11 February 2013

Thoughts on guns

I've been collecting facts and arguments about guns since Sandy Hook inspired a round of discussion about them.

I've long been shy about staking about a position about what gun policy should be. Here's what I said at the head of my resource collection linked above:

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 gun control don't necessarily make it 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.

I still don't have a firm position about what gun policy I would ideally favor. Largely this is because hard data is frustratingly difficult to come by (not least because of vigorous efforts by the National Rifle Association to quash research) ... but the best information I have seen says things that point in interesting directions.

  1. There are a lot of complicating factors, but in general it's clear that in places with more guns, more people are killed by guns, increasing the number of violent deaths.
  2. Gun accidents kill several hundred people a year in the US, including a couple of hundred children & teenagers.
  3. Guns kill about thirty thousand people a year in the US, close to the number of people who die in automotive accidents.
  4. A bit less than twenty thousand of those gun deaths are suicides each year, accounting for a narrow majority of suicides.
  5. There are over ten thousand gun homicides a year, accounting for the great majority of homicides.
  6. Many gun owners are extremely diligent about firearms safety. There are good reasons to think that this represents the majority of gun owners, perhaps even the overwhelming majority.
  7. Law enforcement & military people who train seriously in firearms combat skills generally believe that sophisticated training and frequent regular practice are necessary in order to use a gun effectively when confronted with violence.
  8. Only a small minority of gun owners are that diligent about their firearms combat skills training.
  9. Statistics show that owning a gun greatly increases one's chances of being injured or killed with a gun. This appears to be true both overall and for specific causes.
    1. Owning a gun makes one more likely to be injured or killed in a gun accident.
    2. Owning a gun makes one more likely to commit suicide.
    3. Owning a gun makes one more likely to be injured or killed in a violent attack.

In short: having all those guns out there is killing a lot of people. It's a major public health risk.

Firearms accidents are not a major problem, but there's room for policy to reduce them meaningfully

Automobile accidents kill over 30,000 Americans a year, and that's a loss that we live with because we think the benefits of automobiles are worth some significant risk. A reasonable person could argue that that access to firearms is at least as valuable a public good as access to automobiles, and much less expensive in human lives.

That said, if something claims several hundred lives a year in accidents, it's a genuine public health issue. Gun owners talk a lot about how cautious they are with guns, and to their credit the NRA does a lot of gun safety training and propaganda, but we still have deadly accidents. It seems that either ....

  • Diligence about gun safety is less effective than many gun owners imagine
  • Diligence about gun safety is less common than many gun owners imagine
  • A small minority of gun owners who don't take gun safety seriously are responsible for a lot of deadly accidents

We need some better data. My suspicion is that the smart money is on the last possibility: incautious boneheads with guns are really dangerous. But each of these possibilities has policy implications.

If it turns out that even careful gun owners have a lot of accidents, then this at least calls for propaganda. We should not allow gun owners and potential gun owners to misjudge the risks to which they have exposed themselves. (That also speaks to my point #9, which I will will come back to.)

If it turns out that there are a lot of incautious gun owners, or that there are few such gun owners but they represent a big risk, then that suggests that we need a policy of better gun safety practices. That suggests gun licensing regulations which require proof of training, or perhaps liability insurance requirements which create incentives for people to demonstrate their safe practices.

I expect that many, even most, gun owners would actually favor these kinds of policies — especially if they were presented with strong data to support their efficacy — but we can predictably expect the National Rifle Association and an outspoken population I have a hard time not calling “gun nuts” opposing them.

Gun suicides are a real problem

I was surprised to learn that guns kill a lot more people by suicide than by homicide. Given that lots of people commit suicide by other methods, it's safe to presume that even if guns were completely unavailable a lot of those gun suicides would find another way. On the other hand, given the lack of planning required to commit suicide with a gun, the way that many other methods of suicide make it possible to rescue the person if they're found in time, and my point #9b, we can also presume that a significant percentage of suicides would be prevented if guns were unavailable ... and the numbers are big enough that even a modest percentage represents a lot of lives.

Obviously it's better to try to address the fact that so many people feel suicidal than to try to make the means of suicide unavailable, but the availability of guns has a meaningful public health impact through suicide. I'm hesitant to argue that preventing suicide is a strong justification for curtailing gun availability ... but we should be clear-eyed about the public health cost we are incurring with ready availability of guns. Which brings us to the big one ....

