This post is political. As always, physics readers who don’t care about politics are encouraged to skip it. I’ve got an actual physics post going up tomorrow.
Mark and I have been conducting a debate/discussion over gun control in the United States. For the first round, here’s his post and my response. Here’s his second round post, and this post is my response.
First, let me summarize where the debate stands. We have four main topics as set forth in Mark’s posts: gun violence in “ordinary” crime, gun violence in the context of mass shootings, suggestions for gun control, and miscellaneous ancillary arguments. Most of the points in the ancillary category were fairly comprehensively covered, and I think both of us are pretty satisfied with what has been said. The exception is the “good guys with guns” argument, which we’ll continue.
Mark classifies my responses to the ordinary crime and mass shooting topics as “no problem” arguments. This is incorrect. I am trying to quantify the problem, and to quantify the impact of the proposed solutions. If it turns out that both these quantities are so small as to be classified as “no problem” in the mind of the reader, well, the numbers are what they are. I myself reject the idea that there is no problem. But I also reject the idea that argument from anecdote is an effective guide to the truth. We want to ask whether or not there is a problem which is caused by the prevalence of guns, and if so whether or not gun control could do anything to ameliorate it.
Let’s dive right in to the general gun crime topic.
Mark quotes the Institute of Medicine in comparing the US to similar industrialized countries in terms of life expectancy found that our homicide rate is far in excess of comparable OECD countries, and significantly affects our life expectancy. The IOM study found our homicide rate to be 6.9 times higher than the other OECD countries, our gun homicide rate 19.5 times higher, and of the 23 countries in the study, the US was responsible for 80% of all firearm deaths.
There are two obvious questions. First, is the US comparable to those other OECD countries? Second, how much does gun control actually have to do with this?
The answer to the first question is an obvious no, and to demonstrate this we need look no farther than the very study linked. The US has higher than average death rates in almost every category from car accidents to disease, the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes, and so forth. (But not suicide, incidentally.) In fact, in the words of the study,
On nearly all indicators of mortality, survival, and life expectancy, the United States ranks at or near the bottom among high-income countries.
I’m not trying to insult my country – it’s a great place, much better in most of these categories than most of the rest of the world. However, comparisons to these 16 other top OECD nations are untenable. We aren’t comparable. We are different in almost every measurable respect involving health and mortality.
Well ok, guns obviously don’t give people diabetes or make teens pregnant, but “lots of guns, lots of violence” vs “not many guns, not much violence” might look less like correlation and more like causation. (At least relative to the not-very-comparable top of the OECD.) This conclusion is unwarranted and probably false. Here’s some reasons, some of which I have mentioned in my last post.
1. US vs. OECD entirely aside, we can’t even easily compare US vs. US over time without running into extreme confounding variables. Our murder rate has been precipitously falling over the last few decades even as gun laws have become much looser (I do not claim a causal relationship). The last time our murder rate was as low as it is now, we were literally in the Leave It To Beaver era.
2. Murder rates vary wildly within the US under identical gun control regimes. White Americans, for instance, kill each other at roughly OECD rates (albeit on the high end), and well below the rates of eastern Europe and the Baltics. I shouldn’t have to point out that epidermis reflectivity doesn’t have squat to do with this. It does, however, show that socioeconomic and cultural variables overwhelmingly determine rates of violence.
3. Sharp changes in gun laws haven’t done anything significant to the homicide rates of other countries. The best-studied case is post-Port Arthur Australia. The effect on overall homicide rates was somewhere between negligible and nonexistent. The effect on gun homicide rates was similar. Let’s take a look at the study Mark cites:
Additional research, readily available suggests a significant drop in the rate of gun violence after the ban. This suggests to me, both in the specific intervention, and overall given their tight regulation of handguns, that Australia is quite a strong example of gun control working.
