17 December 2012


Given the Recent Unpleasantness, it occurred to me that it might be useful to corral some data and commentary about guns and public policy.

(Note the original date on this post. It seems there is always a Recent Unpleasantness with guns in America, doesn’t it?)

Had you asked me a couple of months ago about gun control policy, I would have confessed that I had precious little interest in it, in a couple of senses. First in that I hadn’t paid it much attention. Second in that I didn’t think of it as a terribly significant area of policy. I grew up in the liberal culture of the ’70s which favored gun control, but contrary to conservative imaginings, lefties like me lost enthusiasm for it decades ago. The politics have been too much a non-starter, and frankly I remember a lot of the old anti-gun arguments as being pretty weak. All things being equal, more liberty is more better, so I drifted toward skepticism about gun control. (And certainly I will grant gun control opponents the point that current legislation is an incoherent, illogical mess.)

But in the past few weeks, as discussion of gun policy has resurfaced in its most vigorous form in my political lifetime, I have grown much more sympathetic to gun control that I had been. A big reason why is the weakness, even absurdity, of the arguments I have seen gun control opponents present. Of course bad arguments against X don’t necessarily make X a good idea. But at the same time, many commentaries I’ve encountered have persuaded me that some kind of more vigorous gun control is warranted.

Below are links to some articles which have most clarified my thinking.

OK, that was what I wrote when I first put up this post. Since then, I have progressively added a lot of stuff to the collection of links; enough that I have broken it into three topic areas. I have tried to be fair-minded, and I have included resources from a few different points of view, but it should also be evident what I found persuasive. (I have a follow-up post in which I talk about my conclusions and the policy implications.)

Research & facts

10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down at Mother Jones is a short overview that includes links to lots more resources.

Mother Jones also has a good report on mass shootings, an attempt to tally the economic costs of gun violence, and a review of reasons to be skeptical of gun advocates’ telling of some mass shootings where civilian gun owners effectively intervened.

ArmedWithReason.com is a resource which collects arguments for gun control, supported by research.

Let’s Talk Seriously About Gun Control clears a bit of brush about bonehead ideas on all sides.

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.
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.
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.

While we are on the subject of boneheaded misunderstanding of the bare facts about guns, I have A Public Service Announcement On Guns And Bullets from Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, pinch hitting at Charles P. Pierce’s Atlantic blog.

it was really evident from some of the footage, that my fellow Americans watch way too much television and thus have a false understanding about bullets. So this afternoon’s public service announcement is to try and prevent possible harm that might otherwise be avoided
If you are in a place where you hear steady, and sustained, and nearby (lets call that, for some technical reasons, anything less than 800 meters) gunfire, do these things:
  • Go to your basement. You are cool there.
  • If you don’t have a basement, go to the other side of the house from the firing, and leave, heading away from the firing. Do not stop for a mile.
  • If you do not think that you can leave, get on the ground floor, as far from the firing as possible, and place something solid between you and the firing. Solid is something like a bathtub, a car (engine block), a couple of concrete walls (single layer brick...nope).
  • If you are high up (say 4rd story or higher) just get away from the side of the building where the firing is taking place. You will, mostly, be protected by the thick concrete of the structure.

Harvard School of Public Health: Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use offers references to a few studies supporting some key points.

  • Guns are not used millions of times each year in self-defense
  • Most purported self-defense gun uses are gun uses in escalating arguments and are both socially undesirable and illegal
  • Firearms are used far more often to intimidate than in self-defense
  • Guns in the home are used more often to intimidate intimates than to thwart crime
  • Adolescents are far more likely to be threatened with a gun than to use one in self-defense
  • Criminals who are shot are typically the victims of crime
  • Few criminals are shot by decent law abiding citizens

A study-of-studies shows that having a gun greatly increases one’s risk.

People who have ready access to a firearm are almost twice as likely to be killed and three times likelier to commit suicide than those without a gun available in the home or from a neighbor or friend

Statistical analysis from a sociologist.

See the statistically significant correlation between homicide by firearms and ownership of firearms? See the massive difference between the United States and other developed countries?

Research showing that right-to-carry legislation has no good effects and several bad effects.

In a new working paper published on June 21 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics at Stanford Law School ran that data through four different statistical models—including one developed by Lott for More Guns, Less Crime—and came back with an unambiguous conclusion: states that made it easier for their citizens to go armed in public had higher levels of non-fatal violent crime than those states that restricted the right to carry. The exception was the narrower category of murder; there, the researchers determined that any effect on homicide rates by expanded gun-carry policies is statistically insignificant.

A striking study of simulations of gun confrontations reported by the Washington Post includes some videos of the simulations showing how untrained civilians make bad decisions.

They found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, people without firearms training performed poorly in the scenarios. They didn’t take cover. They didn’t attempt to issue commands to their assailants. Their trigger fingers were either too itchy — they shot innocent bystanders or unarmed people, or not itchy enough — they didn’t shoot armed assailants until they were already being shot at.

More statistics from recent research, as reported by Richard Florida at The Atlantic quoting John Roman, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

In addition to the general relationship between gun safety laws and firearm deaths, the paper also suggests that increasing the number of gun safety laws increases the reductions in firearm related deaths. So the benefits just get bigger with more laws. The authors also identify background checks as the most important type of law.

The Harvard School of Public Health has an index of firearms research, including a striking report showing a few different correlations between more guns and more homocides.

  • Where there are more guns there is more homicide
  • Across high-income nations, more guns = more homicide
  • Across states, more guns = more homicide

The Scientific American article The Science of Guns Proves Arming Untrained Citizens Is a Bad Idea cites several interesting studies.

every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides
in states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners have been reduced by 25 percent
Strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers—defined as having a state law that required state or local licensing of retail firearm sellers, mandatory record keeping by those sellers, law enforcement access to records for inspection, regular inspections of gun dealers, and mandated reporting of theft of loss of firearms—was associated with 64 percent less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.

The article in the UK Guardian Guns don’t offer protection – whatever the National Rifle Association says offers links to a few more studies.

The insistence that guns protect people from rape and violence is not rooted in scientific reality

The UK Guardian reports on studies showing that gun ownership and gun violence in the US is extremely concentrated.

America’s gun super-owners, have amassed huge collections. Just 3% of American adults own a collective 133m firearms – half of America’s total gun stock. These owners have collections that range from eight to 140 guns, the 2015 study found. Their average collection: 17 guns each.


While gun control advocates often say it is unacceptable that Americans overall are “25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries”, people who live in these neighborhood areas face an average gun homicide rate about 400 times higher than the rate across those high-income countries.

Richard Florida at The Atlantic also looks at guns, geography, and suicide.

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, over 60 percent of all firearm deaths in 2010 were suicides.
The close connection between gun ownership and suicide has indeed been documented in several detailed state-level studies.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has a study on the effects of legislation.

A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually.

Those suicides, by the way, would not all have been accomplished by other means. Justin Briggs and Alex Tabarrok report at Slate on a paper in the International Review of Law and Economics.

Are the people not killing themselves with guns simply committing suicide by other means? Some are—but not all. While reduced household gun ownership did lead to more suicides by other means, suicides went down overall. That’s because contrary to the “folk wisdom” that people who want to commit suicide will always find a way to get the job done, suicides are not inevitable. Suicides are often impulsive decisions, and guns require less forethought than other means of suicide—and they’re also deadlier.

Another study, America Under The Gun from the Center for American Progress, reaches similar conclusions.

