Gun Control Part II: My response to Matt Springer

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:

ATF trace data

More recent data (usually not cited by gun control advocates-likely since it shows more guns coming from NYC):
2011 trace data

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[1]. 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 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.


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Are you familiar with the details of the Fast and Furious operation? My understanding is that BATFE agents knew the guy was a straw buyer but were powerless to stop him. He was buying thousands of dollars of guns on a regular basis despite not having any source of income to justify the ability to do so. Agents ultimately screwed up by losing track of the guy, but that was only because they had to follow him non-stop in the hopes of catching him reselling to known criminals; the problem could have been resolved if they were able to stop him after his purchases.

Do you know if this is accurate? If so, a minor change in laws that gave BATFE power to stop the guy at purchase rather than resale could go a long way, because 100% of these guns are making their way to criminals. Obviously the NRA would complain that this gives "jack booted government thugs" license to stop any gun buyer they wanted to, but the law could be crafted to avoid this (ie. limit it to purchases of at least X amount of guns, a financial history for the buyer must have already been obtained and shown to a judge with the power to grant or deny a warrant to intervene, etc).

And for the sake of argument about armed citizens stopping mass shooters - if a mass shooting is defined as X number of people being harmed, isn't it possible that armed citizens have stopped several potential mass shootings before they got to the level of being classified as such, and therefore wouldn't show up in any data?

Additionally, if an armed citizen chooses to take on the risk of firing at a shooter, the shooter would likely fire back, not just continue to shoot randomly, which would give other bystanders an opportunity to flee. This obviously is nothing compared to being able to prevent the would-be shooter from getting weapons in the first place, but your total dismissal of the "good guy" scenario seems unjustified.

At any rate, thanks to you and Matt for this forum for rational discussion!

No, Newtown would not have been stopped by something as simple as a gun safe, even if Lanza's mother had kept the key on a chain around her neck. Her son would have killed her with a knife or club or his bare hands, then taken the key off her dead body. One of the reasons that some of us women believe in owning weapons for self-defense is that we know that without them we'd have no chance against a younger, larger, stronger male aggressor. (Of course, we don't normally expect that aggressor to be our own kid.)

"If you think the second restriction is too much, well, that’s kind of pathetic. I don’t think 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.."

Fair enough if you assume that the person's lived in town for a while and has a diverse social circle - though "pathetic" borders on a Ladenesque ad hom against those whom you anticipate disagreeing with you - but I put myself in the position of someone who's just moved to a dangerous big city, say, to work in a university department full of liberals. Your new colleagues are the only people you've had time to socialize with at all, and they don't like guns. They'll refuse to stand up for you for philosophical reasons, or because they claim to fear liability. And then maybe some of them will vote to deny you tenure because word has gotten around that you're an icky conservative. You know this is possible in some places. I don't like the idea that the exercise of a right should depend upon those around you having a favorable attitude toward that right; in that case, it becomes a very situation-dependent privilege.

Mark, I'm rather surprised that you have all the data and still demand a gesture (prohibiting assault rifles with large capacity magazines) that is meaningless in reducing the number of gun homicides by more than 5%. It also won't do anything in regards to the mass shootings, both the Newton and Aurora guys had pistols available, the Tuscon shooting didn't involve any rifles.
If you really want to have an effect on gun death, demand what's actually needed: Full accountability for handgun possession, no private sales without going through a dealer, need to keep guns locked away if they're not in use. Of course, that requires some heavy legislative lifting, gun registration and traceability is highly suspect to the right, and having to lock guns away might run afoul of the current interpretation of the 2nd amendment that emphasizes home defense.
And I really love your El Paso - Ciudad Juarez example. It clearly shows that it's government, not gun availability, that dominates homicide rates. Please explain than why rich NYC and Chicago fail so miserably where dirt poor El Paso works.

Not bad. It's a long and fairly comprehensive response, and it'll take me a few days to write up my own part 2. Some quick points on the Australia stuff:

Rather than being “unaffected” the rates were decidedly lower, however, the significance given the already low numbers of gun homicides is questionable.

Not quite. Firearm homicides possibly dropped - the effect is right on the edge of statistical insignificance - but homicides by arbitrary means did not change their overall trend, which was my point.

The IOM study found our homicide rate to be 6.9 times higher than the other OECD countries

The OECD vs. US comparison doesn't work well because the US is very much an outlier in many, many other respects. But even as it stands, this figure is no longer true. The study uses 2003 WHO data, and homicide in the US has fallen by about 20% in that period. Our rate is still much higher than the OECD average, but we've actually put quite a dent in it while generally loosening gun control laws.

