Gun control Part III – Some final questions for Matt and closing remarks

Go by and check out Matt’s second response on gun control.

I think this response is a good argument. After all, my arguments are correlative. It is impossible to do randomized controlled trials on whole countries after all.

I would ask a few questions in response to this rebuttal, however. Matt, what do you think about about data that demonstrates, within our own country, higher gun prevalence correlates with higher homicide, independent of other risk factors? Can we really dismiss the potential impact of federal gun laws using local gun laws as an example? Its pretty clear from places like New York and Chicago, that any local law is undermined by whatever nearest state (or county) has the softest laws.

The issue of whether or not increasing or decreasing gun ownership is also a bit besides the point. After all, that was not the major thrust of my suggestions. Repeatedly, it seems, I am arguing against a straw man that I am advocating gun bans. Matt acknowledges this problem:

This is true, and fair enough as it goes. We gun-rights types are justifiably a bit jumpy about this sort of thing. It would be nice if Mark were the one writing the various laws being proposed in congress and various state legislatures. Unfortunately it’s people like Dianne “Turn ‘em all in” Feinstein and Carolyn “Shoulder thing that goes up” McCarthy and Andrew “Confiscation could be an option” Cuomo. It’s great for the two of us to discuss our Platonic ideals of the way things ought to be, but we also have to remember that we’re dealing with members of the world’s second oldest (and least reputable) profession. Since their stated intent is to take a mile, I’m not very willing to give them any free inches without an airtight case as to effectiveness and respect for the rights of the law-abiding.

I have emphasized in the past, I despise the stupidity and futility of the cosmetic Assault Weapons Ban as advocated by Feinstein for the twin sins of demagoguery and uselessness. But pretend for a moment I am an honest broker in this debate, and I’m not trying to land you on the slippery-slope towards gun confiscation. Do you really believe there is nothing that can be done on the supply-side to decrease either mass violence or, separately, gun homicide in this country? Or that there is nothing that can be done to prevent these guns from falling in the wrong hands in the first place? I believe we can prevent on the supply-side by preventing these guns from getting into the wrong hands, and this can be accomplished without bans.

As a closing statement on this debate, I’d reiterate the laws I advocate do not ban guns. You hear that commenters? During the entire debate, I haven’t suggested a single gun ban, so I don’t need to have this nonsense showing up in the comments. No. I believe there should be two major regulatory efforts: (1) there should me more scrutiny on gun purchasers who want to buy weapons that make mass violence easy, and (2) secondary markets need to be subjected to the same minimal level of scrutiny as the primary markets for all guns (background checks for shotguns, revolvers, bolt-action rifles etc., my higher level of scrutiny and responsibilities for purchasers of semi-automatic weapons).

I’m not talking about any kind of ban, but scrutiny on purchase of magazine-fed semi-automatics. This means people have to do some paperwork, have a check to make sure they’re not a crook (these two already exist), find a couple people to vouch they’re not nuts, demonstrate they can use and store the weapon safely, and they understand simple things like high powered semi-automatic rifles shouldn’t be used with metal-jacketed ammunition in a dense metropolis. Scrutiny, training, safety. These should be relatively noncontroversial measures.

We’ve all done this before after all, or don’t you remember the first time you showed up to the DMV to get a driver’s license? Similar theory, a car is a very dangerous machine, before you start driving you show up, they make sure you haven’t been arrested for joy-riding, you go for a little ride with an instructor to make sure you aren’t completely incompetent at operating the very dangerous machine, and you pass a little test to make sure you know the rules for safe use of the machine. Not a big deal. And how about using technology to make unauthorized use of the machine more difficult? Make it hard for the “dead-eyed killer”, as Matt calls them, to get their hands on the weapon, either from the store, or from someone’s home. Even more ideal, start working on technology to prevent unauthorized use, like the humble car key, that makes it harder for the unauthorized user to jump into your very dangerous machine, and run over a bunch of kids on the playground. Sure they can always hotwire it, but that’s hard, it takes special knowledge, and unauthorized use of the very dangerous machine shouldn’t be easy. It will invariably be argued ad nauseum that such measures can be defeated. Sure! I agree, they can be defeated. Almost any preventative measure can be defeated by a motivated, intelligent and skilled individual, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow banks will stop using vaults, or that we should give up on restricting access to grenades and C4. Barriers are just that, barriers, not perfect preventatives. All human efforts are imperfect, but these barriers may be effective strategies to decrease the likelihood or frequency of such attacks. There’s an expression, low fences keep in big animals.

