Rationality in the Wake of Sandy Hook

December 23rd, 2012 - by Quincy

No, you haven’t been too adamant in favor of gun rights. No, you should not feel guilty that maybe the tragedy at Sandy Hook could have been avoided if you and others had agreed to toss out the Second Amendment a long time ago. To those who feel overwhelmed by the surge of public opinion against gun ownership, I offer the following thoughts.

Arguments against freedom to own guns rely on false assumptions about consequences and causation. The usual anti-gun argument goes something like, “Guns are dangerous; people with guns sometimes kill other people; so we should take away guns.” A more moderate version includes the same false assumptions: “Some guns are especially dangerous; people with these especially dangerous guns sometimes kill other people; so we should take away these especially dangerous guns.”

Can you spot the fallacy? Unlike nuclear material, unstable explosives, or untested chemicals, guns are not inherently dangerous. A gun only becomes dangerous by intervention of human will. A gun sitting on a shelf can’t hurt anyone—even in an earthquake, fire, or flood, a gun does not become any more dangerous than other household items. This applies equally to assault weapons.

The anti-gun lobby would reply, “Guns are different because with a few pounds of pressure on a gun’s trigger, a person can kill someone. This makes them different than kitchen knives, shovels, etc. that sometimes double as weapons. The ease with which a person can kill with a gun places them in a different category—a category meriting government regulation.” But this doesn’t change the fact that human will, not the gun itself, is the necessary ingredient. Guns are precision weapons. Unlike hand grenades or mortars, a gun shoots where it is pointed.

The irrationality of restricting gun ownership based on the inherent danger of firearms is further highlighted by a comparison of gun deaths with car-crash deaths. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “32,885 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2010.” 962 of those deaths were children younger than 13. The FBI recorded only 8,775 total firearm murders in 2010, with 96 of the victims under the age of 13. This also shows the irrelevance of comparing rates of gun deaths in the U.S. with rates of gun deaths in other countries. Of course where there are more guns there will be more gun deaths. That doesn’t answer any relevant question. One would also not be surprised to find car-related deaths are wonderfully low in societies with few cars. So arguing against gun-ownership because “guns are dangerous” simply doesn’t hold water. Very few would advocate that we ban cars.

Of course guns are especially well suited to killing. For most gun owners that’s why they buy guns. If the anti-gun folks are honest, they will admit that the real reason behind their anti-gun sentiment is that they don’t want others to have the power to easily kill. In their narrow personal experience, they don’t think that the average person has need for or can be trusted with this power. Having mentally remade the world in the image of their own lives, they can’t see the value to a mom who has to walk her kids to and from the bus stop in a bad part of town. They can’t see the value to a business owner who has been robbed and terrorized in the past by local thugs. They can’t see the value to a woman who fears she will be raped or murdered by an angry ex-boyfriend/husband who physically is far stronger than she is.

LTC (Ret.) Dave Grossman, a U.S. Army Ranger and the author of On Killing, related a conversation that he had with an veteran of the Vietnam War.

“There are the wolves,” the old war veteran said, “and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.” Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep.

There is no safety in denial.

“Then there are sheepdogs,” he went on, “and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

Some might argue that this metaphor only applies to soldiers and policemen. Not so. Status as military or law enforcement doesn’t mean the person is not a wolf—anyone who follows the news will accept that without argument. Moreover, a person’s civilian status doesn’t mean they are sheep. FBI statistics show that 278 private citizens justifiably killed a felon during the commission of a felony in 2010, and 232 of them used a gun. Compare this with 385 instances in which a member of law enforcement in the line of duty used a gun to kill a felon.

That means that in 39% of all legally justified shooting deaths, it was a civilian who stopped the felon. This doesn’t account for the many, many instances in which displaying a firearm deterred an attack without needing to fire it.

Simply put, proponents of gun-control want to take away your right to defend yourself because they don’t trust you. They are afraid of you. They fear the wolf, so they pull out the sheepdogs’ teeth.