By Matt Springer (not verified) on 18 Jan 2013 #permalink

Matt, from my linked paper:


In the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, and none in the 10.5 years afterwards. Declines in firearm-related deaths before the law reforms accelerated after the reforms for total firearm deaths (p = 0.04), firearm suicides (p = 0.007) and firearm homicides (p = 0.15), but not for the smallest category of unintentional firearm deaths, which increased. No evidence of substitution effect for suicides or homicides was observed. The rates per 100,000 of total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides all at least doubled their existing rates of decline after the revised gun laws.

Australia's 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides. Total homicide rates followed the same pattern. Removing large numbers of rapid-firing firearms from civilians may be an effective way of reducing mass shootings, firearm homicides and firearm suicides.

Mark, I’m rather surprised that you have all the data and still demand a gesture (prohibiting assault rifles with large capacity magazines) that is meaningless in reducing the number of gun homicides by more than 5%. It also won’t do anything in regards to the mass shootings, both the Newton and Aurora guys had pistols available, the Tuscon shooting didn’t involve any rifles.

Wow Mu. We only made it to comment 3 before someone said I'm "prohibiting" something. I suggest prohibition of nothing. No ban.

No ban, no ban, no ban. How many times do you have to write no ban in a commentary about gun control before they stop saying you are suggesting a ban?

As far as pistols, I would require the same scrutiny of all magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons, which would include pistols as well, such as those used by the Newton and VT shooters.

And I really love your El Paso – Ciudad Juarez example. It clearly shows that it’s government, not gun availability, that dominates homicide rates. Please explain than why rich NYC and Chicago fail so miserably where dirt poor El Paso works.

NYC does not fail miserably. Its gun violence is actually very low amongst most major cities, largely due to zero-tolerance possession rules combined with extremely aggressive (and controversial)Terry-pat use by police. It's murder rate is at it's lowest point in 50 years. And El Paso is in the US, which unlike Mexico, is not currently involved in an open armed conflict with drug cartels on the streets. A comparison of homicide rates between the two is not that different, at 5 per 10,000 in NYC versus 3 per 10,000 in El Paso.

No, Newtown would not have been stopped by something as simple as a gun safe, even if Lanza’s mother had kept the key on a chain around her neck. Her son would have killed her with a knife or club or his bare hands, then taken the key off her dead body. One of the reasons that some of us women believe in owning weapons for self-defense is that we know that without them we’d have no chance against a younger, larger, stronger male aggressor. (Of course, we don’t normally expect that aggressor to be our own kid.)

That's assuming a lot beyond a combination lock (which is pretty much all I've ever seen on full-size safes). For one, physical violence hand-to-hand is much more difficult, both in terms of the ability of the victim to defend themselves as well as for the attacker to actually commit the violence. It's also much more difficult to kill someone hand-to-hand. I've had patients who have literally been stabbed dozens of times, sitting up in bed, talking as they come in (and not between wimps either). I'd take knife violence over gun violence any day of the week. As far was women believing in owning weapons for self-defense, Newtown was an excellent example of how stupid this idea is on a numerical basis. Her guns were turned on her. And that is consistently what the data shows. The gun you bring into your home is far more likely to be used against you than against an aggressor, and usually by a family member. ref


After each homicide, we obtained data from the police or medical examiner and interviewed a proxy for the victim. The proxies' answers were compared with those of control subjects who were matched to the victims according to neighborhood, sex, race, and age range. Crude and adjusted odds ratios were calculated with matched-pairs methods.


During the study period, 1860 homicides occurred in the three counties, 444 of them (23.9 percent) in the home of the victim. After excluding 24 cases for various reasons, we interviewed proxy respondents for 93 percent of the victims. Controls were identified for 99 percent of these, yielding 388 matched pairs. As compared with the controls, the victims more often lived alone or rented their residence. Also, case households more commonly contained an illicit-drug user, a person with prior arrests, or someone who had been hit or hurt in a fight in the home. After controlling for these characteristics, we found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide (adjusted odds ratio, 2.7; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.6 to 4.4). Virtually all of this risk involved homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.


The use of illicit drugs and a history of physical fights in the home are important risk factors for homicide in the home. Rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.

Risk assessment fail.

