Gun Control

Art at the UN Headquarters in New York

Guns will always be a controversial subject. For the record, I think guns are really cool. I’ve never owned a gun, and before living briefly in the US have never lived in a culture where gun ownership or use was widespread. In Hong Kong, I used to be something of a BB-Gun enthusiast (air-powered guns that shoot 6mm plastic pellets), and in Australia, while part of a cadet corp, I experienced firing a rifle on several occasions, and even got a marksmanship award on one. For a while I even wanted to be an army sniper, as the challenge of the job and the skill set required seemed a match for the mischievous and sneaky brat that I was, except that since I couldn’t stomach the idea of actually killing someone, even if I could convince myself that they deserved it, I came to the conclusion that that particular career-path was not for me.

Something that strikes me as strange, as I’m sure it strikes many people, is the culture surrounding guns in the US. Following the recent shooting of a congresswoman in Tuscon Arizona which resulted in the death of six people, including a nine-year-old and a judge, there was a gun show in nearby Pima county (where the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner attended community college before dropping out). Those who remember the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine, will recall that, following a similar massacre at Columbine High School, the NRA held a rally in nearby Littleton. The gun lobby in the US is very politically powerful and, unlike many other lobbying groups, actually has quite a wide base of support from the general population.

For those who haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a numbers man. That doesn’t mean that I’m the guy you should ask to split the bill, or do your taxes. In fact, I’m probably the last person you should ask to do either of those things, as I am quite useless with everyday arithmetic. Thing about being a numbers man though, is that I’m not half-bad at interpreting data, and I have a peculiar talent in being able to spot when data is being misrepresented (happens a lot). In addition to having a slight acquaintance with numbers, I also majored in philosophy at university which means I can talk your ear off for hours without actually making any sense. It also means that I have a lot of practice in breaking arguments down to their essence, and sifting out all the flowery emotional appeals that inevitably cloud these sorts of issues.

So in the blue corner, you have so-called gun control advocates. What they usually ask for is a tightening of gun controls – that is making it more difficult for a person to obtain a gun. In the red corner (I say “red” because these people are also three to four times more likely to vote Republican, and not because they are communists, they are often quite the opposite) we have people who oppose such measures. On one side, there are screams of lives lost needlessly and gun control being the panacea for all of society’s violent crime ills, while on the other they scream the second amendment and cite constitutional rights, individual responsibility, and rights to protection, liberty and other such things.

At the very base level, one side wants to save more lives, and the other is just afraid of a bit of added inconvenience. Nobody (in the US at least) is seriously pursuing a ban on guns. It would be unconstitutional, and would also not get popular support. However, even a small degree of tighter control would be seen as impinging on one’s “freedoms” which is kind of a big thing in America. In truth, both sides are acting out of paranoia with one side being afraid of being shot to death, while on the other side the fear is that every inch they give is a step down the slippery slope of subjugation by a big scary government.

I’ve become involved in the debate on various internet fora, and I must say that most people who engage in the debate haven’t spent much time thinking about either side or their arguments (should I really have expected more from the internet?). As one of my favourite pastimes is “debating” climate change with borderline-insane people on the internet, I’ve become quite used to the kind of idiocy that dominates these discussions. Why do I do it? Because every now and then, something unexpected happens – someone makes a good point. As a result, I’ve been scouring the internet for reliable data and statistics, preferably from independent peer-reviewed sources (I don’t care what your academic qualifications are, if you’re the president of a shooter’s advocacy group, I’m not going to trust your conclusions).

Thankfully, there is a lot of good data out there. A lot of different websites with different political leanings have cherry-picked that data to suit their aims, but data is still data. Numbers don’t lie. I am, however, trusting that the data was recorded accurately, and that no doctoring has occurred. Perhaps years down the line, wikileaks will leak a document making all the gun data I’ve looked at worthless, but until then, I present the main arguments of both sides as well as whether or not the numbers really back those arguments up.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. There are t-shirts with this printed on them. The implication here is obviously that the gun is irrelevant to any given homicide and that the sole blame for the death should be placed on the person. This is actually a pretty decent argument. A gun isn’t going to kill anybody by itself, it needs someone to pick it up, point it, and pull the trigger. A similar argument I often read is that, when someone decides to kill someone else, there’s not much you can do about it so why punish legitimate gun owners because of a small percentage of the population who will just find another way to kill if they can’t get a gun.

My counterargument to this is quite simple, and rests on the peculiarities of a gun’s operational properties. Every other murder weapon I can think of requires some degree of effort, skill or combination of the two in order to carry out a successful murder. A knife, a sword, a car, or a bomb all require skill to use. A bladed weapon requires that the murderer get quite close to his victim, exposing him to some degree of personal risk. A car requires skill to operate, and is quite expensive. I can’t think of too many ways to kill someone with a car without causing significant damage to the car as well as risking injury to the driver. Even bombs need skill to construct, the sourcing of material, placement of the bomb itself – all require time and effort to be effective at killing. A gun, on the other hand requires an extremely low degree of skill and an arguably lower amount of effort to be effective as a murder weapon.

