The Authoritarian Response? (Reacting too fast to tragedy) (v2.0)

This is an edited version of an earlier post. I came to realize from the response to it that I had inadvertently pulled out a canard that colored the post into something that was different from what I intended. The post is almost entirely intact, but I've deleted (and replaced) the last paragraph, which is what changed the post from what I really wanted to say into something that had a lot of people reacting to what wasn't my main point, and which ultimately gave an impression that I was arguing something different from what I was.

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.

I don't really mean to argue any particular issue one way or the other. What I want to argue is that we shouldn't use the immediacy of the moment to rush to conclusions on any issue. We should remain thoughtful and rational, and we should consider any issue or policy just as much as we would have at any other time.


More like this

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,…
The shootings in Connecticut are a monstrous act of incomprehensible horror. For all the atrocities visited upon the world in the last hundred years, this is still without doubt among the most appallingly evil acts ever performed by a single person. And he is dead, and beyond the reach of human…
Provocative title, eh? I expect many people to instinctively react as angrily to this as I do to the empty clause "intellectual property is property". However, the clause "copyright is censorship" is actually true. What is copyright? It is a law passed by and enforced by governments that places…
Given that Matt and I are both gun enthusiasts, scientists, and bloggers, and we're both interested in something being done to prevent mass shootings such as in Newtown, Aurora, and almost one dozen other locations in just the last few years, we decided to host a more formal debate on the issue. I'…

You're right about taking the time to consider actions.

Just don't take too long.

US society currently chooses to accept 30k* deaths per annum, that's a 9/11 every 5 weeks, in exchange for arm waving about Liberty and Freedom.

Do what you like but understand the price of your choice.

* 2003 CDC stats for firearm related homicides,suicides and accidents. Table 10 on Page 33 in

JoeM: You can be safe, or you can be sane. You can hide under the bed, never leave your lead-walled closet or put your nose out of doors for fear something terrible will happen to you -- or you can accept that bad things happen, take reasonable precautions, and live your life.

I'll gladly trade a little safety for being sane and having a life.

Besides, what percentage of the fairly large American population is that, anyway?

Joe has a point, that firearm accidental deaths are comparable in size to firearm homicides. Even if we don't consider that fact in forging goverment policy, individuals should consider their families vulnerability to accidental shooting when determing whether to get a gun.

Rob, is of course right, that we shouldn't jump to judgement. But of course this issue has been around for many decades, and the issues don't change very rapidly. Of course the chances of meaningful policy change are so low as to make any debate only of academic interest.

"gun control" is not the same as "gun ban".

You readily accept that people need to get training and a license to drive a car and that unfit people may be excluded; that you need mandatory insurance to own a car; and that any car has to be registered together with its owner.

Why is that fine for cars, but not for guns?

That's a very reasonable argument, Janne. But note that the situation that is bringing the calls for "gun control" is one that could not reasonably have been expected to forestall this sort of tragedy. Bringing up the VaTech shootings as support for a call for "gun control" is either a rational claim in support of a total or near-total ban, or an emotional claim to help support a registration and training standard which ought to be rationally supported on other grounds.

By Scott Simmons (not verified) on 17 Apr 2007 #permalink

"gun control" is not the same as "gun ban".

Not if you look at the strict vocabulary no.

However, just as "pro-life" and "pro-choice" aren't really people who generally are in favor of life in general, or people who generally are in favor of choosing in general, those who advocate "gun control" and use that word generally are advocating banning guns.

-Rob, who thinks maybe EVERYBODY will hate him now that he's gone near Godwin's Law by mentioning abortion

"US society currently chooses to accept 30k* deaths per annum"

Since we're throwing around numbers, here's a little context:
In 2003, it was estimated that there was 238-276 million guns in the US, and, according to the NRA, that figure goes up by about 4.5 million a year. Which means, we're looking at roughly 256-294 million this year. The population of the US is estimated at 300 million. So, roughly .012% (using the low estimate) of guns are involved in killing someone in the US, and about .01 of the population will be fatally shot.

This is not my blog, so I will try not to stir up more trouble here. I just felt that that needed to be said.

I don't know if this made the US news or not, but at about the same time as the Blacksburg massacre, the mayor of Nakasaki (Japan) was gunned down. Japan has much stricter gun laws than the US.

