAT WORKS.