The Authoritarian Reseponse (More Gun Control?)

NOTE added 04/17: from the response I've seen, and from the all-out assault Chad directed at me and others, it's clear to me that I made some mistakes in my original post, undermining what was my main by inadvertently pushing a hot button or two. I leave this post here in the interest of honesty, but please read the updated version of this post instead of this one!

It's terrible and tragic news, what has happened at Virginia Tech. Given that, this entry is probably coming at an extremely insensitive time, given what I'm going to say-- but on the other hand, I really believe that it is at times like this that we need to think about these things. Before I say any more, I just want to make it clear that I'm horrified by what has happened, and that my heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims.

I'm down in Chile observing at the moment. I woke up to get lunch. The TV is always running here, even if nobody is watching. (It kind of drives me nuts.) Well, today, the news is awful: at least 21 people killed in a shooting rampage in a college in Virginia.

Another astronomer, not an American, watching, says, "They need gun control."

Isn't that always the response? There's a horrible tragedy with guns, and our first instinct is to further restrict the legality of guns. Now, I know that most of the science bloggers here are firmly in favor of gun control, and indeed that most of the world thinks America is nutty in terms of how legal guns are already. But I think that this "we need more gun control!" that is cried whenever there is a highly publicized gun tragedy is part of a larger, and dangerous, pattern.

Something bad happens. It horrifies us. It scares us. We want to feel protected, we want to feel that others are safe and protected. We go to what is practically a feudal response: put the government, put our feudal masters, in more control over us, so that people can't go and do terrible things like that. When we think of feudalism, we generally think of the oppression of the serfs, and the fact that a very few (the lords) benefited from the labors of many (the serfs). But we must also remember that part of the theory behind feudalism was that fealty went both ways; the serfs worked for the lords, but then the lords had a responsibility to protect the serfs. As we turn more and more to government or large corporate entities to look out for our interests, to protect us, we are asking them more and more to act as feudal lords. And, in so doing, we must keep in mind the oppression that the serfs suffered.

I can tell already that I've lost 90% of the readers; "he's talking about oppression because we think that dangerous weapons should be controlled!" Please, bear with me.

Let's take this Virginia Tech incident, and look at two other incidents, one much less immediately severe and life threatening, and one much more so. The one that is less so: copyright infringement. How many people instinctively react to the news of vast copyright infringement with the thought that, well, computers should be able to control that? Many of us. Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) is a terrible thing that not only causes awful collateral damage for freedom of expression, but which also doesn't even solve the problem it's supposed to solve. And, yet, to many, it seems obvious that there really needs to be some sort of strict controls on copyrighted digital files to prevent people from copying them willy-nilly.

A similar thing: I was sitting around at lunch with a bunch of family and friends. We were mostly academics; college professors, high school teachers, graduate students, and the like. We were talking about standardized tests, how they take passages from various writings and literature, but how those passages are often "sanitized" to avoid having anything controversial or potentially offensive. While we're all good forward-thinking people eager to show that we're against any kind of offensive hate-speech and the like, we're also academics acutely aware of the need for freedom of expression, and of the dangers inherent in changing and misrepresenting an author's work. It's a difficult balance-- but by and large, we were the sort of people who are horrified at the thought of banning Huckleberry Finn from high school libraries because one of the main characters is usually referred to as "Nigger Jim." We're more horrified by the thought of replacing all of Twain's work with a "sanitized" version.

So. We're talking about these standardized tests where authors' works have been sanitized. One person says, "that should be illegal. If I were to write something, I should be able to prevent anybody from doing that to my writing." Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? But let's bear in mind that freedom of expression includes other people being able to say things that we think that they ought not to be able to say. If we disallow people using our words in ways that we'd prefer they didn't, then others could use the same laws to disallow us from using their words in ways that we consider essential. What happens when creationists use copyright to prevent their being quoted by people who would tear apart their arguments?

This is all part of the authoritarian response. We see somebody doing something we don't like, something we don't approve of, and our instinctive gut reaction is that we need more laws, more restrictions on freedom, to prevent that. I would argue that we need to fight that instinctive response, as understandable and natural as it is, and keep a broader view.

Now, for those of you insulted that I've compared the tragedy in Virginia to copyright violation, let me go in the other direction. Consider 9/11. Thousands of people are killed in one horrible morning, as terrorists wreak havoc in downtown New York. The country, the world, is shocked, dismayed, saddened, horrified. Just as with the Virginia shootings, just as with people's life writings being misused, there is a call to Do Something.

So what do we do? We pass the PATRIOT act. Congress pushes through, very quickly, this massive piece of legislation, voted for by the majority of representatives even though most of them didn't know everything that was in there, and even though in a time of calmer emotions and cooler heads a lot of the provisions of that act would have been the subject of a lot of controversy and debate . The PATRIOT act represents a huge increase in the power of the executive branch, law enforcement, and the authorities in general. Years later, we're seeing a lot of the fallout from that. It's constant scandal in the FBI and in the attorney general's office because they are doing the things that the PATRIOT act allowed. For example, the whole thing with "national security letters." They were abused? Surprise? If that provision of the PATRIOT act had been debated in congress at a time when debating such would not be considered anti-American and giving into the horror of the terrorists, there would have been a lot of noise about this. People would have predicted the abuse, because when there is no oversight, when the fear of being labeled a terrorist yourself prevents you from revealing that these national security letters are being used against you, you just give into the authorities.