Statistics fail. Such a study cannot possibly account for all confounding factors. Just as a for-example, NBC last night claimed that 30% of urban households own guns vs. 61% of rural households; there's a similarly large split between Republicans vs. Democrats. I don't suggest that being rural or Republican makes you more likely to attack a family member, but that people who own guns have, on average, multiple cultural differences from those who don't, and there's no possible way to identify and correct for all of those. And this is a study from only three counties; because it comes up with an anti-gun conclusion, it does not automatically outweigh much larger studies that show lower rates of violence in parts of the U.S. that have more guns.

Also, the assertion that the average experience of the whole population from these three counties is applicable to every individual in those counties, much less the U.S., would be ludicrous. If you live in a safe neighborhood with an abusive husband, certainly, you're better off not owning a gun. If you leave the abuser (possibly provoking him to stalk you) and start working in a dangerous neighborhood, you might be a lot better off having one. If you live in a safe town with a loving, well-behaved family, you can get a gun to hunt and target shoot if you want, or not get one if you find them scary, and it's extremely unlikely that either decision will cost you your life. (People who kill family members usually do so after years of abuse. The presence of a gun is not going to magically make a spouse who has never raised a hand to you turn violent. Human nature does not work that way.)

Mark, I still don't understand why you are so dismissive of the "no problem" argument. It is a very reasonable one I think. Perhaps we should call it a "problem government should not address" argument because we both agree children dying in a mass shooting is profoundly problematic for all involved. Indeed, calling it problematic is a gross understatement for those involved and does not even begin to describe the horror and anguish they feel. But is it sufficiently problematic for the rest of society to justify legislation at the federal level? As cruel as it may sound, I don't think so. Government conducts its business with a finite set of resources. Those being people, time and money (if you ignore quantitative easing). With finite resources, their goal should be to evaluate and conduct business that is beneficial to the majority of citizens, wouldn't you agree? In fact, one of the six goals of the constitution is to "Promote the GENERAL welfare" of the nation, not enact sweeping legislation that curtails existing rights in the hope that it may prevent a very small number of deaths each year.

Let me employ a bit of historical fantasy that may help illustrate my point. Let's suppose this past summer SCOTUS had a choice forced by their very busy schedule. Lets suppose they could either hear and decide on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act or they could hear and decide on the constitutionality of the exact legislation you proposed in your earlier post (laws that would help prevent mass shootings). Granted, the Affordable Care Act if upheld would only contribute to accessible healthcare for the types of people you mentioned above; those who have household falls, eat too much bacon, or were exposed to second-hand smoke. However, lets make the reasonable assumption that deciding in favor of the Affordable Care Act would help save thousands of lives otherwise lost to the causes above. Lets also make the less reasonable assumption that deciding in favor of your proposed gun legislation would prevent ALL mass shootings. Every single one. Are you honestly going to tell me you would still prefer the court heard the issue of mass shooting legislation instead of the Affordable Care Act?

Again, this is historical fantasy but hopefully you can see my point. What other things should our government be doing? It is a perfectly legitimate argument in my mind.

Sorry for misreading I favor a ban on large-capacity magazines as a ban on the weapons that use them. My mistake.
My proposal would be an annual national gun buyers card. Allow everyone to get a background check once and an ID, and that bypasses the need for the "I have to phone this in" wait. Make it also required for person-to-person/gunshow sales, just sign a "this is my number and I still fulfill all the conditions" form. Leave the option of filling a form and calling it in for the "I don't trust the government" crowd, but give the wast majority an easy way to comply while closing the loopholes. And make straw purchasers automatically liable under felony murder laws. If you're risking life without parole if anyone shoots someone with the gun you helped him to get, that might give people pause.

Total homicide rates followed the same pattern.

I don't think their data supports this at all. For there to be any causal effect, they would have to believe that gun laws somehow accounted for the sharp decrease in non-gun homicides that occurred at the same time and was in fact much stronger in size. Here's the graphs straight from their paper.:

They're a legitimate example as to the possibility of gun control reducing mass shootings, at least under the specific Australian set of circumstances. They're not a good example of gun control reducing crime - even gun crime - generally.

I have two family members that seem to be past the "no-harm", and into the, "wouldn't have an effect", category. Their argument: In spite of the fact that no current "home" model of a 3D printer can make a decent gun, even the $100,000+ versions that exist won't make one that lasts more than a few shots, most of the critical parts are **not** producible, for the same reason that the resulting gun won't fire more than a few times *and* the simple fact that its highly unlikely that we will *ever* see a full scale, commercial level, 3D printer in someone's house, never mind some way to print metals, etc., which can handle the stresses and temperature variations involved, it would be, in their minds, useless to limit/control, or even ban, any sort of guns, because, "Eventually people will just print the things anyway."

