Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What's the Answer to Gun Violence?

Let me say right at the outset that this blog offers no "answer" to the problem of gun violence, or violence, in general.  But I thought the title could suck in some folks who might have something useful to contribute.

I have no answer because there likely is no answer!  At least not a single, magical solution that will solve everything at once.  In the weeks that have passed since the Newton, CT school shootings, the "discourse" on the topic has mostly been extremely polarized:  on the one hand, there's a minority of folks who want to ban all guns, and perhaps even send law enforcement out to confiscate all firearms in the USA.  On the other hand, there's another minority of people who believe the 2nd Amendment entitles them to own unlimited firearms with no controls whatsoever.  Recent events have produced a feeling within what I would like to call the rational majority who would like to have a discussion about how this country controls its firearms.  Most rational people believe it should be possible for Americans to own guns, but with some controls in place - the argument then is only about what those controls should be and how effectively they're enforced.  Sadly, whenever the topic comes up, it seems the one minority immediately jumps to the position that any gun control is bad and any attempt to confiscate guns will be met with gunfire and revolution (shades of Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco), even though virtually no one is proposing a blanket confiscation of guns.  The emotional "You'll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead hand!" rhetoric is usually repeated as a rallying cry against a mostly imaginary proposal to ban guns.  The other minority immediately jumps to the position that guns are evil and need to be eliminated entirely from our society, thereby reinforcing the mostly imaginary threat the gun lobby feels.

The fantasy of armed, self-appointed militias protecting what they believe to be their freedoms from the evil government using their semi-automatic weapons, should the government actually decide to confiscate their guns, is absurdly unrealistic.  If the government truly wants everyone's guns, they have overwhelming firepower to use against any opposition, as has been demonstrated many times.  Throwing up this bogey man of the jack-booted American government thugs confiscating guns has no place in a rational discussion of gun policy in the USA.

It's definitely true that guns, as inanimate objects, have no morality and they commit no crimes.  They're neither inherently good nor inherently evil, unless you believe that any deliberate taking of human life is a crime.  All societies condone the taking of human life in self-defense, in war, by law enforcement in the course of their duties, and so on.  Sanctimonious proponents against killing in any form have a problem with the "arbitrariness" of the boundary between murder and sanctioned killing.  For most of us, the taking of human life is justified, at times.  The vast majority only differ about where the line should be drawn, which can be a distinctly troubling issue (as shown by the contentious issue of abortion).

Removing all guns from the USA is just not possible - at the very least, criminals will not obey laws about gun confiscation (to say nothing of armed, self-appointed "militias" who would then be criminalized), and will find ways to obtain guns no matter what.  Let's take any such proposal off the table as it's just not practical, and doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution that would never be successfully ratified.  Even if a hypothetical effort to confiscate all guns could be successful, there always are alternative ways to kill people other than guns.  Those who wish to kill can find a way.  The reason guns come up in connection with gun violence is that guns are so damned good at killing!  In fact, their basis for existence is virtually entirely about killing.  Most guns are specifically designed to kill people efficiently, as opposed to those designed for hunting, or purely for target shooting.  As is the case for many tools we humans use, no matter what they were designed to do,  guns can be used to kill people without regard for morality.

Any "solution" we might find to the problem of gun violence in the USA necessarily involves some consideration of gun control policies.  The gun lobby has been pretty effective over the years at blocking any legislative consideration of gun control enhancements, resorting to emotional propaganda to galvanize support from the millions of gun owners in the USA.  In effect, the minority that believes gun control is inherently a denial of their rights has removed this topic from any sort of rational discourse.  It's true that no modifications to existing gun laws will "solve" the problem of gun violence completely, for many reasons.   Neither will it be a solution to turn America into a modern version of the wild west (or a version of Afghanistan).  As I've said elsewhere, a  society where virtually everyone is armed isn't a polite society - it's a violent society!