Given that countries with high rates of gun ownership and low rates of gun crimes exist (Switzerland and Viet Nam come to mind), it seems reasonable that societies which value firearms can be safe. Wouldn't it be nice to find out how, instead of arguing about laws?

Janne- Not every car needs to be registered or insured, and not every driver needs to be licensed -- only those operating on public roads. (Boy diggety, imagine the tickets that police could give out at the Indianapolis 500!) It is generally[1] not legal to operate firearms on public property, or on private property without the property owner's permission, so I do not know what good it would to to require registration, insurance or licensing for firearms operated in such places.

[1]- Self-defense being the notable exception, even with the restrictions on when that is justified.

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

I am definitely left of center, but I support (broadly) a right to own firearms. I think this is a logical consequence of a civil-libertarian approach to the universe. However, I don't discuss this much with other people, especially others in my family who are also well left of center. That's because the gun rights/gun control debate in the U.S. is heavily influenced by an extra factor: the existence of, and cultural encouragement of, a subset of gun owners who want far more than just legal gun ownership.

I'm thinking of the ones who actively want a society with more guns in the hands of more people, who are dismissive or even hostile to people who don't have (or like) guns, and who (in somewhat more extreme cases) actually want to be able to kill people even without a significant and immediate threat to their own lives.

I'm sure this is a small minority of people who feel strongly about gun rights. Most halfway-decent people have a deep-set revulsion towards killing, or even threatening to kill, another person when faced with anything short of an unavoidable threat of death or serious injury. In any sane universe, this group would be marginal and have minimal effect on gun-issue discussions. Yet, for reasons I find utterly baffling, ostensible "gun rights" groups go out and use people like this as spokespeople.

The NRA is doing an excellent job of ensuring that people who advocate gun rights -- the legal right to own firearms -- will be viewed as gun nuts. I believe they are singlehandedly doing as much, if not more, to create sympathy for gun control than school shootings do. The idiocy of the NRA makes a rational discussion of this issue, by either side, far more difficult than it should be.

By ColoRambler (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

Strictly speaking, everyone is in favour of gun control, it's just a matter of degrees. Though the second amendment suggests that arms are keeping us safe from a tyrannical government, I don't think anyone has interpreted that to mean that we as individuals should be able to keep howitzers in our homes (though, strictly speaking, one could use the arguments of the NRA to say that we need to have howitzers to keep a government honest). I don't find the argument that we need handguns to keep us safe from tyranny particularly compelling. Not many wars fought with handguns anymore.

Clearly, the debate is not *should* we have gun control, but which guns should be controlled. That is an area to debate over. My own personal viewpoint is that rifles and shotguns should be easily purchased (though I think no one needs a semi-automatic or automatic weapon, that is clearly not everyone's position). Several groups have turned this into an all or nothing debate. (the NRA for one, the million moms for another). Let's have a more sane debate, and carefully decide, one by one, which weapons we're comfortable being in common circulation.

Personally I am willing to accept 30k deaths per annum in exchange for maintaining the ability to resist tyranny, genocide, and democide. The truth is that I'd accept a lot more deaths if it came to it. Perhaps some people here would not accept that, and would take the chance that such disaster will not happen in their communities in their lifetime... They might suggest we put it up to a vote. Sorry, my right to defend myself and my freedom is no more up for a vote than my right to free speech or religion is. And what do I have to back that assertion up with? A lot more than I'd have if my parents generation had fully embraced "sensible gun control."

Think it can't happen here? It already has on limited occasions. What do you think people did in the South when the local sheriff and politicians were part of the white hooded lynch mobs that were terrorizing their communities?…
So before you start making suggestions about "sensible gun control" spend a few minutes thinking about how a rascist sheriff's office or other gov't office could use that power to disarm unpopular minorities in their community. Think we could prevent that from happening by taking the decision out of the hands of state or local organizations and giving it to federal agencies? You must not remember the "Good Ole Boys' Roundup" scandal with BATF agents selling 'nigger hunting licenses.'….

The number 1 cause of death in the last century was governments deliberately killing their own subjects to weed out the undesirables. Individual murderers (regardless of weapon) and gun accidents have been many orders of magnitude less lethal. I'll take the risk with the very rare but well publicized crazy spree killers if it buys us even a small chance of preventing mass democides here.

