I was curious to see what kind of defense Matt would put on against my suggestion of additional regulations to address the problem of gun violence and homicide in the US, and I was a bit disappointed to see that the response is largely a “no problem” argument. I had actually come into this debate thinking that both of us at least acknowledge that the US has a problem with gun homicide, but it appears as though I’ll have to backtrack a bit. So, starting with the “no problem” argument, I will describe why it is bogus, why the US does have a problem with firearm homicides (I can’t believe that’s an area of contention), and restate with some additional data why I believe my original proposals might make a dent in the two separate issues of mass violence and gun homicide.
The no problem argument usually takes a few different forms. First, describe other things we encounter in our daily lives that are responsible for as many deaths, like automobiles, or in the case of mass shootings, Springer choose lightning strikes.
In the 32 years since 1980, there have been some 513 people killed in 62 incidents of mass shootings under the Mother Jones definition (perpetrators generally included). This amounts to an average of 16 per year. Over the 12 years for which the CDC has available data, the average death rate due to lightning strikes has been 45 per year.
Some of my commentariat chose to talk about household falls, second-hand smoke, and a diet rich in bacon. These arguments almost always arise when you make an argument to do something about almost anything, and the do-nothings come out of the woodwork to concern-troll you about how there is some more important issue that should be addressed. The problem with these “no-problem” arguments is that (1) they often rely on poor analogies, and (2) they assume that almost no problem, other than maybe cancer or malaria in the third world, should be absorbing all of our attention. Nothing preventative can be done about lightning strikes. Automobiles are not only highly-regulated, titled by government, restricted from use by the under-aged and untrained etc., but also necessary to function for most people in their daily lives (also guns are almost as deadly – I’ll get to it). As are ladders, stairs, other household implements, and as far as second-hand smoke, I’m pretty sure I haven’t been exposed to that since I was last in a casino thanks to extensive government anti-smoking efforts. As far as a diet rich in bacon, sure, I’ve had more than a few patients die from heart attacks or strokes in their 60s and 70s after decades of self-inflicted harm, but the patient I think about more is the 24-year-old paralyzed from the neck down after catching a stray while standing on the wrong street corner at 5 pm. Lightning is one thing, but a 6 or 7-year-old killed by a gun, due to no action or risk they took upon themselves other than living in the same community as a mentally-defective monster with access to firearms, is a different kind of tragedy. We can’t stop lightning, but I think there are preventatives to gun violence, and we must be careful not to compare risks that one assumes for oneself, versus actions that create risk for those around us.
Springer is also concerned that a response, just for the sake of response, will create government excess similar to our excessive government overreach post-9/11. But while some anti-gun advocates may be talking in extremes, I don’t think my suggestions, or basically identical ones from the Obama administration were so over-the-top. I didn’t call for a ban on any type of weapon (although I favor a ban on large-capacity magazines), confiscation, or any other of the major bugaboos that usually terrify the pro-gun crowd. Briefly, I suggested increased scrutiny on purchases of what I consider military hardware – magazine fed semi-automatic weapons – and required safety precautions for storage and access to such weapons. To address the approximate 10,000 gun homicides in any given year, I suggested relatively minor barriers, now being advocated by the Obama administration, on private sale of firearms. This is because currently law enforcement has some ability to address trafficking by licensed gun dealers, but the paper trail ends at the first retail sale. To stop gun crime we have to get the guns out of the hands of criminals. As I’ll discuss below, some 90% of these guns come from the secondary gun market.
The second form the “no-problem” argument usually takes is minimization:
Now it’s worth taking a look at violent crime generally. While an uncommon cause of death in percentage terms, murder is a significant source of mortality in the United States. Of murders in the United States in 2011, 8,583 (about two thirds) were committed with firearms. Of firearms murders, the overwhelming majority were committed with handguns (6,220 with certainty, and likely most of the 1,587 “type not specified”). The rate of homicides (by all methods) is about 4.8 per 100,000, which is high compared to Australia (1.0) the UK (1.2), or Canada (1.6). On the other hand, it’s low when compared to most nations outside the highly developed first world, such as Russia (10.2) and Mexico (22.7). The highest, Honduras, is a staggering 91.6.
