Let's Talk Seriously About Gun Control

  • Posted on: 12 June 2016
  • By: Noah Brand

This article was originally posted in 2012 at the Good Men Project, and is being reposted here the day after the (so far) deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. I'm reposting it unchanged, as its relevance to current events is unchanged. The rhetoric and legislation about guns in this country has budged not an inch in four years.

I've written before about being a left-leaning gun owner; it is fair to say that I like guns and support a right to own them. That said, I'm not much of an ideologue, and the older I get, the more principle gives way to pragmatism. When I was a new convert to the pro-gun side, I had the zeal of the converted, and I'd talk cheerfully about the profound principles involved, power to the people and all that, but honestly, I don't give a crap any more. I'm only interested in what works, based on the best available facts.

There's a lot of renewed calls for gun control these days, and I am totally open to the idea; I think there might very well be a legislative solution to some portion of the gun violence problem in this country. In the past, I've referred to mass shootings as lightning-strike acts of violence, but the fact is, the strikes seem to be getting worse, even as overall homicide decreases, so yeah, let's talk legislative solutions.

Specifically, let's talk about what works, based on the best available facts. This requires establishing some of the facts on the ground.

Technical issues

There's a serious problem with facts when it comes to gun control legislation.That's not an ideological criticism, I'm not some asshole screaming about "gun-grabbing fascists", I'm saying that when people describe proposed legislative solutions, they tend to be based on things that are, literally, counterfactual. For example, there's no such thing as "cop-killer bullets", a term that gets loosely bandied about to mean anything up to and including normal rifle rounds. Likewise, the Undetectable Firearms Act was passed to ban detector-invisible plastic guns that have never existed, and probably can't exist. Again, these are not hypotheticals or ideological complaints, they are real laws passed to ban imaginary problems.

That brings me to renewed calls for banning semiautomatic weapons. Some of the folks saying that seem to think that semiautomatic is the same thing as fully automatic, which isn't so. Full-auto guns fire more than one round per pull of the trigger, and have been illegal since 1968. Semi-auto means that it fires one round per pull of the trigger, which describes virtually every gun built since the late 19th century. Now, if you want to ban almost every gun since the 19th century, okay, we can talk about that. But saying "semiautomatic" as though it's a special, scarier subset of guns doesn't actually mean anything.

Likewise, the term "assault weapon" doesn't mean anything. It refers, at best, to guns that resemble fully-automatic rifles, but are not. In practice, it means "scary-looking gun". Not joking here; the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban heavily restricted cosmetic design features. We're talking about a gun that's functionally identical to its legal counterpart, same caliber, same rate of fire, same accuracy, everything, but the grip is at a different angle or the magazine attaches at a different point. Again, if we want to talk about banning all guns of a certain caliber or size, we can, but we can't talk about banning assault weapons because there's no such thing.

I also hear the phrase "trigger lock" misused occasionally. Some folks like it because it sounds like that thing James Bond has on his gun, where it won't fire in anyone's hands but his own. That would indeed be a pretty cool safety measure if it existed. It doesn't. What a trigger lock is, in reality, is an inexpensive plastic lock that fits over the trigger of a gun. It's a helpful method of safe storage, but remember that the phrase "mandatory trigger locks" means "mandatory inclusion of an accessory with purchase", an accessory that will sit unused in a drawer or in the trash if the purchaser doesn't feel like using it. Should safe storage be a legal requirement? Maybe so; it's worth talking about. What's not worth talking about are things that aren't real.

Another phrase I've heard is "ease of use", which makes a certain amount of sense on the face of it. If a gun's harder to use, it's less deadly, right? The problem is, again, actual practice. For example, mandating heavier trigger pulls seems like a safety measure. Logically, if it's harder to pull the trigger, it's harder to pull it accidentally or impulsively, harder to fire multiple shots in quick succession. In practice, all it means is that you've made the gun substantially less accurate, encouraging wild spraying of shots in, at best, a general direction. That's substantially less safe, I think we can agree. I'm not saying there's no ease-of-use approach to be taken, I'm just saying that any such approach needs to be considered not on the basis of how it sounds in theory, but how it works in practice.


Effectiveness of legislation

Obviously, one thing we should ask when considering legislative solutions is which legislative solutions have worked in the past, and why. Unfortunately, the data on that subject is kind of a mess. It's easy to point at one foreign country or another and say that their high or low gun ownership rate correlates well with what you want to be true, but there's two problems with that. First, if you look at all the data on per-capita gun ownership by country, it's hard to pull a pattern out of that list. Famously violent states like Iraq and Northern Ireland are near the top of the list, but so are famously chill hippie states like Sweden and Switzerland. If you put it next to the per-capita murder rate list... well, Nate Silver might be able to pull out some correlations there, but I can't. If anyone can find some convincing correlations, I'm certainly willing to listen.

The other problem is that on the gun list, as on the prison-population list and the income-inequality list, the United States is a crazy off-the-charts outlier. For whatever ridiculous reason, probably cultural, guns as a problem work fundamentally differently here than in other countries. Thus, we'll probably get better results looking at what's worked within the U.S. than comparing with other countries. Unfortunately, that data is also pretty messy. Admittedly, part of the problem there is that the goddamned NRA has been actively working to prevent thorough research, which is an intellectual embarrassment no matter where you stand on the issue.

Critics of gun control legislation argue that most crimes are committed with illegally-obtained guns, so banning legal ones won't change anything. Data on that is fuzzy too, but it's a side issue because we're talking about trying to stop mass shootings, and the perpetrators of those overwhelmingly obtained their weapons legally. Recent work has shown a loose inverse correlation between gun deaths and gun control laws, not enough to lean on heavily, but certainly suggestive that gun control might be helpful. [Editor's note: earlier, this sentence managed to leave out the word "inverse". This has been corrected; our apologies for the oversight.] Mind you, the same study shows a stronger correlation between gun violence, poverty, and Republican support, but let's stay focused.