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

Just because I know that people are going to bring this up. Factician is completely wrong about the 2nd Amendment and the usefullness of private arms in preventing tyranny when he thinks that no one "has interpreted that to mean that we as individuals should be able to keep howitzers in our homes." Yes some people have and still do interpret it that way. No, I don't mean crazy toothless people hanging out at the feedstore, either. What he probably should have written is "I don't believe anyone that I invite to my cocktail parties seriously thinks that we as individuals..."

I'm not a howitzer man myself, mind you, but if I had the money I think it would be really neat to own an anti-tank gun. Something around 80-90mm caliber, perhaps, in army green. Every summer I'd buy a bunch of junk cars to park in a field and have charity "Buy a shot on the Recoilless Rifle" BBQ. But just to back up the assertion that the Founding Fathers were not opposed to private groups owning crew-served heavy weapons I submit to you this quote from Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, "The Congress shall have Power To... grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal" A Letter of Marque, for those who did not watch enough pirate movies as a child, allows a private citizen to organize a pirate... er... I mean "privateering" expedition to sink and/or capture foriegn merchant ships and warships. Now what do you suppose the Congress expected these privately owned privateers to be armed with? Cannons, of course. In other words, the Founders expected private citizens to be able to own crew-served heavy weapons, if they could afford to buy and feed them.

Would howitzers be useful to prevent tyranny today? I don't think so, but I wouldn't begrudge a wealthy eccentric who felt otherwise as long as he owned all the land he shot it across when practicing (shooting over a property line w/o permission of the land owner is a crime in all the states I know of). What would resistance to tyranny look like in the modern age and what arms would be useful? That's a whole other blogpost, of coures, but the answer depends on the scale of the tyranny. In the case of a corrupt, racist sheriff at the head of a KKK lynch mob (as happened in Jonesboro, LA during the 60s), it could probably be dealt with by a few well-employed hunting rifles with telescopic sights (sometimes called 'sniper rifles' by the media) in a rural area or more people with shotguns and/or semi-auto rifles in an urban area. In the case of a national government and professional army that is disregarding an election or herding undesireables onto cattle cars*, I think we could look at what is going on right now in Iraq or has happened in Algeria or Ireland or Lebanon for a glimpse of what it might be like: No heavy tank battles or artillery duels but a lot of small, dispersed attacks against either supply lines or morale targes using rifles, mortars, and improved explosive devices. Though perhaps just one of those bolt-action hunting rifles would be enough if it were applied soon enough and to the correct targets.

Factician is correct that wars are not generally won with handguns. I can only think of one war that was won with a pistol. I think it would be premature to say that pistols are not useful as martial arms, however, while they are still in widespread issue by militaries worldwide. There, btw, is a saying in the firearms community, "a pistol is what you use to fight your way to a real weapon."

*not that such a thing has EVER happened in a Western country. And not that it could happen here:

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

Yes, another post! :) I posted this on The Questionable Authority, but thought it would also be appreciated here:

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

C. Taylor,

What he probably should have written is "I don't believe anyone that I invite to my cocktail parties seriously thinks that we as individuals..."

Do people really still have cocktail parties? Really? I appear to be missing out on all the people who think we should own howitzers *and* people who have cocktail parties. I feel deprived ;)

Your assertion is that the loss of lives due to gun deaths is worth it to maintain the Republic in its current form. I agree with you, that those loss of lives would be worth maintaining a free and democratic society. However, I don't think there is any compelling data to suggest that the second amendment is responsible for the U.S. still being a free and democratic society. "Well," people will say, "but we haven't had any coups since the second amendment". To which I respond, we haven't had any coups since the widespread adoption of toothbrushes either. I'm not sure that the two are related (although I think I could make a more compelling argument for toothbrushes). Many countries in the world have managed to maintain democratic styles of government over a long time without the second amendment. That suggests to me that it's not required. I'm willing to admit that I might be wrong, but I don't think there is compelling data to prove either point.

So, from my perspective, we are weighing the value of some large number of people killed every year against what? The possibility that we *might* be preventing a coup. Though other countries have managed to stay stable without the second amendment? Do we really think that America is somehow *less* stable than other Western democracies that we need to be armed when they don't? I think that's rather selling the U.S. short...