Right after 9/11 was the worst time to pass that act. Everybody was scared. Everybody was horrified. Everybody wanted to Do Something, so that this would never happen again.

If we want to live in a free society, we need to fight the instinctive authoritarian response. When you see the Virginia shootings and think, "we need more gun control," unless that's confirming what you already thought, sit back and pause for a while. Wait until emotions and the horror of the moment has passed, and then consider the issue. If you already are in favor of more gun control, then this merely serves to help confirm your position, and you should feel free to use this as part of your arguments; for those who are on the fence, or who perhaps use this event as a reason to switch your position, please be more considerate. Ask yourself if you really are changing your thinking, or if this is just the instinctive authoritarian response, the response of anybody who wants a feudal lord, a government, to protect them.

Regarding gun control itself: I don't know enough to argue in favor of or against gun control. If Chris Taylor is still reading this blog, you may see him make some arguments in the comments in favor of keeping gun ownership legal. I would just mention one thing however. First, according to CDC statistics, in 2004 the number of people who died in automobile accidents was about 44,000. The number of people who died from gun homicide was about 11,000. Four times as many people died from cars than from guns. If we're talking about further restriction of private gun ownership because of the mayhem it causes, shouldn't we also be talking about further restriction of private automobile ownership? But, to keep all of this in perspective, an order of magnitude more people died of heart disease. Perhaps it's red meat that should be outlawed? Given those statistics, I think that that would be the proper authoritarian response. Of course, the hundreds of thousands of people who die of heart disease don't die all at once, and don't get the kind of media coverage that violent tragedies get, and as such our instinctive authoritarian response does not kick in. It would be best if we would take everything into account, rationally think about what laws are needed and are best, without any emotional and rapid response to a single tragedy.


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You couldn't be more right, but you know people are going to be angry about this. The authoritarian response is bad, but to a certain extent it's the responsibility of the voters in this country to put people into office who are worthy of acting with authority.

The problem isn't that we passed the Patriot act, it's that we had the kind of people in power who would use a moment of crisis to a relatively sick advantage. On the other end of the spectrum, it was entirely possible that legislation could have been passed (equally easily, for the same reason) that would have escalated substantive international collaboration in the fight against terrorism. Would we lament that act in the same way, because of the circumstances in which it passed through Congress?

To begin with what you ended with, those statistics (four times as many automobile deaths as gun-related deaths) are somewhat misleading, seeing as how there are many more car owners than gun owners; I would be interested in seeing the per capita (of owners) statistic.

As far as guns themselves go, it's the classic prisoners' dilemma: I feel safer if I have a gun, you feel safer if you have a gun, but we're both less safe if we both have guns than if neither of us do. This is why getting together and agreeing to not have guns (i.e., through a government) is a good idea. The same holds, for example, with SUVs: big car v. little car, big car wins, but if we all have big cars, we're no more safe than if we all have little cars, but in the meantime, we've gone and made the environment worse.

But then, today's tragedy is yet another data point confirming what I already believed. I also don't think today's events will lead to stronger gun laws, but then, I'm a cynic; we didn't see particularly stronger gun laws as a result of Columbine, either, and there were a lot of people expecting it then.

The "automobiles vs. guns" argument seems thoroughly bogus to me. Cars are used on a daily basis by the vast majority of adults in this country, while most of the same adults probably don't even own a gun. If one instead produced a ratio between non-deadly and deadly uses of both items, the automobile would come out way ahead.

Brian -- we wouldn't have lamented that.

Not everything that's done in a kneejerk reaction way is bad. However, it's still a hazardous way to do things. Perhaps some of our kneejerk reactions turn out to be the right thing to do, but I'd rather we consider it and think about it and figure out that it's the right thing to do than we just react.


To begin with what you ended with, those statistics (four times as many automobile deaths as gun-related deaths) are somewhat misleading, seeing as how there are many more car owners than gun owners; I would be interested in seeing the per capita (of owners) statistic.

Per capita almost certainly guns would come out more dangerous -- but one could also argue that that is a misleading way to spin the statistics. One might say that cars are a bigger problem becuase everybody has one.

Re: the safety thing and prisoners' dilemma, I can think of one counterargument, but I know you won't be convinced. It is this: suppose that everybody at Virginia tech had been armed. In that case, it is likely that the shooters would have been killed themselves before they could have racked up the body count that they did. Now, obviously this also isn't a real solution, because every drunken frat party would involve shootings -- but the "if nobody has guns so we're safer" argument generally presupposes that nobody is really nobody, and we need to keep that in mind.