We don't need more polarizing rhetoric.  We need to begin a process of figuring out ways to limit gun violence to the maximum extent possible, knowing that reducing it to zero is basically not possible.  The fact that we can't prevent all such incidents is no excuse for doing nothing!  Changes to gun control laws have to be on the table, but they should never be presented as some sort of panacea.  Reducing gun violence will be a complex problem with many components, only one of which is gun control policy.  People will have to be willing to compromise to make progress, rather than stubbornly opposing any departure from a dogmatic position.  If some measures to control gun violence failed in the past, they need to be reviewed and alternative ideas proposed that have at least some chance to be more successful than they were in their previous form.  We won't produce perfect solutions at any point, so we need to be able to discuss rationally the outcomes of any measures we've tried and consider how they could be improved.  And of course, a discussion about reducing gun violence needs to consider many topics other than gun control policy!

To be paralyzed into inaction by polarization over gun control policy is unacceptable!


Jay said...


I guess you can judge whether or not this is a useful contribution. I have involved myself in two other online discussions with "reasonable/rational gun enthusiasts." In both instances, I learned stuff, but neither conversation gave me any confidence that a "solution" is ever likely to be adopted that will even be vaguely acceptable to those on opposite sides of this issue.

My personal viewpoint, which I know is extreme and therefore not one I expect many to share, is that a society which protects, as a fundamental civil liberty, public ownership and access to a device that can so readily be used to kill someone else is a society that is fundamentally flawed. I have no problem with private ownership and use of guns in a protected environment. I can even accept that there are reasonable arguments for some forms of access to firearms in public, even though I doubt I personally would ever avail myself of that access (and I certainly would never want to be in a position where I felt I needed to avail myself of that access). But when almost universal public access to guns is protected as a right, it means there must be a higher standard of proof for any legislation or government action that would limit access.

My problem with this is that, unless the problem is defined very very clearly and carefully, I feel it is next to impossible to approach the necessary standard of proof. We all know it can be exceedingly difficult to establish a clear cause and effect relationship for any event that has a social component. I would cite your previous discussions of the tornado record to support this assertion. If something as "obvious" as reporting a tornado is so readily contaminated by the perceptions of people (and the change in those perceptions over time), how can we expect something as comparatively nebulous as violence or crime data to be any more reliable? And even if we did have an unambigious source of violence/crime data against which to test whether previous gun control legislation was effective, I have serious doubts that we could successfully elimate the influence of all other first-order variables that might have affected trends in that data. For me, this fundamentally undermines our ability to determine whether past attempts have failed, and what would be a truly defensible way forward.

I accept that this is a somewhat extreme position, and probably not a very useful one in that it argues that using scientific/logical reasoning to support the vast majority of (or perhaps even all) viewpoints is not useful to the debate. I would argue that the only way for us to make real, tangible progress in reducing gun violence would be for it's status as a fundamental civil liberty to be eliminated, which is obviously not going to happen for a number of social, political, financial, and logistical reasons.

Thus, I am pessimistic.

--Jay Charney

Chuck Doswell said...


I'm not sure of the value of your analogy with tornado data. The net result of your comment seems to me that this is a complex problem, a position that agrees with the main point of my blog.

Unfortunately, your "extreme" position is simply fueling the polarized view of gun control. This does not encourage compromise and a rational approach to reducing gun violence, as I see it.

You're entitled to your opinion, of course and your input is appreciated.

Jay said...


I fully agree with your main point that it is a complex problem, and that the polarization is unfortunate. And I am quite prepared to be wrong (in fact would be thrilled to be wrong) about my assertion that the data and analysis of that data is unlikely to be presentable in a way that would provide convincing input into the debate. But I remain pessimistic about the prospects at this point.

--Jay Charney

tornado.specialist said...

As you alluded, informed deliberations rarely rest on sloganeering and glib pop-culture memes, much as you and I each have offered the latter on Facebook.