Factician wrote: "Do people really still have cocktail parties? Really?"

OMG! You don't have cocktail parties? I feel so sorry for you. Unless, of course, you're too busy having orgies instead. Do you have BBQs?

He (she?) also wrote: "I don't think there is any compelling data to suggest that the second amendment is responsible for the U.S. still being a free and democratic society."

1st of all, I did not offer data either. I offered a theory on political power. I haven't seen any data to disprove that theory, but a lot that supports it. Using a theory to make predictions was then just basic science. I considered in my previous post that keeping some military power in individial hands might not be needed. I didn't think about toothbrushes but I did have in mind the joke about the guy who blows the horn to keep elephants away. "There are no elephants in this town" says his neighbor. "See, it works", the man replies. Maybe you're right and the 2nd Amendment is like that. But maybe not. I'm not willing to take that chance. And since I'm the one with the gun... you see where this is going don't you?

You say that other Western democracies are not armed and they are still free, but that doesn't disprove anything. Most of the disarmament has happened recently and, as I pointed out, we are not talking about a process that would take years; we are talking about one that could take generations.

Are the still free but unarmed nations like the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building and the people on the 50th floor hear him saying "So far, so good." on the way down? Some of us are bothered by the undemocratic and illiberal political trends in Europe. And even if that's paranoia, maybe it is possible that we are not as stable after all; I don't think so, but I'd hate to find out the hard way. The only example I can think of of an older, surviving democratic society is Switzerland and they also have widespread firearms ownership and heavy reliance on mass unit militias. If the British and Australians are still disarmed but free citizens after another century, come back to me and I'll reconsider your argument.

BTW, I do not at all say that there is a net loss of life due to private gun ownership. I say that even if there was a net loss of 10s of thousands annually, then it would be worth it. I personally believe that widespread gun ownership deters crime more than it enables it or causes accidents, but I admit that after years of sociologists debating the effects of gun control / gun ownership on deaths, the net effect either way are probably small relative to other factors. Even if there is little net effect on deaths or crime, I also admit that I like the idea of the equalizing nature of firearms for people who do not have high physical strength, such as women, elderly, and handicapped. God made man and woman; Sam Colt made them equal... if you'll pardon me mangling the quote. I did not bring this up in my original post because I did not want to get drawn into a debate about whether gun control works or if concealed carry laws really have brought down crime because while it may be sociologically interesting, it is also completely irrelevant to my larger point about why I'm not giving up my guns and why I hope we pass along to our posterity a nation that has a democratic military power distribution.

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


45% or respondents are supporting gun control, 55% including your posts are supporting 2nd amendment, and some even support more guns.

Now lets see what will you say next week when there are 10 people killed by a person with a pistol and semi auto rifle.

1. "2nd Amendment says it is OK"
2. "More punishment"
3. "If only someone else had a gun"
4. "I need to be able to overthrow my tyranical Government"

Then the following week 25 kids are Gunned down by a pair of Students, and then both Students are gunned down by a Gun toting Lady.

1. "See how brave the Lady was"
2. "2nd Amendment says it is OK, and thank goodness we have it"
3. "More punishment, but the two are dead (use unmarked graves)"
4. "If only someone else had a gun, we would have had a great fire-fight"
5. "I need to be able to overthrow my tyranical Government, whilst the murders are taking place"

Sorry for you and America, as there is no convincing you, and "only from my cold dead hands", will your gun fall.

America is getting far more dangerous as we speak.

Pehaps what you mean to write is that "My news media here in Oz tells me that America is getting far more dangerous and I believe them." Or perhaps you mean "Boy those American movies sure are violent these days." But if you look at the actual numbers... America is really getting less dangerous.

Violent Crime has been plumeting in the U.S. since about 1993. The cause is debated. Some people think it is because the concealed carry laws began to be popular in the 90s and an armed population has a net reduction in violent crime due to deterrence. Other people think that abortion popularity in the 70s eliminated a lot of the people who would have become young criminals in the 90s. Still others credit new policing methods.

I don't know the cause for sure, but I do suspect that gun ownership has a net positive effect. Estimates are that civilian guns are used in America to stop a crime about 2 million times a year. No, it is not with OK Corral style shootouts; usually just the sound of a pump shotgun being chambered in a burgled house or the flash of a barrel from a potential rape victim's purse is enough to send the criminal looking for easier targets.