But, beyond that, there's more to it than just safety. You might argue that safety trumps other things here, but one should argue that, not just assume that safety is the only thing under consideration. If it were, then there are all sorts of things allowed under the First Amendment of the constitution that we simply shouldn't tolerate. How much individual freedom are we willing to give up in the name of safety? Obviously some; there's some Hobbes and/or Locke thing about that. In order to live in a civliized socity, we have to agree to some common standards of behavior, some invidual restrictions in order to be able to co-exist with some modicum of sanity. But mere saftey, mere health, isn't the be all and end all. Indeed, I wouldn't even say that it is the primary consideration. Freedom, to my mind, liberty, should be the primary consideration. We should only give up freedom, we should only subject ourselves to restrictions and regulations, where it is necessary for safety, where it is necessary for the sort of society we want to live in. And, when we are so doing, we should admit that that's what we're doing. Copyright, for example: instead of calling it a "right," we should recognize that it is a giving up of some freedom of speech that we agree to because we want to reap some of the benefits it should provide.

I see gun control the same way. No, nobody "needs" a gun, but there's lots of legal stuff that nobody "needs." We have to decide how much we want or need to give up in terms of individual empowerment in order to build the society we need-- admitting that it's sacrifice, and making sure that the sacrifice is working and worth it.

(I always think that these sorts of arguments ought to be able to get the NRA types to become huge proponents of limiting copyright....)


When these kinds of things happen, people look for solutions. Oftentimes, the solution is worse than the problem, or ineffectual. I remember reading recently about Britain thinking about banning knives with pointy ends, and I thought, can't people accept that bad things are going to happen sometimes? Read Bruce Shneier's blog, and you'll see that these kind of events provoke 'solutions' which waste huge amounts of money, time, and freedom.

I used to be a regular reader of Schneier; I should probably get back to it. I really like his take on security; it's more rational than most of what you read. Most of what you read is clearly marketing-driven and designed to appeal to what sounds instinctively right, not what really makes rational sense.

I can't help but think of Schneier every time I go through the madness that is airline security in the USA right now. The War on Liquids has reached the stage where parody would be redundant.


Rob, are you sure it's better to be rational than emotional, or to be both in an integrated way? Are you sure you can tell the difference? Notice how much you leave the issue of gun control to talk about cars or freedom vs. authoritarianism. How rational is that? It strikes me as irrational sophistry to compare the rates of deaths from guns to the rates of deaths from cars. Would you say that no physician can treat a patient for one potentially lethal disease without treating that patient for every possibly lethal disease? Doesn't it matter that something like cigarette smoking has little benefit, while life itself is quite vital, even through every day of life brings us a day closer to death? The rate of death from living is 100%. Talk about apples and oranges.

Is it rational to value freedom over all else? Bertrand Russell reasoned his way to writing that benevolence and knowledge are the ultimate good things. He would have written these as "love" and "truth", but he wanted to emphasize that it is an active love and practical truth that he considered to be the ultimate good. He also emphasized the need for these to be combined, as either alone can go bad. Love makes for some freedom, but not absolute freedom. I wonder how many libertarians understand that.

We never have had widespread gun control in the US. I think it would be a valuable experiment, but lots of people can reason through their opposition to that. Are those good reasons or bad reasons? I suppose the reality of human nature is such that few people will get past their prejudices to decide that rationally, even if they claim to be rational. I can live with that, despite that I'll never own a gun.

Seriously, you Americans are nuts. The key difference between cars and guns is that cars have a legal purpose. Cars perform a necessary function. Guns, when used, are often used for an illegal purpose. Guns don't perform a necessary function.

Your country glorifies guns and, as a result, you people shoot each other more than any other western country. Its not only the fact that you have guns freely available but you also have a sick culture that worships these death machines.

This arguments usually get cast as guns versus no-guns, i.e. a binary argument. I think a better way to look at this is how much firepower is it reasonable to allow an individual to have. Back when the 2nd amendment was written you had muzzle loaded black-powder guns, basically a single shot, then roughtly a minute reloading time. With that sort of technology a crazy person with a gun is unlikely to be able to create mass casualties before being stopped -a crowd doesn't need a gun to stop someone with a (known to be) unloaded rifle. Technology has advanced by several orders of magnitude, and that means that we need to occasionally re-examine things. Clearly we have placed some sorts of limits, we don't allow individuals to carry mortars, or cannons, so some sort of limit as to how much lead can be sprayed in a short period of time only makes sense.

I suggest that much of this avoids what must be a key root cause - the American attitude toward and use of guns compared to the other "western industrialized nations" (which are probably the most worthwhile comparisons). You can compare gun deaths to car accidents, to knifings, or to anything you want. However, if you extend the comparison to include some of those other countries, I suggest that you'll be horrified.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

I've got a response up here where I agree with some - but not all - of what Rob says.

It is probably a crime to carry a firearm onto the VT campus already. So yeah it would be foolish to call for more gun control.

By Herb West (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

The key difference between cars and guns is that cars have a legal purpose.

So do guns. Again, I'm hoping Chris Taylor pokes his head in here, but he does a lot of competition shooting. That's entirely legal, nobody dies, and it's a sporting event. You're not an American, so you probably think it's barbaric and all of that, but what about Archery? What about that damn bull-running stuff they do in Spain? That seems awfully barbaric to me as an American.

