Nate has been debating with me in a very measured way on the issue of gun control over recent threads, but nevertheless a point was still reached in the last thread that seems to have come round with uncanny regularity every time I've had exchanges with people who share his views. (Indeed, to adopt the cynical, inward-looking, in-joke-rich vocabulary so beloved of the posters over at Kevin Baker's blog, I could perhaps say that this represents the standard stage #17 of the life-cycle of any encounter with the Baker Fan Club.) Nate had linked to an FBI study purporting to show that 108,000 crimes in a year were prevented due to the private ownership of firearms, and claimed that this disproves my suggestion that handguns have no meaningful function other than to kill and cause injury. I responded with a series of questions that went to the heart of the credibility of any conclusions that could be drawn from the study -
1) How many of the attempted crimes allegedly foiled were actually genuine? This is the most obvious question to ask about a self-reporting survey in which the respondents' word is simply "taken for it", ie. the figures do not appear to be based on police records or any other documentary evidence. As the supposed methods for foiling crimes include something as vague as "scaring people off" with a gun, it does not inspire huge confidence that the alleged crime victim will always have got to the point of objectively establishing that a crime is actually occurring - they may in some cases simply have convinced themselves that this was the case.
2) How many of the attempted crimes were serious and how many were petty? Obviously hugely significant given the claim that Nate is making - that 108,000 'crimes prevented' can be meaningfully weighed against 12,000 people per year murdered with a gun.
3) How many of these crimes could and would have been averted anyway, without the use of a gun? Again, this fundamentally challenges the credibility of the conclusions Nate feels able to draw from the report. It stretches credulity to suggest that a significant number of these 108,000 incidents would not have been stopped by another method - in the UK, members of the public without guns prevent both petty and serious crimes every day of the week.
4) How many of these alleged crimes would have been attempted had it not been for the prevalence of guns in American society? There is absolutely no meaning in suggesting that legal firearms helped you prevent a crime, if the general legality of firearms caused - either directly or indirectly - that crime to be attempted in the first place.
5) How many guns start off as legal but end up being held illegally? This is related to the above point, because if the wide legal availability of (and therefore demand for) guns leads to a massive increase in the number of illegal weapons in play for criminal purposes, it follows almost inevitably that a proportion of the 'crimes prevented' with guns would not have been attempted in the first place had a gun ban been enforced. This is one question that I actually found a partial answer to by reading other sections of the report Nate had linked to, and I think this extract speaks for itself -
"A major theme highlighted in a 1986 survey of incarcerated felons was that theft was an important means of obtaining firearms for those with criminal intentions: 32 percent of surveyed felons had stolen their most recently acquired handgun. Based on the NSPOF, an estimated 0.9 percent of all gun-owning households (269,000) experienced the theft of one or more firearms during 1994. About 211,000 handguns and 382,000 long guns were stolen in noncommercial thefts that year, for a total of 593,000 stolen firearms. Those estimates are subject to considerable sampling error but are consistent with earlier estimates of about half a million guns stolen annually."
6) How many of the 'crimes prevented' can be put down to the values of a paranoid, brutalised society which teaches its children that the next threat is always round the corner, and that 'freedom' can only be won down the barrel of a gun? This is obviously a more intangible point, but it's nevertheless important because Kevin Baker in particular has spoken at great length about how differences in culture can massively affect outcomes in terms of crime. The weaponisation of society is clearly a significant factor in the prevailing culture, thus offering another plausible reason for theorising that a gun ban could have ensured that many of these crimes would not have been attempted in the first place - further calling into question Nate's assumption that these were 108,000 incidents that would have been crimes had a gun ban been in place.
7) How many people were unnecessarily killed or injured by someone 'defending themselves'? This is a question that particularly troubles me given the rather broad definition of legal killing the US authorities seem to use.
8) How many guns being used for defensive purposes have been wrested away and used by an attacker? In these instances people arming themselves with a gun have simply put themselves and others in far more danger.
9) How many accidental shootings have there been from guns that were used carelessly, or not stored properly? Not related to crime, but these numbers would clearly offset any benefit Nate is claiming from gun legality.
10) How many suicidal people have found a quick and easy way out due to having a gun handy, when otherwise they might have stopped to think for longer and found a better solution? Similar to number 9, and again I actually found an answer to both of these questions in the report -
"Of 1,356 accidental deaths by gunshot in 1994, 185 involved children 14 years old and younger. For each such fatality, there are several accidental shootings that cause serious injury. Guns were also the means of destruction in 19,590 suicides, 210 involving children 14 or younger."
In other words, twice as many deaths by gun in these categories than even the sky-high homicide-by-gun rate.
All of these questions are, I think, perfectly logical, and to be frank it's not possible to make much sense of the study without answers to them. But although Nate (to be fair) addressed some of them later, his first reaction was instead to call into question my reasons for asking them -
"What I see is a lot of sound and fury to try to rationalize away a dangerous study that would tear a hole in your core belief than guns are useless tools of thugs and murderers. In your haste to protect victims of gun violence, you try your best to ignore the many examples of people who protected themselves with guns. Again, you can't just sweep them under the rug.
Although I myself am not of this mindset, this is why people accuse you of impure motives: you sympathize with the victims of gun violence but not with the ones who failed to become victims because they protected themselves with a gun. You exhibit herculean effort to convince yourself that all the people who protected themselves with guns are non-existent, incorrect in their judgement that they needed guns, or just made things worse."
