Taking the gun debate beyond the simple slogans

Does a “good guy with a gun” really stand a chance of stopping a bad guy with a gun? A couple of quality media outlets have taken a hard look.

Start with The Daily Show, in the best bit I’ve seen since Trevor Noah replaced Jon Stewart. Correspondent Jordan Klepper goes through training with a serious but game group that shows him how difficult it really is to respond to an active shooter situation. Even after going through considerably more training than he needs for a concealed-carry license, he fails quite badly in several different situations — a school hostage situation winds up with Klepper gunning down an innocent student (it’s just paint, it’s OK) and getting hit 20-some times by the gunmen. Then the police shoot him a few more times as well.

Some of the jokes are gratuitously vulgar, which I really wish The Daily Show would reserve for occasions where it’s warranted (that said, what’s up with that towel?), but most of it is what the show should be — a riotous smashing of myths and misinformation that clouds our political discourse.

It’s a good send-up of the macho sensibilities that enter into too many gun discussions — I saw a Facebook argument this week that devolved into questioning someone’s masculinity. Frankly, women might be better. The maternal instinct is powerful, and it’s not like it takes brute strength to pull a trigger.

In the real world, it takes a couple hundred hours per year of training to be somewhat adept in these situations. If we have police shooting innocent people at an alarming rate, what chance does your next-door neighbor have?

At Vox, German Lopez builds on this piece to show the ill effects of having guns scattered all willy-nilly in this country. Our arguments and our crimes escalate too quickly into death. (I’m not going to look up all the cases of kids who die in horrible accidents because I will curl into a ball and sob myself to death.)

By this point, some of you have dismissed this entire discussion as “liberal.” That’s what passes for thought these days, with everyone thinking in binary terms.

But there is a counterargument here worth entertaining.

If you’re looking for a reasonable contrarian voice, I have to recommend Eugene Volokh. I may not have thought that a few years ago, but I do now. He’s libertarian-ish, but he avoids the shallow, snarky pieces that pass for contributions from the Cato Institute, and he’s not as cold and esoteric as the inaptly named Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.

Volokh carefully compiled a list of potential mass shootings that were stopped by the “good guy with the gun,” and he revised it when new information came to light. It’s not a long list, and he adds a lot of qualifiers to point out where we don’t know how much good the “good guy” did.

He asks good follow-up questions: “In what fraction would interventions prevent more killings and injuries, as opposed to capturing or killing the murderer after he’s already done? In what fraction would interventions lead to more injuries to bystanders?”

There are a few examples of the latter floating around, and when you see a piece like The Daily Show’s, you see how easily that can happen. But Volokh’s examples are enough to remind us that we can’t fully discount the impact of the “good guy.”

So the questions in my mind are these: How many guns do we need? Would a more stringent background check have stopped any of the “good guys” in Volokh’s examples?

(Update: The Guardian did a survey to see how many mass shootings could’ve been prevented with more stringent gun measures or at least proper application of the ones we have. The answer: At least a few.)

You’ll never get all of the guns out of the USA. That’s a fool’s errand. But is there a way we could at least increase the percentage of gun owners who are responsible? Could we perhaps even offer training to more people so that they’ll have a chance of stopping a mass shooting?

It’s tempting to think we could even have a “well-regulated militia” of Americans who pass stringent training to carry guns. But I see two problems here:

These people could only stop mass shootings. If a bad guy comes in with a gun drawn, there’s very little an armed bystander or potential victim can do. A bullet is faster than anyone’s ability to draw a gun. (Excluding the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, of course.)

One argument to dismiss: These people wouldn’t be very effective deterrents for the bulk of mass shooters. Most of the people carrying out mass shootings have already flipped the switch in their heads — they have little expectation of going on with the rest of their lives. They often kill themselves before the police can. Columbine had an armed security guard, after all, who did in fact get a few shots into the mix.

Some people may have a legitimate case for home defense. A family friend who lived in a rural home, far from first responders, once used a hunting rifle to chase away a man who had followed her home. Those cases require some thought — can you keep your gun safe while having it close enough to use in a situation like this? (This incident, I should point out, was before cell phones existed, which limited her options.)

So the message for all sides in the gun debate is surely this: Temper your expectations. All of the available worldwide evidence tells us “more guns” will not make us safer. But sweeping all guns out of the USA is impossible, and sweeping them all out of the hands of the “good guys” is undesirable.

We have to meet in the middle. Somewhere.