Should bowling balls be outlawed? They're ungainly, and nobody needs them to go to work. And their legal purpose is no more necessary to society than the legal purpose of guns; less so, because law enforcement by and large doesn't need bowling balls to be able to do their jobs.

I reject the "nobody needs a gun" argument outright. It has an appeal, yes, but if you think about it a bit it falls flat on our face. There are a lot of things we are allowed to have that we don't need to have. Some of them we are able to perform mayhem with. Something need not have a "legitimate, society building" purpose merely to justify it's not being outlawed.

The US has more violent gun deaths than any other westerized country, sure, I'll believe that's true. But I'd like to see some hard data to assert that the US has more violent deaths per capita than any other westernized country. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the case-- in fact, I suspect it is-- but the mere fact that more people die by guns isn't necessarily meaningful; what's meaningful is how much violent death you have.


Re: the safety thing and prisoners' dilemma, I can think of one counterargument, but I know you won't be convinced. It is this: suppose that everybody at Virginia tech had been armed. In that case, it is likely that the shooters would have been killed themselves before they could have racked up the body count that they did. Now, obviously this also isn't a real solution, because every drunken frat party would involve shootings -- but the "if nobody has guns so we're safer" argument generally presupposes that nobody is really nobody, and we need to keep that in mind.

As you pointed out, just about every drunken frat party would involve shootings, but there's also another side to it. What happens when a shot is fired in a classroom of 30 people and 10 of them draw firearms reflexively and look around to see where the first shot came from?

If I honestly believed that there would be a net decrease in carnage as a result of arming everybody, I'd be all for it. In fact, if there was no change in the death toll, I'd be for it because it increases freedom. I just don't see any data that supports the conclusion, and I can think of a lot of thought experiments with pretty ugly results.

By Troublesome Frog (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Americans debating gun control need to look outside their country to see how the rest of the world works.

I live in a country where guns are restricted and registered, concealment is illegal, penalties for guns are severe.

We still have school shootings.

Nobody shoots back.

What happens when a shot is fired in a classroom of 30 people and 10 of them draw firearms reflexively and look around to see where the first shot came from?

Hell with that; what about when I post the results of the last exam? I bet firearms get reflexively drawn then too.... :)


we need gun control to reduce unnecessary violence. we will all have to fight or stand and defend ourselves personally. isn't that what survival of the fittest is all about? incorporating weaponry is a cowardice act.

(I always think that these sorts of arguments ought to be able to get the NRA types to become huge proponents of limiting copyright....)

And you'd be wrong, becaue the NRA does not believe in civil rights. They believe in exactly one civil right.
As an aside, I've never bought the argument that guns preserve liberty, because if they did, then gun owners would be the first ones challenging the various abuses of civil liberties that have taken place over the years. It's an interesting thought experiment to consider what would have happened if Japanese-Americans during WW2 had been armed, and tried to defend themselves against the government that was attempting to lock them up without charge.
I don't think guns are the problem in the US. Anyone who's seen Bowling for Columbine will note how eloquently that point was made: Plenty of countries have guns, but most of them don't have the gun violence that the US does. It's not the mere presence or availability of guns.
The problem is the culture surrounding guns. And that won't be fixed by legislation.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

I regularly take my my .22 Ruger pistol (inherited from my father and grandfather) out to shoot up paper targets. Several of my relatives hunt and I relish a bit of venison whenever I can mooch some. The NRA are a bunch of lunatics and most folks with concealed carry permits are scared of phantoms. I'm not prepared to call the folks that share silly fears that they believe the can protect themselves from a "culture". The "gun culture" like creationists, neo-confederates and supply side economists need to laughed out of public discourse.

As an Australian, I do wonder whether the 'gun-culture' advocates in the US are actually civilised. If their idea of freedom is that 'government is not to be trusted but armed citizens are' I do wonder whether the social fabric can afford this style of freedom. I think the NRA are a threat to civilisation.
As regards the 'auto-deaths' argument, this is wholly specious - almost everyone travels in cars, and almost everyone needs to. Certainly they should be safer but they are not actually made to kill.

Certainly they should be safer but they are not actually made to kill.

Wouldn't you feel safer if everybody were forced to use public transportation -- assuming we had adequate public transportation -- and if all of the bad drivers out there no longer had access to cars?

In an unbelievably tragic coincidence -- I have spent this last weekend researching the topic of gun control for a speech that I have to give tomorrow for a college communications class.

I chose to look at gun control from an international point of view as it relates to some of the most horrific genocidal events in history -- Holocaust -- Cambodia (Khmer Rouge) -- Bosnia -- Darfur. What I found about these events left me numb and very mad as well as glad that I live in the US where private gun ownership is permitted so that I can have a chance to protect my family.