And what’s so scary about such regulations for an item that kills as many as 30,000 of us a year? For years, we’ve recognized we need to regulate cars, they’re one of the single most dangerous objects in our daily existence. Automobile accidents are the most likely thing to kill you for a good chunk of your life. That’s why we make sure before people can drive, they know how. That’s why we require safety features. For years, the NRA has resisted any equivalent regulation to make gun ownership safer, they’ve resisted any attempt to incorporate safety features into weapons, they’ve resisted any scrutiny before gun purchase, and they’ve resisted scrutiny of secondary gun markets. Why is it so controversial to treat dangerous machines as something that need to be respected? Guns are machines that require training to use, they should have safety features that prevent improper use, they require safe storage when not in use, and there should be barriers and strategies in place to prevent possession by criminals and the mentally ill.

The second major thrust, and I’m not sure Matt really disagrees with me here, addresses the fact guns in the hands of criminals are coming from secondary markets. I discussed extensively in part II guns used in crime are usually fairly new guns. The generally-agreed upon sources are secondary gun markets – straw purchases, trafficking, and stolen guns – only about 10% are used in crime by the original purchaser. If we acknowledge that gun crime is a problem in this country and actually want to do something about it, we have to extend criminal background checks to all transfers of firearms. We have to make secondary markets subject to the same scrutiny as primary markets, and when guns end up in a criminal’s hands, we have to be able to track down the source of the weapon and punish them.

This is how guns get to the street. If we don’t arm law enforcement with the tools to punish gun traffickers and straw purchasers, we’re not going to be able to stop the steady flow of weapons to the streets, and into the hands of criminals. I know, 300 million guns are already out there that couldn’t be tracked by a newly-implemented system, but I’m assuming the overwhelming majority of gun owners are decent citizens who aren’t interested in selling their guns to criminals either, will gladly use the NICS system, and won’t sell their guns to criminals once the existing secondary markets are tightened. Straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and anyone else who sells guns or makes guns available to criminals should be put in jail, and treated like the accessories to crime that they are.

In these debates I’ve suggested these two overarching strategies, one to prevent mass shootings and one to decrease firearm use in crimes. For the first I admit, as does Matt, the data on viable preventative strategies is poor. The events are rare. One of the few examples of a specific response to the problem of mass violence, Australia, is consistent with a benefit to reducing mass violence by restricting magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons, but is questionable in its reduction on gun violence as a whole. I agree with Matt, making these weapons harder to obtain isn’t going to make a huge dent in gun violence as a whole, but I reiterate, increasing scrutiny of purchases of magazine-fed semiautomatics is specifically my suggestion to decrease mass violence. It is possible however, my storage and training portion of that strategy might decrease gun homicide rates modestly by decreasing the frequency of accidents and gun thefts. My second strategy, that of subjecting all gun transfers and purchases to this type of scrutiny, is specifically meant to address gun crime, based on the clear data that guns on the street are (1) usually new guns, and (2) coming from secondary gun markets 90% of the time. If we dry up the flow of guns to the street we are likely to accomplish two goals. We may decrease gun homicides, and we will arm law enforcement with the tools to track down and punish those that supply weapons to criminals.

Neither of these strategies should prevent any law-abiding citizen from obtaining any weapon that is available to them today, at the same time, they obstruct the flow of guns to criminals and erect barriers to those that might commit mass violence.