While the strength of a state’s gun laws is just one factor in the prevalence of gun-related violence in the state and cannot alone account for gun violence, there is a clear link between weak gun laws and high levels of gun violence across the United States.

Another piece at PolicyMic collects a few such studies.

States with more gun regulations had lower rates of gun deaths, and states with less gun laws had higher gun death rates, both in terms of suicide and homicide.

Looking at suicide is integral to thinking of gun violence on public health terms. The Educational Fund To Stop Gun Violence has resources on that approach and its implications.

Public health is the science of reducing and preventing injury, disease, and death and promoting the health and well-being of populations through the use of data, research, and effective policies and practices. A public health approach to prevent gun violence is a population level approach that addresses both firearm access and the factors that contribute to and protect from gun violence.

Pew Research reports Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware; there are many interesting details in their report.

Researchers have studied the decline in firearm crime and violent crime for many years, and though there are theories to explain the decline, there is no consensus among those who study the issue as to why it happened.

Alternet provides an overview of a report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns analyzing FBI data.

there are 38 percent fewer killings of women in states that require background checks for every handgun sale
the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent
  • Less than 1% of gun murder victims were killed as part of incidents with four or more victims.
  • In at least 57 percent of the incidents, the shooter killed a current or former intimate partner or family member.
  • Assault weapons or high capacity magazines were used in 23 percent of the incidents, and when they were used, more than twice the number of people were shot and 57 percent more were killed.
  • No more than one quarter (23 percent) of the shootings occurred in public spaces that were so-called ‘gun-free zones.’

William Saletan at Slate identifies some interesting key findings of a survey of research from the National Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, mostly focused on what research is needed to inform policy.

  1. The United States has an indisputable gun violence problem
  2. Most indices of crime and gun violence are getting better, not worse
  3. We have 300 million firearms, but only 100 million are handguns
  4. Handguns are the problem
  5. Mass shootings aren’t the problem
  6. Gun suicide is a bigger killer than gun homicide
  7. Guns are used for self-defense often and effectively
  8. Carrying guns for self-defense is an arms race
  9. Denying guns to people under restraining orders saves lives.
  10. It isn’t true that most gun acquisitions by criminals can be blamed on a few bad dealers

Given some of the other studies I cite earlier here, I am skeptical about Saletan’s point #7. Salatean quotes the article saying “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies”. That is at least plausible, but is disconcertingly consistent with studies like Hemenway/Azrael/Miller, which tells us that that guns are likely used in “self-defense” 60,000-120,000 times each year, but:

Even after excluding many reported firearm victimizations, far more survey respondents report having been threatened or intimidated with a gun than having used a gun to protect themselves. A majority of the reported self defense gun uses were rated as probably illegal by a majority of judges. This was so even under the assumption that the respondent had a permit to own and carry the gun, and that the respondent had described the event honestly.

Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.

David Kopel at the Wall Street Journal reports that gun fatalaties have changed in recent years, for reasons that are hard to definitively explain.

Has the rate of random mass shootings in the United States increased? Over the past 30 years, the answer is definitely yes. It is also true that the total U.S. homicide rate has fallen by over half since 1980, and the gun homicide rate has fallen along with it. Today, Americans are safer from violent crime, including gun homicide, than they have been at any time since the mid-1960s.

Mass shootings, defined as four or more fatalities, fluctuate from year to year, but over the past 30 years there has been no long-term increase or decrease. But “random” mass shootings, such as the horrific crimes last Friday in Newtown, Conn., have increased.

Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker says that the Simple Truth About Gun Control is that gun control is effective in reducing violence. The article is a lively exhortation, but what’s useful in it are the links to resources, including several from researcher David Hemingway, like an article in Harvard magazine about his work laced with quotes.

The gun-control debate often makes it look like there are only two options: either take away people’s guns, or not. That’s not it at all. This is more like a harm-reduction strategy. Recognize that there are a lot of guns out there, and that reasonable gun policies can minimize the harm that comes from them.

I need to take a closer look at them, but the Violence Policy Center’s reports Unintended Consequences and Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use look intriguing. I found the first one through an ABC News report with a showy demonstration of people with concealed carry permits having trouble in simulated confrontations.

From Unintended Consequences:

This report [⋯] illuminates the patent danger of our present practice of allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns with only minimal screening and hardly any educational requirements. Based on the work of widely recognized pro-gun experts on the use of handguns for self-defense, it demonstrates that the industry’s position is false. These experts’ own words are quoted at length in this report. They show that for entirely practical reasons handguns in particular are a dangerous choice for all but a tiny minority of exceptionally well-trained people who maintain their skills with regular and intensive practice. The vast majority of handgun owners put not only themselves, but their families, their neighbors, and wholly innocent bystanders at unreasonable risk of harm, including death and catastrophic injury. The costs of this harm are borne largely by the non-gun owning public.

From Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use:

Guns are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes.
In 2012, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, guns were used in 32 criminal homicides.

Stanford University reports that right-to-carry legislation correlates with increased violent crime.

“The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates” of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder, said Donohue.

The strongest evidence was for aggravated assault, with data suggesting that right-to-carry (RTC) laws increase this crime by an estimated 8 percent – and this may actually be understated, according to the researchers.

“Our analysis of the year-by-year impact of RTC laws also suggests that RTC laws increase aggravated assaults,” they wrote.

Richard Florida, writing for Atlantic Cities, points to research from John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center showing that Stand Your Ground laws disproportionately protect White people shooting Black people.

The odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.

I would love to provide even more hard data, but in an interview Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who was the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in the ’90s, laments the dearth of solid research to shape policy. But there are a couple more key things that the CDC established.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.


We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.

Still, we have more questions than answers. Maggie Koerth-Baker has a long post at bOING bOING exploring the gaps in the data and the challenges in filling them.

We know that gun violence research is deeply flawed. We know that it cannot currently answer the questions we need it to answer. But why? What, specifically, is missing? What about this field is broken? And how do we fix it?

According to scientists who do gun research, scientists who were involved in the National Academies review, and scientists who study the way other scientists do research, there are two key problems. First is the issue of missing and poorly matched data. Second, there are also serious problems with the mathematical models scientists use to analyze that data, and with the type of conclusions they attempt to draw from it.

So why isn’t there better data? Rich Addicks at The New York Times explains that the NRA fights against that research.

In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced: Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?

The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done. And there is a reason for that. Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the great bulk of this research say the influence of the National Rife Association has all but choked off money for such work.

A CNN report about the sequence of events at the Columbine shooting is illuminating, not least because in the face of recent calls by the NRA and others to have armed cops or other guards at schools, it turns out that Columbine had exactly that.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Neil Gardner soon would complete his second year as the uniformed community resource officer assigned to Columbine High School.
Gardner, seeing Harris working with his gun, leaned over the top of the car and fired four shots. He was 60 yards from the gunman. Harris spun hard to the right and Gardner momentarily thought he had hit him. Seconds later, Harris began shooting again at the deputy.

After the exchange of gunfire, Harris ran back into the building. Gardner was able to get on the police radio and called for assistance from other Sheriff’s units. “Shots in the building. I need someone in the south lot with me.”
While he was on the radio calling for assistance, five other Jefferson County deputies already were on their way, arriving only minutes after the first report of a “female down” at Columbine High School.

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen has been hosting a series of posts on guns.

