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April 5, 2003

I’ve long been a liberal with serious doubts about “gun control.” But Timothy Noah asks a good question: If gun ownership is such an effective and important bulwark against tyranny, how is it that a country in which most households own at least one gun turns out to be one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world? The country in question being, of course, Iraq, where it turns out that practically everyone is packing heat.

Noah posts an overview of responses here, none of which are awfully impressive. Surely Electrolite’s readers can do better. Remember, Electrolite is actually a fence-sitter on this issue, neither an advocate of the kind of “gun control” that means Dianne Feinstein can own a pistol but Teresa Nielsen Hayden can’t, nor entirely unsympathetic to inner-city neighborhood activists desperate to reduce the amount of firepower on their streets. Electrolite has also long observed that The Gun Issue tends to rapidly degrade both the IQ and the integrity of all participants. But hope springs eternal. What about it? If gun rights are so all-fired important, why is Canada a free society and Iraq anything but? (Via Ignatz.) [10:11 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on I've long been:

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 11:10 AM:

There was a brief discussion of this over on David Moles' site, in which I pointed out that not "everybody is packing heat" (also note that I'm for extreme limits on 2nd Amendment rights...I think handguns should be severely regulated, if not banned).

From the Washington Post:

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said last month that officials had handed out 'hundreds of thousands of weapons' since the Bush administration began deploying additional forces to the Persian Gulf.

One group largely left out of the gun distribution has been Shiite Muslims, who make up about 55 percent of the population but whose allegiance has been questioned by Hussein and other top leaders, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims.

In a police state, it obviously matters very much who has the guns. Neil MacFarquhar's passing comment that ""Most Iraqi households own at least one gun" doesn't quite cut the mustard as a valid assessement of gun ownership among Iraqis. Anybody have any reliable sources that indicate the reality of gun ownership among Iraqis?

lightning ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 11:52 AM:

Both the extreme pro-gun and anti-gun factions see guns as Magical Talismans. Pro-gun types think that guns will magically keep Evil away, while anti-gun types think that guns are Pure Evil and force people to shoot each other. Neither side is, IMHO, at all rational.

Both sides have reams of statistics, but the only thing that stands out is how very small the relationship really is between gun laws and crime. It's swamped by other things, like economic status (rich people don't shoot each other).

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 12:19 PM:

" It's swamped by other things, like economic status (rich people don't shoot each other)."

That's arrant nonsense. The rich shoot each other, probably less often, and definitely for different reasons, but shoot each other they do.


Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 12:59 PM:

Speaking as a Brit who thinks the UK situation pre-Hungerford (never mind pre-Dunblane) was about right, in regulatory terms: there is a special phrase we use to describe what people who get a bee in their bonnet and go out to change society with a gun are doing. It's called "suicide by cop."

We live in an age of increasingly complex and interdependent relationships between institutions. And they can't be changed by simply pointing a gun barrel at them -- the Russian counter-revolution of 1921-28 pretty much proves that, insofar as the Tsarist middle bureaucracy re-asserted its control even in the aftermath of a bloody civil war and purges managed by the ideologically driven first-generation revolutionaries.

Also, the state can always afford more guns than any random bunch of dissidents. If it can't, they are the new state, QED. (Usually this only happens, as in Iran in 1979, when the army decides to join the demonstrators. But it needs repeating: your right to own a gun of your own doesn't make you some kind of autonomous demi-god, or an agent of power-politics. It's just one more goddamn' expensive machine to look after which can be lethal if used inappropriately.)

Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 01:26 PM:

Mary Kay, it's like the Molly Ivins joke making the rounds: you know that the price of gas has gotten bad when rich Texas women who want to run over their husbands have to carpool. (My wife, a native Texan, laughed her ass off when she heard that one. Should I be worried?)

Seriously, in an attempt to keep the discussion at an intelligent level, I'd like to suggest an old theory of mine: out of the entire Bill of Rights, the two most important are the first two, and the Second Amendment is worthless without the First and vice versa. It's not just knowing how to use a weapon to fight tyranny, but knowing the names and faces of the targets and having enough wisdom and knowledge to know when to shoot. Guns aren't as effective as a good piece of satire, and when you consider that wit is the sniper rifle of humor (used effectively, it's more deadly than tactical nukes), the true totalitarian does his best to keep his vassals from having the opportunity to use it. Without a free press, the patriots that might want to organize have no idea where to go or what to do when they get there.

Which brings us to the Canada/Iraq situation. I'm not saying that Canada's media are as free as those in the States (you should see the bluenoses running Customs these days), but the level of wit running free in the papers and the CBC is enough to slap down the obvious targets. With wit and a venue widespread enough to disseminate it, why do you need firearms?

Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 01:50 PM:

The argument that people need to own guns in order to keep control over the government is simply nonsense. There may be other good arguments against gun control, but that one is just plain stupid. It's been a long time - centuries I should think - since an armed mob could actually hold its own against a trained army of comparable size, and if a unit of Marines can't cut through an armed mob like so much butter then they are pretty near worthless. It's even sillier to imagine an armed public holding its own against tanks and aircraft.

What prevents police and military forces from simply establishing a tyrrany is cultural constraint - they have for the most part bought into the idea of elected civilian government and human rights - and limitiations on their own ability to organise independently. That - not guns - protects people.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 02:11 PM:

I once spent all of five tounge-tied minutes in the company of a group of fifteen or twenty heavily decorated ghurka vetrans.

These guys came across like a convention of genial uncles from a pleasant victorian story; I don't think that would have changed at all if they'd been armed.

It's patterns of organization, not technology, that matter to the kind of conduct shown other people.

The difference between a pirate ship, and a shot-rolling hell, and Jack Aubrey's SURPRISE, is none of it technology; it's all the internal pattern of organization.

The difference between a neighbourhood where everyone is generally polite and helpful and one in which everyone is scared has nothing to do with what kind, or how many, firearms are in which closet.

The whole dictator issue is bogus, too; it might not have been bogus in the eighteenth century when rifles had about the same range as field guns, but today? Nothing you can afford or carry is going to do you much good against that artillery unit twenty kilometers away, nor even that drone they've got spotting for them in the dark.

The shape of the world is changed.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 04:42 PM:

Graydon: yes. Tommy guns and M15s are nifty fun, but I've spent far too many hours watching hardware porn on the History Channel, and I know that nothing I'm ever going to own is going to do much good if I'm up against weapons systems with built-in FLIR and heads-up displays, not to mention their big brothers that fire depleted uranium slugs. And anyway, what if I could? I'm not going to start a firefight in my own neighborhood. It's too full of small children and elderly Italian retirees. Of course, if all my neighbors wanted to join the fight, that would be a whole different scenario.

(The idea of someone getting into a fight with all of my neighbors somehow puts me in mind of Gingrich & Forstchen's 1945, in which the Germans invade Britain by coming up the Firth of Forth to attack Edinburgh. After that, they plan to march westward and take Glasgow.)