I have no doubt that in your heart of hearts you believe that regardless of what sociological studies show that guns just can't... IT JUST CAN'T... actually have a net positive effect on violent deaths. I can't cure hopolophobia; I can just tell you to keep your hands to yourself if you know what's good for you and leave it at that. See how deterrence works. :)

But for everyone else reading this I hope you will trust me when I say that guns and firearms ownership is not like it is depicted in a movie. On occasion I will legally carry a concealed handgun. Let me tell you that the weight of it is a sobering thing for a law-abiding man (and CCW license holders have to go through an FBI background check). I do not drink a bit of alchohol when I'm carrying. I don't dare take the risk of pulling that gun out when I'm impared and endangering someone by missing the shot or misjudging the situation. You know what that "evil gun culture" drills into its members (whether casual hunter or olympic shooter): ALWAYS be sure of your target and what is behind it. I am very polite when I have that gun on. You think that "an armed society is a polite society" is crap? It isn't. If I get in an argument unarmed, then it is only a little trouble. If I manage to start a fight while I'm armed, it could easily escalate into a deadly situation (not for me probably, but that doesn't make me feel POWERFUL it makes me meeker... I don't want to kill a man and wind up in prison because I didn't let a stupid comment pass). If it doesn't turn deadly I could still get in tremendous legal trouble for being in a brawl while armed... even if the other guy started it. I talk with a lot of other shooters. Almost all are law abiding people: professionals, churchgoers, familymen and women. Like I said, the FBI makes sure criminals don't get CCW licenses. The sobering effect of having a gun on you is a common experience for them too. When you have a gun, you have to act like an adult. Not everyone does. There are bad careless shooters, just like there are careless drivers, who kill a whole lot more people. One big difference is that gun culture is VERY safety oriented, and there is a lot of peer pressure by other gun owners to reign in the sloppy members of the community. No, that isn't like what you see in TV comedy sketches about drunken rural hunters... but I hope you will consider the possibility that just maybe your stereotype has more to do with Elmer Fudd cartoons than reality.

Gun use does not mean shootouts. The common complaint is "what if there is a crime and a lot of civilians draw their guns and get confused." That is a strawman thought experiment. I've never heard of it happening, except in a FICTIONAL movie. Not that it can't happen, but that is like saying "I shouldn't wear my seatbelt because what if the car goes into a lake and my seatbelt is jammed and I can't get out and the car is filling with water..." You're making up excuses for something you've already decided about, not finding real reasons to base a decision on. By far the most common result of gun use is that the attacker sees the gun and runs away. Like most predators, rapists and theives want to prey on the weak and not risk injury against an equal.

I said earlier that the deterrent to maintain a democracy was worth 10s of thousands of deaths a year. That doesn't mean that is what is happening. The US is not like what you see on Miami Vice or some special report on gang wars in American cities on OZ news programs during ratings sweeps week. No matter what your gut instincts or sensationalist stories tell you about how guns just HAVE TO BE slaughtering huge numbers of Ameicans in an ever increasingly violent society... that's not what sociological study after study finds. Even if there is a net positive effect on deaths due to gun ownership it must be so small as to be lost in the noise of the studies. Cultural factors are far more important. Accidental gun deaths are small and have been dropping for about a century even as population and number of guns rises; it is so small that if it were a less emotionally charged item like swimming pools it would never make the national news.

Facts are stubborn things, Peter. And the facts do not bear out that America is getting more dangerous or that private gun ownership leads to a measureable net increase violent deaths. But I understand that phobias are stubborn things too, and even now your imagination is probably thinking up straw men and comforting 2nd hand rumors. I hope that one day you'll overcome your fears. For everyone else... this is a science blog. I hope you'll have the courage to look at real evidence and consider sound theories rather than go off the unscientific gut feel that your emotional response to hollywood gun mythology. generates.

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

C. Taylor,

Your a Scientist and you are happy to conceal a hand gun, and go where?

So you go to a Lecture expecting what?

What do you do when a low volumn science experiment goes bang unexpectedly? Do you shoot the Student as a precaution?