I will reproduce a few of the graphs from this paper, unedited. First, gun homicides and non-gun homicides:
The statisticians in the audience who have not died of heart attacks at the statistical illiteracy of the pre- and post- trend lines will of course notice that the overall decline in violence and gun violence continued just as it was doing before the gun control was implemented. In fact, the rate of non-gun violence displays a much more dramatic (though also statistically spurious) change. And this is Australia, the best possible scenario for the success of of gun control. Gun control did nothing to the overall homicide rate. It didn’t even do anything to the gun homicide rate. (More graphs from the paper here, about accidental deaths and suicides, if you’re curious.)
4. Trying to account for confounding variables is extraordinarily difficult in this context, but a number of studies have attempted to do so. One study compares the prairie provinces of Canada with their bordering US states. In this case,
Patterns of homicide in the United States and Canada were examined with a view to finding out whether the availability of firearms affects the homicide rate independently of the other social, demographic and economic factors in play. If this is the case, then low-homicide areas, which generally have fewer social and economic problems but the same access to firearms, should have a higher proportion of their homicides by firearms. This is not the case for the four border states.
Other studies (commenter LH pointed out these two) have come to similar conclusions. Now I strongly suggest that you not read too much into these results – while if they are accurate they support my point, attempts to disentangle confounding variables are fraught with danger even when the result happens to land on my side.
In short, there is no good evidence that gun availability causes increased crime rates. There is extremely good evidence that socioeconomic variables are far and away the primary drivers of crime rates. Violence in general and gun violence in particular are real problems in the US, but gun control as a solution is so ill-supported as to verge on superstition.
While Mark and I are mostly focused on numerical metrics as to what effects gun control actually produces, it’s probably worth looking briefly at the practical problems of implementing it as well. Mark quotes former Australian prime minister John Howard writing on the Port Arthur gun control measures:
In the end, we won the battle to change gun laws because there was majority support across Australia for banning certain weapons.
Howard is right. In Australia, gun control was implemented with the overwhelming support of the population. This is not the case in the US. The change in support for gun control after Sandy Hook is marginal, and those opposed to it are very opposed to it and are voting with their wallets. The single week of December 17-23 likely saw almost a million new guns sold. Over the last month I’ve had occasion to be in five gun stores, and every one of them was completely sold out of every AR-15, every semi-automatic rifle of any description for that matter, every magazine holding >10 rounds, and every box of .223 ammo. Every online retailer I’ve checked is in the same boat. I personally have an outstanding parts order with Rock River Arms, and they’re backordered so badly they won’t even provide estimated lead times.
On to mass shootings. Both Mark and I as scientists run into some trouble here in that there is very little available systematic data of any kind. Trying to disentangle ordinary crime statistics from their confounding variables is hard enough, but the small-N statistics of mass murder are much harder still. We have noted that the Wikipedia lists of mass killings are similar in size in the US and Europe, and the US’s is slightly larger (119 vs. 100). This is worse on a per-capita basis because Europe has a higher population. But it is clear that confounding cultural and socioeconomic factors are in play as well. Mexico, for instance, has a homicide rate about 4 times that of the US but as far as I can tell has apparently never had a school shooting. (There have been a few “ordinary” murders at schools, but I have not been able to find any examples of a school shooting of the crazed-gunman variety.) Australia seems to have some success with their gun control regime in the specific case of mass violence, but their success is probably not replicable in the US which is (as I have pointed out) a very different place with 10 times the population and historically much higher levels of violence (gun and non-gun alike), to say nothing of the fact that we’re starting with gun ownership rates which are higher by a factor of 10.
We have a problem with mass violence. It’s a staggeringly rare problem, rarer than lightning strikes, but a dramatic and tragic one and one that deserves our best efforts to fix. The place to start is not a massive and likely completely ineffective reconstruction of a fundamental right exercised by nearly half the population of the country. As both Mark and I have both pointed out, government overreactions to tragedy tend not to turn out well in this country. We know for a fact that the last iteration of the assault weapons ban failed to prevent Columbine or to do anything significant to either ordinary or mass violence during the ten years it was in effect.
Instead, we should start with the obvious basics. Physical security of the entrances to schools would be my focus if I were a principal. Improved accessibility of mental health treatment is also a good idea (though this is a tall order and the verdict on its effectiveness is still out). The occasional presence of resource officers and/or the elimination of the silly “gun free zone” designation could also be a good deterrent. This last point we’ll discuss separately at the end of the post, as it’s quite controversial.