Amen, also, to the internal pattern of organization mattering more than the technology. An armed society is an armed society. A polite society is a polite society. Neither implies nor excludes the other.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 05:52 PM:

'armed' and 'polite' aren't -- historically -- completely orthogonal; the invention of Christian chivalry was essentially a social tool to make an armed society polite, so that it deal better with inhabiting fortifications, and it's entirely possible to look at the Hundred Year's War as a politeness contest (who would those holding civil and military power countenance, and what did this get them to beat up on the other members of the power holding class with?)

The problem is that civility is personal and legitimacy has stopped being; legitimacy -- which used to be a mix of birth, winning the election, or the competent exercise of power -- has become significantly a question of what media organizations repeat a lot.

That's not personal; that's creating an iconographic entity that a human being (or bunch of human beings) stand behind. The icon (ideally, from the point of view of the folks doing this) becomes something of unquestioned legitimacy.

This is what the 2nd Amendment appears to be used for in the US; it's a legitimacy token, but not actually subject to criticism or debate or anything like that.

That kind of social polarization seems to me to be an exceedingly bad sign.

clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 06:53 PM:

Say rather gun ownership is a guarantee of government responsive to the majority of the inhabitants - in the context of the growth of the U.S. the rhetorical contrast was to an assumed tyranny but this dichotomy is not universal. There is even a range of social choices.

As a limited democracy Athens had its tyrants - to whatever extent individual weapons guarantee democracy there is no guarantee against tyranny of the majority (even a majority that changed its mind from time to time - praise be to faster boats). A landesgemeine(? spelling) in Switzerland or an assembly in Iceland can be of armed men who do nasty things. The sort who can cruise the Seine and claim no masters yet appear quite tyrannical to outsiders with different mores.

The Kurds in the north of Iraq appear to have had some self government perhaps the no fly zones were necessary but hardly sufficient without the household guns; in the south I gather folks died for self government if not for freedom - the Syrians in Hama appear to have made a choice too, as did the Syrian government who applied Hama rules - you cannot enslave some you can only kill.

There are tales that Sadam Hussein altered his life style in response to perceived threats that could only come from an armed society; to that extent perhaps an armed society changed the tyranny.

For an explanation of why armed citizens in Iraq did not choose an American style democracy see e.g. the New York Times piece The Philosopher of Islamic Terror by Paul Berman. Then again the Canadians I know have as many and more guns than I do - don't know about the registrations but they've had them for years and years. Maybe Chicago Illinois is just a tad tyrannical too? If only the police have guns don't you live in a police state?

Personally I could live many places from Switzerland (and feel more free in Switzerland than in Chicago) to Singapore (and be aware of the bounds I was careful to stay within) but I am not sure I could call say Ireland a free state without freedom to choose or reject abortion - that doesn't seem to be an issue for any of the armed groups there. I don't trust free speech rights in Canada these days - do you?

clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 06:59 PM:

In fewer words - it seems to me we could properly refer to the current situation in much of Irag as the tyranny of the militia? Isn't that exactly what gun rights really promises?

Neither good nor bad?

I'm still younger than Manny at the end of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but I don't have any access to the Belt.

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 07:03 PM:

I'm sufficiantly convinced that private ownership of guns isn't all that useful for defending oneself agaisnt the government by the fact that drug dealers routinely get jailed, and if they're trying to avoid getting jailed, they use bribery rather than gunfire.

It's possible that governments handle armed populaces a little more carefully than they handle unarmed populaces, but this seems to be marginal.

At this point, I favor gun rights, not because they're crucial, but because gun ownership makes rather little difference, and there's no reason to spend huge resources trying to control something that can't be effectively controlled and which makes rather little difference.

Jess Nevins ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 07:52 PM:

Leave aside the merits of the gun control argument for a moment.

Who says it would work?

When has prohibition of any kind worked in this country? It didn't work with alcohol, it isn't working with drugs, it's not working with kiddie porn--why would it suddenly work with guns?

Wouldn't the time and energy spent on fighting for gun control be better spent on issues which could actually be won?

(Note: I -want- to be wrong about this. I -want- to believe that gun control could work. But I don't).

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 07:53 PM:

Clark E. Myers -
Why wouldn't you trust free speech in Canada these days?


Same rating as the US; not ideal, but not bad.

In practice, the limited, contextual rights of expression garunteed by the Canadian Constitution are more effective than the absolute rights in the American Constitution at this time, in part because there is much less corporate influence on the system of government and in part because we have a very different judicary interpreting them.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 07:54 PM:

Oh, and in the case of 'ensuring responsiveness'; that only implies if you're in a situation where you habitually shoot politicians for not listening to you.

There are lots of words for this state of affairs, but 'civil society' isn't one of them.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 08:09 PM:

What gets to me is that many victims, and perpetrators, of gunshot wounds are children. The 7-y.o. nephew of a good friend of mine was shot and killed by his 8-y.o. friend, who got hold of his dad's gun.

This touches close to home for me. I have two little girls who love to go over to their friends' houses to play all the time. I know how many times I've screwed up and thought I'd done something I hadn't; I hate to trust my kids' lives to the organizing capabilities and lack of distractions of their friends' parents, if they have loaded guns in their homes.

Studies show that you can tell a kid over and over not to pick up and handle a gun, but they do anyway. We're curious monkeys. We can't help it. Especially kids, who don't have a well-developed capability for self-regulating behavior.

Yes, I've heard the gun education argument before, but it doesn't wash well with me. As someone who has worked in the environment/health/safety compliance field for over 15 years, I can tell you, if you want to have any real impact on reducing the risk of a dangerous spill or accident, don't try to change people's behavior; engineer the risk out of the system. Engineered solutions work about a jillion times better than trying to get people to change their habits.

Which means, successful behavioral risk reduction is consequently much more expensive a solution than just physically removing the risk. Are we really willing to spend the kind of money and implement the kinds of laws that will truly protect the innocent from misuse of guns? I don't see it happening.

I recall reading that victims of guns are 31-32 times as likely to be innocent family members of the shooter, as they are to be burglars or perpetrators invading someone's home. A distressingly high number are children.

The fact that we pay such a high price for gun ownership is troubling to me.

And I agree with those who believe that owning a gun provides no real assurance you won't be overpowered by your government, if they decide to do so.

Otoh, I've read scientific studies that indicate that traditional gun control measures don't work well -- again, I'm going by memory, but iirc, there's not much lower incidence of criminal (and accidental) gun use in cities with strict gun control laws than those without them.

We'd need much stronger measures than we currently have, to have much impact -- stronger than 2nd amendment defenders would stomach, I think.

