Thursday, March 17, 2011

The pain of responsibility

'Epsilon Given' has left a series of lengthy comments on my last post about gun control (or was it about intuition?). For the sake of convenience, I'm going to reply in a fresh post. He started by making a point that I wish some of his fellow travellers would take a moment to consider -

"Scotland and Arizona, besides having different populations, they also have different cultures, histories, population densities, flora and fauna, mental health institutions, etc. That is, it is not entirely clear that it's justified to compare the two populations (despite both being "common law" institutions)."

There's some truth in that, and I've repeatedly made the point to Kevin Baker and his Fan Club that their own comparisons between different jurisdictions of the US (supposedly 'proving' that gun control causes more crime) are largely nonsensical, because they're often comparisons between affluent, sparsely-populated rural areas where you would expect a low crime rate anyway, and densely-populated urban areas with high rates of poverty. It has to be said, though, that the comparison between Scotland and Arizona is somewhat more meaningful - the raw population sizes are similar, and the urban/rural split of the two jurisdictions aren't a million miles apart. I'm also struggling to see how 'flora and fauna' is much of a factor in influencing the rate of gun crime!

"I'd like to see the claim that knives, or even fists, are somehow "safer" than guns justified: determine the number of violent encounters per 100,000, and compare Scotland's to Arizona's. If knives really are less deadly that guns, then there should be comparable numbers of violent encounters, but less murders, in Scotland."

Your implication that it might be possible to demonstrate that knives are just as dangerous as guns is questionable enough. (No-one would dispute that they're very dangerous - and lethal in many cases - but they're clearly not in the same league as guns because it's easier to escape from an assailant armed with a knife.) But "even fists"? Come now, Epsilon. I'll return to this massive credibility problem later on.

"Let's *really* make sure that the "homicide" figure in Arizona is strictly "murder". American crime reporting has this nasty habit of including justifiable homicide with murder--in part, because justifiable homicide is often determined by a jury."

While we're about it, let's also make sure that all unjustified killings are included in the US statistics. The gunning down of the innocent Aberdonian businessman Andrew de Vries in Texas in 1994 doesn't seem to have been counted, for instance - had it happened in the UK, it almost certainly would have been.

"How do these statistics change over time? If violence increases after guns are banned in Scotland, then it's disingenuous to compare Arizona and Scotland, and then say "See, gun laws work!" It would be equally disingenuous to compare these numbers, if violence *decreases* after a "shall issue" gun permit law is passed in Arizona."

Epsilon, the correlation between gun control regimes and gun death rates is so overwhelming that these technical quibbles simply won't wash. Forget about Arizona and Scotland for the moment - look at Finland. The most liberal gun ownership laws in western Europe, and a country that sticks out like a sore thumb that's gone septic at the top of the leaderboard for gun deaths. In every sense other than its gun laws it's a normal northern European country, easily comparable to its neighbours - so you'd have a near-impossible job explaining that phenomenon away.

It's also worth pointing out that if you talked to average people from the UK and tried to make the claim - as the likes of Kevin Baker have done, seemingly with a straight face - that any increase in violent crime since 1996 has somehow occurred as a result of our strengthened gun laws, you'd be met with a chorus of laughter. The whole concept of householders routinely owning or using guns for 'defensive' purposes was already an alien one prior to 1996. A practice has to have meaningfully existed before its 'removal' can be claimed to have made a difference.

"Why should I trust *any* data? Whenever I try to look up this data on my own, I always run into obstacles obtaining it. The data *I* want never seems to be available--admittedly, I can't look too deeply, because of time constraints--but, in the end, why should I trust data other people select as "important"? A Stupid Example: I requested "guns per gun death"--in part, because I wanted to test the claim "more guns means more death"--but Arizona gun stats are almost non-existent, as is the category of illegal gun stats for Scotland. Even if these stats were available, though, I would have to understand that a statistic like "illegal guns" is, at best, and educated guess, and so my analysis (and conclusions) of such data would probably be meaningless anyway."

The equivalent question is - why should you determine for others what data they consider to be important? I've already pointed out that I personally don't understand the relevance of your interest in illegal gun stats for Scotland. One of the key articles of faith for the American gun lobby is that gun control regimes are totally useless at preventing criminals from getting their hands on illegal weapons. A very low absolute rate of gun homicide in Scotland - covering both legally-held and illegal weapons - is compelling evidence that such a proposition is deeply flawed.