Mark dismisses any comparison to Mexico, but the comparison is more instructive than it first appears. The population of the Texas border city of El Paso is some 75% Mexican (and more than 80% Hispanic), but its homicide rate is a relatively bucolic 0.8 per 100,000. Its adjoining Mexican neighbor of Juarez is one of the most violent places on the planet, peaking at a hideous 130 per 100,000 in 2009. Do El Paso’s gun-friendly Texas laws make it so much more peaceful than Juarez? I doubt it. But it does put to bed the idea that gun laws are the primary or even a significant driver of the crime rates.
As I’ve mentioned in comments multiple times, I totally reject comparisons of the US to Mexico, or even Russia, as highly absurd given synergy of corruption and ineffectual governments present in both of those examples. Not to mention, the drug war in Mexico is practically an internecine war and is responsible for as many as 50,000 deaths since 2006. I reject the comparison to Mexico as totally meaningless just as I would reject the comparison of our country to any other war zone like Afghanistan or Iraq.
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. It is also useful to narrow down the problem by age. One of the worst aspects of this type of mortality is that it disproportionately affects the young. If you convert it from a mere cause of death, to a calculation of years of life lost, gun homicide is a much more striking phenomenon. In the end, our mortality rate is 100%. A comparison of the relative mortality of different mechanisms of death is not meaningful in itself unless we also consider the age at which the mechanism strikes. Firearm homicide kills at a mean age in the 30s for males, and in when years of life lost is used for comparison firearm homicide is only exceeded unintentional injuries (car accidents, falls etc), cancer, and heart attacks. Sorry if that’s old data, that’s what happens when the gun lobby prevents the CDC from studying the problem. A more recent analysis puts firearms just behind automobile accidents for decreasing our life expectancy.
We have a problem.
Finally, the “no problem” argument, especially in regards to guns, seems to fall back on these damn cat-skinning arguments. Yes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I get it. It’s irrelevant:
The Bath School bombing in 1927 killed more than Sandy Hill and Columbine combined. Julio González killed 87 in the Bronx in 1990 with a match and some gasoline. The most lethal female mass killer in America used a Lincoln Continental. The unknown perpetrators of the Black Saturday fires in Australia killed many times more people than the Port Arthur massacre that touched off that nation’s much stricter gun laws. Now a list of anecdotes is not dispositive, but it is surprisingly hard to find comprehensive academic lists of rampage killings for the purpose of comparing across borders and between gun and non-gun attacks. At any rate the Wikipedia compendium of rampage killings internationally is striking (if not rigorous) reading – it lists 119 mass killings in the Americas and 100 in Europe.
This is not a relevant argument to making firearms more difficult to obtain. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, the ability of killers to use more than one kind of weapon does not have anything to do with whether or not weapons ideal for commission of mass homicide should be easy to obtain. Yes, it is possible for many to create bombs from relatively common materials, after all the Columbine killers also attempted to blow up their school – which demonstrates another point, these things require expertise, much more planning, and have a fail rate more significant than a manufactured, ready-to-shoot rifle. Just because there is more than one way to skin a cat doesn’t mean you should sell industrial grade cat-skinning machines that skin 1000 cats a minute to anyone with a driver’s license and 500 bucks.
And while the list of mass killings is very hard to interpret, when sorted by year you see the European list has about 20 incidents in the last 20 years, whereas the US alone has had 31 in that time period. The list also does not include school shootings which gives the US another 12 mass incidents and Europe an additional 7. I think we’re sadly still winning in this competition at 43 to 27 (and the US has 3/7 the population of Europe).
We do have a problem (sigh).
Onto the criticisms of my proposals. This is how Matt characterized my argument:
Mark has penned his own contribution, in which he argues along four lines. First, that gun control will reduce acts of mass violence. Second, that gun control will reduce violent crime generally. Third, that specific gun control methods he enumerates ought to be put in place in view of the previous two points.
I disagree. Saying that I believe gun control will reduce acts of mass violence is a simplification, because “gun control” usually is a stand in for bans. This is not quite correct. I made the argument that 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. Part of the profile for a significant portion of these shooters has been they have set themselves apart from society. They are not “plugged-in” to their community, and are frankly weird. These proposals serve two purposes. They expose the purchaser to additional scrutiny to demonstrate they are competent and safe users of potentially very dangerous equipment, and they demonstrate the purchaser is not a loner weirdo who doesn’t even have two people in the world that think they’re capable of owning such equipment without turning it on the neighborhood. If you think the second restriction is too much, well, that’s kind of pathetic. If you can’t find two other people in your town that don’t think you’re too psycho to own a weapon, you probably shouldn’t have a weapon. Sure, these systems can be foiled. They won’t prevent all instances of mass violence. They are imperfect, and similar high levels of restriction have been foiled in other nations, but that doesn’t mean that obstacles to ownership for those matching the mass-murder profile won’t have any effect. We shouldn’t let the perfect ruin the good.