Mark makes a few suggestions for tighter gun laws. His primary suggestion is:
…since magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons are the weapons of choice in the last few dozen of these shootings that before sale the purchaser should get a bit more eyeball by authorities. Specifically in regards to the VT shooter, the Aurora Shooter, or the Giffords shooter, I suggested increased scrutiny for these purchases, law-enforcement taught training and competence testing for their use, and I also suggested the Canadian voucher system (as did Kristof immediately after Sandy Hook), which would require two other people to stand up for you and say you are responsible enough to possess such a machine.
As I pointed out last time, “magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons” is a near-synonym for “all guns”. Most shootings involve semi-automatic firearms because most firearms are semi-automatic. But that’s a side point, and doesn’t really affect his argument too much. (He’s not advocating a ban, but more on this later.)
Let’s start with the idea of a voucher system. If I want to buy a gun, I have to find two people who are willing to put their name to paper asserting that I’m not an obvious nut. Let me give three reasons I think this might be a bad idea, and two reasons I think it might work. First, even the most scuzzy two-bit crooks can round up two scuzzy two-bit friends to sign for them. Second, anyone’s good-faith assessment of another’s character could prove to be wrong. Third, it could be prone to abuse – are there exorbitant filing fees involved? Can New York decide a person needs twenty signatures? I would suggest that if you object to, say, voter ID laws then you can see how such a voucher system might be problematic. But there are a few reasons it might work in some cases. While Bugsy Siegel wouldn’t have a problem getting signatures, obvious dead-eyed psychopaths like James Eagan Holmes or Seung-Hui Cho might have found it a hurdle. Secondly, the second amendment does talk in terms of civic purpose. While the right to bear arms is obviously individual an individual right and US law defines the militia as all able-bodied males between 17 and 45, the civic purpose of the second amendment might suggest that something like a voucher system in an otherwise permissive regulatory regime might fit the bill. I’d have to chew on the voucher idea for a while longer before deciding if I really think it’s a good idea, but on its face it seems much more in the spirit of the reason behind the right to keep and bear arms than do some other gun control suggestions.
Mark has also suggested greater scrutiny such as background checks for the private sale of guns. I’m much less sanguine about this. It would certainly accomplish nothing to prevent mass shootings – these weapons are usually purchased legally or stolen – but in the context of keeping guns out of the hands of crooks it seems like a reasonable place to start thinking. So we should ask ourselves what we might gain by implementing such a scheme. It’s an old staple of this debate to assert that criminals inherently aren’t inclined to have a lot of respect for gun laws. This can be countered by asserting that their respect for the law is irrelevant if there were no guns in the first place, but in terms of doing paperwork on transfers this response doesn’t work so well. Bugsy buys a gun for convicted felon Mugsy, cops trace the serial and ask Bugsy how Mugsy got the gun: “I dunno officer, he musta stole it”. In the mean time law-abiding gun owners are effectively forced into a registry and have to deal with the expensive bureaucratic morass of the FFL system. Maybe this could be sidestepped by some clever way of opening NICS to private parties other than FFLs, and such proposals ought to be heard out. Once somebody proposes one, anyway.
Training and competence testing? I’m all for people being trained and competent, but that has nothing to do with crime and violence and formal training is pretty expensive. I’d hate to see it made into an effective “no poor people need apply” restriction. Safe storage? Fantastic, especially for people with kids, but the same caveats apply.
Finally, we should discuss the ban vs. paperwork hoops issue:
Every time you talk gun regulation at all it seems to become a ban in the pro-gun side’s mind. However, at no point, for any currently available weapon, have I suggested a ban. Just paperwork. It’s not the end of the world people.