Sure, just like we will all have hover boards, teleport to and from work, and any number of other things that actually defy physics (Yeah, I will go that far in assuming that its unlikely that guns, unless we somehow invent some tech for them, which doesn't involve current ammunition types, and the thermal/stress characteristics involved, are going to be "mass printed" by people in their houses...)

But, yeah, think maybe we need more cards in the deck, or something, because there seems to be two principles missing from the list:

1. Its not happening some place else, so it can't be happening here.
2. It is happening some place else, therefor, it must be happening here.

Which one gets used is entirely based on which argument is being made, and, more often than not, its not even an accurate comparison, due to, as you point out, a whole long list of secondary (and sometimes even primary) factors, which render such comparisons useless.

...can't make a decent gun... though, I am sure you can work that out. lol

Your article is ok. I don't agree with some of it, but hay, nobody's perfect. I think that your discounting the fact that people use guns everyday to stop a crime from occurring. This is a fact, not made up. How do we rank against other industrialized nations? Also, i would like to add that a smart mechanism would be good. My only bequest's then would be, 1. No tracking and 2 . Fully automatic weapons should be allowed for purchase with the smart feature could be owned privately. Have a great day.


I'll be honest and say that about halfway through your article I just skipped to the end; sorry, it's very wordy. I did want to specifically address your suggestion to specifically ban assault rifles because they're especially effective in mass killings.

I don't mean to make light of mass killings, but while the tactical rifle seems like a symbolic weapon of mass murderers, I expect that we could find (if I knew where to look for such information) that far more tactical rifles have been used in self- and home-defense than have been used in mass killings. Mass killings themselves, while highly visible due to their shock value and sensationalism, aren't everyday occurrences.

What I would like you to consider is that when two or three (or more) bad guys break into your house in a home invasion, as mob looters/rioters, or as an gang attack, the absolute best weapon to defend your family with is a tactical rifle. It is much easier to control and aim accurately at multiple targets, it is more likely to cause crippling injuries than a handgun, and it has enough ammunition in its (standard 30 round) magazine to ensure you won't have to stop to reload during the first, critical seconds of the encounter.

Let me also take a moment to talk about larger magazine sizes. The reason I'm hesitant to agree with restricting magazine sizes is that a single motivated attacker can simply keep coming right through 10 rounds of handgun fire unless they are hit in either a) the brain stem, or b) the brain. Those are very difficult shots to make in combat, and any other shot is unlikely to actually disable an attacker right away. Even destroying the heart leaves enough oxygen in the brain for 10-15 more seconds of function; in most cases, the attacker may die down the line (5+ minutes later) from blood loss or shock, but it won't matter to you if they've done their violence on you in the meantime. Because it generally takes so many bullets to actually stop a determined attacker, I really wouldn't want to have a 10 round magazine limit, especially in the aforemention scenarios where you have to defend yourself against multiple attackers.

Anyways, back to my original point, I expect that situations in which a tactical rifle is used for legitimate self-defense occur far more often in our society than its use in mass killings. The root of my argument and where I expect we differ in opinion: I believe that it's just as important (if not more so) for a prepared citizen to be allowed the tools they need to be able to defend themselves against these violent crimes as it is to try to ban legal access to those tools to try to prevent them from being used in mass killings.

I did want to specifically address your suggestion to specifically ban assault rifles because they’re especially effective in mass killings.

Hmm, this is why you might want to read before commenting. At no point did I suggest an assault weapons ban.

How many times is this going to happen? I am not suggesting bans people. No more comments about gun bans, please.

What I would like you to consider is that when two or three (or more) bad guys break into your house in a home invasion, as mob looters/rioters, or as an gang attack, the absolute best weapon to defend your family with is a tactical rifle. It is much easier to control and aim accurately at multiple targets, it is more likely to cause crippling injuries than a handgun, and it has enough ammunition in its (standard 30 round) magazine to ensure you won’t have to stop to reload during the first, critical seconds of the encounter.

Another Walter Mitty heard from. When do things like this happen? Also, as your neighbor, I don't feel any safer thinking that to defend a home someone is going to start laying about with a semiautomatic with 30 round clip full of .223 or 7.62 ammo. I live in a row house, in a dense population. The idea of these weapons being used for home defense is freaking terrifying, and that people like you exist that actually suggest that these rifles are appropriate for home defense just shows how blighted we are with poor judgement in this country.