The RAND Corporation has a collection of data resources under the witty name Many Questions, Some Answers. One particualry significant RAND study, The Effects of Laws Allowing Armed Staff in K–12 Schools, finds it hard to draw conlcusions, though a more recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Presence of Armed School Officials and Fatal and Nonfatal Gunshot Injuries During Mass School Shootings, United States, 1980-2019, concludes that they are counterproductive:

armed guards were not associated with significant reduction in rates of injuries; in fact, controlling for the aforementioned factors of location and school characteristics, the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present

One last thing: I should observe that many proponents of private gun ownership counter this kind of research with studies by John Lott. But he is not a credible source. I have a whole side post about how he is not a credible source, he is a bullshit artist slinging pseudoscience to shill for the gun industry.

Law, politics, and history

Mark Waldman at Politico provides a good capsule history, emphasizing recent developments, in How the NRA Rewrote the Second Amendment.

Many are startled to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t rule that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun until 2008, when District of Columbia v. Heller struck down the capital’s law effectively banning handguns in the home. In fact, every other time the court had ruled previously, it had ruled otherwise. Why such a head-snapping turnaround? Don’t look for answers in dusty law books or the arcane reaches of theory.

So how does legal change happen in America? We’ve seen some remarkably successful drives in recent years—think of the push for marriage equality, or to undo campaign finance laws. Law students might be taught that the court is moved by powerhouse legal arguments or subtle shifts in doctrine. The National Rifle Association’s long crusade to bring its interpretation of the Constitution into the mainstream teaches a different lesson: Constitutional change is the product of public argument and political maneuvering. The pro-gun movement may have started with scholarship, but then it targeted public opinion and shifted the organs of government. By the time the issue reached the Supreme Court, the desired new doctrine fell like a ripe apple from a tree.

Another interview with Waldman in Mother Jones.

Emphatically, the focus was on the militias. To the framers, that phrase “a well-regulated militia” was really critical. In the debates, in James Madison’s notes of the Constitutional Convention, on the floor of the House of Representatives as they wrote the Second Amendment, all the focus was about the militias. Now at the same time, those militias are not the National Guard. Every adult man, and eventually every adult white man, was required to be in the militias and was required to own a gun, and to bring it from home. So it was an individual right to fulfill the duty to serve in the militias.

In Betraying the Founding Fathers: How Scalia and the NRA Hacked the 2nd Amendment, an examination of the context of the writing of the Second Amendment, looking at law and debate at the time, is very instructive.

These contemporaneous examples of individual rights language prove three things:

  1. The framers were aware of the distinction between defense of the self, hunting and defense of the state
  2. The framers knew how to express that distinction in clear legal language
  3. They chose not to do so in the Second Amendment after a lengthy drafting process

We can’t go back and wish they had included that language. They didn’t. If we want that federal individual right, the Second Amendment itself has to be amended.

Brett Arends at Marketwatch looks closely at Federalist №29.

And the creation of this “well-regulated militia,” aka the National Guard, would help safeguard the freedom of the new republic because it would make the creation of a professional, mercenary army “unnecessary,” wrote Hamilton. “This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it,” he wrote.

That was the point. And that was why they wanted to make sure it couldn’t be disarmed by the federal government: So a future “tyrant” couldn’t disarm the National Guard, and then use a mercenary army to impose martial law.

Patrick Blanchfield at n+1 offers a clarifying taxonomy of past, present, and future policy in The Gun Control We Deserve.

The Massachusetts case exemplifies a position I like to call “Aversive Minimalism.” This is when the State seeks to minimize opportunities for guns to be carried and to minimize their place in the public gaze—leaving them visible only on the hips of “proper” authorities or concealed in the (typically deep) pockets of “respectable” citizens. For Aversive Minimalists, gun ownership and carry are contingent privileges, trivial in comparison to free speech, the right to assemble, voting rights, and so forth. In contradistinction, the Arizona situation represents a particularly vivid example of what could be termed “Ardent Maximalism.” For Ardent Maximalists, gun ownership isn’t just a civil right: it is the civil right upon which all other rights depend. Constructing barriers around it is unacceptable, striking at the heart of the polity and infringing on core individual rights. From this perspective, the “proper” place of guns is more or less everywhere, since they are simultaneously the guarantor, signifier, and prerogative of a fully enfranchised citizenry.

If we take a long view, it’s clear that the Maximalist and Minimalist positions do not track with traditional right/left, Republican/Democrat, or even libertarian/progressive binaries. From New York City to Silicon Valley, many self-identified Democrats are vehemently Minimalist when it comes to the gun rights of most Americans—with the crucial caveat that those rights remain accessible to those able to surmount the cost barrier of licensing, insurance, and approved training. Meanwhile, as Arizona’s proposed legislation suggests—and the courting of Northern gun manufacturers by states across the South confirms—many professed Republicans have no problem abandoning small-government, no-handouts principles in favor of quasi-socialist support for individual gun owners and corporate gun interests.

“Pro-gun” and “anti-gun” stances are similarly blinkered. The vehement single-mindedness of these labels—when considered alongside the historical record—suggests that they, and debates over guns more broadly, are proxy battles for deeply ingrained tensions over race, class, and rural versus urban ways of life.

Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times editorial How To Reduce Shootings provides an overview of what we know about policy and the implications.

The left sometimes focuses on “gun control,” which scares off gun owners and leads to more gun sales. A better framing is “gun safety” or “reducing gun violence,” and using auto safety as a model—constant efforts to make the products safer and to limit access by people who are most likely to misuse them.

What would a public health approach look like for guns if it were modeled after cars? It would include:

  • Background checks
  • Protection orders
  • Ban under-21s
  • Safe storage
  • Straw purchases
  • Ammunition checks
  • End immunity
  • Ban bump stocks
  • Research “smart guns”

At The War Horse, They Are the Good Guys With Guns. After Another Mass Shooting, Veterans Want Change. by Kelly Kennedy, Michael de Yoanna, and Sonner Kehrt talks about how military servicepeople work with guns as a model for thinking about gun policy in the civilian world.

The weapon is kept in a locked and secured facility where you don’t have access to it. [⋯] Ammo is kept separately from that facility. For me to get my weapon, I have to sign it out. There’s rules that apply. I’m trained on the weapon in every way. If I break those rules, there’s punishment. [⋯] We don’t just have guys walk around posts with guns — because it’s stupid.

M.S. at The Economist calls American conservatives’ arguments that the Second Amendment is a bullwark against tyranny The Right To Commit Treason and argues that history stands against their position.

No popular militia has ever prevented the seizure of power by an authoritarian ruler. In countries with well-established democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers are rare; when they occur, popular militias do not resist, or are ruthlessly crushed by national armed forces. In countries with weak democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers sometimes go smoothly, or in other cases touch off periods of civil war, which are resolved when one faction finally defeats the others and imposes authoritarian rule. Name your authoritarian takeover: Germany, Japan, Russia, China, Egypt, Libya, Brazil, Greece, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran, Chile, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Syria—popular militias never resist authoritarian takeover and preserve democracy or civil freedoms. That is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.

To that same point about history, the Founders, and the Second Amendment, Tom Verenna at American Hiſtory and Anceſtry has a long article Rebellion! Armed Uprisings in America and Tea Party “Patriots”.

