Wednesday, December 19, 2012

We need to re-examine gun control

I'm not a gun person.  I've never owned one, and my father never took me hunting when I was a kid.  I once went to a firing range, took some training, and spent half an hour punching holes in a paper target, but that's about it.  I've never been particularly anti-gun either.  Had you asked me in a survey if I supported increased gun legislation, I would have said yes in an ambivalent sort of way, but it was never my issue.

That changed on December 14, 2012, in the Newtown Elementary school massacre.  My thoughts on the subject are captured below in question and answer format.  If you are a gun proponent and believe I've missed some significant arguments, I would sincerely like to hear them in the comments.

Q: Aren't you politicizing a tragedy?
A: No.  Politicizing the tragedy would be to suggest it wouldn't have happened under a republican white house, or a democratic congress, etc...  Advocating gun control following a gun related tragedy is no more political than advocating a review of fire safety standards after a fire.

Q: Guns don't kill people.  People kill people.
A: True.  But guns make people much more efficient at it.  Newtown Elementary involved guns.  So did Columbine, and the shooting at Aurora.

Q: What about 9/11?
A: True.  Even with no guns, there will be the potential for large scale catastrophic incidents.  But they'll be much more rare.  9/11 took years of sophisticated planning - it's not something a lone lunatic is likely to be able to achieve.  Also, you'll note that after 9/11, we took significant action to prevent a recurrence.  While you can argue for or against the effectiveness of any particular bit of airport security, you must acknowledge that there has not been a recurrence of that type of large scale airline hijacking since 9/11.  There have, however, been multiple recurrences of large scale shootings in public places since Columbine.

Q: What about Oklahoma City?
A: Once again, you'll note that after the bombing of Oklahoma city, we introduced new safety restrictions around government and other buildings to make it more difficult for somebody to drive up and detonate a bomb.  And once again, you'll note we haven't had a major recurrence since then.  We try to make things better after every plane crash, after every major fire, and after every financial disaster.  It's only gun violence that we allow to recur again and again.  Something is wrong with this picture.

Q: But if you take away the guns, only criminals will have guns.
A: Criminals and police, yes.  Some criminals will still have guns, but far fewer than otherwise.  That means fewer crimes, fewer household accidents, fewer rampages.

Q: Gun ownership prevents crime via deterrence.
A: While there is anecdotal evidence of specific crimes being prevented, there is no evidence that gun ownership lowers the overall crime rate.  Gun ownership did not prevent Newtown, or Columbine, or Aurora, or Virginia Tech.  Also, if gun ownership prevents crime, we should expect to see significantly higher levels of crime in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia (which I picked for their cultural similarity to us, and different approach to gun laws).  This is not the case.  The United Kingdom has an "intentional homicide rate" of 1.2 per 100,000.  Australia's rate is 1.0.  The rate for the United Stated is 4.2.  That's a higher rate than France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, or Italy.  It's even higher than Libya, Algeria, Somalia, Iraq or Iran.  A citizen of Switzerland coming to the United States faces roughly the same increase in danger that a citizen of the United States would face traveling to Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tanzania.  In case you're not familiar with these countries, it would be safer to go to Rwanda.

Q: The constitution protects gun ownership.
A: Three points on that:
1.    Congress has already implemented some gun legislation.  It’s relatively toothless, but the legal precedent has been established.
2.    The constitution doesn't spell out the right for individual gun ownership.  It states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Our current policies on gun ownership do not require a prospective owner to be a member of a well regulated militia.  One could easily restrict guns to members of the police, army and national guard without straying from the wording of the constitution, as long as any able bodied individual was permitted to join these institutions (especially the guard).  I admit that I'm on the opposite side of current judicial thinking on this one.  In his decision on District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonia Scalia wrote "Nowhere else in the Constitution does a 'right' attributed to 'the people' refer to anything other than an individual right. What is more, in all six other provisions of the Constitution that mention 'the people,' the term unambiguously refers to all members of the political community, not an unspecified subset."  In short, he argued that because every other part of the constitution only deals with individual liberties, this section should be interpreted as dealing with individual liberty as well.  Put another way, he argues that this section of the constitution is unconstitutional, and should be reinterpreted based on how the rest of it is written.  I think that logic requires a serious re-examination in court.
3.    I'm willing to back a change in the constitution if need be.  The constitution supported slavery.  Then one day, we said "that's not who we are", and we changed the constitution.  It's a great document.  It's not infallible.

Q: Changing the constitution just isn't feasible.
A: Neither was eradicating smallpox, or traveling to the moon.  Until we did both of these things.  There are some problems that are so vexing that we just have no idea how to start.  This is not one of those problems.  Difficult?  Yes.  But that's hardly a reason not to do it.

Q: Restricting guns is a restriction of individual liberty.
A: True, to a point.  Not restricting guns is also a restriction of liberty.  The word freedom is an often misused concept.  It is rarely acknowledged that every "freedom to" is an infringement on a "freedom from".  This was well summarized by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."  Whenever we discuss protecting or infringing liberty, we need to look at both sides of this equation.  In this case, I believe that your freedom to own a gun is outweighed by a first grader's right not to be massacred in the classroom.

Q: If the shooter in Newtown didn't have guns, he just would have found another way to commit this atrocity.
A:  I'm sure he would have tried.  But I don't believe he would have gotten nearly as far as he did before one of the adults at the school managed to take him down.

Q: We have a long tradition of gun ownership in this country.
A: The South had a long tradition of slavery.  But it was wrong, so we ended it.  Not all traditions can or should be maintained.

Q: If we abolish gun ownership today, what's to stop somebody from ending other constitutional liberties like free speech tomorrow?
A: Me, you, and every other citizen who values free speech.  The day that we are massively outnumbered by citizens who believe that the costs of free speech are too heavy to bear, then free speech will end.  Whether or not that day ever comes has nothing to do with whether we address gun ownership today.

Q: I'm a responsible gun owner.  Why must I pay the price for some lunatic's actions?
A: Because, unfortunately, lunatics look like everybody else.  If there's a reliable way to prevent lunatics from ever getting their hands on guns, I'm all ears.  Sadly, the NRA, which should have been leading the effort to ensure that only responsible, committed people get their hands on guns, had instead been opposing every effort to take steps in this direction.

Q: If the citizenry is unarmed, what's to stop the US government from taking over and turning into a police state?
A: The same thing that prevents this from happening in the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and most other first world countries that have much more restricted gun ownership.  The fact that politicians and the army consist of your friends and neighbors.

Q: If you made it illegal to buy guns tomorrow, there would still be millions of guns in people's homes.
A: Most gun owners are responsible, honest citizens who would turn in their guns if it became illegal to own them.  That right there would have stopped the Newtown shooter, who apparently got his guns from the collection of his mother, a gun enthusiast.  There would still be people who would insist on keeping grandpa's vintage rifle in the attic.  But the more effort it takes for lunatics to find these guns, and the more people they have to ask to find where these guns are, the more likely they'll be stopped before the tragedy begins.  It would definitely take time.  Once again, that's no reason not to begin.