Do you realise that most Police get killed by their own weapon, because the assailant gets the Gun off the trained Policeman?

You wont be anywhere near as trained as a Policeman.

Enjoy your second amendment.

30,000 Fire arm murders and suicides in one Country in one year does not equal a good Gun system. The numbers, and the masacre's dont add up.

You also did not answer my question about next weeks masacre, and the week after that. Will you have the same mantra's. Any chance the volumn of masacre's, suicides, and Murders might change your mind?

Very pleased you dont drink and pack a side arm at the same time..

Very sobering.

Poor America.

By the way, you cant come hunting for me in Oz because you will have to leave your personal defence side arm behind. If you argue with me in Oz, you will have to punch me in the face, but you will have great difficulty legally procuring a ballistic weapon.

Peter, no wonder you think you know all kinds of wrong things. You make up assumptions to insulate your comfortable world view, and then throw them at me like they're evidence. Are you a scientist?

Becuase I'm not, despite what you assumed. I'm an engineer. We tend to get out a little more, and not always to the best neighborhoods. Also, we tend not to be jumpy around noisey and potentially lethal equipment. Actually most people I meet aren't. Are people in OZ so panicy and flighty? That's not the image your country seems to market itself as.

Peter writes "You wont be anywhere near as trained as a Policeman."

Boy that's a big assumption! What makes you think that? Just how much firearms training do you think police get that a civilian could never match one in skill? Perhaps you missed it when Rob mentioned that I am a competitive shooter:

Having known and shot against police officers (in competition) I can confidently say that I am both better trained and better practiced at combat pistolcraft (including weapon retention) than the large marjority of police officers here in the US... and I'll bet Australia, too. Police have to shoot a couple of hundred rounds on a qualifying test every year and unless they're a gun hobbyist most will only shoot a few hundred practice rounds a year to get ready for their test. I'll shoot over 10,000 rounds a year. Many of them under more realistic gunfight simulations than the police training. And that doesn't count my dry fire practice.

What do you think police do? They don't run around shooting people all day. Unless they're one of the few SWAT team members they have to be people persons, not shooters. Being able to tell when someone's lying to you is a far more important skill to them than clearing a stove-pipe failure to eject on a semi-auto pistol. The police are not some mystical knights who will protect all the poor ignorant villagers from harm and that a mere working man could never hope to match in combat prowess. But since you have been disarmed and must count on them for protection, I can understand why you'd want to overinflate their stature in your imagination. Do you also think that none of the members of your local motorclub could out-drive the police because they haven't had super-special police academy pursuit driving training?

Yes I admit that I'm a little unusually well trained for a 'civilian' (I probably would be unusually well trained for the SWAT team in most towns) and that all concealed carry holders are not competition pistol shooters. But even untrained concealed carry holders are much less likely to be shot with their own gun than a policeman. A policeman has to be in close proximity to, talk with, and restrain criminals alot, giving them opportunities to grab the policeman's openly carried gun; a civilian carrying a concealed gun for protection from assualt or rape does not have those same risk factors.

Also, in my case I carry an H&K P7M8 which has an unusual manual of arms and most people wouldn't know how to take the safety off it.

You can't assume that 30k gun deaths does not equal a good gun system unless you can compare it to how many deaths would have occured in alternative gun systems. Don't they teach the use of experimental controls down there?

As for answering you about next week's assumed massacre... If you also know where that massacre will be then the authorities here would be most interested to know. If we could get police to those things ahead of time then CCW would not be nearly as needed. :) I think you know my answer will be: 1) It is certainly worth a few thousand deaths to stabalize our democratic political system that has taken over a million war deaths to produce. and 2) It is a scientific fallacy to focus only on the seen deaths and not consider the net effect of deaths and crime that do not happen because of individial gun ownership. Not much chance that the quantity of deaths will change my mind on either the value of democracy or the invalidity of poor science.

Just out of curiousity: What are you going to say if there is NOT a massacre next week? Will you admit that your impression of America might be a little over-sensationalized? Why don't you agree to post a response here in seven days saying either "I told you so." or else "Hey, where are all those weekly American massacres I incorrectly assumed?"