The second suggestion I made for mass shooting prevention is requiring owners of such weapons to store them in a safe manner, and require manufacturers of such weapons to incorporate built-in fire-locks, or user specific locks to prevent unauthorized use. The shooter in Newtown was, by accounts to date, a very mentally-disturbed individual, who accessed his mother’s own weapons to first kill her, then 20 school children. Could this have been prevented by something as simple as a gun-safe? Or could it have been prevented by an integral fire-lock mechanisms that require key or smart guns that prevent use by anyone other than the owner? We have not adequately addressed the possibility that technology can do a great deal to prevent unauthorized use, not to mention render theft of firearms, and subsequent trafficking, much more difficult or completely non-profitable. Most guns confiscated from criminals are actually relatively new guns, and the illegal gun market requires continuous inputs of new weapons either stolen from homes or straw-purchased from legitimate owners or dealers.
Which brings me to my third point, to deal with gun homicide generally, I did not describe “gun control” per se, but rather adequate record keeping and background checks for private sales. Again, “gun control” suggests bans or limits. I would not ban private sale or forbid it at all, but simply require such sales to undergo the same type of background checks as at an FFL, and require owners to keep records of such sales. The issue of gun trafficking is actually quite difficult to address, as the data on it is quite poor (of course). However, the evidence from gun-traces conducted by the ATF is intriguing:
This data is suggestive, but by no means conclusive, that the lax gun laws of other states have a detrimental impact on New York’s ability to prevent gun crime in the city, as a significant portion of guns confiscated are coming from out-of-state sales. Problems with this data are that not all guns confiscated are traced (or traceable), and determining if a gun is purchased for trafficking, or was stolen and subsequently trafficked (without a report) can not be determined with current tools available to the police. This data is also not going to contain untraceable weapons that have had serials defaced – an important and illegal step for traffickers to take to ensure their activity isn’t easily tracked.
Sadly, more recent data on trafficking is hard to come by, and atf publications in their “historical” section contain some of the most comprehensive data on the types of guns being used by criminals. Data from these reports that suggest that trafficking from private buyers are a major input into the illegal market likely have not changed in the last 10 years however, as, if anything, congress made it more difficult to trace weapons via the Tiahrt amendments which have hampered the ability of law enforcement to prevent trafficking.
Interesting facts from the most recent publication include (1) 77% of guns used in crime are handguns and 50% of all guns used in crime are semi-automatic pistols (2) the quality of records is so poor that fully a third of the time traces failed due to inaccurate records or absent records kept by the dealers, and 10% of the time from “problems” with the serial numbers (alteration or defacement likely) (3) fully a third of crime guns are under 3 years old, and half less than 6 years old – time to crime being an correlate of trafficking (4) 88% of the time the crime gun was not originally purchased by the criminal – that is 88% of guns in crime have entered a secondary market.
This is the problem as described by the ATF:
Tracing from Purchaser to Possessor. Transfers of a firearm beyond the initial purchase by a retail customer usually cannot be followed to the criminal possessor using serial numbers and transfer documentation alone. Federal law does not require unlicensed sellers to perform Brady background checks or maintain transfer records for tracing, and firearm owners are not required to keep a record of the serial number of their firearms or to report lost or stolen firearms. Therefore, it is generally impossible for a National Tracing Center (NTC) crime gun trace alone to identify purchasers beyond the initial retail purchaser. If a crime gun is not recovered from its original purchaser, it has been transferred at least once in the secondary market, that is, by someone other than an FFL. These transfers may be lawful or unlawful. The crime gun may have been illegally transferred by a straw purchaser; resold by an unlicensed seller or as a used gun by an FFL; borrowed, traded, or given as a gift; stolen by its criminal possessor; or stolen and trafficked, among other possibilities.