Without serious training and practice, guns are worse than useless as personal protection

Opponents of firearm regulation commonly argue that one has a right to own guns as a manifestation of one's right to self-defense. I'd be sympathetic to that, but looking at the facts dissolves this justification for unregulated access to guns.

Many self-defense experts will advise you not to own a gun unless you are prepared to devote significant time and energy to training and maintaining one's skills with the weapon ... including developing good judgment about when to employ it, since there are many situations in which bringing in a gun will more likely escalate a conflict than resolve it. The facts are consistent with this reading; I observed in point #9c above, the best numbers I have seen show that people with guns are at greater risk of violence, whatever gun control opponents may claim about guns preventing countless crimes based on anecdotes. Once again, I'd love to have better data to point to, but I'm persuaded by the data I have.

I don't have good data differentiating the risks for people with different levels of training, but I feel perfectly confident in concluding from the data I have that the untrained gun owner is a danger to themselves and others. I take as a good working assumption that the highly-trained gun owner is at least as safe as the non-gun-owner, though I don't want to count on that; it would be better to have hard data to confirm it.

The tricky question is how much training is enough? Experts tend to talk about the threshold of effective training being quite high. This is consistent with the fact that many, probably most, gun owners devote time to training and practice but on average they are at greater risk. So it's likely that the expert assessment is correct: one has to be very well-trained and very diligent in spending regular time at the range to stay sharp before a gun becomes a self-defense asset.

I wound up writing this post inspired by a Facebook conversation in which a friend was critical of arguments that training in blunt weapons and martial arts is effective enough in providing for one's self-defense that no one needs a gun; my friend observed that the anecdotes typically offered in such arguments, like videos of petite (but young and athletic) women overcoming big beefy men with jiu-jitsu throws, ignore that many people just do not have the capacity to be effective that way. It's a point well taken, but I want to dig out a few distinctions lurking under the surface there.

It's common for people who advocate for gun availability to imply that just having a gun is a Great Equalizer. But the numbers about risk and the question of training show that to be incorrect.

At a personal level, there's a strong argument to be made that if it requires a lot of training in order to use a gun for self-defense, many people would most benefit from devoting that time and energy to martial arts training instead. Still, as my Facebook friend argues, that won't make sense for everyone, so firearms training is going to be a better option for some people.

At the public policy level, if firearms in the hands of untrained people are a public health risk and are only effective for self-defense for trained people, then that suggests strict licensing requirements. If one is to own a gun one must have a license which one can only obtain by fulfilling a stringent training regimen. Given that, we might radically simplify and eliminate many restrictions on the sale of firearms, because the key regulatory question would be whether a person has a firearms skill license.

Now self-defense is not the only reason for personal firearms ownership. But the other applications might be handled neatly with geographic distinctions.

  • There are places where a rifle or shotgun is a necessary tool to deal with animals that are a nuisance or even a danger. Similarly, there are places where people hunt for sport or food. In these geographically-constrained areas we would want some rifles and shotguns to permitted to people with a license with significantly weaker safety training requirements.
  • We already have shooting ranges where weapons ordinarily prohibited are specially permitted because the range takes special responsibility for safety. Seen in public safety terms, it's easy to imagine a proliferation of these kinds of ranges, where people without permits could handle firearms for training or sport.
  • There are firearms which people own for artistic, historical, or sentimental reasons. These suggest technological interventions to make them safely inoperative.

That still leaves a major objection to this kind of restrictive regulation ....

What about the Second Amendment?

This is a post about pragmatics and policy, rather than the legal and political theory.

I gave that question some attention in a previous post, in which I argue that the Second Amendment is intended neither as a protection of a personal right to firearms, nor as a protection of the populace's ability to engage in armed rebellion against a tyrannical government.


Sabrina Morgan said...

I appreciate your defaulting to anonymity, but in the future I'm perfectly comfortable being named. ;)

This is very well thought out, and I think that with the provisions in place for hunting rifles (regional), peacebound collector's items and sentimental value weapons, and access through range facilities to weapons of less practical use, it's one that the majority of gun owners would be likely to support. Reasonable policy around gun control in either direction is unfortunately rare.

This is the kind of policy I think a lot of us are hoping will emerge: purposeful, limited in scope, and something which will have a low impact on the daily life side of gun ownership and a high impact on the safety side.