With all the calls for armed insurrection being thrown around as if it weren’t a big deal, it would not surprise me if some of my readers were unaware of the tumultuous history of the United States and its rebellious past after it had won its war for independence. I thought it prudent to discuss some of the history concerning three previous rebellions in the United States following the American Revolution: (1) Shay’s Rebellion, (2) the Whiskey Rebellion, and (3) Fries’s Rebellion. These three rebellions prove a few very important points and bust myths in the process:

  1. The government (contrary to popular belief), made up of founding fathers, did not respond favorably to armed, unsanctioned groups of protestors.
  2. Sanctioned militia, called up by United States drafts, were used to suppress violent and armed uprisings. The mobs who started these uprisings were not considered ‘militia’.
  3. A armed rebellion is not the same as the American revolution.

Conservative apostate David Frum looks at the historical record and says the same thing in his post No, the Second Amendment Does Not Authorize Armed Sedition.

Before 1965, it would have occurred to precisely nobody that the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to organize private armies independent of the state.

I have a blog post of my own on that subject, a well regulated militia, which examines the Constitution to determine what the Second Amendment is for.

Contra many gun regulation opponents’ fantasies, the armed militia described in the Second Amendment is not meant to protect private gun ownership or to equip the populace to overthrow a tyrannical government. It is intended as an instrument of the Federal government.

Historian Kevin Sweeny looks at the history of the Second Amendment and argues that it unmistakably concerns Federal control over militias, not private firearm ownership.

The concerns that led to the Second Amendment were not the fear that the government would go around taking people’s firearms — I mean, most of these were firearms that the government didn’t want. [The founders] wanted some reassurance that states could arm the militia if the federal government did not. This is largely a debate that has been missed. But it’s clear that James Madison and many other Southerners who had poorly armed militias wanted the federal treasury to arm them.


So, yes, those who today argue that the militia is a palladium of our liberties and freedoms have to remember that part of its purpose was to prevent insurrection.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson at PoliticsUSA catalogues some quotes about guns attributed to the Founders which they never actually said. Including this one, which I had been suckered by myself:

When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.

Dominic Tierney at The Atlantic notices a paradox in the politics of the people who are talking about the need for an armed citizenry as a bullwark against an oppressive government.

As governor of Alaska, [Sarah Palin] signed an amicus brief that claimed: “The Framers were understandably wary of standing armies and the powers of a potentially oppressive government.” The Second Amendment provides for “a citizenry capable of defending its rights by force, when all other means have failed, against any future oppression.” Last February, Palin even suggested that the federal government is “stockpiling bullets in case of civil unrest.

But where did these bullets come from? They came from champions of a strong military — like Sarah Palin. She believes in fiscal conservatism, but with a clear exception for defense. “We must make sure, however, that we do nothing to undermine the effectiveness of our military.” To diminish the government’s standing army is to “risk losing all that makes America great!”

The Propaganda Professor takes on The Myth Of Hitler’s Gun Ban and shows that it’s both propaganda BS and not true.

Whenever a politician, or anyone else, starts talking about regulating guns, it’s a safe bet that someone will bring up how Hitler supposedly outlawed guns in Germany, which supposedly enabled him to do all the mischief he did.
Hitler really did enact a new gun law. But it was in 1938, not 1935 – well after the NAZIs already had the country in its iron grip. Furthermore, the new law in many ways LOOSENED gun restrictions.

Bernard E. Harcourt’s article “On Gun Registration, the NRA, Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Gun Laws: Exploding the Gun Culture Wars (A Call to Historians)” (PDF) for the Fordham Law Review also argues that American opponents of gun control referencing Nazi gun control legislation are also misunderstanding history. Apropos of the 1938 law the Professor references above, he says:

It is fair to conclude, then, that the 1938 Nazi gun laws represented a slight relaxation of gun control, at least with regard to general gun acquisition, transfer, and carrying. To be sure, the Nazis were intent on killing Jewish persons and used the gun laws and regulations to further the genocide. But it appears that the Nazis aspired to a certain relaxation of gun laws for the “ordinary” or “law-abiding” German citizen, for those who were not, in their minds, “enemies of the National Socialist state.”

Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon also addresses The Hitler Gun Control Lie and addresses Stalin’s supposed gun control policies.

The very idea of either gun control or the freedom to bear arms would have been absurd to [Stalin]. His regime used violence on a vast scale, provided arms to thugs of all descriptions, and stripped not guns but any human image from those it declared to be its enemies.

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post talks to Janet Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center School, who informs us that Israel and Switzerland are not gun-toting utopias.

There’s this widespread misunderstanding that Israel and Switzerland promote gun ownership. They don’t. Ten years ago, when Israel had the outbreak of violence, there was an expansion of gun ownership, but only to people above a certain rank in the military. There was no sense that having ordinary citizens [carry guns] would make anything safer.

Switzerland has also been moving away from having widespread guns. The laws are done canton by canton, which is like a province. Everyone in Switzerland serves in the army, and the cantons used to let you have the guns at home. They’ve been moving to keeping the guns in depots. That means they’re not in the household, which makes sense because the literature shows us that if the gun is in the household, the risk goes up for everyone in the household.

The New York Times talks about a few other international examples in More Guns = More Killing.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of “good guys” with guns, countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“A society that is relying on guys with guns to stop violence is a sign of a society where institutions have broken down,” said Rebecca Peters, former director of the International Action Network on Small Arms. “It’s shocking to hear anyone in the United States considering a solution that would make it seem more like Colombia.”

Truthout asserts that the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery.

If the anti-slavery folks in the North had figured out a way to disband - or even move out of the state — those southern militias, the police state of the South would collapse. And, similarly, if the North were to invite into military service the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern economic and social systems, altogether. These two possibilities worried southerners like James Monroe, George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).


Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves.

Mike The Mad Biologist sharpens the point about militias and slavery.

In other words, the Second Amendment has to be read, in part, as a way to maintain militias under state (“State”) — and thus slaver—control, as opposed to letting the “Country” control them (a term used elsewhere in the Constitution to mean the federal government). As Hartmann describes, the Virginian contingent of the drafters of the Constitution were terrified that the Constitution would disband the militias [⋯]

Another on the subject of slavery, from Mike The Mad Biologist:

What Nocera misses is that the key argument was over who would control the militias: Congress or the individual states. Virginian Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”; boldface mine):
If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress [⋯] Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.

Another article, Slavery and the Second Amendment: Slave Patrol Militias from Michael R. Burch examines the language of the Second Amendment and finds militias serving as slave patrols.

These extensive militias had become part and parcel of southern society. Two decades before the Revolutionary War, the state of Georgia passed laws that required all plantation owners or their white male employees to enlist. The Georgia militias were required to make monthly inspections of all the state’s slave quarters. According to Professor Bogus, “The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search ‘all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition’ and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.”
Some slaveholders were concerned that Article 1, Section 8 of the then-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could result in a federal militia that absorbed the state militias and ended up freeing the slaves they had been keeping in chains!

The Brutal Origins of Gun Rights reviews Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ book Loaded: A Disarming History Of The Second Amendment and finds that semi-formalized settler violence against Native Americans is baked into US gun culture long prior to the Second Amendment itself.

Our national mythology encourages Americans to see the Second Amendment as a result of the Revolutionary War—to think of it as a matter of arming Minutemen against Redcoats. But, Dunbar-Ortiz argues, it actually enshrines practices and priorities that long preceded that conflict. For centuries before 1776, the individual white settler was understood to have not just a right to bear arms, but a responsibility to do so—and not narrowly in the service of tightly regulated militias, but broadly, so as to participate in near-constant ad-hoc, self-organized violence against Native Americans. “Settler-militias and armed households were institutionalized for the destruction and control of Native peoples, communities, and nations,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes. “Extreme violence, particularly against unarmed families and communities, was an aspect inherent in European colonialism, always with genocidal possibilities, and often with genocidal results.”