One thing I found out is that the United Nations is trying to push for the restriction of private ownership of weapons.
What troubles me about this is the fact that while the UN has been DEBATING what they should do in Darfur 400,000 people have died and over 2 million have been displaced. ALL this since 2003 !!! these people didn't have a chance to defend themselves

Now I don't know what your personal view on private gun ownership is but, I personally believe that the reason we haven't seen the scale of human tragedy as found in the events as I explain above is because the founding fathers of the US created a BALANCED mechanism to ensure that there is a check and balance against a tyrannical government.

To be sure you will always have mental defectives who are uncontrollable -- just ask the guy from Australia what happened in his country after their government restricted gun ownership --- oh yea ..then they had to restrict knife ownership -- whats next forks ?

Given this balance we are able to attend ANY college and study ANY topic we want openly and freely.

I do agree that what happened is utterly disgusting and horribly sad BUT I DO NOT AGREE that MORE gun laws or restrictions against law abiding citizens will prevent carnage such as witnessed at Virgina Tech this morning.

If you take away guns -- idiots will use knives -- take away knives and they use clubs --- I wish I could ask the millions who have died at the hands of mad men if they would have liked the ability to protect themselves or their families ... I will share with you an email that I sent out to CNN tonight based on a question they had on their website asking if more gun control laws are now imminent ---

here is the email ...

First -- our prayers are with all of the students and their families --

Second - well it appears that the gunman had no regard for any of the existing (some estimates Ive seen - 30,000 existing gun laws)

even if we had 7 billion gun laws in effect I do not think it would have helped those poor kids at all today -- no laws imaginable can address what unstable individuals are capable of doing-- as an adult LAW ABIDING (Concealed Carry License holder) college student myself -- I obey ALL of the laws in my home state and at my college campus ..and I DO NOT bring my gun on campus as it is AGAINST the law --- I can't help to think what would happen if something similar happened in my classroom -- I do know that I would be unable to defend myself and any of my classmates because I would be OBEYING the law.

It pains me to consider that if some other LAW ABIDING student at Virginia Tech may have had the ability to defend themselves and their fellow classmates --while not any less tragic to be sure -- I doubt that you would be reporting on the worst shooting incident in US history.

Also in order to stay fair and balanced in reporting the incident don't forget to mention or report on the following:
(This from the Ohioans For Concealed Carry Website -

From January 2006 - in Virginia
"HB 1572, which would have allowed handguns on college campuses, died in subcommittee.

A bill that would have given college students and employees the right to carry handguns on campus died with nary a shot being fired in the General Assembly.

House Bill 1572 didn't get through the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety. It died Monday in the subcommittee stage, the first of several hurdles bills must overcome before becoming laws.


Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker was happy to hear the bill was defeated. "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus."


... Also .. I wish we didn't have to worry about defending ourselves by any means ( guns, knives, forks).. but we all know that this isn't human nature no matter where you live.I also agree that for people outside the US it does seem that we are a gun happy society ... this is propagated by our news media who tend to sensationalize this type of event and usually fail to offer a balanced commentary ..

I leave you with this personal thought from my speech ...

If you could promise me that you could take away ALL of the guns and hatred between ALL groups of people in the world right this minute and promise that it would never return then I would change my position and be against the ownership of and for the control of guns but until you can promise me that you will not convince me otherwise and dont dare try to take away my ability to defend family

Gun control in any variety would have been absolutely impotent in preventing today's tragedy.

To all you downtown, PC, pseudo civil rights, gun control pundits, go buy a clue by talking to someone who just fled Iraq. Ask them what gun control did for them lately.

By Bob Jones (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

I read this post, and then the comments, and I thought to my self, it would be nice if both sides engage in a discourse.

The "anti-gun" side asks for a balance in our society. They compare countries that have lax laws with those that have strict laws ... proper science - you take a situation and change a variable. Sure it's not perfect but it's the best data we have.

Then you the "pro-gun" arguments. Full of platitudes and mantra chanting and false comparisons (cars vs guns??? that is not what you call changing a single isolated variable). Second amendment defenders your lack of valid arguments is just proof of your untenable stance.

What most citizens want is a balance. The "pro-gun" individuals freak out - don't over react - don't do a damn thing. Unfortunately it would seem like the gun lobby has brainwashed your side. They've armed you with "frames", marginal arguments, and idiotic statements. Sure all the laws in the world won't change a thing unless the laws are realistic and curb gun production. So I guess that unlike the rest of the first world the US would work on that creating an environment that reduces gun production. But that's pretending that the government wasn't at the service of the gun industry.

Oh and to you "country-folk" I couldn't' give a rats ass about your rights to conceal a weapon. The greatest toll is in the urban innercity. When some middleclass white kids get shot it is splashed allover the news, but you never hear about poor black kids in the city getting shot. Never. My wife worked at the federal defenders office in Brooklyn, NY and now hear in Boston. A couple of her clients (young black males) would get killed by random acts of violence, and you would never read about it in the paper. I grew up in Montreal - just like any other CANADIAN city, it's safe to walk anywhere anytime, that despite the fact that Toronto and Montreal are way more dense, diverse and filled with immigrant communities than most American cities. But in the last two AMERICAN cities I've lived in (NYC and Boston) you could never walk anywhere anytime. Sure it is not just guns, it is schools, it is equal opportunity but I guess we are more concerned about mantras and ideologies to be able to figure out solutions.

apalazzo, did you miss the coverage of the Dawson College shootings last year? Forget (or also miss) the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in 1989? Those both happened in Montreal. Canada has a much smaller population than the United States, so the absolute rate of such events will be lower. The per capita rate seems similar, although it is always hard to tell with such low frequency but high significance events, but people generally form memories based on absolute frequency of exposure to information.