Now again, to be fair to Nate, this is a model of impeccably measured debating compared to what I've experienced from many (probably the majority) of Kevin's disciples. However, the content does follow a very familiar pattern - what I'd call the "why isn't being right good enough for us?" pattern, in honour of one of Kevin's trademark cries at moments of particular self-awareness-deficiency. What tends to happen is that the individual in question produces a piece of statistical evidence purporting to show that more guns save lives, or that gun bans fail to save lives, or whatever. Having done so, they declare the matter proved beyond doubt, and sit back to admire their handiwork. When legitimate objections are then raised about the credibility of that evidence, or questions posed about whether it really proves what is claimed of it, the response is not to engage with those questions or supply answers, but instead to indignantly insist that the point has been proved and to assign some significance to the fact that I have not simply conceded this 'indisputable' truth. In Nate's case, he is merely suggesting in his measured way that I am a little blinkered, but unfortunately the more common reaction is screams of "Liar! This proves that he's not arguing in good faith", etc, etc. To be fair, this reaction is in a way not surprising, because there is presumably a great deal of emotional investment in statistics which they badly want to believe constitute unchallengeable proof. But that doesn't make the response any more legitimate.
I went on to point out to Nate that my basic proposition is a very simple one - that the UK has a gun crime rate that is vastly lower than America's, and a general homicide rate that is also much lower. The suggestion from the other side is not merely that our much stricter gun laws have got nothing to do with that (which would be startling enough), but that they are in fact somehow putting us in more danger. That is an almost jaw-dropping, logic-defying belief to hold, and there's a saying in scientific circles that extraordinary claims require extraordinary levels of proof. Frankly, what has been on offer so far hasn't even met the standards of ordinary proof - in almost every case, holes can be found very easily. For instance, Kevin often prays in aid an alleged "convergence" between the British and American murder rates, in spite of the tightened UK gun laws in recent years. He reacts with utter incredulity when it's pointed out to him that this trend might well be caused by other variables that have nothing to do with the gun laws, and that indeed it's perfectly conceivable that the gun crime rate would now be higher still in the UK had it not been for the bans. Frankly, his response is astonishing - for how else can he possibly explain away the much higher baseline gun crime and homicide rate in the US as compared to the UK other than by assuming that these other variables must be hugely important determinants of crime rates? It's nothing short of magical thinking on an industrial scale to present to the world the proposition that Britain's historically lower gun crime/homicide rate has nothing at all to do with gun restrictions, and yet that the supposed current (and very limited) 'convergence' between the two countries somehow must have absolutely everything to do with gun restrictions.
So I'd offer this advice to the KBFC - if you're determined to base your case largely on statistical evidence and want it to be taken seriously by those who do not hold your views (whether opponents or neutrals), stop reacting to legitimate questions with mockery, indignation or outright anger, and instead start answering them. You are the ones that have made the extraordinary claim that your philosophy is literally provable beyond doubt - well, even providing some ordinary proof for that extraordinary claim would be a start. That means proof that will stand up to scrutiny, not assertions that can only be defended with synthetic indignation, mockery or outright abuse. For the record, most of the questions I asked about the FBI study remain unanswered, although as I said Nate did tackle some of them -
- Gun suicides: 19,895/year (and yet Japan has more than 30,000 suicides with virtually no guns)
- Accidental deaths: 731/year
- Unnecessary killings in the name of self defense: included in homicide.
- Legal weapons becoming illegal: I don't particularly care. It is my belief that if someone wants something illegal enough, they will get it. Heck, drugs are totally banned in this country and it hasn't helped a darn thing; any teenager can get whatever he wants. I believe it's the same with guns.
I'm glad he didn't make the direct claim that Japan's suicide rate proves that easy availability of guns is not a problem, as of course that conclusion would not be supportable. There are many variables that affect the suicide rate - the pertinent question is, would the US suicide rate be lower if suicide wasn't made so easy for so many? Could a chunk of those 20,000 deaths be prevented by simple gun control legislation?
The point about unnecessary killing in the name of self-defence being included in the homicide figures is in my view totally unsatisfactory. We've talked at great length about the tragic case of Andrew de Vries, the Aberdonian businessman who knocked on the back door of a house in Texas in 1994 to seek help, and was shot dead by the homeowner who mistook him for a burglar. This was clearly an unnecessary killing in the name of self-defence, and yet it was not included in the homicide figures. It would not surprise me at all if there are many other cases that would fall into the same category.
Nate's most complacent response is of course on the issue of legal weapons that become illegal, and the shocking figures on the theft of legally-owned firearms are testament enough to that.
Finally, Nate also raised a specific question on the previous thread about Switzerland - I can do no better than quote from Political Betting the words of Nick Palmer, until very recently the Labour member of parliament for Broxtowe, and (I believe) a former Swiss resident...
"On Switzerland, the position is not quite as implied by Plato and Richard Dodd above. It’s true that males of military service age are reservists and expected to keep a rifle at home. However, it is illegal for them to store ammunition for it - this would be issued to them in emergency. Despite that, the proportion of murders that are committed with guns is significantly higher in Switzerland than in most other countries in Europe, presumably because it’s easier to get ammo in Switzerland than an illegal gun elsewhere. Becuase crime rates in Switzerland are in general very low anyway, the rate of gun murders doesn’t stand out, but it’s clearly proportionately higher.
Coming closer to home, the death rate in Nottingham from crime has dropped heavily since the 5-year sentence for carrying handguns was introduced. While gang members have taken to carriyng knives instead, the rate of collateral killing in gang clashes has fallen (because you can’t kill a lot of people at once with a knife).
I don’t think there’s much doubt that widespread availability of guns produces more gun crime. Whether you conclude that tighter restictions of gun ownership should follow is a separate argument, but it evades that argument to suggest that there is no effect."