What doesn't correlate to violence is concealed carry permits. A couple decades ago, when concealed carry laws started to become popular, critics said they'd turn streets into the Wild West all over again. That hasn't happened. Violence has continued to decline steadily overall, and today almost all states offer some form of concealed carry permit, with no noticeable correlation to shooting deaths, positive or negative. What does seem to increase violence (PDF link) is not concealed carry, but a looser definition of self-defense. So-called "stand your ground" laws increase the number of situations in which it is legal to shoot someone to death, and it appears that they do not deter crime at all, but do lead to about an 8% increase in shootings. Would a MORE restrictive definition of self-defense therefore reduce shootings further? My gut feeling is probably not, but it's certainly worth looking into.

To return to the core subject though, what people want to know is how we can prevent mass shootings. People are sick to their guts at the horrific and all-too-regular images of broken individuals committing mass murder with legally-obtained weapons for reasons that only make sense within the catastrophic echo chambers of their souls. We want a way to keep guns out of those hands. So let's look at some possibilities, given the facts we have available.


Legislative possibilities

Obviously, banning semiautomatic weapons has two problems. First, it's almost every gun made for over a century. I've owned exactly one gun that didn't just fire a round every time the trigger was pulled, and that was an 1879 Mauser (long story). Second, if we do decide to ban almost every gun on the market, there's the question of enforcement.

If such a law simply ceases the manufacture and sale of such items, and it passes without incident, then we still have the existing American arsenal to worry about, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. That 1879 Mauser? Perfect working order. Guns keep really well. If, however, the law calls for the forfeit of existing semiautomatic weapons, then we need to be prepared for a massive, unprecedented bloodbath. Those outside gun culture often underestimate just how many people in this country get massive boners at the prospect of shooting cops rather than giving up their guns, or how pants-crazy serious they are about it. A death toll in five figures just from enforcement is a realistic best-case scenario; the worst-case would be civil war. Americans are really, really crazy about guns.

One interesting legislative workaround: the 1968 Firearms Act didn't technically ban a lot of the things it banned, it just taxed them effectively out of existence. If I wanted to, I could legally get a pistol with a silencer. I know one place that pays the enormous additional fees to be a Class III dealership, and if I felt like paying the crazy markup necessary to cover their cost of operating, I could get one. On balance, though, I'd really rather pay my rent for the next five months.

The lesson I take from that is that economics can enforce gently what is difficult to enforce directly. Perhaps an annual tax on registered firearms? Say a hundred bucks a piece, so that I get dinged for a hundred or two, some guy with ten guns gets dinged for a grand, and so on? I don't know if this is a good idea or not. It might induce people to pare down their arsenals a bit, or it might create perverse economic incentives that produce worse results. There's also the fact that 25 years of talk radio have conditioned conservatives to believe that gun control is fascism and taxes are also fascism, so a gun control tax would be... I don't know, super-fascism? Ultra-fascism? Whatever kind of government Ming the Merciless had. We'd probably see a certain number of enforcement deaths around that one too. Maybe that's something we're willing to accept, maybe it's not.

A related idea that would reduce enforcement deaths would be to shuffle the tax up a level, to the manufacturers. Given the state of lobbying, it might or might not be realistic to expect that one to get passed, but something tells me the CFO of Colt probably doesn't want to go down in a hail of bullets rather than just pay the bills. That's a bit closer to what worked with the 1968 law, so it's definitely worth putting on the table.

Safe storage laws have also been talked about, and that's another potentially useful avenue. Deaths in car accidents went down when installing seat belts was mandated, but they went down more when using the damn things was mandated. A lot of people might store their guns more safely knowing that it's the law. This is attractive to a lot of people right now because it's one of the things that might potentially have kept Adam Lanza from getting his hands on the guns he used at Sandy Hook Elementary. Except that Lanza's mother was reportedly pretty deep into the survivalist side of gun culture, so she might have rejected those fascist big government laws that could have saved her life. Or, even if she had locked her guns up tightly, she might have shared the combination or the key with her grown son; most people would, after all. Putting that one case aside, there's also the question of enforcement again, with all the attendant scenarios involving the phrase "armed standoff with authorities."

Background checks are already nationally mandated and a functioning system is in place. Could they be improved? Maybe. If we had a Canadian-style single-payer health care system (hint, hint) then we'd have a database of medical records that could be checked for phrases like "paranoid schizophrenia" or "violent tendencies" or "keeps talking about the Day of Cleansing Fire". That starts to get into some troublesome areas in terms of stigmatizing and legally punishing mental illness, though, and anyway we don't have such a database. Could background checks be improved via currently-available systems? Interesting legal and logistical problem, let's put some professionals to work looking into it.

That's not an exhaustive list of possibilities, obviously, just some examples of ways to approach the problem from a legislative standpoint, some ways that aren't based on fantasy and aren't just slapping some spackle on existing laws. That's where this conversation needs to start, regardless of where it ends. There are other proposals that fit those criteria, such as limiting clip sizes or ammunition, and they should be part of the conversation too. Some might turn out to be useful, some might not, but we need to start finding out which ones are which.

Some folks will want to read this article as another gun nut saying "Gun control never works." It's not. What I'm saying is that a legislative solution, if there is one, will not be easy and it probably won't be intuitive. Remember, for every problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong. We need to skip past that one right now. We need to stop talking about imaginary things and start looking for real solutions. We need to find the answer that is complicated, counterintuitive, and actually works based on the best available data. Then let's get that implemented, and fine-tuned after implementation as necessary, because seriously, people are dying for no reason. That's not okay.