I had no qualms and saw no hints of violence when walking around downtown New York City, or around Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was not the only pedestrian in either case -- except when my rambling around Cambridge reached late enough in the night -- so I question why you think "you could never walk anywhere anytime". (In either case, the old saying about the plural of "anecdote" applies.)

By Michael Poole (not verified) on 17 Apr 2007 #permalink


Yes I'm very well aware. There will always be nutcases out there. But let's be fair about the debate. Gun related deaths in Canada are lower than the US, last I checked every single Canadian city (>1 million citizens) had lower gun related murders than any large American city. About the "never anywhere anytime" I meant to say (badly I admit) that in contrast to Montreal or Toronto there are parts of NYC and Boston that aren't safe. Go walk around Ozone Park, East Brooklyn, Bedstuy or parts of the south Bronx, go walk around parts of Roxbury or Dorchester. Those types of neighborhoods don't exist in Canadian cities.

The car analogy for gun control is a bad one. (Although I suppose one could argue everyone would be better with mass transit and limited places they can drive) A better one would be the banning of all alcohol and tobacco since arguably both those kill many, many more people. Further a lot of the murders folks are tying to guns are probably better correlated with drinking or drugs. Add in all the domestic violence that doesn't result in death and things get very bad.

But no one argues for banning alcohol even though it arguably has far, far less "purpose" than a gun.

Why is that?

Clark- The answer is quite simple. Many people do not own or use guns, and do not imagine they are likely to ever do so. In contrast, many people do own and/or frequently consume alcohol. It is much easier to decide that rights can be given up if you do not exercise those rights.

To be clear, this tendency does not make gun-control advocates wrong, just as a teetotaler is not wrong about alcohol prohibition by virtue of never consuming it himself. It is only the argument "I do not, therefore neither should you" that is faulty.

By Michael Poole (not verified) on 17 Apr 2007 #permalink

But no one argues for banning alcohol even though it arguably has far, far less "purpose" than a gun.

The US did try that once....

Michael, out of curiosity what is the rate of gun ownership versus drinking? While polls vary, in general 35% of people in the US own a gun. More than that obviously shoot them. (For instance most of my friends do not own guns but all have gone shooting with me) I had a hard time finding statistics on the drinking rate in the US. However those I did find said that about 35% of Americans had consumed a drink the last 30 days. I suspect that the number of drinkers would be hiring than that. But it does show that gun ownership and drinking are roughly on par, contra your assertion.

Rob, that was part of the point of the analogy. However clearly even though the US doesn't ban alcohol it does regulate it heavily. Should they regulate it and control it more given the amount of domestic violence, rape, fights, murder, and drunk driving deaths it results in? Probably. Will they? Almost certainly not.

Clark, Google finds several hits for "alcohol consumption united states" and "alcohol use united states" that give numbers significantly higher than 35% for alcohol use. says that in 2000, 47% of American adults (over 18, not just over 21) were "frequent" drinkers, and that an additional 14% were "infrequent" drinkers, where 12 drinks in a year makes one a "frequent" drinker. This is roughly the same total as the CDC ( ) reports for 2004 -- the row descriptions match up, so presumably it is the same survey done in multiple years.

A 2001 Harris Interactive poll found that 39% of adults live in households owning at least one gun, with rates highest for household incomes between $35,000 and $75,000. A 2004 study by Harvard researchers (Hepburn, Miller et al) found that 38% of households and 26% of individuals reported owning a gun.

I expected more than 60% for alcohol and fewer than 40% for firearms -- the 26% number for firearms is about what I expected, but may not be the best number to use when judging perspectives -- but I think they are far enough apart to make cognitive bias a reasonable hypothesis.

By Michael Poole (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

Originally Posted at "The Questionable Authority," but I thought I'd fit here too:

Let me explain something that I think most of the non-Americans (and some Americans) commenting here don't seem to get. A lot of us Americans don't like the idea of the gov't having a monopoly on the ability to use force. That is not because we do not like our little Republic; rather it is because we like it alot and want to keep it. War is politics by other means, so politics can be thought of as war by other means. Once upon a time the strongest alpha-male got to lead the tribe. Think of politics as a way for alpha males to compare their ability to fight without actually killing a large part of the tribe/city/nation in the process, much like the posturing displays seen in other animals. I know it may seem a cynical and old-fashioned view of human nature, but history does not seem to support the 'happy face' trust-in-your-fellow-man view of politicians and generals. Mao said "all power grows from the barrel of a gun"; you could also say that military power is the ultimate veto. Why should a group with a monopoly on military power allow someone else to boss them around if they don't want to, even if that other group has lots of fancy titles and documents and ballots?