Lastly, don't be paranoid Peter. I'm not going to punch you in the face. I don't know how you do things there in Australia, but I haven't gotten in a fistfight since gradeschool. We've had anti-duelling legislation here for quite some time. As a result the only Americans who settle arguments with gunfights anymore are gang-members that would laugh at gun laws anyway. Even if all guns in this country were destroyed, those criminals could smuggle more in hidden in their drug shipments. Really, I didn't even think this was an argument. I thought it was a civilized debate. I'm a civilized guy, Peter. Just because I own weapons doesn't mean I am violent by nature. It just means that I understand that some other people are, and I don't want to be at their mercy. Thankfully I have never been a victim of violent crime and I have never had to draw a weapon in anger; hopefully I never will. I also have insurance even though I don't expect my house to burn down.

By C. Taylor (not verified) on 20 Apr 2007 #permalink

Already has been a murder from an assumed to be stable NASA employee.

Himmler said "Better to kill 10 people when only one is guilty"

Police are trained to assess situations, and use weapons. You are trained to use weapons, not assess situations.

I really hope for your sake that when you "bravely" take down an assailant, that it is the assailant, that they did murder/rape someone, that they were holding a gun, that the Gun they were holding was real, that it was loaded....

Enjoy your second amendment because tens of thousand Americans each year die because of it.

I am enjoying my rights as protected by the Second Amendment. This weekend I went shooting with my girlfriend and one of the doctors from the hospital where she works. The doc is a licensed Class III dealer; he brought the MP40 "Schmeisser" submachinegun from his collection and let me shoot it. Oh My God, what a sweet, sweet shooting weapon. :)

This article seemed to have some bearing on the topic:…
It describes the Appalachian School of Law massacre that was stopped when two students confronted the killer with their own guns. And, no, the heroic students did not get confused and shoot each other instead. Also look at the other shootings described and notice that using a gun to STOP a murderer does not mean using a gun to KILL the murderer or even, neccesarily, to SHOOT him.

Yes, we had a murder at the Johnson Space Center. I promise it was not the only one in America yesterday, but because it was in a NASA facility the crime is going to get airplay around the world. Entry into the JSC is physically limited to a few manned security gates that only allow badged personnel and perform random searches upon entry. That's a lot better security than most schools could arrange or afford or would want, and yet the killer got the gun in anyway.

Here, btw, are a few more news articles that might have a bearing on the discussion.

Australian girl strangles another with speaker wire:,20867,21617081-2702,00.html

Australian man stabs another to death over a bike:…

Unarmed Australian woman bloodied after she tries and fails to stop two teenage theives.,23739,21616011-5007200,…

Unarmed Australian woman raped by foriegner…

Unarmed elderly Australians beaten and robbed in their home:…

See, both sides can play the anecdote game if that's how you decide issues of liberty and politics down there in Oz.

The nature of man does not change when you remove modern weapons. But it does revert to the millenia old social order of putting the physically weak at the mercy of the physically strong. That's not too bad of a social order when you're a fit young man... but how can Australians, in good conscience, do that to their women and elderly and handicapped? How they expect to remain free people when they trust each other so little that they ask their government to disarm their neighbors, I don't understand.

I would hate to live in a nation that had so little confidence in themselves that they trust politicians and generals and government employees so much more than they trust their average fellow countrymen.

By C. Taylor (not verified) on 24 Apr 2007 #permalink

Hi C.Taylor,

Very entertaining, but you should read in full your references.

Reference 2 relate to 3 people having a discussion, then being rushed from behind by the assailant. In the case of a knife, it can be drawn and used before a gun is even drawn in close combat where the person attacked is unaware they are in danger. In your great reference the person killed was the original assailant attacking from behind, who got disarmed, then stabbed by the originally unarmed person.

Could not load your other references, but I trust you.

I trust you were hunting "with" your girlfriend.

I assume you also agree with a US court ruling about 15 years ago where a lady was killed by a hunter. Where the Judge let the hunter walk free:

"The lady in question should not have been in the back yard (Hanging out washing) during hunting season"

What if "When mass killers..." the assailant actually killed the two untrained armed students, then continued on killing? Your argument would be?

"All students must undertake close combat courses to avert the tragedy today where armed students were shot dead by a close combat trained homicidal maniac. Furthermore all teachers should be allowed to store machine guns in the class room if a general revolt occurs during class time when more than one student fires upon the teacher."