Although the U.S. Constitution formally instituted “militias” as state-controlled bodies that were subsequently deployed to wage wars against Native Americans, the voluntary militias described in the Second Amendment entitled settlers, as individuals and families, with the right to combat Native Americans on their own.

A reader informs me of a little Boston Globe article about gun regulation in the UK. I note that despite very tight regulation, England has not become a totalitarian hellscape ... and when guns are outlawed, an amusing anecdote demonstrates how it can be hard for outlaws to get guns.

Inside plastic bags hidden in a trash collection room, officers uncovered two archaic flintlock pistols, retrofitted flare guns, and a Jesse James-style revolver. Now, that kind of an­tiquated firepower is about the baddest a gang member can get.

The Atlantic The Secret History of Guns offers some fascinating historical background.

The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.

For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the “individual mandate” that has proved so controversial in President Obama’s health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.

Rick Perlstein looks at the erosion of political strength behind gun control and comes to disquieting conclusions.

In other words, there is virtually no countervailing power to the now-hegemonic acceptance that there’s nothing much to do about the proliferation of guns in America. Democrats, as usual, gave an inch. The right, as usual, took a mile. And now we face the consequences.

Harold Meyerson looks at strong open carry laws and asks Whens Guns Trample Speech, Do We Have A Democracy?

Upon learning of the Utah law, Sarkeesian chose not to go ahead with her talk. No responsible person could have done otherwise. And that’s surely what the gamer twerp who sent the email had anticipated. After all, Utah’s gun laws could not have been more precisely designed to compel the cancellation, and to encourage more such threats and cancellations the next time a talk is scheduled that upsets some unbalanced or merely sinister figure.
Mark Ames at Pando acerbically describes connections between everyone-needs-a-gun enthusiasm and quasi-libertarian far right politics in A Brief History of American Gun Nuts.

The key to understanding why gun-nut politics thrives is that it’s a natural fit with a much more serious and powerful agenda — big business and the wealthiest upper crust. If all you do when you think of guns is think of an instrument that is dangerous, can kill, and is usually seen being waved around by dangerous criminals or pot-bellied white jerks in pickups, then you don’t see the angles. First, you need to disabuse yourself of the silly notion that the very rich and powerful in this country fear an armed citizenry, or an armed rebellion by “the people” — or anyone with guns, period. Government antitrust laws and taxes—that’s what keeps them up at night. Further down the line are labor and other government regulations, depending on the business. But for tech titans especially, the threats are antitrust and taxes—with labor a distant third. Few things are less threatening than the “revolution” threat by citizens clutching their guns and their Bill of Rights, or their Guy Fawkes masks, or their marked up copies of Kropotkin.

So why does the Big Business lobby align so seamlessly with the gun cultists?

Second Amendment cultists truly believe that guns are political power. That guns in fact are the only source of political power. That’s why, despite loving guns, and despite being so right-wing, they betray such a paranoid fear and hatred of armed agents of the government (minus Border Guards, they all tend to love our Border Guards). If you think guns, rather than concentrated wealth, equals political power, then you’d resent government power far more than you’d resent billionaires’ power or corporations’ hyper-concentrated wealth/power, because government will always have more and bigger guns. In fact you’d see pro-gun, anti-government billionaires like the Kochs as your natural political allies in your gun-centric notion of political struggle against the concentrated gun power of government.

How very convenient that works out to be.

A Reddit article under /r/gunsarecool has a striking and illuminating answer to the perennial question what is the best definition of “assualt rifle?”
This post is here to educate you about the “Single Characteristic” definition of assault rifle. Really, it’s a comprehensive test, which is the only way to define one rifle in a different way than another (select fire is not enough, as I will will show you below). But we will boil it down to the only feature that you need to conduct an assault: and that is not select fire. [⋯] California SB374: the gold standard and future definition of assault rifle defines it as any long barreled gun with a detachable magazine. The ability to change magazines quickly is what is needed to conduct a military style assault, the action of the gun has no bearing on it. No other feature matters. In the rights hands, a bolt action can fire just as quickly as a semi-automatic assault rifle. [⋯] You don’t need anything else but a high capacity magazine to conduct an assault. The military does it every day. Select fire is irrelevant.
That Reddit article references a New York Times article Even Defining ‘Assault Weapons’ Is Complicated.
“The popularly held idea that the term ‘assault weapon’ originated with antigun activists, media or politicians is wrong,” [Indiana gun dealer] Mr. Peterson wrote. “The term was first adopted by the manufacturers, wholesalers, importers and dealers in the American firearms industry to stimulate sales of certain firearms that did not have an appearance that was familiar to many firearm owners. The manufacturers and gun writers of the day needed a catchy name to identify this new type of gun.”

A reminder that The NRA Supported Gun Control When the Black Panthers Had the Weapons, and a surprise twist: current “gun rights” folks have cribbed many of their arguments from the Panthers.

The Black Panthers were “innovators” in the way they viewed the Second Amendment at the time, says Winkler. Rather than focus on the idea of self-defense in the home, the Black Panthers brazenly took their weapons to the streets, where they felt the public—particularly African-Americans—needed protection from a corrupt government.

“These ideas eventually infiltrated into the NRA to shape the modern gun debate,” explains Winker. As gun control laws swept the nation, the organization adopted a similar stance to that of the activist group they once fought to regulate, with support for open-carry laws and concealed weapon laws high on their agenda.


What Gun Owners Really Want at The New Republic provides a bit of a window into gun owners’ culture.

Growing up around guns and owning them as an adult affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to guns may have trouble understanding. The divide is phenomenological, not political (or not political until it gets to be), like the gulf between those who’ve had sex and those who haven’t or those who smoke and those who’ve never lit up. Pulling a trigger and being prepared to do so cuts patterns in the self. Depending on the nature of your social life, which time around guns can shape and color in ways that I’ll describe, you might forget that these patterns are even there, because you’re surrounded by people who share them—until someone or some event challenges you to answer for your thinking.

Hope Reese at The Atlantic interviews Dan Baum about what liberals need to understand about “gun guys”.

The people who buy most of the guns are middle-aged white men who have not finished college. That demographic has been particularly screwed in this society in the past 30 years. They are losing ground economically, they are losing ground culturally, but in this country, to talk about your circumstances as part of a class is forbidden. So these guys have no vocabulary for discussing what has happened to them. All they know is, they’re pissed.

The only people giving them a voice is the NRA, who comes along whispering in their ears, “The liberals want to take away your guns.” The gun is the one thing that makes these guys feel vital and useful and powerful and capable. They’re managing these incredibly dangerous weapons, not hurting anybody, maybe they’re wearing a gun and keeping people around them safe. They get a lot of pride and a lot of self-esteem from having these guns. This is not crazy, and this is not pitiable — this is real.

TBogg’s essay I Was The NRA reflects on a change in the culture of hunters in his lifetime.

We felt safe in the field because the NRA had taught us how to be safe; to know where everyone else was when you pulled the trigger, to keep your weapon pointed at the ground, to open the breech and extract the shells if you weren’t hunting, to keep you finger off of the trigger unless you had reason to pull it.

As I grew older I began to notice a different breed of hunter; men who showed up with multiple shotguns as if they were golf clubs needed for specific shots. While most of us wore jeans, t-shirts and hunting vests, these newcomers dressed like they were going on safari, wearing bush hats, shooting jackets (in the 100 degree heat), and cargo pants with more pockets than there existed implements to fill them. You would see them walking the fields; shotgun draped over one arm, can of beer in the other hand. We learned to stay away from them.