12 Responses to “Rationality in the Wake of Sandy Hook”

  1. Sean says:

    Your use of statistics of motor vehicle crashes and gun murder deaths is a flawed comparison as well. You cite the number of motor vehicle accidents, but not the number of vehicular homicides (using the tool as a means to kill, instead of other legitimate uses). Similarly, you do not cite the number of gun-related accidental deaths. Any comparison cannot simply take into account the number of guns or vehicles either, but must be made relative to metrics such as the numbers of hours used per capita, the accessibility and price, etc. No, we don’t advocate a ban on cars, but we do regulate them such that each owner must be trained in their use (and retested periodically), understand their dangers and means of safe use, must be licensed by the state for their use, and we have an established means of preventing a driver from continuing to drive if they fail to use their vehicle properly and in accordance with the laws of the land. I consider myself a moderate, but I find it interesting that conservatives think the government should stay out of many areas of regulation of one’s personal life (articulated by you as “they don’t trust you. They are afraid of you.”), but feel fine regulating things like abortion, marriage, drugs, teaching evolution, flag burning, contraception, etc. There is a cognitive dissonance here that I have yet to see someone address in an articulate manner.

  2. Quincy says:

    Thanks for the comment Sean. Your criticism is well taken. The CDC reports 606 accidental gun deaths in the US during 2010 (you have to drill down and run the report) But I think that your objection actually strengthens my point about the inherent danger of firearms vs the inherent danger of motor vehicles. The number of people who unintentionally killed with cars is staggeringly more than those who unintentionally kill with guns. Even combining the accidental deaths with the intentional killings, firearms deaths don’t even amount to 1/3 of the number of car deaths.

    Your comment about needing to compare the number of hours each item is used is a mistake I think. Gun use goes far beyond just the moment of firing. The owner is using the gun whenever s/he has access to it, and whenever its existence deters attack. Furthermore, the gun control arguments I’ve seen lately focus on the presence of guns in society—whether gun ownership should be permitted at all.

    I think your point about car regulations favor my argument as well. Even with licensing requirements in all 50 states, motorists kill far more than gun-owners. Similarly, when a person uses a gun to kill, we have a method to prevent that person from owning a gun in the future—felons can’t legally own guns. Notice also that the response to misconduct with a vehicle is to take away the license of the individual driver—not take away everyone’s cars or outlaw manufacturing of some especially large/fast cars.

    Lastly, although irrelevant to the issue of gun control, I totally agree with you that there is some cognitive dissonance when contrasting the conservative positions on gun control with some of their other positions. I happen to believe that government should not regulate individual behavior that doesn’t impact the rights of others—to include drug possession/use, flag burning, and contraceptive use.

    Your other examples, however, fail to line up. By teaching evolution, I assume you are talking about public schools—if so, then we are talking about an act by a government employee in their capacity as a government employee, so it isn’t about individual liberty at all. Similarly, gay marriage is all about government employees issuing marriage licenses and government entities recognizing those licenses—again, not an individual liberty issue. If government got out of the business of issuing marriage licenses I would have no problem with gay marriage. As for abortion, if you accept that human life begins at conception, then affirmatively killing a fetus impacts the rights of another human being, so I don’t accept that there is cognitive dissonance in that case—just different opinions about when human life begins.

    Again, thank you for your thoughtful comment. If I have misinterpreted or misunderstood any of your points, please correct me and we’ll go another round.

  3. Sean says:

    Thanks Quincy. I appreciate the opportunity to ask questions of someone who supports gun rights without feeling attacked or belittled as happens in many venues. I hope my arguments are also coming across as a query, and not personal attacks. I personally feel that gun ownership should be allowed, but I question the rationale of allowing certain types of guns. I think your statistics of private citizens killing a felon during commission of a felony is a good argument, but I would be interested to know the type of firearm used in these. Similarly, I think your examples of self-protection are valid, but I don’t see a girlfriend, mom, or business owner using an assault rifle or a high-capacity clip in any of these cases. Do you think that the government has the right to restrict private ownership of any type of weapon: fully automatic, grenades, bazookas, pipe bombs, etc.? Or anything at all, weapon or not? Is it possible to draw a line between allowed and not allowed, or should there not be any government intervention at all? Should the government have the right to restrict the types of weapons allowed on airplanes? In government buildings? In schools or other public spaces? Why aren’t you allowed to take a gun into the US Capitol, for example?