As described in my original post, the major source of guns for criminals is the secondary markets – either straw purchased, gun show purchased, or privately-sold firearms which require no background check, and no records (not that the licensed dealers are doing that great a job of it). Some criminologists, such as Gary Kreck have criticized the idea there is a large source of trafficked guns in this country and that most crime guns are stolen weapons. However, while criticizing over-interpretation of trace data, I think Kreck under-interprets it. He arrives at the bizarre number of only about 1.6% of guns originating from some kind of organized trafficking. However, he does this by dismissing any trafficker that does not have a large (> 100/year) operation, and by suggesting the only real valid indicator of a trafficked weapon is evidence of a defaced serial number. Considering not all guns collected in crime are traced, and there isn’t much point even trying to trace a gun without a serial number (an exercise in futility – correct me if I’m wrong), I believe the trace databases are going to be subject to an under-reporting bias. Not to mention, in the report I’m working from, 10% of the weapons had serial number issues, and only a very small minority correlated to a report of a stolen gun. Likely the problem is the serial numbers in crime guns aren’t destroyed as much as altered, to prevent accurate tracing by creating an incorrect number. We can discuss Kreck more if needed (he’s often the goto-guy for those trying to suggest guns make us safer), but I don’t think his analyses have held up against other criminologists’ criticisms (please read this paper, and this paper before defending Kleck’s survey studies).
Given these data however, I think a powerful case can be made that tighter control of the secondary markets, as well as safety controls like integrated gun locks, will make trafficking more difficult, more costly, more risky, and in the case of stolen guns, potentially impossible. If we want to impact gun crime, these are the steps to address the overwhelming majority of guns found in the hands of criminals. This also negates the common critique of such measures that there already 300 million guns in circulation. Most gun owners are not interested in selling their guns into the criminal market, and the preponderance of new guns in crime shows there is a need or demand for a continual supply of new weapons into the criminal market.
Now let’s address some of Matt’s specific points:
We could begin by looking at whether or not semi-automatic rifles are actually a particularly heinous implement of death (we will discuss handguns in the “crime generally” section). In 2011, the United States experienced a total of 2,437,163 deaths. Of these, 12,664 were victims of murder. So for every 192 people who died in the United States, one was a victim of murder. Of those 12,664 murder victims, 323 were killed by a rifle. Thus for every 40 people who were victims of murder, one was shot by a rifle. This comes in well behind knives or blunt objects or even bare hands. In terms of death toll, rifles are roughly on par with falling off ladders (which killed 404 in the year 2010). And this category comprises all rifles, from bolt-action deer rifles to AR-15s to .50-caliber Barretts.
It should be noted from my original article that I was not suggesting the control of magazine-fed semi-automatics as necessarily being effective against gun homicide in general, but as a tool of mass homicide. Although, it should be noted, I included handguns in my suggestion and they represent more than 50% of crime guns. To prevent gun homicide I suggested regulation of secondary markets, not bans.
Fortunately Matt cites one of the best examples of a gun control policy that appears to have worked, and addresses it:
The best example on the pro-gun-control side is that of Australia, in which guns are regulated under a regime which has been a near ban since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. There has nonetheless been at least one school shooting since then, though fortunately it only resulted in two deaths. A mass shooting of 4 or more victims has not occurred since 1996. The total rate of mass killings by arbitrary methods did not change significantly, and overall homicide rates were unaffected. It is a matter of conjecture as to what extent this quite modest success in a island nation of a very different culture and just 10% of the US population can be extrapolated to the US. (Here’s a data point for the difference in firearms culture: the Australian buyback program after Port Arthur brought in 631,000 firearms. US citizens bought almost three million last month alone.) In summary, mass violence, despite its considerable press, is exceptionally rare, not particularly reliant on guns, and not particularly preventable by gun control.
I however, come to different conclusions, and not just about Australia being a continent. For one, in yesterday’s NYT, John Howard, the PM that passed their gun control legislation, describes the effect of the laws and the difficulties we might face replicating their effort. For one, Howard notes, “Almost 700,000 guns were bought back and destroyed — the equivalent of 40 million guns in the United States.” It seems like a smaller number, but for a smaller population, that’s a big dent. Also his interpretation of the post-gun control homicide rate appears different:
In the end, we won the battle to change gun laws because there was majority support across Australia for banning certain weapons. And today, there is a wide consensus that our 1996 reforms not only reduced the gun-related homicide rate, but also the suicide rate. The Australian Institute of Criminology found that gun-related murders and suicides fell sharply after 1996. The American Law and Economics Review found that our gun buyback scheme cut firearm suicides by 74 percent. In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996.