Eric Raymond’s essay Ethics from the Barrel of a Gun: What Bearing Weapons Teaches About the Good Life provides another compelling description of how many gun owners experience gun ownership. He describes his own relationship with guns as a kind of meditation on citizenship.

Nothing most of us will ever do combines the moral weight of life-or-death choice with the concrete immediacy of the moment as thoroughly as the conscious handling of instruments deliberately designed to kill. As such, there are lessons both merciless and priceless to be learned from bearing arms — lessons which are not merely instructive to the intellect but transformative of one’s whole emotional, reflexive, and moral character. The first and most important of these lessons is this: it all comes down to you.

No one’s finger is on the trigger but your own. All the talk-talk in your head, all the emotions in your heart, all the experiences of your past — these things may inform your choice, but they can’t move your finger. All the socialization and rationalization and justification in the world, all the approval or disapproval of your neighbors — none of these things can pull the trigger either. They can change how you feel about the choice, but only you can actually make the choice. Only you. Only here. Only now. Fire, or not?

A second is this: never count on being able to undo your choices.

If you shoot someone through the heart, dead is dead. You can’t take it back. There are no do-overs. Real choice is like that; you make it, you live with it — or die with it.

A third lesson is this: the universe doesn’t care about motives.

If your gun has an accidental discharge while pointed an unsafe direction, the bullet will kill just as dead as if you had been aiming the shot. I didn’t mean to may persuade others that you are less likely to repeat a behavior, but it won’t bring a corpse back to life.

These are hard lessons, but necessary ones. Stated, in print, they may seem trivial or obvious. But ethical maturity consists, in significant part, of knowing these things — not merely at the level of intellect but at the level of emotion, experience and reflex. And nothing teaches these things like repeated confrontation with life-or-death choices in grave knowledge of the consequences of failure.

Unhappily, Raymond’s whimsically-titled Gun Nut Page prominently features John Lott’s work among “scholarly studies”, which makes me distrust the other sources there and Raymond’s judgment.

Dave Grossman’s On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs is an expression of a common sentiment in gun culture.

One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me:
Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident. Then there are the wolves, and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy. Then there are sheepdogs, and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.

Michael David Cobb Bowen references both that metaphor of the Wolf and Eric S Raymond’s comment in The Wolf, a meditation on learning skills with firearms and joining the ranks of the “sheepdogs”.

The most important thing about gaining this skill is the appreciation I have for other people who have it and the recognition of us as a force. Essentially, I can recognize other people who see the same foolishness in video portrayals of shooting pistols and rifles. I can separate the fact from the fiction and determine how much plot narrative of our entertainments depends upon entirely magical powers of weapons. I’m not the only one who sees through the curtain. And so I have a new brotherhood. The brotherhood of those who have the obligation to take the shot, and not miss. I don’t want to be one obligated to make the shot. So I have not sworn an oath to defend the Constitution against all foes. I have not trained to stand on that wall. But I am in their minds and they are in mine. We are united in purpose, it is only our duties that separate us.

Jasper Craven in The Police’s “Sheepdog” Problem points to critiques of the “sheepdog” analogy and its author.

In this mentality, cops, soldiers, and lawfully armed citizens are all the same: They’re the gnarly sheepdogs who protect the flock, attack the wolves, and apparently always know the differences between the three groups. In his training sessions for police and civilians, Grossman depicts a bleak American future where school buses and day-care centers are targeted by radicalized video gamers, and the West Coast is bombed by a nuclear-armed ISIS. “We fight violence,” he said in a recent seminar attended by Mother Jones. “What do we fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence.”

A less romantic version of this sentiment can be found in Igloowhite’s scary little memoir I Glimpse The Elephant.

Men who have been in combat will often say that there is no comparable experience to it in the whole of the world. They say it’s like a car accident, that it is totalizing terror, that it is like watching yourself in a movie, that it is like many things. The usual metaphor is the old story of the three blind men and the elephant. [⋯] This is the reason that men have often called their first combat experience "seeing the elephant.”
Seeing the elephant is some serious shit — as serious as it gets, so let me be right up front with this: I have not seen the elephant. I have glimpsed it, however — and that little peek was enough for me.

In the leftist magazine The Baffler Have Guns, Will Liberate is a review by Chase Madar of Jennifer Carson’s book about gun enthusiasts Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline which shows them echoing Raymond’s sentiments, and offers some explantations of the cultural politics behind it.

The men and women who are her informants are not all that different from her; far from being fuming resentniks, they see themselves as civic-minded people who offer up their armed vigilance as a contribution to the common good. While other sociologists of gun culture have emphasized its high quotients of bile and backlash, Carlson highlights the Good Samaritan mindset of gun owners: these everyday, armed Americans want to be ready to stop the next carjacking, school shooting, or act of international terrorism, which they think could happen at any moment. They just want everyone to be safe and would hate to see anyone get hurt.

An interview with former gun corporate executive Ryan Busse explores the cultural politics and economic incentives transforming gun culture in the US.

After Columbine in 1999, the National Rifle Association in very well-publicized meetings now, thanks to sleuthing and digging by reporters at NPR, we now have tapes of the meetings where they literally said, are we going to be part of the solution here? Or maybe we can use these things to drum up hate and fear in our members? We might even be able to use them to drive membership. And they chose the latter. They perfected that system for about seven or eight years, getting their feet underneath them. They figured out it can drive politics. And then an explosion hit. That explosion was the future Black president leading in the polls in 2007. And then Barack Obama won in 2008. So you have this sort of uncapping of hate and conspiracy, much of it racially driven, that the NRA was tapping into. Prior to 2007, people in the United States never purchased more than 7 million guns in a single year. By the time Barack Obama left office, the United States was purchasing almost 17 million guns a year.

James McMurtry offers a meditation from gun country.

I don’t want to take away anyone’s Uzi. I don’t want to restrict anyone’s right to dig up a hillside with an AK-47, but I want that constable or deputy to have an extra second to make the shooting stop; that way, someone gets to see their child, someone who wouldn’t without that extra second. I don’t know of a fair way to make that happen. And no, I don’t know if the unfair way would work either, but it seems like it might, at least in a case or two. Might.... once again. One must try.

Occasioned by the discussion of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Scott Lemieux raises hard questions about the consequences of having a lot of armed citizens.

Carrying a deadly weapon in public should carry unique responsibilities. In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill. As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson puts it, “I still don’t understand what Trayvon was supposed to do.” Unless the law is changed to deal with the large number of people carrying concealed guns, there will be more tragic and unnecessary deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin for which nobody is legally culpable. And to make claims of self-defense easier to bring, as Florida and more than 20 other states have done, is moving in precisely the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, no matter how self-defense laws are structured the extremely unusual American practice of allowing large number of citizens to carry concealed weapons leads to many unecessary deaths. (All 50 states, it’s worth noting, permit concealed carry.) Cases like the killing of Martin should compel reconsideration of the lack of significant gun control in the United States, but for whatever reason this isn’t the lesson that most legislators are likely to draw.

Adam Weinstein at Salon in It’s Really Hard to Be a Good Guy With a Gun looks closely at the details of how an armed citizenry is really supposed to help, and finds gun proponents’ heroic fantasies lacking.