    While it is true that felons are not allowed gun ownership, gun ownership is not tracked or regulated at a governmental level, like car ownership is. Even passing a vehicle from one private citizen to another requires transfer of title and registration with the state. Should car ownership be regulated at all, or do you feel that licensing, training, and safety requirements of drivers and cars should not be done by the government? Why can the government regulate access to, safety testing and distribution of pharmaceuticals, but not guns?

    Again, I hope you don’t feel attacked, but I’d really like to understand rational and cogent responses to some of these arguments. I’d also be interested to get your thoughts on the following restrictions on research allowed on gun violence: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1487470.

  4. Quincy says:

    Weapons are designed to give their owner an advantage in conflict. In general, guns level the playing field with respect to size and strength. But each different gun type was designed to add an additional advantage. For example, many people prefer a shotgun for home defense because the pellets in a standard shell have limited penetration power and you don’t have to take time to aim carefully in order to hit what you are shooting at. Another way of saying this is to say that weapons are designed to meet a need. The person best qualified to decide what type of weapon s/he needs is the person who will be carrying it.

    I don’t live in a high-crime area with heavy gang activity, so I don’t see the need to lug around a heavy assault rifle. But if I lived close to the border where there was smuggling activity, or if I lived in an area with gangs/organized crime, I might feel differently. Assault rifles are designed to engage multiple targets in rapid succession. High-capacity magazines are designed for situations where the fight might not end after the first few shots. Those who want to ban these types of weapons simply ignore the fact that many people live in conditions where these advantages could make the difference between life and death.

    Any discussion of gun regulation would be incomplete without talking about property rights. Property owners have an absolute right to exclude guns from their property. This means that I can keep others from bringing guns into my home; the citizenry can vote to exclude weapons from government property—since they collectively own it; airplane owners can exclude weapons from their airplanes, etc. Moreover, if my neighbor has something on his property which—without intervention of human will—creates a risk to me on my property, I have a right to regulate the conditions of ownership. In other words, if my neighbor is storing high explosives, and my house is within the potential blast radius, then I have a right to regulate him. Maybe this means that he has to store the material in a certain way; maybe this means that he can’t own the material at all. That will be fact-dependent. For example, someone living in a 900 square foot apartment in a high-rise apartment building should not be able to store large quantities of highly flammable or explosive material, but the right to regulate him belongs to his neighbors and the building owner–not government.

    Concerning your comments about vehicle registration as a model for gun registration, if vehicle registries were designed to prevent individuals from owning a vehicle until they had the government’s blessing, I would oppose them. However, I don’t think that is their purpose. Vehicle registries are designed to protect the owners’ property-rights. In the event of a theft, there is a record of who is the actual owner. This is similar to deed registries for real-estate transfers.

    This is already getting too long, but briefly, my thoughts about pharmaceuticals track my beliefs about other drug use. Government shouldn’t have the right to dictate what a person chooses to ingest. Regarding the Congressional moratorium on using CDC funding to research firearm violence, this might be a conspiracy by the pro-gun lobby, but it could also be explained by the fact that there is a fundamental difference between researching intentional harm and researching accidental harm. Researching ways to prevent intentional harm seems to be outside the scope of the CDCs mission.

    Don’t be concerned that you will offend me. I always welcome rational argument, all the more when it is strongly expressed. If you show me that my beliefs are wrong you have done me a great service.

  5. Devil's Advocate's Advocate says:

    I very nearly didn’t submit this comment because I worded it more strongly than I meant to. You should know I personally actually am not opposed to gun ownership but have done my best to understand why someone else would be. Your last comment about not being concerned about offending and welcoming rational argument is what convinced me to click submit so here you go.

    I fear you have only rebutted the worst of your opponents. Your summarization of gun control advocates over-simplifies their position and in places mis-represents it. As a result your critique falls short and drifts into strawman territory.