I don't think it is a coincidence that the early Greek city-state democracies happened in a place where mass units like the phalanx were the state-of-the-art in military power. If a politician could get more men to vote for him then he could also get more men to fight for him, and in the technology of the day the battles tended to go to the bigger legion. So someone who loses an election has little reason to believe that they would win a rebellion to overturn that election. If you look at times where feudal governments ruled, like Europe in the middle-ages or feudal Japan you see something different in military power. The ultimate in military power in feudal society tends to be a heavily armored and highly trained elite warrior that costs a lot to equip and maintain. Call them either knights or samurai, but either way a few of them can wipe out any unruly village that doesn't want to pay taxes. Feudal power rests in the hands of the few members of the political class who have enough wealth to maintain those elite units. Democracy makes its appearance again when military technology shifts to empower mass units once more, like the pike square (that built Switzerland) or lines of muskets.

Political structures only seem to be stable as long as they approximate the distribution of military power in the society. They can exist if they do not, but only until the right person has the thought, "Why am I doing what the government says when I could beat them in a fight?" So societies are only stable as long as political and military power are distributed in similar fashions.

So if a feudal government wants to be stable, then it should discourage any technology that allows the unwashed masses to overpower their elite units. That is why feudal Japan outlawed those simple, Samurai-killing firearms and why the European nobility got so nervous about the suit of armor puncturing crossbows and longbows. If a democratic government wants to remain stable (and I don't mean in terms of years, but of generations) then it should ensure that the military power is spread out in a way roughly analogous to the way political power is spread among the voters and government. We Americans just want to make sure that no President or General ever has the temptation of "Why do I have to step down? I don't have to obey the voters as long as I keep the military on my side." So we want to make sure that the federal government could overpower any state government and any state government could overpower any individual, but that the whole body of the people could still gather together and remove the federal government from power with bullets should there ever come a time when they refuse to be removed by ballots.

The 2nd Amendment and civilian gun ownership is a success just by being a deterent for anyone who thinks about throwing out our Republic in favor of something more, feudal or centralized. It isn't just about rebelling against the governemnt, but about the threat of doing so. In this way the 2nd Amendment is alot like nuclear weapons. They can succeed in averting war just by deterring someone from risking their use. Very few Americans want to actually have to use the 2nd Amendment for rebellion just like very few Americans want to use our nuclear arsenal... but a lot of Americans are comforted by knowing the deterence is there. If we are lucky the deterence is all we'll ever need. Maybe we don't even need the deterence anymore, but we are still too skeptical about the fallen nature of man to risk it. Let the rest of the world give up their individual guns first, and if their politicians don't turn them into subjects or serfs in a few centuries, then maybe a new type of politician really has been invented and we'll consider changing our position. Until then, in the words of Charlton Heston, you'll get my gun from my cold dead hands. Not because I don't like the Republic... but because I do like it and want it to remain stable for centuries to come.

By C. Taylor (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

Rob wrote: "The US has more violent gun deaths than any other westerized country, sure, I'll believe that's true. But I'd like to see some hard data to assert that the US has more violent deaths per capita than any other westernized country."

Here is a good post at Marginal Revolutions of current literature comparing national levels of violence:…

Everyone knows that America is the most violent (pick one:western/civilized/industrilized/advanced) nation, right? It may come as a suprise to many scientists but sometimes what "everyone knows" is true... just isn't:

Also the above article points out that the Japanese have a much lower homicide rate... even when they are live in America. It reminds me of the anecdote about the Swede who told Milton Freedman that there was no poverty in Sweden. Freedman supposedly responded "What an interesting coincidence; we have no poverty among Swedes here in America either."

By C. Taylor (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink


Try and kill 32 people with a bottle of alcohol.

NRA Loonies on both of these discussions 55-60%

The rest:

Well we are considered to be strange because we dont like guns, and want gun control.

Your 2nd Amendment is a Joke, and is holding you back from reality.

And for the argument "If only a sane person was armed"...

What are you going to do for Kindergarten accidents where 6 year olds walk into a classroom with their Dads loaded Pistol?

NRA: "If only all of the 6 year olds in the classroom were armed."

Thank goodness I live in Australia where Guns are only in the hands of Police, Armed forces, Farmers, and bonifide Gun Club members.

And only the Armed forces require machine guns which are designed for killing large amounts of people in small bursts.

Last major Australian masacre was in 1996 and then Gun Control was introduced.

America has one every other week....

Well, Peter, at least you're willing to admit that you have hopolophobia. That's the first step to treatment. :)

Might I suggest that being in Australia maybe you don't know about the NRA just because you've heard stuff about it 2nd hand. The NRA does have a suggestion to deal with 6 year olds who might find Dad's loaded pistol. It is called the Eddie Eagle program and it stresses four simple rules for children who find a firearm: STOP! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult. This NRA program has so far taught over 20 million children about gun safety. It does not teach that guns are good or bad; it does not promote shooting or NRA membership. It only teaches the basic safety rules for children.