Further, in reading the source material cited (Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence, P 121-156, 2003, Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig) I found the authors reached a different conclusion than what Matt stated. Rather than being “unaffected” the rates were decidedly lower, however, the significance given the already low numbers of gun homicides is questionable. It should also be noted that Australia already had significant control of handguns. Here’s a snippet from Google books:
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. Although, for some of the same reasons Howard cites, the Australian method is not easily ported to the United States. The idea that gun control in general can never work is also prima facie absurd, just look at Japan. Yes, I know, we could not ban guns here, but it goes to show when guns are truly, effectively banned, even the criminals don’t have guns.
Matt also suggests my proposals, “come close to banning civilian handgun ownership”, which is amazing since I think I’ve beat that horse to death. 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. It should be noted one suggestion I had, that owners should provide a legitimate need for ownership, is actually untenable. It was tried in Maryland and subsequently overturned by a federal judge. I will drop that suggestion, and it strengthens the “non-banning” aspect of my proposal as it was the only subjective criteria that government could use to prevent ownership. The proposals I have left result in a ban on nothing, just some hoops, just some paperwork. I think we can grow up on this issue and realize that reasonable measures to monitor secondary gun markets, and additional scrutiny for purchase of these weapons is nowhere near a “ban”.
I do have to take issue with Matt dismissing owner responsibility for misuse of guns:
Criminal penalties for having your guns misused more generally are not reasonable. Locks and safes are breakable, often with something as simple as a sledgehammer (of course locks and safes are still a good idea, but far from infallible), and it is unacceptable to put people in jail for being the victim of a crime.
This is, of course, nonsense. I never suggested a gun owner should be responsible for the criminal use of their gun if someone breaks into their gun safe and takes their weapons. On the other hand, if you leave your gun on the dashboard of your car and it’s stolen, you should be jailed for criminal stupidity and negligence. We require people to put up fences around their swimming pools because we know they are dangerous and an attractive nuisance. Minimal barriers to gun access in the home, like gun locks, should be expected for anyone with children, or reasonable expectation of the unauthorized having access to their firearms. This should be common sense, but also we need to increase barriers to access at guns in the home to prevent accidental gun death, and gun theft – a major source of trafficked guns. Maybe we should show Stray Dog in schools. That’s how you should feel if you lose your gun.
Finally I will take exception with Matt’s defense of the “good guys with guns” argument:
In vast majority of cases, mass shootings are stopped when the perpetrator is shot, either by suicide or police. But we have almost no data on the possibility of concealed carry permit holders stopping mass shootings. This is not surprising. Mass shootings are extremely rare, concealed carry is rare in percentage terms (around 2% have a permit in Texas), and mass shootings almost exclusively occur in places where concealed carry is prohibited by statute or the property owner. On the other hand, in terms of raw numbers millions of permit holders rack up billions of man-hours carrying every year. Permit holders outnumber police 7 to 1 in Texas, for instance. It is unreasonable to expect that extension of concealed carry to schools will result in catastrophic movie shootouts when it has not done so anywhere else – including many college campuses. I would not suggest concealed carry in schools as a panacea in view of its lack of a track record and the small percentage who would actually do it, but I would also not suggest we automatically discount it.
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. We do have the example of Columbine, with a good guy with a gun, on the scene, in the school, exchanging fire with the shooters and…not preventing anything. Then there is this joke of a case of the Portland Mall shooting where apparently the presence of citizen with a concealed piece hiding behind cover made the shooter kill himself. And the cases Mother Jones cites where the armed citizen made things worse. Or how about the cops responding to a shooter at the empire state building and successfully stopped the shooting by shooting a bunch of civilians? The idea that your average schmuck is going to stand up to rapid fire from a lunatic with a semi-automatic is still just a fantasy, it’s hard for cops to respond to these incidents without shooting a handful of innocents. You’re not going to do it unless you’re a cop or ex-military, and even then, it’s questionable if you’ll do anything more than create a deadlier crossfire. Sorry, this strikes me as one of the stupidest arguments in the pro-gun portfolio. 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 McClane, he’s Walter Mitty.
The way to stop this problem is prevention, not escalation. If guns were the solution the country with the most guns wouldn’t be having this problem.