    “Arguments against freedom to own guns rely on false assumptions about consequences and causation. The usual anti-gun argument goes something like, “Guns are dangerous; people with guns sometimes kill other people; so we should take away guns.” A more moderate version includes the same false assumptions: “Some guns are especially dangerous; people with these especially dangerous guns sometimes kill other people; so we should take away these especially dangerous guns.” Can you spot the fallacy?”

    The fallacy is there because you put it there by misunderstanding your opponents arguments. If you speak to more intelligent gun-control activists their reasoning will usually go something like the following.

    Guns(excluding recreational or hunting) are intended to kill people, it is their designed purpose; It is easier to kill with a gun than with other objects not designed for that express purpose; Empirical studies have shown that killing with a gun is less personal, less premeditated, and faster and that all else being equal(same situation, stress etc) people with guns are more likely to kill than people without them. Societies with less guns in them have less people killed by guns and killed total; ergo the less guns we have, the less people will be killed by them. Unless you address these arguments and not the simplistic ones you seem to think your opponents have you will not get through to them.

    “human will, not the gun itself, is the necessary ingredient.” You have pigeonholed your opponents into a false dichotomy. Gun control activists would likely respond that in general it takes both human will and a gun to kill someone. In specific cases in could take neither. Someone with a will and no gun could kill with a knife(although they are empirically less likely to do so) and someone with no will and a gun could kill as well as happens as you pointed out in your comment 606 times a year. I don’t think I need to belabor the point that in a United States without guns all 606 of those people would not have died. You are free to argue that less people would die in a US with guns than one without or that a deontological principle that allows gun ownership is more important than those lives but it simply cannot be argued that accidental gun deaths would still happen in a country without guns. You admitted as much later when you commented that, “Of course where there are more guns there will be more gun deaths. ” Your claim that that fact is irrelevant misunderstands the gun-control advocates position. Their thinking is as follows.

    Where there are more guns there will be more gun deaths; therefore if we have less guns there will be more deaths. Less deaths would be better, so let’s ban guns.

    “The irrationality of restricting gun ownership based on the inherent danger of firearms is further highlighted by a comparison of gun deaths with car-crash deaths. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “32,885 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2010.” 962 of those deaths were children younger than 13. The FBI recorded only 8,775 total firearm murders in 2010, with 96 of the victims under the age of 13. This also shows the irrelevance of comparing rates of gun deaths in the U.S. with rates of gun deaths in other countries. Of course where there are more guns there will be more gun deaths. That doesn’t answer any relevant question. One would also not be surprised to find car-related deaths are wonderfully low in societies with few cars. So arguing against gun-ownership because “guns are dangerous” simply doesn’t hold water. Very few would advocate that we ban cars.”

    To the gun control advocate you have engaged in a false-equivalence. Your argument(correct me if i’m wrong) is this.

    Guns kill people, but so do cars. If we were to ban things because they kill people we would have to ban both cars and guns. Therefore a position of wanting to ban guns but not cars is inconsistent.

    A gun control activists would point out several reasons why these are not equivalent such as (1)that guns(the ones they want to ban) are built with the intended purpose of killing people. Cars are built with intended purpose of transportation. (2) The vast majority of car deaths are accidents whereas the majority of gun deaths are intentional (3) Cars are necessary for our society to continue functioning in a familiar fashion while guns are not.

    Regarding the property rights argument I wonder if you think individuals should be free to build or purchase nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, tanks, biological weapons etc. Why would a right to own those those be different than a right to own a gun?

  6. Quincy says:

    When the sincere reader misunderstands, the writer is to blame, so I’ll try to clarify. I am not simply saying that we can’t rationally ban guns without banning cars. In fact, the purpose of the numbers comparison was to show that this is not about risk analysis. Anti-gun activists’ real reason for wanting to ban guns isn’t because guns are killing off huge numbers of people, because they aren’t. Cars kill far more. Anti-gun activists want to ban guns because they don’t accept that guns serve a crucial function in our society. To anti-gun activists, saying that a gun was made to kill people is the same as saying the gun is bad, that it doesn’t have a legitimate use. This belief is woven throughout all of your comment. But for all but the most committed pacifist, this belief falls apart when confronted by reality.