On the third or fourth hand (whichever!), while I wouldn't do it myself, I see nothing inherently immoral about hunting, say, and can't begrudge those who enjoy it. The chain of life depends upon predation. We're predators and meat eaters as a species.

And I have good friends who love their guns -- truly, a well-made gun is a work of art, and I love techie toys as much as the next person; on one level, I can appreciate their love of the workmanship.

It's a painful conundrum, but overall, I have to come down in favor of reducing opportunities for humans to inflict lethal harm on each other. But I recognize that good people are harmed by that choice, and I don't enjoy that fact.


Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 08:43 PM:

Laura --

I think you're wrong about the inability of people to follow safety rules.

I taught a lot of 13 and 14 year old boys to shoot, when I was 17 and 18 myself; it's not that blessed hard to make the sensible behaviour rules stick. It takes actual *hands on* interaction to de-coolify firearms, is all.

Nothing takes the cool out of guns than having to clean them. Nothing takes the mystery out like going through loading and unloading and make-safe drills again and again and again with drill purpose ammo with some surly homonoculus demanding that you do it exactly right.

This really is well understood, and it's been worked on a lot; there's beent three, four hundred years of sargeants not wanting the bouncy teenagers shooting them by mistake.

I'd make it a manadatory class somewhere around grade six, no exceptions, and again somewhere around grade ten.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 11:50 PM:

Under very tightly controlled circumstances, in small focused groups, yes. Now, picture trying to implement that realistically on a nationwide scale.

Picture trying to get tens of millions of people (and you don't just get the kids; you also have to deal with teens, many of whom might come from a background of abuse or a broken home, and how would you know in advance?), and adults (whose habits are deeply ingrained) to cooperate with your training -- and to follow those rules over the long term.

And next, picture trying to sustain national attention on why it's a priority and how it should be done and who should receive the most resources and what methods work best...over decades.

We can't even get off our butts and get regular exercise, as a nation, and at least that gives us endorphins. We don't even brush our teeth regularly, mow our yards as often as we should, go to the dentist, get regular health checkups. And somehow our nature is going to change when it comes to gun safety? I don't see it. It's not human nature.

For example, getting workers to use protective clothing in the work environment is like pulling teeth. Corporations sink millions of dollars annually into training and staff to make it happen, and the minute they think they've got things under control, attrition starts.

Humans are naturally lazy -- if there's an easier way to do something, we try to find it. The first hundred times we get our gun out, we put it back in its case and don't take any chances. The hundred first, we're still pretty careful...but we had a busy day and our attention might wander a bit...the thousandth, the five thousandth...?

Our instincts naturally lead us to become less careful with greater exposure to a risk. We feel safer with risks we face every day than we do with risks we are unfamiliar with -- even in the face of statistics that tell us otherwise.

A case in point: last year, this nation was in a panic over a handful of cases of anthrax. I am not trying to trivialize those deaths, which were tragic, but in terms of actual risk posed to the populace at large, and in comparison to risks we face driving our cars every day, the risk of getting an anthrax letter in the mail and it killing any one of us, was laughably small. Yet it paralyzed our mail system, depleted our stores of a particular antibiotic, and caused a huge amount of fear. The reverse holds true as well. It's the way we are.

Peter Sandman, a risk communication expert, talks about a lot about these kinds of issues -- not about gun control, but about actual versus perceived risk (http://www.petersandman.com).

For this reason, we can't count on education to have the kind of longterm impact necessary to reduce risks of gun misuse, nationwide.


Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 01:12 AM:

Well, let's see.

Why does a solution have to be, effectively, permanent in historical time?

This requirement essentially says, whatever choice is taken now, it must produce a mechanism capable of handling anything the future might come up with, whether or not we know what that is.

This is several values of impossible; there's the value of impossible involved in figuring out what the future is going to come up with, and there's the value of impossible involved in producing enough choices -- enough control input -- now to handle the full scope of choice that might ever be exercised in that arbitrary future.

Precisely that kind of solution *was* implemented on a nationwide scale in the US, in Canada, and still in any number of other places; it's not any harder to do than arranging field trips to museums or testing people before issuing them with driver's licenses.

More generally, humans have -- maybe -- an instinct to suck as infants. That's the sum and limit of uncontroversial instincts in humans; pretty much everything else is culturally mediated if it is not culturally formed.

Arguing that a profound ignorance of biology is human nature can, I suppose, be historically supported, but there was nothing inevitable about that anthrax panic; accurate information honestly presented wasn't what got the air time. It seems strange to me to use this particular example to argue against the utility of education.

Personally, yes, the five thousandth way it went back the right way; you're apparently missing the idea that things which are deeply ingrained as habits are *effort* to change. If you want people to reliably act sensibly, you go for 'practice makes permanent'. Which means lots of practice, yes, but, well, some of that bunch of mother's little darlings *were* disturbed kids from rotten home environments; it wasn't noticeably harder to teach them stuff than the kids from good places.

The idea that human nature is immutable and bad isn't one that is well supported by facts; it's a cultural trope in a number of times and places, but it is my own strong opinion that the presumption of original sin isn't useful.

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 06:02 AM:

Graydon - likely enough my perception is skewed by a few high profile incidents lately in Customs prior restraint and hate speech areas - this may be unfair to Canada - somewhat like picking the Skokie Aryan Nations dispute as the be all and end all of the issue in the U.S. of A.. Still I do in fact see a trend in the English speaking Commonwealth if you will over my lifetime and I project it in this area as in others. Tu quoque doesn't mean Canada actually has free speech, it just lowers the bar and calls it good.

Certainly when I was teaching Hunter Safety (state certified at the time) the graduation criterion (though there were written tests) was would the instructor hunt with the child and my invariable thought was trust the child much more than the parents. Personally I got my mother's first rifle - Savage Stevens Favorite falling block single shot .22 in first grade - no tragedies and a repeater Winchester 1890 .22 before I was out of grade school. As with the Anthrax I think there really is a hoplophobia reaction accompanied by a demand for expensive action out of all proportion to the actuarial realities - both the true danger and cost effectiveness of action - if one is to defend a costly program with the cant phrase that if it saves one life it is worth it one might start with the low hanging fruit of low marginal cost to save a life.

Returning to the our host's question; it does seem clear as I listen to the BBC that guns in private hands have delayed the occupation of Iraq by a foreign power for a few days and perhaps contributed to a delay in the start of the invasion? The folks in Iraq or in Zimbabwe or in Ruanda or in the former Yugoslavia who have looked to outsiders (often vainly - tomorrow we shall be killed) to save them don't seem to have been the ones with individual guns.

On the other hand there is nicely done piece by a Canadian peacekeeper on the Armed Society is a Polite Society notion based on service in Somalia which at least requires giving due weight to the society part of armed - that is as a matter of observation guns were widespread and society was not polite. I would suggest looking at the phrase as suggesting a society in which the rule was that everyone should by right be allowed arms - not just my tribe and the subjects of my warlord with everyone else disarmed - is therefore likely to be a polite society - though at that point like many truisms it may partake of circular reasoning or redundancy a polite society is a polite society.