Gay rights, gun rights, polygamy and the slippery slope fallacy

In logic class, I was taught that the “slippery slope” argument was a fallacy.

And logically, it is. It’s essentially if x then y, with no supporting arguments.

From a practical standpoint, it’s true that one argument can open the door for another argument to be considered. Arguing about Obamacare, for example, might open the door to arguments on the single-payer system. (Even though Obama himself slammed that door in his interview with Marc Maron.)

And so we hear a lot about the “slippery slope” in politics. You hear it a lot in gun arguments. “Oh, if we register our guns, then the government will start rounding them all up.” (Those arguments also inevitably invoke Hitler.)

But with gun laws, we’ve already seen that we can block the slippery slope. The USA has some restrictions on the right to bear arms. I can’t take the Metro down to Northrop Grumman and purchase a fully loaded A-10 Thunderbolt, yet such limitations mean little to owners of hunting rifles. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was amended in 1968, which is bad news for grenade owners but hasn’t eliminated handguns for the country.

So with gay marriage, we’ve already seen the slippery slope question: What about polygamy? Naturally, Politico came out and trolled everyone with that argument, though I don’t know of a serious movement to legalize it.

You may not want polygamy – neither do I – but what you can’t do is argue that you can’t allow gay marriage because polygamy inevitably follows. As we’ve seen in gun rights, the next step on the slope isn’t inevitable.

What you have to do is much harder. You have to create the intellectual and legal argument against polygamy itself. 

And if you’ve taken any philosophy classes, you know that it’s difficult to make such arguments against actions that don’t have obvious victims. You can argue against pedophilia and bestiality using a “consent” argument. It’s much more difficult to argue against something that takes place among consenting adults. Today’s fashionable libertarianism would say people should be able to define a family however they want. I’ve been pondering polygamy for a while, and the only argument I can find about harm to society is that it would lead to fewer guys marrying more women, leaving a lot of guys out in the cold. And there’s nothing more dangerous to society than guys that can’t get laid.

(Remember the urban legends about how Bin Laden was radicalized? American women laughed at him, and off he went. That’s surely a joke, but I think there’s some truth to the notion that people who are content with their love lives are a little less prone to irrational violence.)

But seriously – the fact that I haven’t come up with a good argument against polygamy doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I’m sure someone smarter than me can come up with it.

And if we’re going with slippery slopes, consider this – putting “under God” on our currency, as we did in the 1950s, is the first step toward sharia law, Christian style.

journalism, politics

Talk is cheap; printing howitzers at home is only slightly more expensive

Starting with the disclaimer that we all know journalists gravitate toward extreme points of view for their quotes, and the related disclaimer than an NRA friend of mine considers Gun Owners of America “the Westboro Baptist Church of gun rights,” take a peek at this quote in response to the idea of making gun parts at home:

“Obviously, that has to be one of her nightmares,” said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, a lobbying group opposed to additional restrictions. “If her ban was to pass and this technology moves beyond its infancy, Dianne Feinstein is going to have a bit of a challenge.”

Disclaimers notwithstanding, this is hardly the first instance I’ve seen in which the first wingnut reaction to a policy question isn’t “Whoa, this is something that requires some serious thought” but “Oh cool — this’ll piss off the liberals.”

And even some of the non-GOA people in here have that attitude. Take this oh-so-previous Texas law student, Cody Wilson:

My challenge is: Regulate this. I hope with that challenge we create such an insurmountable problem that the mere effort of trying to regulate this explodes any regulatory regime.

OK, so let’s regulate nothing. Whoever has the best printer can just rule the streets.

Yes, these two are caricatures, not representative of all gun owners or all who love 3-D printers. Surely some people are interested in this topic just because it demonstrates the difficulty of making laws with rapidly evolving technology.

So maybe the media should talk to a few more grown-ups?

Weapons made with 3-D printers could test gun-control efforts – The Washington Post.


Why the “gun nut” stereotype persists

I’m still not sure I agree with the Journal News’s decision to take gun permit records (public) and publicize them. Journalists haven’t been unanimous in their thoughts — Poynter’s Al Tompkins had the best critique of what the paper could’ve done differently.

But the response — death threats, publishing Journal News employees’ children’s elementary school addresses, white powder, etc. — is just feeding the stereotype that gun owners are crazy. If I were a gun owner (like the original reporter on the story!), I’d be annoyed to have people like this speaking on “my” behalf.

It’s not changing the conversation. It’s just bullying by people projecting their insecurities and delusions on others.