The universe of scenarios in which carrying a gun seems prudent or useful just keeps shrinking and shrinking, even as the legal freedom to wield personal firepower keeps expanding. The NRA has recalibrated its message for the 21st century: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But in many ways, the 21st century has already overtaken us good guys.

In Do Armed Civilians Stop Mass Shooters? Actually, No Mark Follman debunks some commonly-cited examples of “a good guy with a gun”.

  • Appalachian School of Law shooting in Grundy, Virginia
  • Middle school dance shooting in Edinboro, Pennsylvania
  • High school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi
  • New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Bar shooting in Winnemucca, Nevada
  • Shopping mall shooting in Tacoma, Washington
  • Courthouse shooting in Tyler, Texas

Referencing a meta-study looking across a lot of data, The Good Guy with a Gun Theory, Debunked from Alex Yablon at Vice also looks at what is happening with the falling crime rate in general.

The problem with drawing a connection between the rise of concealed carry and the drop in the national crime rate, as Donohue and his co-authors point out, is that crime has not fallen equally in all parts of the country. Instead, the decline in violent crime has been most pronounced in states that maintained strict control over the right to carry guns, like New York and California. When other states decided to make it easier for residents to pack firearms, they appear to have missed out on reductions in crime of the same magnitude. Yes, in raw terms, crime declined in those right-to-carry states as well—but not nearly as much as it could have.

Mike the Mad Biologist quotes a news item about a guy exercising his “Second Amendment rights”, with some cunning use of emphasis, and it’s hard to resist a psychologizing reading of it.

According to witnesses who spoke with WSB-TV, the man wandered around the Forsythe County park last Tuesday night showing his gun to strangers, telling them “there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Anyone who was just walking by – you had parents and children coming in for the game – and he’s just standing here, walking around [saying] ‘You want to see my gun? Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ He knew he was frightening people. He knew exactly what he was doing,” said parent Karen Rabb.

Rabb said that the man’s intimidating behavior panicked parents causing them to hustle children who were there to play baseball to safety after the man refused to leave.

Digby, writing at Salon, considers the case above and other obnoxious behavior by open-carry activists and comes to unflattering conclusions.

You can see why they think that’s freedom. It is. For them. The rest of us just have to be very polite, keep our voices down and back away very slowly, saying, “Yes sir, whatever you say, sir,” and let them have their way.

I’ve been wondering what it is about suburban young White guys which makes them occasionally freak out and kill a bunch of people. Michael Kimmel and Cliff Leek don’t have an answer, but they frame the question well.

This new phenomenon of suicide-by-mass-murder has emerged as a corollary to the earlier suicide-by-cop as a phenomenon of those whose real goal is, at least in part, to kill themselves — and to take out as many of “them” as possible on the way. And this seems to be an entirely white male thing.

Dealing with guns at Making Light offers some useful comments about problems with the argument that ready availability of guns will actually reduce the threat of violence because will be better able to defend themselves.

A handgun is not a magic wand. Displaying it will not cast a spell of caution or calmness on the various parties. A loaded weapon makes people crazy — the person at which it is aimed, the persons who are witnesses, and often the person who is holding it.

Josh Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo addresses the cultural politics in Speaking For My Tribe.

In the current rhetorical climate people seem not to want to say: I think guns are kind of scary and don’t want to be around them.

That frightens me. I don’t want to have those in my home. I don’t particularly want to be around people who are carrying. Cops, I don’t mind. They’re trained, under an organized system and supposed to use them for a specific purpose. But do I want to have people carrying firearms out and about where I live my life — at the store, the restaurant, at my kid’s playground? No, the whole idea is alien and frankly scary. Because remember, guns are extremely efficient tools for killing people and people get weird and do stupid things.

A big part of gun versus non-gun tribalism or mentality is tied to the difference between city and rural. And a big reason ‘gun control’ in the 70s, 80s and 90s foundered was that in the political arena, the rural areas rebelled against the city culture trying to impose its own ideas about guns on the rural areas. And there’s a reality behind this because on many fronts the logic of pervasive gun ownership makes a lot more sense in sparsely populated rural areas than it does in highly concentrated city areas.

But a huge amount of the current gun debate, the argument for the gun-owning tribe, amounts to the gun culture invading my area, my culture, my part of the country.

Paul Waldman at The American Prospect has a kind of sequel to Marshall’s post, Here a Gun, There a Gun, Everywhere a Gun.

But gun advocates want to create a society governed by fear, or at the very least, make sure that everyone feels the same fear they feel. “An armed society is a polite society,” they like to say, and it’s polite because we’re all terrified of each other. They genuinely believe that that the price of safety is that there should be no place where guns, and the fear and violence they embody, are not present. Not your home, not your kids’ school, not your supermarket, not your church, no place. But for many of us—probably for most of us—that vision of society is nothing short of horrifying.

Borrowing from that Waldman piece, I have an old commentary on the subject of A Polite Society.

If you’re Black, the effects of systemic racism have salted your community with armed, violent hotheads; if you’re White, those implications don’t even occur to you.

Joe Bageant talking about the discussion of guns in his wonderful book Deer Hunting With Jesus also talks about the cultural factor.

[⋯] assessing gun ownership is spongy ground at best. It’s a matter of trying to asses the color of the bottle from the inside. None of us do it well. Objectively speaking, I don’t believe any American needs to own a gun. But as long as so many Americans believe they do, we’re going to have the ongoing debate, not to mention the total bafflement of the outside world as it watches. To an American, guns represent an entirely different thing — several of them actually — than they do to other nationalities not steeped in gun ownership.

Somehow though, I believe the gun ownership debate detracts from the real issue of America’s interior psychic violence, which manifests itself in so many escalating ways these days. Said violence is very deeply ingrained.


Consequently, a great many people own guns out of pure fear of a worst case scenario which varies according to the person’s anxieties. These include government intrusion by a hardening totalist state; crime activity generated by wealth disparity and a growing and increasingly desperate underclass; sexual violence perpetrated upon women (fear of which has been inherent in urban women for a long, long time); and plain old American distrust of authority and its abuses. And finally there is the mundane familiarity with guns on the part of so many Americans, built over generations of everyday exposure, among which I number — people who understand that guns don’t pull their their own triggers.

In a country where high background stress and insecurity is the norm, and where greed is purposefully stimulated and misnamed "personal drive," and especially one in which gun ownership is protected by the nation’s most esteemed founding document, I cannot imagine Americans asking anytime soon just what national disease is causing so many of its men and boys to pull that trigger. The answer is just too horrible to face, because we would all have to take responsibility for our failure as individuals and as a society.

So we delude ourselves that we can legislate and/or criminalize behavior as a substitute for asking that national question. Perhaps if we suffer the consequences of our national long enough, perhaps with a dozen more school shootings, we will find the balls to ask that question. But I doubt it.

David Brin offers The Jefferson Rifle as a reflection on the question in the form of a semi-serious proposal.

Here is a possible compromise, one of many. Moderate gun owners just might accept reforms that treat most personal weapons like motorcars — including registration, mandatory training, licensing and insurance — if they were also offered some surety against the dreaded slippery slope. This could consist of a grand compact permanently setting aside one class of firearms from oversight.

Traditional bolt-action rifles and simple shotguns are rarely used by criminals, impulse murderers, or children.
Oh, there is one more place where the bolt-action rifle proved itself — on the battlefield.

Boots Riley has a series of tweets talking about how the left was not always a proponent of gun control ... and the shift is entangled with racism.