The folks in Iraq who threaten to shoot one family member to coerce another likely are not talking about the coerced family being armed but maybe so.

Ultimately I repeat our host begs the question; first show me that Canada is free when people are trying to be arrested to test the rather draconian registry requirements; apparently they don't feel free. Then show me the folks with guns in Irag are not free by their own lights.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 06:23 AM:

Do keep in mind that in Canada, as in most other places, the people in Customs aren't necessarily following actual policy all of the time. (we have surly troglodytes of dubious intellectual achievement in government jobs, too.)

It would be silly to get into a hate speech discussion in a gun thread, but, well, you might want to look up the success rate when purusing hate speech convictions; it's very hard to do.

The firearms registry is being opposed by people as part of a democratic process;
I don't approve of it myself, but cannot argue that all available information doesn't indicate that most Canadians would support a total ban on private firearm ownership. A substantial minority *want*, actively desire, that ban.

This is one of the problems with democratic forms of government; really widespread idiocies do get into the laws. (See also 'War on Some Drugs'.)

The other part is of course that this is one of the major "Alberta issues"; it's being given a great deal of spin but the Alliance, a party I personally wouldn't trust with bubblegum and a raffle ticket.

More generally, yes, you're seeing, we're all seeing, an increase in autocratic laws; this is an inevitable side effect of trying to make a quill-pen-and-ledger organizational system handle tens of millions of people in a society with a greatly expanded choice space from that of two centuries ago.

As for delaying the invasion of Iraq -- I very much doubt it. I also very much doubt that there is any way people with personal arms can take on mechanized units and improve their lot in any material way at all; death is a kind of peace, but it is not one that can be passed to one's children.

In cases of total collapse of the civil order, yes, it's a good idea to be armed, because access to force is a requirement for constructing a civil society. I am not at all comfortable with the idea of structuring one's laws and government on the expectation of the immenent collapse of the civil order, although perhaps a number of your Framers were.

People tend to miss, in the 'better at organized violence' arguments about North West Europe and the colonial expansion, what that means; it means better at getting along in groups, and better at co-operating despite political differences.

*Planning* on devolving into anarchy and the loss of the civil order is planning on undergoing a very long term defeat indeed, these days.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 09:52 AM:

Laura, the idea of making it a health & safety issue is interesting. It could take a lot of the electrical charge off the issue to have it being handled by the poky benevolent end of the government, rather than law enforcement.

I also liked Graydon's point about firearms instruction taking all of the glamour and mystery out of it. I'm reminded of the episode in The Meaning of Life where John Cleese is trying to teach the mechanics of sex to a class full of thoroughly bored students.

One of the reasons I went to a firing range in New Hampshire a while back and fired some fairly authoritative weapons was to take some of that weird glamour off them. Even knowing this in advance, I still found myself feeling a bit lightheaded and strange when I first walked into the place.

Afterward, the guns were far less strange, and I had the beginning of a gut-level understanding of them as a particularly loud, powerful, portable, and far-acting class of power tools, like belt sanders and circular saws only more so. Much more so.

The other useful piece of understanding is what bullets actually do to people. We need to do some social engineering on this front, because TV and movies lie like rugs.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 12:44 PM:

Graydon, it's interesting that my post came across to you as arguing that human nature is immutable and bad. That isn't what I intended. What I was trying to say was that it's hard, and expensive, to get people to change their personal habits.

To help provide a framework for debate, let's first define some terms. In my view, the use of a weapon to protect oneself from a criminal is a legitimate use of a weapon. Use of a gun to hunt game, likewise. Use of a gun against a family member or neighbor in an argument, or accidental death or injury due to say, a child, finding a gun not locked away, in my view, are not legitimate uses of guns.

Harkening back to the statistic that 30+ times as many gunshot wounds are inflicted due to an argument or an accident than due to a potential victim shooting a criminal, therefore, in human-on-human gun violence, a gun is more than 30 times as likely to be used in a wrongful manner than it is a rightful one.

Gun rights advocates argue that education will be enough to bring this ratio down. For the sake of argument, let me grant you the point that life is risky and that "one child's life lost due to a gun accident is too much" is too extreme a position for a society to realistically take. Mind you, I don't want to be the one to make that argument to the mother of a dead child (and God forbid I should be that mother), but for the sake of argument, let's postulate a more moderate position.

The question then becomes, is education a realistic solution to bring the ratio of inappropriate-to-appropriate uses of guns down to, say, one-to-one, instead of thirty-to-one? I'd still say no. And the reason why is because of how we humans deal with risk.

One major reason people change their personal habits is due to fear of a serious risk to their life and well-being. But our risk instincts are based not on the true, actuarial likelihood that something might happen to us, but rather on our familiarity with the risk and how in control of it we feel we are. If we handle guns regularly and keep them around the house, they become familiar, and we feel in control of them.

The anthrax example was a negative example of this effect -- in other words, while the _actual_ risk to us as individuals was small, the anthrax risk was both unfamiliar and out of our individual control. Gun deaths are much more common, but they're both familiar to those who own them, and the owner feels in control of the risk.

My point was that when exposed to a familiar risk over which we have control, we become comfortable that nothing bad will happen. But when you look at the statistics, they tell a different story.

This is not to say that every household with a gun will experience a gun accident or inappropriate use of that weapon; it's to say that the caution that education would instill won't stick for long, because it's contending with our instinctual response to risk. It would take a huge, ongoing national effort to get people to overcome our natural instincts.

Therefore, I'm doubtful that any education program could have the kind of impact needed to significantly reduce the incidence of accidental gun-related violence. And education won't even touch crimes of passion.

So it just doesn't add up, for me.


LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 12:55 PM:

Teresa, yes indeed. The former girlfriend of a close friend of ours is a teen counsellor who does pro bono work for the justice system. Invariably, every teen perpetrator is stunned by the reality. "I didn't know there would be so much blood."

My post above notwithstanding, I actually would like to see better education about guns. I agree with you about Hollywood. I confess that I love thrillers but their depth regarding the impact of violent death on people's lives is pitiful.


Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 03:20 PM:

Laura, I simply don't accept your 30:1 ratio number at all. I'd very much like to see a cite from something that is peer reviewed and exposes its methedology before I'll even consider that number.


Between 1989 and 1997, an average of 1,252 firearm-related deaths were reported each year in Canada. Of these, 80% were suicides, 15% were homicides, 4% were "accidents" and, in 1% of cases, the cause was unknown.1

1. Hung CK Firearm statistics, Updated tables and special tabulations. Ottawa: Department of Justice, March 2000. Statistics Canada: catalogue 84-208

This gives a 3:1 ratio, roughly, between homicides and accidents; even if you lump everything together and only consider interactions with people, you still don't get 30:1.