"In my half-hearted attempt to obtain these numbers, I learned that Scotland had a significant drop in violence this last year. Are we comparing a "bad" Arizona year to a "good" Scotland year? How can *that* be fair?!?"

Are we talking about 2009, or 2010? I think Lallands Peat Worrier noted himself that 2009 saw a particularly low number of gun deaths in Scotland, but the disparity between the two jurisdictions in other years was still massive.

"Although I really wish I had the time to gather this data, and crunch these numbers, why should we trust any of this as "meaningful"? Societies change all the time. When we look over all the countries of the world, we see no correlation between "strictness of gun control" and murder rates and even suicide rates."

Simply not true. See above, and here.

"And, when all things are considered, we are talking about very. small. numbers."

I'd have to respectfully suggest that the difference between two gun deaths in Scotland in 2009, and one hundred and ninety-eight gun deaths in Arizona in the same year, is not a "small" one. However, even if it were, as a mathematician you should understand better than most the huge difference between "small" and "not statistically significant".

"And to further complicate things, in America, we have *counter-intuitive* results: Every time a change in gun law is considered, there is a claim that passage of such laws will result in an increase of gun violence. Yet, with Florida's "shall-issue" permits, and lately, the Heller decision that affected Washington D.C., violence--both gun and non-gun--*dropped*. And these aren't just isolated incidents. It happens time and time again, to the point that the debate among criminologists in the United States *isn't* "Do guns cause crime?"; it's "What effect, if any, do guns have in lowering crime?"."

Come now, Epsilon. We've been down a very similar road before. These will be all of America's criminologists - except for all the ones you've dismissed out of hand because of spurious objections to their methodology.

"Something is counter-intuitive if we get a result that we don't expect to come about. The example I just gave was "increased gun ownership decreases gun crimes"--and there are statistics that seem to demonstrate that this indeed may be the case. Often, counter-intuitive conclusions are the results of incorrect assumptions. Here are some reasons why increased gun ownership might not result in increased gun violence:

Guns aren't as lethal as many people think, and alternatives--knives, fists, rocks, baseball bats, bottles, even rope--are more lethal than many people realize. Making guns difficult to obtain and carry may neutralize the first "threat", but these other threats are still there, and much more difficult to control besides!

There's a strong whiff of weasel words here - "not as lethal as many people think", "more lethal than many people realise". We've already seen that you want to plant a seed of doubt in people's minds about the self-evident truth that guns are more lethal than fists - so if you truly think both those 'weapons' are equally lethal, why shy away from making that bizarre claim directly? I think we can probably guess.

"Additionally, it's easier to counter these other threats with a gun, than it is to counter these other threats with like threats; hence, when you have a legitimate need for self defense, you're better off with a gun."

This is the familiar 'have your cake and eat it' argument, so beloved of the US gun lobby - we're expected to believe that the lethality of the weapon in the hands of an attacker makes little or no difference to the outcome ("fists" will be just as good if he has a murderous intent), but in the hands of a defender the lethality of the weapon suddenly becomes all-important, and only a gun will do.

""Shall Issue" permits include a background check for past mental and legal problems. The people who would apply to such things would be law-abiding, and generally healthy mentally. Such people who carry guns aren't likely to go on crime sprees!"

But they do, Epsilon, and they stubbornly keep on doing it. The post-Dunblane restrictions were put in place because a 'law-abiding' person got through a series of background checks, enabling him to legally acquire guns that he used to massacre schoolchildren. The recent inquiry into the Cumbrian massacre last year confirmed that the correct procedures were followed in licencing Derrick Bird to own his weapons legally.

Even leaving these repeated incidents aside, background checks simply aren't fine-tuned enough to discriminate between those people we might be relaxed about owning guns, and those who really shouldn't be allowed to do so for good reasons that fall short of potential mass-killing sprees. If the checks were sufficient, we wouldn't see legally-owned guns falling into criminal hands in the US at a mind-boggling rate, because their owners weren't responsible enough to store them securely. We wouldn't see children accessing their parents' guns for the same reason. And what about abusive relationships? Is the ubiquity of gun ownership in the US intervening positively or negatively in those relationships? In other words, is it more likely to be the abused or the abuser who will be threatening the other with the gun? What evidence I've seen points strongly to the latter conclusion - which, as it happens, is precisely what 'intuition' would lead us to expect.

"Those who take self defense seriously--whether or not they carry a gun--will learn techniques to recognize potential assaults. They'll be more aware of their surroundings, they'll watch out for characters "scoping out" parking lots..."