So how is this relevant to the argument? It basically means that if someone has decided to kill someone else, they have to put more time and effort into doing it if they don’t have access to a gun. It also means that there is a lower probability of success. Other weapons are simply not as severe, and one the whole, not as leathal. To take the example of the Arizona shooter, he unloaded a 33-round clip into a crowd and managed to kill six people. If he had a knife, he might have killed one person before being stopped. So the point here is – we might not be able to prevent deaths from murders, but we can lower the body count.

Is this really a relevant thing to say though? It relies on the assumption that stricter gun legislation will necessarily be effective at making it more difficult for murderers to obtain firearms. Another argument I often hear is that most guns used in crimes are of the unregistered, unlicensed, or outright illegal variety. Therefore stricter gun legislation would serve to make it more difficult for law-abiding citizenry to get their guns while “the bad guys” would find a way to get their paws on guns no matter what.

The effectiveness of gun legislation has a lot to do with how it is implemented. During the Clinton administration, legislation was passed to limit the number of bullets in a magazine to 10, presumably in line with the earlier argument about lowering the body count. However, there was as loophole which allowed anyone who already had a clip to keep it. There are various reports that this law actually increased the gun-owning-community’s awareness of high-capacity clips and made them more popular. On the flip side, in Australia when very tough gun legislation was introduced in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, the government implemented a buy-back scheme whereby people who had guns but didn’t want to go through all the red tape now required to keep them could turn their guns in and be compensated.

This resulted in a very large amount of unregistered weapons to surface because those who were owning them illegally decided that the risk of owning them, and the low utility stemming from infrequent and nonessential use was far outweighed by the financial incentive to just turn the guns in. In the end, upwards of 300 million dollars was payed out by the government. Of course, for taxpayer dollars to be spent in this way would require very broad public support, and the government definitely had it at the time. It seems unlikely that something like that would ever happen in America.

It is however generally true that reducing the number of guns in the “legitimate” system makes it more difficult to obtain a gun illegitimately. The example of Australia’s tightening of gun laws included having to provide secure storage for your guns because of the obvious concern that someone might steal your gun and use it to do bad stuff. Statistically, the incidence of gun theft in Australia is negligibly low, and those guns that are stolen generally never surface (not even in gun crimes). However, at this point, Australia becomes a bad example because the numbers are so low that there is little statistical significance to them.

In examining the Australian statistics (the Australian Bureau of Statistics has a good website) I noticed an interesting thing that seems to be missed by a lot of this debate – suicides. Following the tightening of restrictions in Australia, an oft-quoted statistic is that gun-related deaths fell by 47%. This is technically true, but most of those “lives saved” are actually suicides. If you take out the suicides, there is a slight drop, but it is so slight as to be almost statistically insignificant (perhaps someone with a more statistics-bent and less of a topology one could look at the numbers more carefully). Further to this, the suicide rate in Australia only dropped slightly in the same time period meaning that even though gun suicides fell sharply, people were still finding ways to effectively kill themselves (but slightly less effectively than when they had guns).

In the U.S. about 30,000 people a year die from guns. About 1000 of those are accidental, so you would probably see a very slight drop in that if you say, legally mandated secure storage. Usually about half of those gun deaths are suicides. Obviously in the case of a suicide, the gun probably is a little bit irrelevant, but I’d personally like to make it more difficult for people to commit suicide to make absolutely sure that they’ve really thought it through.

All this talk of suicide made me realize that most of the gun debate was revolving around a discussion of gun-related crimes. In reality, gun-crimes account for less than half of all the deaths inflicted by guns every year. All the talk about protecting property, and criminals gunfighting, and people getting massacred actually refers to a set of relatively rare low-probability events. The question then really boils down to – “are we willing to subject a large number of people to the inconvenience of tighter gun control for the questionable prevention or reduction in a number of very rare events?”.

In my view, the answer is still a resounding yes. Going on the numbers alone, I have concluded that tighter gun controls will do a few things: drastically reduce the number of gun-suicides, slightly reduce the number of deaths by accident, slightly-to-moderately reduce the number of gun-homicides (the rate of violent crime won’t shift, but the number of deaths will drop, and the point about criminals’ possession of illegal guns is valid), and it will almost completely eliminate the number of high-profile gun massacres. When weighed against the inconvenience of tighter gun restrictions, I would say that it is worth it.

The numbers show that there is very little correlation between rates of gun ownership and rates of gun deaths (Switzerland, for example, has guns in most households, but a much lower rate of gun deaths than the U.S. (and they’re mostly suicides)). What they do show is that tighter gun controls lower the rate of gun deaths. The exact mechanism by which this works is poorly understood, but a combination of making access more difficult, as well as sending a message “guns are a big deal, just look at all this paperwork I have to fill out to get one” probably has something to do with it.

