Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on the Second Amendment and Gun Control

A meme is making the rounds at Facebook, today, saying if you support the 2nd Amendment repost this. I almost never repost memes unless I have a snarky comment to make - I generally prefer my communications to be more substantial than memes generally are - and while I certainly could make a snarky comment about the 2nd Amendment meme I figured, hey, what the heck, post more substantially on your feelings about the subject.

For me, it isn't a legal matter. I feel the 2nd Amendment is clear in both wording, precedent and tradition. Americans have the right to own firearms. People who go into the historical origins of 18th century militias to discredit modern interpretations of the law engage, I feel, in distorting history. While it is true that when the 2nd Amendment was written, militias were not armed from a state armory but personal arms, and it is true that, today, militias are armed by the state armory, that ignores the 200 years of precedent and tradition between the writing of the Bill of Rights and today - a history of precedent and tradition that has uniformly supported the right of individuals to own guns. This is clear and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant, lying or so ideologically confused that facts have receded into small points in the distance.

The more complex matter is - should we change the 2nd Amendment? For me, the answer is "yes" and I'll chart out the reasons below after I say this: yeah, guns don't kill people, people kill people . . . with guns. They also rob with them, assault people with them and generally do terrible things with them - and it's my opinion that in a risk analysis sense, applied to the subject of liberty, we'd generally be better off without them.

The two main modern justifications to keeping the 2nd Amendment around are:

1. In such a case as the government of the United States turns tyrannical, an armed population will be able to overthrow such tyranny and;

2. Guns are useful in self-defense and to disarm the population would be to have them fall prey to criminals who would loot and pillage at will, sans an armed population to keep them (or, rather, us) in check.

Both cases are made to sound simple by the pro-gun lobby, but neither is. But, first, let's look at some relevant facts. In the US, 25,000 to 30,000 or so people, every year, who are killed by guns (most are suicide deaths, about 11,000 to 13,000 are murders). Heroin, on the other hand, kills around 2,000 or so Americans every year. So, y'know, guns are about fifteen times as dangerous as heroin. Indeed, the is only one product you can buy that's more dangerous than a firearm - tobacco. Guns are literally the second most dangerous thing you can buy for yourself, even above cars and alcohol.

In a study in 1999, by the Violence Policy Center, every bullet sold in America costs the country around $23 in associated costs - medical care and reduced standard of living because of enduring injury - to the tune of costing the country around $4 billion a year to pay for the right of people to own guns, no doubt more considering the rapidly increasing costs of medical care. So, there is a public cost to firearms ownership beyond simply the violence they accelerate.

The murder rate in the US is just . . . massively higher than in other developed countries. Even those who have crime rates similiar to the US in other areas, such as England, have murder rates that are tiny fractions of those we see in the US. Which makes sense. In England, you get pissed off that your wife is cheating on you, maybe you punch her and/or her boyfriend. In the US, that situation can quickly escalate into murder because it's so easy to kill someone with guns. So while it's true that "people kill people", the ease with which guns allow people to kill other people can't be dismissed with platitudes. Sure, people kill people, but guns make it easy for some angry, humiliated, distraught person to murder someone while in a bad emotional state - which is about where 80% of gun deaths happen, because of a personal quarrel that escalates out of control, almost always having to do with sex or money.

In short, guns are dangerous. They kill a lot of people and do a lot of harm to the public wealth. These facts also cannot be ignored or downplayed. People who do so are guilty of the same kind of twisting of facts used by those who say that the 2nd Amendment doesn't give people the right to bear firearms. The ownership of guns causes a lot of misery and we pay a steep economic price. Those are simply facts.

In the first case, that of protecting ourselves from tyranny, an armed population is as capable of perpetrating tyranny as preventing it - and perhaps moreso. You find any shitty hellhole, anywhere in the world, and you'll find everyone has guns - Columbia, Mexico, Sudan, Afghanistan you name it, in every festering hellhole, guns are readily available. In peaceful, stable nations, you'll generally find gun ownership to be very stricted.

As for stable, tyrannical states? Yes, gun ownership is generally quite restricted, as well, to prevent uprisings. It's pretty hard to get a gun in both France and China - but the US is a lot more like France than China, culturally speaking. Like the French, we have a long and proud history of democratic traditions, a history that China does not have. Sun Yat-Sen is a great man, but Chinese democracy was smothered in the cradle by the warlords and finished off by Mao Zedong. The US, on the other hand, is the oldest democratic state in the world. We have never had any other form of government than republican democracy and over time the conditions of our Republic have improved, bringing ever more people into the franchise. That is the American way - of expanding liberties. We should be proud of that as a national treasure, our longstanding commitment to liberty - imperfect, but improving, always improving. So the situation we find ourselves in is hardly comparable to that of a tyrannical state. It's just not really in us. Never has been.

Additionally, I feel one of the greatest impediments to just, consensual government - no matter the shape - is lack of trust. IMO, that's the biggest problem with government in the US, right now, and almost all other problems either stem from this or their magnitude is increased by it: the people don't trust the government, nor the government the people. I think throwing guns into this mix is a greater threat to our liberty than defense of liberty; I think guns in this mix have a much greater chance of being coopted by a tyrant than used to defend ourselves from one.