Here, I'll instead offer a 1991 legal essay with 134 citations that describes the danger of trusting government (federal, state or local) too much with gun control, and the wretched history of anti-group discrimination inherent to the enaction and enforcement of such regulation.

It is going to take some patience to read this link fully. Still, this extremely important aspect of gun control is being ignored in the press (imagine the media, leaving out important aspects...we certainly see it in meteorology!). As such, I see the essay as wholly necessary to more fully informed debate.

Maybe the best lesson distilled from this is: be careful for what you ask, lest you may get it. Another is: any gun regulation should be done with extraordinary (unprecedented, really) care and consideration, not as a reactionary exercise to emotionally provocative incidents.

tornado.specialist said...

Forgot to sign that apologies:
===== Roger Edwards =====

Chuck Doswell said...


I mulled over whether or not to publish your comment for a while. In the meantime, someone else posted a similar argument on FB regarding the incident at Wounded Knee. The following is an an excellent response someone posted (not I!) ...

We're supposed to take away that it was a government that killed innocent people that would have been able to defend themselves if they were only allowed to have guns?

It was institutionalized racism and greed that caused that genocide to occur. If the natives had known they were being led to the slaughter they certainly would have resisted, the battle would have been bloodier, the US government would have had an easier time pointing out their criminal acts. They still would have been slaughtered.

Violence is not the answer to hate. The civil rights movement would not have had the effect it did if they decided guns and violence were the answer to defend their rights. "A right to bear arms" does not give anyone a better shot at peace.

Cain killing Abel. Evil exists in the world. Certainly. The answer is Abel preemptively killing his murderous brother? Does this not make him the same?

You can keep your guns and violence, your fear and your hatred, but do not use Wounded Knee as a platform to perpetuate the same ideas that slaughtered those people. It's an insult to every native that lives and every person a victim of hatred, racism, bigotry and violence to do so.

Inferior technology that contributed to their demise? I'm fairly certain it was the people that hated and misunderstood them, motivated by greed and fear to kill them that led to their demise. To say a person becomes a victim because they did not have a weapon is to remove responsibility from the murderer, and from the rest of us for allowing it to happen.

tornado.specialist said...

The respondent misses the point. Failure to have arms didn't ensure peace...instead it completely assured defenseless slaughter. Self-defense is an inalienable right, and it was deprived to them and to others throughout history. This has been a systematic, 200-year ordeal in that it keeps popping up.

It's not just Wounded Knee; in fact that incident is mentioned only briefly in the link I provided. The problem is not once of "peace" but with trusting government (which means government managers and bureaucrats...your favorite people, right?) with proposing, influencing and enforcing regulations on anything that does (or could) conflict with the Constitution. This is the crux of the arguments regarding governmental tyranny--and there are valid ones, once you toss aside the conspiracy theories that are publicized by the media in order to accentuate extremism.

Oppression of unfavored groups doesn't just happen because of inborn characteristics like race. It also is ideological. That's right, atheists have been disfavored, so could other mores (sociopolitical conservatism?) tomorrow. We need to remember and prevent this as we go forward with figuring out how well to regulate the civilian militia without violating the Constitution.

Human nature tells me the following always will remain true in governance, the only variable being the group(s) affected.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". -- Orwell

===== Roger =====

Chuck Doswell said...

Roger (EDWARDS ... please post your comments with your first and last name!),

Your interpretation of the response I posted is far too narrow. It certainly can be applied to virtually any of the incidents you cited of gun control being imposed on minorities, not just Wounded Knee.

You also have failed completely to understand the response I posted, clinging stubbornly to your ideological position that sees everything through the filter of "government tyranny" (most notably when the elected government is not of your ideological persuasion).

Historically, it's been the conservatives who have consistently been supporters of bigotry and discrimination against minorities, so your whole argument strikes me as quite amusing. The fact that conservatives would use such arguments against gun control is decidedly ironic - and more than a little hypocritical.