Yes, I've met people like that, and what a delight it was. Often, they're self-appointed policemen who feel they've got a God-given right to ask other law-abiding people to justify their actions. I'm not sure how arming such arrogance with a gun is supposed to enhance my freedom.

"Those who choose to carry a gun are more likely to be mentally prepared if something bad happens. While it's impossible to know in advance how you'll react if you are in a violent situation, if you've thought about what you'll do, you're more likely to do something that will help protect yourself and those around you."

Preparedness is good, but it helps tremendously if what you're readying yourself to
do isn't wholly counter-productive. Faced with many threats, an attempt to escape may well be the most effective course of action, and 'talking yourself' into feeling that you must react by facing down an assailant with a gun could easily put yourself and others at more risk.

"Those who choose to carry a gun are more likely to recognize the responsibility that lethal force represents, and thus less likely to heatedly argue, and more likely to peacefully pull themselves from an argument before it comes to fighting."

If it's got to the point in the US where the main reason people aren't starting arguments is because they fear they might be shot if they do (or that they might shoot someone else), then you've got a problem as a society. It also strikes me as a fairly obvious curtailment of freedom - an implicit threat that causes a kind of self-censorship when considering whether to express a point of view forcefully, or what might be described as a personal "Finlandisation" syndrome.

In any case, the idea that gun ownership generally makes people calmer and rarely has the opposite effect simply doesn't stack up. I refer you back to the point I made earlier about domestic violence - in the majority of cases, the gun is simply empowering the abuser to be more abusive and terrorising.

"Criminals don't want to get shot. If they have reason to believe their victims will be armed, they are less likely to engage in behavior that can end with them in the hospital, or dead."

That's a very weak point. In large swathes of the US, criminals presumably know that there's a significant risk that anyone they attack may possess a gun. If that had a significant deterrent effect, you'd expect the homicide rate in the US to be considerably lower than in the UK, not two-and-a-half times higher.

"And, yes, I have concluded that every responsible person should know how to use a gun, should carry one, and should be prepared to use it in self-defense--but I have concluded that every responsible person should also know what to do when someone gets injured or sick, or when there's an earthquake, or there is flooding, or a tidal wave, or a forest fire, or a hurricane, or even plague and famine and general societal collapse. Being prepared for danger is a moral responsibility that all of us should accept."

As far as the danger posed by guns is concerned, we all do have a moral responsibility - to take the actions that the evidence suggests will be most effective in collectively protecting ourselves. For some individuals that means the painful necessity of giving up both the right to own an item they're particularly fond of, and the comforting but illusory sense of absolute personal control over their own safety. But whoever said acting responsibly was a pain-free thing?


  1. Ok, I lied: I'm going to post another comment. It's a little unfair that your response was an entirely new post! :-)

    I think we've hashed and rehashed these arguments over and over again, though, so anything I'll say will just extend the argument further--even though it pains me to do so, because I would like to rebut your many points.

    This is an issue that really does lend itself to exponential discussion!

    So I'll just re-post my last comment to the post that prompted this one:

    This is my last post, and I mean it this time. I'll hang around to see how you'll pick all this apart; at this point, I don't care, because we have dragged this on for far too long. I should have ignored the last comment James made on that other post; I apologize for having not done so.

    In any case, this has been a spirited debate, and I appreciate your willingness to take on the issue! :-)

  2. Immediately after I post my comment, I already see I need to clarify my last comment: It pains me to leave your points without rebuttal, but I will do so, because it's time for this debate to end. (Someone needs to have the last word, and I concede that to you, since it's your blog.)

  3. Good discussion, guys. I'm glad I found it.

  4. And to further complicate things, in America, we have *counter-intuitive* results: Every time a change in gun law is considered, there is a claim that passage of such laws will result in an increase of gun violence.

    Yup, and each time that happens the claim that gun violence will increase proves to be baseless fearmongering by the likes of those like Mr. Kelly. Plain reality proves him wrong time and time again. Gun laws are weakened? violent crime drops. Record gun sales? violent crime drops. Record number of CCW holders? violent crime drops.

    It must be hard for someone like Mr. Kelly to be so undeniably and consistently wrong.

  5. Mike, this is July, and the last comment was on March 18th. The only thing that is "undeniable and consistent" is that you always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, since you're here, perhaps you'd care to explain why Finland, as the country in western Europe with the most liberal gun laws, also has the highest gun death rate in western Europe. Or how Japan manages to have some of the strictest gun laws in the world, and also a strikingly low violent crime rate.

    Take your time - I won't expect a response before October.