Machineguns and other automatic weapons here require a Class 3 license to own legally, which is not cheap or easy to obtain. There has only been 1 murder comitted by a Class 3 license holder and he was a policeman who used a fully automatic rifle taken from his police dept. to shoot his wife, so in that case limiting the guns to the Police wouldn't have saved her.

Thank God I am a free citizen instead of a subject of the queen who delegates his responsility for his and his community's safety to the government. Can you sue the police in Australia if they do not keep you from becoming a victim of crime? It must be terrible to live a nation where you have such a low opinion of your fellow countrymen that you trust them so little. How do you even drive down the road if you think your fellow Australians can't be trusted with potentially dangerous equipment?

By C. Taylor (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

I think this really comes down to a larger issue than just firearms. Tech. advancement gives greater power to do things, for good and ill. Until 9-11 the greatest mass murder was done by chaining the emergency exits on a theater and setting the place on fire. Can we give Prometheus's gift back? Should we limit technology only in the hands of the politically powerful? Thank God the VT shooter was an English major who apparently believed all the hollywood mythology about the power of guns. Think of the death toll if he had been a Chemical Engineering or Biotechnology Major bent on causing death. Think of the power of life and death that the scientists and engineers reading this blog have in their hands every day, coursing through busbars and high pressure lines and sitting quietly in petri dishes and lead-lined boxes and hard-drives. Do we trust individuals or not? Guns are only one aspect of it.

Thank God so many nutjobs fall in love with the same gun myths that drive hopolophobes like Peter, instead of casting about with a little creativity. A deviant individual can kill orders of magnitude more people with the basic technology that empowers our lives than with the a handgun. Once it took a superpower to send Columbus across the Atlantic. Now I could probably fund a cross-Atlantic trip with my own personal wealth. But that same march of progress and individual power that gives us all air conditioners and motorcars and GPS will inevitably mean that one day, perhaps a hundred years from now, a Manhattan Project will be just as easy as sailing the Atlantic is. If you make this about just guns then you miss the larger problem. In a nanotech world perhaps guns control will seem as quaint as bow and arrow control does to us.

The big question is: Do we trust our fellow man when technology continually amplifies their power so that one clever nutjob will can kill more and more people. If it were limited to just one technology then we could bottle it up. That's what gun control is a fantasy attempt to do. Put all the sins of technology on the scapegoat firearm* and drive it out of the village. But those chains and gasoline remain to burn down another theater. Fertilizer remains to be turned into a bomb. Diseases remain to be sampled and cultured and spread. Increadibly energetic transportation vehicles remain to be highjacked. And a thousand other things that I have not thought of, or some that I have and fear to mention because I don't want to provide new ideas to the wrong people. Do we get rid of it all? Where do we stop? Do we trust the gov't to limit our access to technology (while presumably having more of it for the gov't agents) when that gov't must be run by men and not angles or Gorts.

Prometheus's gift cannot be returned. Gun control is a scapegoat, and now gun controling countries are having to move to knife control and glass bar mug control. There is no end to that path. We become Amish, and get conquered by those who are not. Or we trust our countrymen in a future where one clever nutjob in a city can wipe it out. Or we only let our gov't have technology and discover one day that we are the slaves of our politicians. Or we find some way to cure or eliminate all of the nutjobs. Or... I don't know what. But the more technology progresses, the more a problem it will be. I do know that hopolophobia is not the answer.

* To those who say guns have no uses but to murder people, I suggest you tell that to the rural Alaskans who regularly carry them for bears or the working women who carry them for human predators or the ranchers trying to keep the wild boar population under control... or, as I mentioned earlier, the free citizen who wants to have a deterrent to keep his democracy stable for generations and pass along a militia tradition of personal responsibility and self-defense that will give strenth to the nation in some dark hour that may come centuries hence. I could more easily say there is no pressing need for individuals to own private pools (just go to the public on with a lifeguard) and private pools kill more children in America every year than guns do.

By C. Taylor (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

Number of cars registered in the US: roughly 243 million as of 2004. Number of auto related deaths: 42,000 (roughly) and 6.3 million injured. That means 1 death for every 5,785 cars. Number of guns in the US: roughly 215 million (although only around 35% of households report owning guns many own more than one). Number of homicides caused by guns: 10,654. That means 1 death for every 20,180 guns. Even if you double the number of cars, cars still cause more deaths per car than guns.


Thanks for the stats.

Remove Guns and you get 10,654 people still walking the planet each year.

Thank Goodness I live in Australia, I would hate living in America where I had to carry a Gun to feel safe.

Enjoy your second amendment

"From my cold dead hands"...

Remove cars and we'll have even more people on the earth. Hell, why don't we just get rid of everything that kills people.

Thank goodness you do live in australia, myself along with a majority of America wouldn't want tou here.

I will enjoy the Second Amendment (Capitalize It)

By David Young (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

Not from my "Cold dead fingers" will I ever capitalise the second amendment.

Or more to the point 7 X 30,000 = 210,000 people dead this century due to fire arms in America Homicides and accidents.

Roughly one medium sized city in Australia.

Or since 1970 - 2007 1,110,000 Dead

Roughly a State capital of dead