This is true, and fair enough as it goes. We gun-rights types are justifiably a bit jumpy about this sort of thing. It would be nice if Mark were the one writing the various laws being proposed in congress and various state legislatures. Unfortunately it’s people like Dianne “Turn ’em all in” Feinstein and Carolyn “Shoulder thing that goes up” McCarthy and Andrew “Confiscation could be an option” Cuomo. It’s great for the two of us to discuss our Platonic ideals of the way things ought to be, but we also have to remember that we’re dealing with members of the world’s second oldest (and least reputable) profession. Since their stated intent is to take a mile, I’m not very willing to give them any free inches without an airtight case as to effectiveness and respect for the rights of the law-abiding.
Finally let’s return to the idea of stopping shootings via “good guys with guns”. Quoting Mark:
In the vast majority of cases, mass shootings are stopped when the perpetrator is shot…by themselves. Do we have evidence of police or armed citizens interrupting even one of the mass shootings in the last 20 years? Do we have any evidence of good guys with guns making a dent except after the shooting is done? Nope.
The “Nope” is a link to a Mother Jones article which actually lists five cases in which good guys with guns did just that. Mother Jones’ point is that each of the five cases listed magically don’t count because the citizens involved were current or former law enforcement or military, not (say) some dentist who just decided to get a concealed carry permit. I’m not sure that this tells us much more than that people with experience are more likely to get permits and that ordinary citizens’ permits are not generally valid in the places where mass shootings occur, but in any case it kills the argument that armed citizens can’t possibly accomplish anything positive. While active uniformed police haven’t actually shot many mass killers, it is probably more than suspicious coincidence that the perpetrators tend to shoot themselves right when police arrive (Lanza and Cho are prominent examples). This is also alleged to have happened in the Clackamas shooting when a citizen with a concealed carry permit drew his weapon, but as this is not independently verifiable Mark (not unreasonably) dismisses it and I won’t try to build a case around it. Mark also mentions the fact that an officer was present at the initial stage of the Columbine attack but failed to stop the shooting. This is roughly as out-of-date as insisting that passenger resistance to hijackers is futile because it failed to stop 9/11 – at the time it was generally believed that these were hostage situations, and that the proper response was to wait until it was all sorted out much later. This mistake is no longer made.
It is possible, and it has happened, that in the process of trying to stop a mass killer a person carrying could get themselves killed. As Mark says
It’s not as easy as it looks in the movies, and the usual creepy fantasist gun lover who buys into this myth is not John McCain, he’s Walter Mitty.
Ok, ok, I can’t resist: Walter Mitty would probably fantasize about being Die Hard hero John McClane, not the senior senator from Arizona. But I’m at a loss to see how this is an argument against resistance. Am I extra-dead if I get killed while trying and failing to resist? All that’s being asked is that the situation be an improvement on an unopposed mass shooter, who is at any rate hardly Hans Gruber either. (Neither are ordinary criminals. See here for an example which is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious.) Same thing for the Mother Jones hysterics here:
They also make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to do their jobs. “In a scenario like that,” McMenomy told me recently, “they wouldn’t know who was good or who was bad, and it would divert them from the real threat.”
In the billions of man hours that millions of permit holders spend carrying ever year, this has literally never happened. This should not be a surprise. Defensive shootings almost exclusively take place at very short ranges and are over in seconds. As I said in the last post, it’s not possible for me to claim that police or armed citizens are a panacea. The statistical data is badly inadequate. But what data we do have indicates that the concept is plausible in principle.
All right, it’s about time to conclude this Part 2. In two-sentence summary: Gun violence is bad. Gun laws have very little to do with it.
 A policy is not automatically good or bad based on how it polls, of course. And sometimes public opinion doesn’t make a lot of internal sense anyway. The assault weapons ban polls rather poorly (sub 50% in the Gallup poll), but universal background checks poll very well even though none of the mass shooters in recent years acquired their weapons through private sale. Go figure.
 Even the four dissenting justices in DC v. Heller agree. They disagree as to the scope of this right, but agree that it is an individual right. The first lines of the dissent:
The question presented by this case is not whether the Second Amendment protects a “collective right” or an “individual right.” Surely it protects a right that can be enforced by individuals. But a conclusion that the Second Amendment protects an individual right does not tell us anything about the scope of that right.