I’d like to put forward that gun control is not actually a left idea. Its about “progressives” attachment to the democratic party.
The left used to champion striking miners fighting back against pinkerton security with their guns.
The first gun control laws came about from media created hysteria about the “Negro crime waves” of the 1920s.

Alex Gourevitch points to the strong tendency toward racism in the selective enforcement of gun control legislation.

[⋯] policing guns is just like policing drugs. Like drugs, there are a vast number of guns. Possession is far more widespread than can possibly be policed so decisions have to be made about where to devote resources. Furthermore, since possession itself is the crime, the only way to police that crime is to shift from actual harm to identifying and preventing risks. As legal scholar Benjamin Levin argues in a forthcoming piece

“Searching for guns – like searching for drugs – can easily become pretextual, a proxy for some general prediction of risk, danger, or lawlessness.”

In other words, there must be selective enforcement, where enforcement includes invasive searches based on existing prejudices about who is and isn’t dangerous. For example, as research by Jeff Fagan and Garth Davies shows, in the late 1990s, the NYPD used suspected weapons violations to justify numerous stops, even though these stops resulted in fewer arrests than stops for other crimes. And when it comes to individualized assessments of who is dangerous and worthy of punishment, every study shows steep, and unfounded, bias.

An interview with Charles E. Cobb about his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible at The American Prospect makes a similar point.

You couldn’t live in any household in a rural Southern community without guns, and people weren’t afraid to use them. During the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, Reverend King had guns all over his house. Glenn Smiley, one of King’s advisers, called King’s home an “arsenal.” That’s a Southern thing. I’ve been in houses where guns have been in the nightstand, under the pillow, in the chair.

Mike Newirth writing in The Baffler gives us an erudite rant on gun violence Death Travels West, Watch Him Go, sparing neither the NRA nor cops nor suburban commandos.

Which facet of our contemporary gun violence is most intolerable? Is it the racist edge-city rages of Smith and Baumhammers? The cracked-up, nerded-out boy who opts for early revenge at his underfunded hell of a high school in Kentucky or Arkansas or Washington—states where guns are common as grain? The Michigan first-grader who gleaned from his ragged home the coding that compelled him to shoot a classmate in the head? The Baltimore or D.C. ’banger who pulls the trigger of his cheap 9 mm for reasons that can barely be understood within their tragic seconds? Or the “tragic miscalculation” of plain-clothes officers who empty their high-capacity clips to put down a black man reaching for a wallet? Whichever, it’s hard to deny that the national love of guns is wreathed in a bloodthirstiness that somehow negates the caution of millions of responsible gun owners; is choked with a quickening rage that, from the penny-ante fascism of spree killers to the “acceptable” casualties of the Drug War, is fast approaching conflagration. How long will the nation remain lost to this violent dream of itself?

Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books gives us Our Moloch, a chilling meditation on the strange awe of guns which inhabits our politics.

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

Via conservative apostate David Frum, a few words from Thucydides about whether an armed society is a polite society.

The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. [⋯] The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life.

Digby has a sharp-toothed comment on how, in an unhappy sense, some people conclude that an armed society is a polite society.

I don’t think the NRA dream will be realized. Something much more repressive and socially stifling is taking place. In the final analysis, I think most people will not take a chance on getting into a deadly altercation. If it becomes accepted that the bullying types who demand “respect” and like to tell strangers to follow their orders are packing heat most people aren’t going carry their own guns and they aren’t going to be reckless enough to get into gun battles with armed thugs.

They will submit.

They will keep quiet.

They will apologize and move on.

Sure, there will be more killing of young men and assorted people asserting their right to speak, but once most of us understand that we could die if we fail to follow a bullying stranger’s orders, we’ll usually do what we’re told. Life is already short enough.

And the gun proliferation zealots will call it liberty.


Barry said...

This is some of why I prefer to have bludgeoning weapons for home defense. :)

AB said...

Also recommended...a recent paper from Johns Hopkins:


Yarnboy said...

Also why my guns stay locked up outside the house except for when I plan to shoot them at paper targets or animals I intend to eat.

Unknown said...

OK, I no I have zero chance of moving your needle on this one. But here I go anyway....

First of all, as a recovering academic I know that it's not hard to cherry pick a bunch of studies to support a position.

A few years ago there was a ban on 50BMG rifles in California. The argument was made that a 50BMG was a battlefield weapon, weapon of terror, could shoot down an airliner etc. Yes, lots of histrionics and exaggerations from politicians precipitated the ban. Yet to this day, a 50BMG has not been used in a crime in this country. At least it hadn't last time I checked. What does this show? Well if you're in CA it shows the ban worked! Outside of CA it shows that not having a ban also worked. Meditate on that.

I'm skeptical of the notion that more gun control can reduce gun crime, in the same way that I'm skeptical that more drug laws will reduce drug usage. The analogy isn't perfect (no analogy ever is), but it's pretty close. Passing new ineffective laws because "we have to do something", doesn't make us safer. It's the equivalent of security theater.

We should make data driven decisions when it comes to gun control. The common good argument that you can make my household safer by removing legally purchased guns is a slippery slope. By the same token I can make you safer by taking away your motorcycle. Let's do both and make us both safe. Now we're making progress!

I accept the risks of owning a gun and I take many precautions to store and use it safely. If I want to own an AR-15 to shoot at paper targets, what's the diff? If I want to own a 650BHP Mustang, what's the diff?



Jonathan Korman said...

Actually, Terence, I really do have very much an open mind on this subject. There is huge opportunity for bonehead policy proposals in the name of gun control, and certainly many of the “assault weapons ban” rules I've seen are sloppy policy.

We have 10,000 Americans killed by guns every year. That suggests that we can and should do something. But that doesn't mean we should panic and just do anything, which may be bad policy. I'm very unsure what the right something would be.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we should be making "data-driven decisions" when we have data. But I'm not sure how we're going to get data if we don't try anything.

Cobb said...

What is 'patent danger' and how does it compare to driving without seatbelts?

Jonathan Korman said...

Driving without a seatbelt is primarily a danger to one's self. That is profoundly incomparable to the danger of firearms.

Just Me said...

10K people is actually 0.0031746031746031746% of the US population.

Unknown said...

323 people were murdered by assault style rifles in 2011.
496 people we murdered with a hammer..

we can go back and forth all day and night you facts his facts their facts.. but some people are making a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be..
and check this out if you look up top 10 causes of death.. its not there.. you are more likely to die from Diabetes or cancer than by a bullet..
over 573,000 (thousands) from cancer.. so why are we not talking about that?

Jonathan Korman said...

I'm all for rational risk assessment, and I recognize that we often don't do that. I certainly am frustrated that this recent discussion of guns has been driven by news of mass shootings, which do not represent a meaningfully large risk.

But guns kill dozens of thousands of people each year in the United States. That is certainly of a scale that merits public policy discussion.

China Krys Darrington said...


Wow! That's quite a post and quite a collection. Huzzah for pulling that together. I was quite a proponent of gun-control and possibly even abolition until 1996 when I got shot.

Now I have a CCW permit and try to be as capable and responsible as I can be with regard to keeping a machine which can easily and quickly take a life. Becoming a single parent/head of household has only furthered my conviction.

I don't spend much time defending that choice. I just know that for me, my life and experience has cumulated into something that I feel much better "having and not needing, than needing and not having".

But I'm with Barry and I'd much rather use a bludgeoning weapon for home defense! ;) I was cleaning my bedroom the other day and took a photo where a sword, lightsaber and wand were casually strewn on my headboard. http://instagram.com/p/gaw6MqtleQ/