I suppose that there will always be those who will argue that it is their cultural right to have easy access to guns, and I suppose there is no good counterargument to that. But perhaps a culture which says that it is OK for a significant number of people to die violently and unecessarily should consider the costs and consider modifying their values. After all, culture isn’t fixed, it evolves and changes and is shaped as much by its members as those members are shaped by it. In the end, a violent culture benefits nobody.

6 Comments on Gun Control

  1. A violent culture benefits those hard working Americans in the gun related industries. #justsayin

  2. Great read, though I was curious to see how you would refer to particular argumen which I will now misqoute: “an armed society is a polite society” – arguing that widespread gun ownership reduces physical and verbal violence, since the fact that “the other guy might have a gun” will make people reconsider said violence

    • In that case, I would weigh up the pros and cons of a polite society where people occasionally get shot to death, and an impolite one with less gun death, and (one would think) less death.

      • Not being a gun-nut myself, I still think that this argument may have some merit. I’m not weighing “politeness” vs. gun fatalities (I’d much rather suffer rude restaurant patrons, than be caught in the crossfire of gun violence) – but rather considering the impact of widespread gun ownership on all forms of violent crime, especially those ending in murder.
        This would be hard to judge, since I doubt the validity of comparing rates of violent crime in Sweden and Texas. I believe that the many different social and economic factors that influence these statistics make gun ownership rather insignificant by comparison.

        I’d like to measure fatal violent crime incidents in gun-carrying vs. unarmed communities, that are otherwise “identical”. I’ve been toying around with the though of a proper statistical test to measure this, so far, none comes to mind.

        And while were on the subject – another anecdote:
        The Israeli Defense Force (read: “Army”), used to require all officers and combat trained soldiers to carry their personal weapon (usually a rifle) while in uniform – even while on leave.

        The idea behind this, was that off-duty officers/soldiers on their way home, would be in a position to assist on-duty personnel in case they ran into an incident.

        This indeed happened on occasions – off-duty soldiers were able to intervene and stop terror attacks before they escalated and killed many more innocent people.

        On the other hand, this policy resulted in gun related accidents (including deaths), and widespread arms theft – due to the fact that each enlisted officer/combat trained soldier would store his firearm off-base while on leave.

        In recent years, this policy has been reversed, and army personnel are actually forbidden to take personal armaments with them while on leave without a special permit. To obtain said permit, the soldier must show that he indeed has a valid cause for carrying the weapon.

        This decision, which was statistically based, seems to support your hypothesis that widespread gun ownerships personal security benefits are by far outweighed by the collateral damage caused by gun-related accidents, gun-theft and gun-violence.

        a comment follow-up notification system for your site would be a nice addition.

        • very interesting.

          The best statistical tests I can find, are ones where a population had very relaxed gun controls and then was subject to stricter gun controls. The two main datasets I examined were Germany’s and Australia’s and they both showed basically the same thing – the people were, on the whole, quite responsible with their guns, but accidents, and suicides were always higher when gun ownership was higher. Violent gun crime usually dropped, but not by much.

          Was there much objection to the change in rules for the Israeli defence force? I imagine that such a rule change would be easier to implement in a military context than in a civilian one. I wonder if there is good data on gun deaths since the rule change.

          I believe Switzerland has similar rules in a similar context (pre-rule-change) and they have a very low rate of gun violence compared with other countries which have similar gun laws but where the gun owners aren’t part of a trained military of some kind. I always thought that the action of having to “earn” your right to carry a firearm would make you less likely to do stupid things with it.

          The point about gun theft is something I didn’t consider in my analysis, but have thought about a lot. There’s an argument in the militia-context that having everyone keep their guns is better in the event of an invasion because the invaders would not be able to instantly disarm everyone just by taking control of weapons storage facilities like army barracks, and also that the response to an invasion would be more effective. This is all very true, but it is also a low-probability event (even in the case of an invasion, accomplishing such a feat would be difficult) compared with the much higher probability event of gun theft in the home. Of course, some punk kid stealing a rifle from someone’s home isn’t as scary a thought as a bunch of foreigners invading your country and stealing all your guns from an army barracks…

          ok… I’m working on the email reply thing (I actually thought that it was automatic, but it seems that it isn’t)

          • Actually, to the best of my knowledge, most affected personnel viewed carrying their rifle around as a chore, and were happy to leave it at base while off duty.
            The few who actually needed a personal weapon while off duty, usually those who would have to transit through dangerous areas during their commute, were obviously allowed to continue carrying it.

            As for the invasion scenario you presented, I indeed doubt it was ever a consideration in policy making of a modern military force.

            I’ve spent the past few hours trying to find reliable gun related statistics surrounding the policy reversal. I know they exist, since I recall seeing them in the press when the change was announced – complete with army issued weapon suicide rates, weapon theft rates, and weapon accident rates. Unfortunately, I came up short, and finally realized that I better stop procrastinating, and get back to studying for my CS finals 🙂

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