Additionally, it's farcical to believe that an armed uprising in the US couldn't be put down by the US military. The only question would be would US troops do that to US citizens - and the answer to that is very complex, depending on the situation we're trying to imagine. I think it would be foolish to imagine that there are no situations where the military would not oppress the people (the actions of the Union Army after the Civil War were so bad that the posse comitatus laws were necessary and just), just as I think it would be foolish to imagine there are no situations where the military, itself, would not side with the people (though if it were to do that, the US could quickly become a military dictatorship, the line between the military supporting the people and the military taking over is a very thin line, so there's that to consider, too).

That's without taking into account the possibility that gun ownership becomes the mechanism of tyranny - I know of no metrics for that, but it's a real threat. Charismatic leaders have been getting the armed population on their side for purposes of tyranny since the beginning of gun ownership; for recent and local examples, just examine any South American military dictatorship, or the current situation in Mexico (whose violence is spilling over into the US, so this isn't merely hypothetical). Miami is also familiar with the violence of guns during the 1980s, which was pretty crazy, and whose violence was not in any measure lessened by widespread gun ownership - that just made it easier for the drug lords and their killers to get their hands on guns.

While admitting there are margins where gun ownership might prevent tyranny, I think we have to admit that possiblity is marginal. Personal possession of firearms is insignificant compared to the power of the military or even the police. Given this, give that personal firearms ownership will only help us overthrow tyranny in a very narrow range of situations, and given the large amount of damage guns do to our society every year (30,000 people dead and 4 billion in damage), it is hard for me to justify gun ownership on the grounds that it prevents tyranny.

In the second case, that of personal protection, there's simply no reliable information that guns stop crime. The number of interventions where armed people chased prevented crime range from around 60,000 a year to 2,500,000 every year - and there is no good methodology for actually examining these numbers. How do you tell when a crime hasn't been committed because someone had a gun? Sometimes, sure, it's easy. Some burglars break into a person's house and get shot - simple and clean cut. But how about those situations where someone hears a noise, goes out to their porch with their shotgun, hears people fleeing and then imagines they've stopped a great crime when all they've done is chase off neighborhood kids using their property as a shortcut? Or who imagine the entire episode because they are committed beyond the bounds of reason to the idea that guns stop crime. Because, in my experience, people who have claimed to stop crime with guns all fall into the second category. I have never known anyone who could verifiably say they stopped a crime because of firearm possession but I've known a lot of people who claim they have - but the incidence of serious crime among my friends seems to be the same regardless of how many people they've chased off with guns; in both cases it's zero (er, if we exclude the violence my friends have committed, hehe; I have a former friend who did kill his girlfriend another who has a conviction for strong arm robbery - but I'll point out neither of them were stopped with guns, either). The lower number is generally believed to be true, as it has better methodology, requiring people to demonstrate there was a crime that was present to be stopped by firearms possession, the higher number basically credits every person who says they stopped a crime as both truthful and accurate.

This has to be weighed against the number of crimes committed with guns. These numbers are much easier to measure - in 2005, 477,000 people were victims of gun-related crime. There were probably a few more than that. That's just the numbers we know about. So, y'know, when gangsters kill someone and no one finds the body, or a crook is shot and doesn't go the hospital, those numbers aren't counted - though they are almost certainly fairly substantial.

So, at best, it's 60,000 cases of crime stopped compared to 477,000 crimes committed with guns. Again, I am lead to conclude, fairly inescapably, that guns are bad for society - that the good guns do in terms of chasing off crooks or whatever is repaid, may times over, by the crimes committed with guns. All those murders, assaults, robberies and the like.

I can also imagine a number of solutions between total criminalization of firearms possession and the current state of affairs. The NRA and other organizations have called for increased need for weapons training (while at the same time lobbying against laws that would make gun safety classes a prerequisite for gun ownership). But the idea has merit - if Americans knew how to handle their guns, the danger of guns would be dramatically minimized.

As would the requirements that guns have trigger locks and gun owners keep their guns in safes (something else also suggested by the NRA who actively combat laws to require it - as you can imagine, I'm fairly ambivalent about the NRA). Yes, it would increase the costs of gun ownership, but it would also save a lot of people's lives and save society a bunch of money in the process.

Hell, it wouldn't even break my heart if gun safety was taught in public schools - it'd be more useful than most of the other things that are taught, and a person's chance of being in a household with firearms, at some point in their life, is very high (around half of all households have guns in them, right now) - so knowing how to handle these very dangerous items is a matter of public good on the same scale as, say, sex education. And would be equally controversial, but it would be a good idea in an armed society and would probably reduce gun violence considerably.

As would the case of restricting the ownership of pistols. Eighty percent of gun crime is done with pistols, mostly because they're easy to conceal. The focus on things like assault rifles is ridiculous. Almost no one commits a crime with an assault rifle (and I would argue the people who own assault rifles are definitely better trained than the average gun owner). You can't really walk around with an AR-15 without being noticed, whereas you can put a 9mm pistol in your pocket.

My point being is that I don't necessarily see a need to outlaw gun ownership. There might be other solutions. But as it stands, it is impossible for me to support gun ownership, regardless of what the 2nd Amendment means.

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