Escalate the gun toting mummas, and puppers, and you get a complete debarcle like the USA.

And I have shot a hand gun, Styer, shot gun, and 7.62mm L1A1 SLR (self loading rifle).

They go bang.

And if you stand in front of one and they go off you get killed.


I'm glad to read that actually have shot firearms before. Was the Styer you mentioned the AUG? How was it? I think it's a pretty gun, but being a left-handed I wouldn't want one for myself.

You know, Peter, your arguments don't seem to rely very much on either political philosophy or theory or even data. Your arguments seem to be based on anecdotes and bad assumptions and worst-case straw man thought experiments. You're not reasoning, you're emoting. I can't cure you and I'm not going to keep arguing with you either. I'm leaving on a trip (to Rob's land, in fact).

I will point out that on April 20th you wrote:
"Now lets see what will you say next week when there are 10 people killed by a person with a pistol and semi auto rifle."

And I responded: "Just out of curiousity: What are you going to say if there is NOT a massacre next week? Will you admit that your impression of America might be a little over-sensationalized? Why don't you agree to post a response here in seven days saying either 'I told you so.' or else 'Hey, where are all those weekly American massacres I incorrectly assumed?'"

Well, as of tomorrow it will be one week since you posted your hypothetical question. While normal crimes and suicides have continued at their typical pace, there have been no new massacres this week. If another mass murder happens in the next day, then you can certainly crow about being right. If not, then I expect you to eat crow and post "Hey, where are all those weekly American massacres I incorrectly assumed?"

As for reponding to your comments and questions...
I'm aware of the combat advantages and disadvantages of a knife. One you did not mention is that they are silent. Firearms are considered the weapon of the businessman or woman or other upstanding citizen. They make a loud noise to draw people's attention to their location (suppressors or silencers are restricted as Class III items). As a result of the stealthy nature of the knife, they are typically considered the weapon of criminals, here in America. Switchblade knives are illegal.

I point out a case where two armed students stopped a school shooting, and you ask what if that had not happened, but something else bad had happened... You're building straw men. If they had failed to stop the shooter, then it would have been an unlikely and unfortunate tragedy. Just the same as it is when police lose gunfights. But that is not what usually happens. The result that did happen, where the two armed citizens stop the crime without having to kill the criminal just by threatening him with their own guns, is TYPICAL of how these encounters end. Your "what if..." strawman is not typical at all, but you write as if either one was just as likely. Why didn't you just write "What if the two heroes had pulled their guns and accidently shot themselves dead before they could do any good? Huh? What would you barbaric Americans have said if that had been what really happened? Because, you know, I imagined it so it might happen. If it happened over and over again a whole bunch of times then eventually something like what I imagined is bound to happen!"

You assume that I'd agree with the court ruling you cite. I do not. Why would you assume that? I had previously written that shooting so that your bullet crosses someone's property line without their permission is illegal, even if no one gets hurt. Why on Earth would you assume that I would be against punishing fatal carelessness?

If you trust that I went hunting with my girlfriend, then you trust wrong. We went to a shooting range. I said nothing to indicate that we'd gone hunting and I don't know why you would assume that, either.

The pattern is obvious; you habitually assume things with no basis in fact. You're living in an imaginary world of your own making. No doubt in your imagniation you are always correct, and all the straw men that you make are just as valid as real arguments, and all us people who disagree with you are stupid or evil or uncultured. What color is the sky in your world Peter?

When I get back from my trip I look forward to reading your comment about this week's massacre... or lack thereof.

By C. Taylor (not verified) on 26 Apr 2007 #permalink


Styers come in left handed models as well so that the bullets eject away from the face. Just make sure you pick up the correct one.

You will be pleased that your weight of argument has swayed me.

I have spent hours reading your posts, and will now form an Australian National Rifle Association.

I will buy a gun, and carry it with me at all times just in case I have to over throw my Government.

If I see an armed hold up I will step in and push aside the Police and take over the fire fight because the Police are not competant defending me.

Finally, I will become a Rifle Giddeon, and hand out Guns to Children at Schools, so that all children can be safe.

God Bless America

C. Taylor,

At least three people have been killed after a gunman opened fire at a shopping mall in Kansas City 30 April 2007.

If only all the shoppers and shop keepers had handguns.