Weapons regulation debate

8 February, 2013 § Leave a comment

Frustrated by the false binary dominating the mainstream media coverage of the weapons regulation debate, I collected a variety of opinion pieces that seemed more nuanced. I may not agree with all the points raised, nor do I necessarily think all the arguments are that sound. But I feel the ideas are worth examining in order to deepen our understanding of the issues and to refine our own arguments. I’ve included a few of my own comments as they have developed from reading these articles. Many thanks to friends for helping contribute to these sources, pointing out their value, and challenging me to think more carefully.

Background history and data

  1. Carl Cannon details some history of weapons use and regulation in the US along with further discussion of the Second Amendment:
  2. Jonathan Stray summarizes more data in “Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (With 13 Concise Answers)“.
  3. Cass Sunstein examines the history surrounding interpretations of the Second Amendment, in “Gun Debate Must Avoid Crazy 2nd Amendment Claims“.

Perspectives from some gun owners

  1. Sam Harris deconstructs arguments from multiple perspectives in “The Riddle of the Gun“. Some choice quotes:

    – “if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police—it is a problem of physics.”
    – “A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want…. one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive.”
    – “Most guns kept in the home will never be used for self-defense. They are, in fact, more likely to be used by an unstable person to threaten family members or to commit suicide.”
    – “Ordinary altercations can become needlessly deadly in the presence of a weapon.”
    – “guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime.”
    – “the kinds of guns used in the vast majority of crimes would not fall under any plausible weapons ban…. the most common and least stigmatized weapons are among the most dangerous.”
    – “it isn’t a vigilante delusion to believe that guns in the hands of good people would improve the odds of survival in deadly encounters of this kind. The delusion is to think that everyone would be better off defending his or her life with furniture.”
    – “If we enact laws that allow us to commit young men who merely scare us to mental institutions, we will surely commit thousands upon thousands of young men who would never have harmed anyone.”
    – “it can be easily argued that original intent of the Second Amendment had nothing to do with the right of self-defense… [Rather, its purpose was] to allow the states to check the power of the federal government by maintaining their militias.”

    Harris also provides a detailed FAQ responding to many of the criticisms and comments he subsequently received.

  2. Matt Springer and Mark Hoofnagle, on ScienceBlogs’ “Built On Facts” and “Denialism” blogs, respectively, debate their differing views on numerous gun control policies. I’m less fond of this debate since the authors assume an oppositional stance, but that lends more weight to their points of agreement (e.g., that the 1994 assault weapons ban was ineffective, that preventing straw purchases can reduce criminal gun use, that relying on mental-health improvements alone is unlikely to solve the problem). They offer a fair amount of evidence which is worth investigating critically (especially since they seem a bit careless in some of their writing here, despite generally being quite knowledgeable about this topic).

Other opinions on policy proposals

  1. Ezra Klein portrays the assault weapons ban as a red herring that distracts from the more substantive proposals under consideration.
  2. Jeffrey Brown’s analysis of gun ownership and gun crime draws from an analogy to the Laffer curve.
  3. Jens Laurson and George Pieler argue for better information-sharing, security, and enforcement of existing laws.
  4. Robert Leiden describes his proposal for compromise in brief.
  5. Jim Sleeper and Daniel Greenwood argue for regulating corporate speech and advertising that promote violence.

Suicides vs. homicides

  1. What do you do when the otherwise “good guy with a gun” becomes a “bad guy with a gun”—to himself?
  2. The connection goes both ways; the presence of guns in the home increases the risk of a completed suicide. That highlights the role that the technology plays in the outcome; it’s not just the people involved.

On violence more generally

Brandon Keim describes research on the “infectious nature of violence” and perspectives suggesting that epidemiological approaches to violence prevention may help.

Main effects vs. interactions

As with so many complex problems, it may be necessary to look beyond weak main effects (e.g., guns, criminal history, culture of violence, certain types of mental illness) and focus instead on interactions between those factors, such as:

  • universal background checks for guns and ammunition purchases
  • better recordkeeping and data-sharing between sellers, law enforcement agencies, and mental health professionals
  • closer regulation and accountability for all ownership transfers (as in secondary markets)
  • “smart-gun” safeguards, to ensure that only legitimately screened users can operate the weapon (although the technology might not be ready yet)
  • tighter restrictions on those who are allowed to own and use more dangerous weapons, and when/where

On risk assessment

  1. Adam Lee critiques Sam Harris’s position, but not very carefully (e.g., Harris does address “the macho fantasy of an armed citizen happening across and foiling a slaughter in progress”—actually, I thought the distinction he drew between home ownership and concealed-carry was quite worthwhile). Lee’s main point is that Harris is overestimating the likelihood of a spectacular catastrophe. But Harris appears to be worrying about something other than the typical home break-in (“fate worse than death” is how he portrays it) and suggests that his risks are higher than those of the average homeowner. He also describes how it may be rational to be more worried about infrequent events than the statistics would suggest, due to the magnitude of the psychological harm wrought.
    However, this does raise the question of how effectively people in general are able to estimate the risks associated with or intended to be avoided by gun ownership. The following comments address this in more detail.
  2. It would help to have some simple game theory equations to capture our risk tolerance (total expected value = summation [frequency x probability x perceived benefit or risk]).Jared Diamond’s discussion of relative risk is worth injecting here.
  3. People are notoriously poor at judging risk. Collectively, we underestimate the risk we pose to others and overestimate the risk others pose to us. That may be rational on an individual level, but problematic on a societal level (the classic economic externality problem). Presumably, most gun owners think they’re not that great a risk to others, or they wouldn’t have decided to own a gun. But some of those self-assessments may not be so accurate. The question then becomes how to match that up with society’s risk assessment.
  4. Some have proposed mandatory liability insurance for gun ownership as a way of measuring and incorporating those risks into the ownership calculus:

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