The article includes a 22:1 risk increase by comparing the likelyhood of death due to *all* firearm related injuries versue the likelyhood of killing an intruder; that is still not a breakdown by 'legitimate' (which include hunting and target practice) and 'illegitimate' (which include shooting the insulators off power poles) firearm use.

What is a 'legitimate' and 'not legitimate' use of firearms is something I'm not concerned with defining; it is not something that needs to be defined. There are already perfectly adequate laws about what one can and cannot do to one's fellow human beings, livestock, their chattels, and wild animals; those don't need extending or modifying to cope with private ownership of firearms.

The thing that does leap out of those statistics is that four firearm deaths in five are suicides, and that effort spent on doing something about the frequency of that impulse to self destruction would have very large proportionate rewards.

Your neighbours can kill you; that's been true since (at the very latest) people learned how to light fires. No amount of laws can hope to change that in any way at all.

The thing which gives security from that is not force or power -- which is what one is invoking when one is invoking the law -- but friendship and fellowship and the common knowledge of peace as a community project.

Which things, quite honestly, I have never observed the presence or absence of firearms to effect _among the community_. Bunches of Quakers, zero firearms, community. Bunches of military, lots of firearms, community. Bunches of farm families, lots of firearms, community. Deer-hunting city folk, firearms, no particular community; non-hunting city folk, no firearms, no particular community, as per your standard sidewalkless suburb.

Firearm ownership is just not something that defines people, and I think any attempt to make it do so is a mistake.

julia ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 07:06 PM:

I see an analogy between gun ownership and SUV ownership - I hear a lot about rights and very little about responsibility.

Let's posit the right to bear arms and to own cars that are dangerous to the cars they share the roads with, pretty much for the sake of fashion.

Is there any reason why there shouldn't be stiff insurance penalties for owning a car that's more likely to cause fatalities in an accident? Any reason why something that's taxed and tariffed as a truck should be allowed on the parkway?

Any reason that a society that mandates insurance on a car shouldn't demand liability insurance of gun owners? That a society which demands a driver's license can't demand a license on firearms? Should my taxes go up to pay for your high-risk activities without my having the right to say no?

There's a cafeteria libertarian smell to all this - if you expect me to pay extra taxes and insurance premiums to support your 'freedom,' then I get to vote on how and when you get to exercise it in order to reduce my exposure. It's entirely as simple as that.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 10:04 PM:

I encountered the statistic in an article in, I believe, SciAm. It's been at least a few years, but I'll see if I can track the article down.


clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 12:57 AM:

The car/gun argument has been made many places. See e.g the writings of David Brin for gun control suggestions he advocated in Science Fiction Chronicle IIRC a news stand glossy in any event a trial of something very like the Illinois Firearms Owners Identification Card on the driver's license analogy without regard for the Illinois experience - maybe I can order a button "Don't make me waste my Coke {Coke with trademark form and symbol} to avoid further disputes - Is society going to furnish me with places to shoot as it does places to drive? Or make the same demands on off-road vehicles as on-road? - I do have a 1974 F250 4X4 geared 3 and a granny with a winch on the front and a hitch on the back and a cap on the top outside. Anybody who wants to drive it around Seattle for pleasure is welcome to try it.

Perhaps in a more on topic reference I am reminded of a Quaker friend's experience as a Freedom Rider. He noticed that his then host family had a variety of firearms laid out in the front room. Seems the night riders were much less aggressive when folks started shooting back. He acknowledges today a feeling for Orwell's observation that he indeed felt safer in his bed "because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." Indeed as a visitor in the community and with memories of such things as Hungary'56 [?morality of encouraging resistance to the armed established order] then fresh the right and power of self-help allowed a more aggressive push for civil rights in that community - just as non-violence worked well elsewhere (see also Turtledove on Ghandi).

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 03:46 AM:

Events always derive meaning from context; context is always complicated.

So power is always complicated. (It might be customary, and thereby straightforward, but that doesn't mean it's complicated.)

Trying to take the complicated out of the use of the kinds of power that involve the use of weapons will always produce something very snarly, becuase that complicated is in there, with the context, the place and the time and the particular blurry objectives of all those involved, and there is no getting it out.

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 05:19 AM:

The use of weapons will always produce something very Snarleyow - there are evils that follow the absence of weapons as well.

All kinds of power involve the ultimate threat of the use of weapons and all kinds of power are ultimately fraudulent.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 02:39 PM:

Julia's "cafeteria libertarian" remark is perhaps a little unfair. I don't think any of the gun-rights defenders in this discussion are libertarians. I know Graydon isn't.

Jeff ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 02:45 PM:

I'll take a shot at this from the hardware POV.

No, my little 9MM isn't going to cut the daisies against the larger issues. However, it doesn't need to. Our military is currently stretched just trying to handle a somewhat armed Iraq. Our military, no matter how powerful, could not suppress an armed American populace. Sooner or later, they tend to run out of cruise missiles. There is currently no shortage of Americans.

However, a military one-tenth the size of the current one could easily suppress a population of 300 million unarmed people. No matter how sharp their rapier-like wit.

What our light hardware does is buy us time, should the unthinkable happen. The longer it takes to suppress a population, the stronger the resistance becomes and the weaker the suppression becomes. A maxim of the art of war.

As far as the Iraq v. Canada argument goes, remember that Canada only recently disarmed its population. I hope, for Canada's sake, that they don't upset our divine ruler too much, or he might decide to preemptively strike. If he does, the poor little Canadian army will be no match for our mighty military.

An armed Canadian populace, on the other hand, might prove more difficult to subdue.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 04:26 PM:

LauraJMixon wrote, "Our instincts naturally lead us to become less careful with greater exposure to a risk," to which Graydon replied, "More generally, humans have -- maybe -- an instinct to suck as infants. That's the sum and limit of uncontroversial instincts in humans; pretty much everything else is culturally mediated if it is not culturally formed."

It does not seem to me that they are addressing the same point. Graydon is defining instinct as very specific behavior; Laura perhaps misused the term "instinct" but is referring to known qualities of human nature which Graydon cannot wish away by sticking to a rigid definition of "instinct". Laura's point is that constant vigilence is required to overcome these known qualities of human nature, and that this constant vigilence is itself against the known tendency of human nature.

Nancy Lebovitz wrote,

"I favor gun rights, not because they're crucial, but because gun ownership makes rather little difference."

To defending yourself against the government, no; but the main thrust of gun-control debate has been over the relationship of guns to crime, where it perhaps makes a great deal of difference. Both directions of that difference have been seriously argued.