    Reality isn’t limited to calm, rational, safe experiences that we can all happily discuss with hyperbole and humor and then go off to warm safe beds. There are bad people in the world and the police can’t always be there to save us. Under a system of government that values individual rights and human equality, a person who has done no wrong cannot lawfully be restrained from purchasing the tools needed to effectively defend herself. Sometimes you need a tool designed to kill, because sometimes you need to kill someone to keep them from hurting you or others.

    As for your question about property rights, I think I addressed some of that in my previous comment, but I’ll add here that weapons designed to kill indiscriminately don’t have a place in a free society, because there is no situation in which a person or government should indiscriminately kill.

  7. Devil's Advocate's Advocate says:

    “the purpose of the numbers comparison was to show that this is not about risk analysis. Anti-gun activists’ real reason for wanting to ban guns isn’t because guns are killing off huge numbers of people, because they aren’t. Cars kill far more.”

    I’m afraid I still don’t understand your point in the car analogy. Are you saying that the gun control activists don’t believe what they believe for the reasons they say they believe them? And they must not because otherwise they would be worried about cars too? If so, my critique of false-equivalence still applies.

    Your indiscriminate qualifier seems subjective. Are you saying our government shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, tanks, biological weapons etc. either?

    As I stated previously my main criticism of your post is that I believe it misunderstands the actual reasons an intelligent person would disagree with your viewpoint. So here’s a very well argued piece by Paul Rosenberg. I myself disagree with a few of his points but if you want to understand better why gun control activists believe what they believe this is a good departure point.

    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/12/20121226104857715225.html

  8. Quincy says:

    I can’t say, of course, what gun control activists really believe, but I know what they say. They say guns pose a danger to society so they should be banned or strictly controlled. In fact the article you cited follows this same line of argument. It tries to mislead the reader with number games and it ignores the real issue. It also misleads the reader with a strained reading of Locke and false “fact” claims (King and Ghandi were both in favor of citizen ownership of guns).

    But the real issue is that your position assumes for you the position of population manager with all the rights and powers appertaining thereto without a shred of justification. What right do you have to tell your neighbors that they are forbidden from owning guns? This is directly contrary to the spirit of the American founding–all men are created equal.

    Again, my point about the numbers is that they the anti gun lobby uses them as a red herring. This is not about risk analysis, as the car/gun comparison clearly shows. The shrill shriek reduced to print, aka the article by Paul Rosenberg, plays the same game, pretending that individuals have to justify their rights, to prove their existence. You and Rosenberg have it all backward. Insofar as an individual is not infringing on the rights of others, her rights are unlimited. It is government that bears the burden of proving that there is good reason for any restriction, and a red-herring numbers game doesn’t cut it.

    Regarding your question about government possession of nuclear, biological, chemical, and other types of indiscriminate-killing weapons, I do not believe governments should produce/possess them.

  9. Devil's Advocate's Advocate says:

    Ok, after talking to a mutual friend ;) I see what you were trying to say with your car example and actually the whole post. The “can you spot the fallacy” you alluded to isn’t a fallacy so much as an underlying philosophical assumption of gun-control thinking and modern liberalism. Consequentialism.

    This topic is huge and I’m bad at explaining things in writing without taking a ton of time so I’m sorry that I’m about to just link to a bunch of stuff. To keep things fair I’ll link to some of what I think are the best arguments for and against libertarian(deontological) and consequentialism(you might call it liberal but there are consequentalist libertarians as well). I don’t personally agree with either position by the way.

    Deontological
    For:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural-rights_libertarianism
    Against:http://raikoth.net/libertarian.html

    Consequentalist
    For:http://raikoth.net/consequentialism.html
    Against:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#WhaGooHedVsPluCon

    Anyways I’m bowing out for now. Thanks for the interesting discussion :) Ron Paul 2016!

  10. Devil's Advocate's Advocate says:

    Oh yah this too

    http://www.twotlj.org/against-consequentialism.pdf

  11. Quincy says:

    Thanks for the references. In a previous post, I explained some of my thoughts about consequence-based ethics as a basis for government regulation.

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