The pro-gun crowd generally loves the Founding Fathers. But how the former must hate that pesky comment the Founders made about the need for a "well-regulated militia". The gun people want absolutely no regulation at all, and that's pretty musch just what we have given them. A gun owner leaves his weapons where others can get at them, innocenty people are killed as a result, and the gun owner never seems to face judicial consequences. A little while back, in the San Diego area, a young kid gets hold of a loaded weapon aned kills a playmate. The DA declines to being charges against anyone, saying "It was an accident",which seems to excuse everything. It's ok that the owner of the gun didn't secure his weapon against misuse. No charges, no trial, no prison time. This kind of event is repeated across the country, before and after that event. So when it comes to gun ownership, we have "rights" with no duty to be responsible attached to such ownership.

By Robert Fox (not verified) on 19 Jan 2013 #permalink

Mark, I think your culture is showing. High-powered rifles are totally inappropriate for home defense for someone who lives in a row house. They might be wholly appropriate for someone who lives in an isolated farmhouse - and do double duty for hunting as well as defending yourself or livestock from animals such as dog packs. Though rural areas see fewer home invasions by gangs, it does happen. A woman in Oklahoma or Kansas, IIRC, saved herself and her baby last year by shooting one of a pair who broke in with the intention of raping and murdering her. She called the police, but they had not yet arrived after the would-be killers spent a full twenty minutes breaking down the door. She used a handgun, but in such a remote place, a rifle would have been as good or better. John in Ohio, like many gun owners, may be a ruralite who automatically envisions that as the default condition, whereas you may envision every potential crime victim as living in a densely populated area. You see the same sort of cultural assumptions in people who hold fanatical views about private cars or public transportation, pro or con - people in rural Wyoming who claim public transport is inherently inefficient and expensive, people in New York apartments who don't see why those ranchers can't just take the subway to the grocery store.

let me go extreme on you.i think we should stop the manufacture and distribution of all firearms military,and civilian everywhere in the world.everywhere in the world guns have appeared in history they contributed to death,destruction of every kind.You can keep your damn guns,and babble on about all the magic things they do for wont run out of bullets after they stop distributing them,because you probably didn't really need them all that bad in the first place. i know it wont stop violence,but it will make it a lot harder to commit

By richard benton (not verified) on 20 Jan 2013 #permalink

Sorry for the delay in reply, I have several deadlines this week.

Mark, I think your culture is showing. High-powered rifles are totally inappropriate for home defense for someone who lives in a row house. They might be wholly appropriate for someone who lives in an isolated farmhouse – and do double duty for hunting as well as defending yourself or livestock from animals such as dog packs.

80% of Americans live in urban or suburban areas for which such use, or possession with intent to use as a defense weapon, is impractical, dangerous, and a threat to everyone in your community. Such weapons simply should not be allowed in city limits, or legally fired anywhere remotely residential. You will kill your target, sure, but also your neighbor. As such, they are simply impractical for home defense in the area in which 80% of us live. Whose culture should we be more cognizant of? The minority which live in areas in which the nearest house is a mile away? Or the overwhelming majority of us who can throw a ball and hit a neighbor's house?

And I forgot to address this:

Statistics fail. Such a study cannot possibly account for all confounding factors. Just as a for-example, NBC last night claimed that 30% of urban households own guns vs. 61% of rural households; there’s a similarly large split between Republicans vs. Democrats. I don’t suggest that being rural or Republican makes you more likely to attack a family member, but that people who own guns have, on average, multiple cultural differences from those who don’t, and there’s no possible way to identify and correct for all of those.

Jane try instead to read the paper cited, it was actually quite carefully controlled and showed that gun ownership was an independent risk factor. It was even independent of violence in the home which the investigators specifically addressed. This is also consistent with the overwhelming majority of papers in the literature which have shown the exact same thing.

Try for example this national study showing the same thing, or this one showing it ownership increasing risk of death from suicide, or especially risk for adolescent suicide. Here is a good free review of the literature.

I do not use this argument as one for gun control. After all, we all do things that make us less safe, and that's our right. We eat bad food, we smoke cigarettes, we SCUBA dive, whatever. But, there is simply no evidence to suggest guns make you safer. There is an extensive literature on this, and the risk assessment comes down against gun ownership, period.