Scott Martens wrote,

"The argument that people need to own guns in order to keep control over the government is simply nonsense. ... It's been a long time - centuries I should think - since an armed mob could actually hold its own against a trained army of comparable size, and if a unit of Marines can't cut through an armed mob like so much butter then they are pretty near worthless. It's even sillier to imagine an armed public holding its own against tanks and aircraft."

This seems to me to be obviously true, yet I have often seen the argument seriously made that "guns are our last resort against an invasive government" (and what use were they at Ruby Ridge and Waco?), and the dependent argument that gun registration is to be resisted because it's a necessary step towards confiscation. (And are gun owners not worried about the government confiscating their cars, which - unlike your guns - you have no constitutional right to own or operate?)

These are genuine questions, not a sarcastic rant. I'd really like to see a gun-rights advocate address them.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 04:45 PM:

An armed populace just has powder residue in their homes, for the sniffers to pick up and the detention squad to act on.

Armed is a state of mind; if you can't put equivalent formed units in the field (and Canada has one tenth the population of the US, so that's just silly), armed in the conventional sense doesn't get you anything positive.

An industrial economy, an industrial culture, is hip-to-neck deep in concentrated energy; it's not particularly difficult to use that.

"All kinds of power are ultimately fraudulent" is a very strange thing for someone typing away at an electrically powered device to say.

The question about power is whether it expands or contracts access to choice, and if so, whose access.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 04:47 PM:

Simon --
Laura's point about constant vigilance is not well taken.

The thing that protects against deadly devices is good habits; good habits are established by emphatic repetition, and once established, *become* the lazy option for dealing with that particular thing.

If it's doable with cars, and power tools -- most people who operate, frex, punch presses, *don't* hurt themselves -- and construction equipment and high tension electricity, why are guns special?

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 08:09 PM:

Graydon -

Most people who operate punch presses are, I would imagine, professionals. The gun users you and Laura were discussing would not be.

Nevertheless, on this planet industrial accidents are still distressingly common. Perhaps "most people who operate [these things] don't hurt themselves," but "most people" sets a pretty low standard, don't you think?

Speaking of nonprofessionals and dangerous machines -- you mentioned cars. Again, your planet may be different, but on this one, unsafe behavior by drivers is so common as to be a byword, and this despite widespread driver education programs, despite mandatory tests of drivers, despite continual ad campaigns for driver safety, despite the uniformed persons whose cars have flashing lights, and who are empowered to impose heavy fines for misbehavior.

It's not that guns are different. It's that guns are not different. Whatever admirable perfection your nature may achieve, most human nature is like Laura says it is, and her point is very well taken indeed.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 09:08 PM:

Simon -9
At what point does it become improper for this argument to be used to prevent people from operating power machinery? Lawnmower, say? If you're going to argue that people are inherently lazy and careless, they shouldn't be allowed to use *anything* powered.

(Most people operating machines in industrial settings aren't professionals, and aren't necessarily well trained, either.)

"Human nature" is socially constructed. Hence the different per-firearm firearm accident rates in the US, Switzerland, and Japan, say.

I don't think it does anybody any good to argue for the doctrine of fundamental depravity when it comes to power tools.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 09:16 PM:

Point to Graydon.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 10:19 PM:

Indeed, cultural habits are deeply ingrained.

In fact, in Japan, amazingly, according to someone I know with great expertise in the field, health and safety accidents are virtually unheard of. In my view, though, this merely supports my argument.

I used instinct as a shorthand; in fact, and obviously, we are a complex of nature and nurture. But the window does close on our adaptability to a large degree by the time we reach adulthood -- we don't lose all adaptability; we're one of the most neotenous species around, if not the most; and we retain a fraction of the mental plasticity of our youth. But only a fraction.

And jeez, I'm a mom. Let me tell you about trying to instill good habits in kids. It ain't no cakewalk.

Are you proposing, Graydon, that with gun education you can somehow completely change American culture as a whole, and change us into a much more community-oriented, other-focused culture like the Japanese?

What kind of budget are you talking about, to achieve this miracle of social transformation? And what success rate will you be satisfied with?

(PS- while there is some utility in comparing guns to other big, powerful tools, power tools and cars, when used as their designers intended, don't kill people.)

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 11:30 PM:

"Nature" is a bogus concept; so is "nature vs. nurture".

They're essentialist concepts; we don't live in an essentialist universe.

People are this ninety-sided dance between genes, aka history(biological), environment(chemical), environment(social),
environment(biological), environment(technological),
environment(climate), history(personal), history(cultural), chance,
choice, and change everlasting.

Despite the best efforts of our brains, constructing the world-maps we
inhabit out of scattered glimpses of tiny subsets of the world around
us, this process doesn't stop.

Since almost all of it is mediated by culture, and culture is established by, broadly constructed, education and catastrophes as they occur, yeah, I would expect education to work effectively.

US culture changes, quite rapidly; getting *rid* of gun education -- quite ubiquitous up until about 1965 or so -- certainly caused cultural change. Why would you expect adding some back in not to do so?

Any expense less than the cost of the violence which goes away is worthwhile, isn't it? I have a lot of trouble seeing how, say, trading a gigabuck (plenty) over ten years for gun violence reduced by a quarter wouldn't be a net win for the US culture as a whole.

Most firearms never kill people; most firearms make holes in paper targets. Most other firearms kill deer, and something needs to.
I'd personally be in favour of establishing wild breeding populations of tigers, but I doubt the good people of New England would entirely
approve, and I really doubt the tigers would prosper rapidly enough for the purpose; there's a lot of deer, and folk might as well eat

The spillover in human bodies isn't different from any other part of having an industrial culture; every design decision, every planning
choice, every machine design, is in part a decision about how many dead people you're willing to live with to get this particular objective met, and it's very, very rare for the optimization to be for the minimum number of dead people. (Because, in part, that usually means that you can't meet the objective at all.)

The splendid and shining example of this is the 55 mph speed limit; something which was intended to save lives, and which was massively unpopular, because people would rather get there 10% quicker and take their chances.

So, that said -- of course I'm not proposing to completely change American culture as a whole. That greatly exceeds the least sufficent
means, now doesn't it?

The part of all this that is an actual technical problem -- people not knowing how to handle and use firearms, which last includes not
understanding the consequences of their use in any visceral way -- is easy to solve, has been solved repeated and successfully all over the
world for two hundred years at a minimum.

The *social* problem, the American tendency to define communities by exclusion and the preference for essentialist absolutes over
quantitative reasoning in public policy, those would be larger jobs of education, but those are still quite doable, given sufficent time and
poltical will. (I would note that the quantitative reasoning types have shown a net positive trend over the life of the Republic to date.)