There are a lot of gun owners who publicly deplore the third item in your list, that "small minority of gun owners who don't take gun safety seriously [and] are responsible for a lot of deadly accidents," and (perhaps with visions of redneck hunting season buddy shootings in mind) would be relieved to promote treating guns like motorcycles or cars: useful, risky, and something you should be well trained on before operating.

The gun suicide issue is one that may require the most delicate handling. Currently in most locations, treatable mental illness is not a barrier to gun ownership as long as one has not been involuntarily committed and is not a danger to themselves or others. This seems reasonable: someone who knows when they're not okay, and who seeks treatment accordingly, is probably someone who is responsible enough to safely own a gun. Someone who is less responsible around that kind of self-awareness and self-care, not so much.

Some recent proposals involving a mental health registry have rightfully been shot down as a disincentive for the mentally ill to seek treatment and I was relieved to see you didn't go that route.

Unfortunately firearms are one of the most effective ways to commit suicide, and there is a gender breakdown here as well (with more male-identified people committing suicide by firearm). I'm not sure I can do the issue justice in a blog comment, but there's a lot to sort through around right-to-die and the long-term health consequences around less effective methods as well as stigma around suicidal thoughts.

Maybe with the training and safety piece underway, we would be able to focus on the type of outreach that will lower those numbers.

Thanks for posting this.

dannyboy said...

Why do we want to prevent suicides? I mean, I don't want anyone I know to kill themselves, but we also live in a society that has no legal access to euthanasia. So if someone I loved was diagnosed with glioblastoma, I'd rather they buy a gun and end things very simply than jump off a building and almost die.

I can tell someone I don't want them to die, but I don't think I should be able to force someone to live, even if it's not justifiable suicide, maybe especially if it's not "justifiable."

Guns have nothing to do with this other than that they are (at least half the time) the best escape valve that exists for living in a society that doesn't ultimately allow you to be in control of your own self.

Jonathan Korman said...

Dannyboy, that's why I tried to tread lightly when talking about suicide, as Sabrina noted. I don't want to completely prevent suicide; we need to get our right-to-die better sorted out.

That said, a lot of suicide is a result of people who could go on to fulfilling lives suffering acute, transient depression without getting adequate mental health support. If the logistical threshold for suicide is too low, that increases the risk for those folks, and readily available guns are an obvious risk factor there.

Anonymous said...

dannyboy, check this out: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2004/oct/29/mentalhealth.uknews

Switching from regular bottles of painkillers to hard-to-open blister packs in the UK reduced the overall suicide rate by 20%. Seems like making it a little bit harder for people to kill themselves is a good idea.

Anonymous said...

One additional resource for your consideration is a 13+ year ongoing review of gun policy misinformation which might clarify a few details.

See www.GunFacts.info

Chas S. Clifton said...

Two quick comments.

1. My spidey-sense tingles when I read a sentence beginning "Statistics show ..." Whose statistics? Collected when? Sampling whom? And with what agenda?

2. If you assume that police officers are better-trained marksmen than the average civilian, you assume wrongly.

A little googling might give you some statistics (that word again) suggesting that they practice very little.

Recent events in southern California show that LAPD and Torrance (?) officers fired dozens of rounds at people driving pickups that merely looked like Chris Dorner's truck. They succeeded only in wounding them—-and in sparking future lawsuits.

Look also at people who have crimes, e.g. home invasions. Pop on over to Reddit for a list. How much training is necessary? A good topic of discussion!

Jonathan Korman said...

I have not done a sophisticated survey of the literature, but studies are common which strongly suggest that having a gun increases risks rather than decreases them. In the course of my survey of discussion in the last couple of months I've seen a lot of trustworthy-looking commentaries grounded in research like this, while on the other hand commentaries claiming that guns reduce risks almost universally reference the work of John Lott, who apparently isn't credible, strongly suggesting to me that the evidence pointing in that direction is weak.

Again, I'm prepared to have my mind changed on this. My own review isn't conclusive, and it's my suspicion is that the research available does not offer strong enough data to be conclusive. But what I've seen so far has been more persuasive than I expected.

I'm not assuming that police officers have the high level of skill with firearms which I suspect may be the threshold at which guns become an asset rather than a risk.

Given that cops do have strong motivation to develop the skill, and generally have good access to the resources necessary to develop that skill, it is striking that there are so many indications of their firearms being ineffectual. This supports my argument that it is likely undesirable for people to have access to guns if they cannot demonstrate that exceptional level of skill, does it not?

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