Now every gun owner responds that surely such things don't apply to them. They're perfect, and safe, and immune from accidents. Statistics and risk assessment don't apply to them. Whatever. Do whatever you have to do to protect your ego from the fact you are doing something that makes your family less safe.

But this argument is why I continue to mock the gun advocates for acting like Walter Mitty. This idea the gun in your home makes you safer is a fantasy. It is in stark contradiction to the scientific literature which shows that a gun in the home is an independent risk factor for homicide and suicide. That for every time a gun is used to protect a home, far more will be killed in the home by accident, by a loved one, in a suicide, or other tragic circumstance. Here's a relevant paragraph from that review:

Various studies have examined who typically gets shot by a gun in the home. A study in King County, Washington (which includes Seattle) examined gun deaths occurring at home from 1978 to 1983 (N = 398). There were 9 total self-protection homicides (only 2 of intruders). For every self-defense homicide involving a firearm kept in the home, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides, and 37 firearm suicides.[98]

A more complete study examined all gunshot injuries (nonfatal as well as fatal) in the home occurring in Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; and Galveston, Texas (1992–1994) in which the gun involved was known to be kept in the home. Home guns were 4 times more likely to be involved in an accident, 7 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault or homicide, and 11 times more likely to be used in an attempted or completed suicide than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.[99]

A study of all gunshot injuries in Galveston, Texas, over a 3-year period found only 2 that were related to residential burglary or robbery. In one, the homeowner was shot and killed by a burglar; in the other, the homeowner shot the burglar. During the same interval, guns in the home were involved in the death and injury of more than 100 residents, family members, friends, or acquaintances.[100]

Risk assessment fail.

It's not the end of the world though Jane. I'm not using gun safety as a reason to ban guns, I'm not even suggesting a gun ban. I don't think it's the role of government to keep us safe from ourselves. But it is the role of government to keep me safe from others with the kind of bad judgement that they think military equipment is the best possible tool for home defense. I mean really? I hope that guy lives in a different time zone from me.

This is why access to such weapons should require training, safe storage, and higher scrutiny of potential purchasers. Part of that "well-regulated" language would come in handy here. I'm way more afraid of some low-IQ dumbass trying to "protect themselves" with one of these weapons than I am of some imaginary tyrant or home invader, and the data supports me.

"Whose culture should we be more cognizant of?" Why, that of everyone who makes up a significant fraction of the electorate, if you want to get anything done. Presiden Obama recently noted that gun-control advocates had to "listen more" to rural gun owners to whom hunting is important. This is not just because he is more tolerant and less of a jerk than most Americans, but because he recognizes that people in an alleged democracy who are told that they are only good enough to listen and obey get angry. (By the way, you suggest above that because rifles should not be used for self-defense in crowded areas, something every informed urban gun owner already knows, they should not be "allowed in city limits." Please be aware that many hunters live within city limits and hunt outside them.)

I am not going to bother to "try to" read the paper in question, because it cannot possibly control for all relevant factors. Here's one often concealed point: Studies purporting to show that gun owners are more likely to be murdered with guns count shootings with guns other than the one(s) kept in the home. In other words, some people own guns because they correctly feel that they are at high risk of being attacked; the fact that the gun doesn't magically save them all from harm doesn't mean that it magically draws in the people who harm them either. And of course, a few of them may own guns because they are thuggish types, and some of their deaths may actually have been justifiable shootings. For crime, there are statistics to throw around on either side, and I will not apologize for preferring state-by-state data to data from three counties.

As for suicide, I don't doubt that those who own guns are much more likely to kill themselves *by shooting*. However, international studies forbid us to conclude that weapons ownership is a major determining factor in total suicide rates. Also, while everyone living in a given place may be at a similar risk of crime, we are not all at equal risk of suicide. My spouse's and my values permit suicide in certain circumstances - which I feel is our inalienable right and not your business to try to prevent - and I can say with virtually 100% certainty that neither of us will suddenly decide to kill ourselves if none of those circumstances have become applicable. Therefore, boohooing about how I'm endangering my family is not going to be, for me, a very convincing argument from emotion. (Oh yes, it's not impossible that one of us would someday suddenly develop late-in-life severe depression not inspired by health problems, in which case the other one might hide the guns. Getting rid of all potentially dangerous property now in case a family member should someday develop a mental illness would be like installing a wheelchair ramp in case one of us should suffer a paralyzing illness or injury.)