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 11:32 PM:

Oh, and Simon, I should have put this in earlier -
driver testing in NorAm is a joke, because the ability to drive is an economic necessity, so there is absolutely zero political support for instituting strong controls on compentence for drivers. I don't imagine drivers licensing serves any actual useful purpose in terms of the quality of driving taking place as it is presently instituted.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 12:28 AM:

I'm sorry to see PNH giving extra points to Graydon for offering a reductio ad absurdum. Nowhere did I argue for the absolute prohibition of guns. Cars are dangerous, but they're less dangerous than guns; controls and training for cars are necessary, but should be less strict. Lawnmowers are less dangerous than cars, and so forth. Honestly, do I have to explain everything?

"Fundamental depravity" seems a ludicrous exaggeration of my depiction of driving habits. But if Graydon wants to pretend that he lives in a world where bad driving is not ubiquitous, it merely shows the basic disconnection of his proposals from reality. Graydon argues for shading of an understanding of humans, but he seems to think that everyone who disagrees with him (Laura and I) believes in strict black-and-white categories, and we have to spend most of our time explaining otherwise.

I recall, though I cannot now find, that Graydon proposed that his gun-training sessions be mandatory for all young persons, whether they intend to use guns in the future or not. Given the logic of his post, does he propose mandatory training sessions on the use of lawnmowers?

And why not, anyway? I expect that most people's childhoods include general training in the use of dangerous tools, pertinent to if not specifically including lawnmowers. This training traditionally comes from one's parents.

Certainly training in use of guns is itself a good thing. But ubiquity of guns will mean a more casual attitude towards guns. Substitute anything else for "guns" and it's still true. That is the reality of human nature as Laura describes it, and Graydon has said nothing to persuade me that she is not right.

Graydon also says there is no political support for controls on competence of drivers. Really? I guess I've been imagining all the increase in recent years in draconian DUI penalties, the increase in strictness of driving tests, the existence of point systems for traffic tickets leading to loss of license, the creation of physical barriers like forced turns and speed bumps to physically force drivers to be more competent, the confiscations of cars used by drug dealers whether they are the owners or not regardless of the owner's economic need for the car, and so forth.

It would be interesting to compare this to the political support for gun control, where, after ten years' lobbying, the passage of a tiny weak measure like the Brady Bill is counted as a huge victory, because it's the best we can get.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 12:51 AM:

I see I misread one of Graydon's comments, and that he claimed I was arguing fundamental depravity about power tools, not cars. That's still an absolute mischaracterization of what I wrote, but I should mention this now, lest the reply focus on that, and not the real point. (I don't know if Graydon argues that way, but too many people do.)

"Most people operating machines in industrial settings aren't professionals, and aren't necessarily well trained, either."

Obviously not, considering the accident rate I referred to; but if we can't train them, how can we train gun users?

(By "professional", I meant someone who does it all day for a living, which is significantly different from someone who rarely uses the tool and obviously approaches it with tremendous caution where the "professional" is more naturally at ease with it. That is one reason why the "professional" accident rate might be higher than the amateur's rate, despite the amateurs' lesser training.)

Graydon argues that the failure of the 55 mph speed limit proves that we don't believe in complete optimization of safety. Of course we don't: that would require a 0 mph speed limit. But the nationwide 55 mph limit was imposed primarily to save fuel (remember the gas crisis?), not to save lives which was considered a highly desirable secondary effect; and insofar as safety tradeoffs played a role in its repeal, the prime moving factor was rural freeway drivers, who pointed out that the speed limit significantly increased their inconvenience (more significantly than for urban drivers, who didn't have to drive as far) at - considering the paucity of rural traffic - very little increase in their safety.

And yet still the 55 speed limit's mark remains, with many urban freeways bearing much lower speed limits than they did before it was imposed: I've seen many where default speed limit is 55, but before the late 70s it was 65/70.

"The part of all this that is an actual technical problem -- people not knowing how to handle and use firearms, which last includes not
understanding the consequences of their use in any visceral way -- is easy to solve, has been solved repeated and successfully all over the
world for two hundred years at a minimum."

Probably true. But what hasn't been solved is the side effect which Laura raised, and which Graydon is trying to disguise by calling her an essentialist.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 01:56 AM:

Cars kill more people than guns do, in the US; by what measure are the guns more dangerous?

You're arguing that human nature is responsible for people becoming lazy when dealing with the familiar, and that this will inevitably result in bad practices with dangerous things.

The acknowledgement that the aforesaid human nature is a cultural construct and that different places have different rates of accident is attached to a belief that the effort to change American culture is too great to be contemplated.

That's an argument of intractable helplessness -- people are so likely to behave badly, the effort of avoiding that bad effort is so great, that it is better to constrain the choice space by prohibition and criminalization than by education.

That's effectively the argument of fundamental depravity; people cannot be trusted, and must be compelled to be good.

My observation is that such attempts are not widely known for their historical successes.

If one was concerned primarily about the public welfare, cancer causing pollutants would presumably be a higher priority; if one was primarily concerned for an effective solution, the social part of the problem -- the very tough, 'reconvert economy back into a wealth generating, rather than wealth concentrating, machine, accessible to everyone' -- would presumably be the greater priority.

The idea that firearm registration and banning various classes of same actually produces firearm safety, or greater public safety, strikes me as being very much in the category of magical thinking.

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 06:59 AM:

"Cars are dangerous, but they're less dangerous than guns" Was it Niven who wrote about the more dangerous weapon? This assertion is at least debatable. See the record of the Pinto crispy critter cases for an interesting actuarial analysis. I'd argue that cars do kill people but guns don't because with a gun it is seldom an accident.(Nambu trigger bars and such being an awfully rare potential exception)

"ubiquity of guns will mean a more casual attitude towards guns" Interesting asserion. Once again,though the Swiss are not nearly so well armed as often argued - e.g. in a 5 family apartment building I lived in there were only 3 light weapons combat infantrymen who kept Stg57 at home I found them much less casual than folks in Chicago where everything was tightly regulated - the guns for Diane but not for Theresa rule. One summer when I lived in Chicago there were as many shot dead within a one block radius of my apartment as the maximum shot dead in any of the Kansas cowtowns in their peak as seen on T.V. years - 5 to save people looking it up; one year in Dodge and one year in Ellsworth. There exist communities where guns are common and attitudes are not casual. Salmon Idaho doesn't have Devil's Night with wild firing into the air; some places do and the more regulated rather than the less at least in the U.S..

"the increase in recent years in draconian DUI penalties" I don't know what Draco thought about DUI when the horse knew the way but recently a Judge for Washington State was given a deferred adjudication for drunken hit and run property damage only. If that's draconian bring it on.

And finally we part company irretriviably when "a tiny weak measure like the Brady Bill is counted as a huge victory" Means among other things that I can't pawn and redeem my own gun without meeting the requirements as a suspect class to buy a new one. Talk about draconian.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 03:31 PM:

"In what sense are guns more dangerous than cars?"

I would wager, but am sure that there are no reliable statistics to prove the issue either way, that in terms of deaths & damage caused per minutes operated, automobiles (not just cars, but trucks, too) are vastly less dangerous than handguns. I am fairly sure this is true even if you were to count all of the armed service-providers like police and military who carry guns at all times as "operating" their guns simply by carrying them. I would not be willing to consider a gun to be "operating" if it's in a box or a desk drawer, though.

Chris Crawford ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 10:31 PM:

This is an amazingly intricate discussion! Forgive me if I propose a simple-minded cost/benefits analysis of the current state of gun control.
Under the current legal regime, we suffer some number of gun-related deaths and injuries per year. How many? I'll suggest a very rough figure of 5,000 deaths per year in the USA. The actual count is higher than that, but some of those deaths can be argued away, such as the deaths of dirty low-down drug pushers or suicides, some of which would have simply found another means of termination.
Yes, there are plenty of complications to consider. But we don't need to quibble over precise numbers; the arguement I offer does not hinge on exact figures.
That's our cost: 5,000 corpses, give or take a few thousand.. Now, what are the benefits arising from gun ownership? Here are some of the oft-cited benefits:
1) Keeping the government honest by threat of revolution from gun-toting citizens. I do not accept this as a reasonable arguement.
2) Reducing crime through defensive firepower. The evidence we have on this is problematic; while a few studies have indicated some crime-reducing benefits, the statistical problems with these studies are mind-boggling, and other studies show no benefits. For the moment, we have no solid evidence for crime-reducing benefits of gun ownership; there MAY be a benefit, but it is as yet unproven.
3) Hunting. Yes, it's good to get out there and commune with nature. Most hunters are out there for the outdoorsy nature of the experience; the actual shooting provides nothing more than the mountain peak provides the climber.
4) Target shooting. Hey, some people enjoy this; others enjoy model railroads; de gustibus non est disputanden.
5) Hidden reason: masculinity. Most gun guys won't or can't articulate this, but there is something very masculinity-enhancing about toting a weapon. I know the feeling -- while I don't tote guns, sometimes when I head out into the forest I'll strap on a kukri or bring my spear. the excuse I give myself is that these weapons might be useful should I run into one of our local mountain lions (I live in the mountains of Oregon), but the truth is, it just feels SO macho to have that weapon with me.
I cite this reason not to belittle but to explain the "cold, dead fingers" reasoning used by many gun advocates. Guns hit an emotional hot button with some people, almost all of them males (and they hit other parts of other people). And indeed, if you harken back to our rock-throwing hominid ancestors, I think you can see why guns and weapons play such a large role in the male psyche.
Again, I emphasize that this exercise in amateur psychology is not an attempt to belittle the advocates of gun ownership; I am trying to explain what I think is the most important benefit of gun ownership. Carrying a weapon does for guys what wearing a particularly spectacular dress does for gals. (Of course, "dressed to kill" is much more figurative in the case of females).
if we acknowledge these costs and benefits, we can then approach the problem with less religion and more pragmatism. Are 5,000 deaths worth the hunting, target shooting, and masculinity-enhancement? Our automobiles kill 50,000 people a year -- are hunting, target shooting and masculinity-enhancement one tenth as desirable as our transportation system?
I think not. My own value-balancing says that the body count is too high for the benefits. But this doesn't mean that we need to ban guns -- only that we should adjust the laws to bring down the body count while still keeping the largest portion of the benefits.
My understanding is that hunting accident deaths are a small fraction of the total body count, and so we can probably let hunting proceed as it always has.
As I understand it, the damn handguns are the biggest source of bodycount. They're worthless for hunting and target shooting. their only benefit is the macho-factor -- which, again, I want to emphasize, is really the most important benefit of guns.
So it seems to me that we should get rid of handguns and provide some sort of substitute for all those troubled young men seeking to bolster their self-image. Perhaps we should embrace the wisdom of a certain tribe in New Guinea, whose men would feel naked if they went out in public without their (very large) penile attachments.
Oh, dear, I suppose that Mr. Ashcroft might have some objections to that...

James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 09:36 AM:

Do we actually know it for a fact that the majority of Iraqis on the street were able to own and keep firearms?

We know from other sources that one of the features of the end of a war is that absolutely anyone who wants a weapon can have one. Is widespread firearm ownership merely an artifact of the US Army rolling through?

Regardless of the question of overthrowing the government, it strikes me as unlikely that the secret police could take folks away to torture dungeons if the midnight-knock-on-the-door might be answered with gunfire.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 03:03 PM:

Chris Crawford, how illuminating is it to equate guns with penises? I mean, really.

Chris Crawford ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 06:14 PM:

Theresa, I know that equating guns with penises seems, at first glance, rather bizarre. So here's a quickie explanation: go back to hominid evolution, with hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Guys hunting and gals gathering. Early hominid hunting was done with rocks. Throw the rock, hit the prey, hurt him a little. Prey runs off. Track the prey, hit him with another rock. Keep going long enough and eventually you bring him down. Sounds silly, I know, but you gotta better way to do it with slow feet and no claws or fangs? Besides, it worked! Of course, it required more intelligence, patience, and stamina, but those were available. Since bringing home the bacon was the starting point for sexual selection, guys who could throw better really made it big the gals. All of which explains why big torsos are macho (it's those pectoral muscles that really give power to a throw). Also explains why homo sapiens, one of the physically worst endowed large mammals in the world, is the best rock-thrower on the planet. Nobody can match our ability to throw a rock accurately and with power! It also explains why, even today, a male office worker will crumple a piece a paper into a wad, toss it backwards over his head, and thrust his fist skyward in triumph when it lands in the trash can. The accurate, powerful propulsion of projectiles is just about the most macho thing in the world; one of the most cutting of male insults is "You throw like a girl!". And what propels projectiles more accurately, more powerfully, than a gun?

Neil Rest ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2003, 11:08 PM:

Can't recall the source, but I read a couple of years ago that Cuba has one of the world's highest per capita rates of gun ownership. I've been teasing gun nuts about it ever since.

re: helicopter gun ships
They were rumored to be just above the clouds here in Chicago in August '68 . . .

re: kids
"When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will accidentally shoot their kids."

clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2003, 08:07 PM:

"As I understand it, the damn handguns are the biggest source of bodycount. They're worthless for hunting and target shooting. their only benefit is the macho-factor -- which, again, I want to emphasize, is really the most important benefit of guns." Sure could have fooled me, I guess my Hammerli pistol must be the most deadly gun I have - Hammerli's tend to be pricey, must be deadly? Gotta be twice as powerful as an X frame S&W in .500 S&W that costs half as much and 4 times as powerful as a mere .44 Magnum?

My own value-balancing says that the body count is NOT too high for the benefits - so?

Personally I'll take a staff hiking, if you want something with a shaft and head for symbolism, but I will admit if pressed that I think of it as a quarter-staff, one of these days gotta get one of those magnum full staffs (like Gandalf's?).