Saturday, August 25, 2012

Guns, lots of guns

I'm a slow writer sometimes. I started this post in response to the Aurora shootings a couple weeks ago and then back-burnered it. And since then, we've had another mass shooting, this time at a Sikh Temple, and yesterday we had an execution outside the Empire State Building.

I used to write about politics on the blog back when I first started, but that kind of trailed off as I erupted into full fledged geekery. No one particularly gave a shit about what I thought about the latest Supreme Court decision and they were a downer to write besides. And not all of my friends share my opinions, and as I'm sometimes...passionate about certain subjects, worrying about upsetting them was certainly a factor in moving away from that.

I remember in the dark days of the Internets, before google was a verb and before Wikipedia existed, I used Alta Vista as my search engine. I was trying to look up the meaning of the word decimation, and I came across it in a list of definitions written by a gun enthusiast. Decimation was there, but it was an interesting site, so I looked around. Even though I've seen it many places since then, this is the first place I saw Gun Control defined as "Hitting what you shoot at. For the definition of liberal euphemism by this name, see instead unilateral personal disarmament", so it sticks with me.

While use of such straw men in this debate is not uncommon, it gives us a way to frame the discussion. So, let's put abolishment of private gun ownership at one end of the continuum and unrestricted access to to personal firearms at the other. I'm in favor of stricter gun laws, and more aggressive enforcement of existing ones. Guns certainly have a place in society, but in that continuum I mentioned, our society is much, much closer to unrestricted access than we are to abolition. My opinons are very similar to those Mark Evanier has expressed very neatly in his blog.

He thinks [my position] is that all firearms should be banned. That's not my view at all. I mean, even if it were possible, which it's not, that's not the ideal situation. There is a place for private gun ownership and even use. Roger is making the mistake which too many firearms owners make, which is to assume "Gun Control" means "Gun Confiscation." It doesn't, any more than licensing cars has led to banning cars. As long as a lot of folks think those are the same thing, nothing will change. Which is why nothing will change.

I thought it after the the Aurora shooting, and now I'm sure of it: We're never going to have a real debate in this country about gun control. You know why? Because at the national level, both sides are saying the same thing. The gun advocates were saying "You're not going to take our guns away!" and the gun control advocate were saying, "We're not going to take your guns away!"

I'm convinced that there is nothing so horrible that that the NRA will not use it as a fundraising tool

"Oh hey, it's shitty that bad things happen. But guns don't kill people, people do, and while we're on the subject of guns, the White House is going to use this as an excuse to take yours away, so send us money."

Background checks for gun ownership were up 40% in Colorado, compared to the week before the shooting. The rifle the shooter used jammed after firing thirty rounds. I wonder if the manufacturers saw a decline in sales of that model because of that, and I wonder if they regret not building a more reliable model so as to avoid that drop.

The murders themselves were shocking and appalling, but they were far away. They didn't affect me personally.  There were probably more fatalities due to traffic accidents or medical errors on that day than there were to that shooting. Terrible things happen every day, but they'll kill if you dwell on every one of them.

The thing that really bothered me was the jingoism after the shooting. I saw facts and figures from those in favor of gun control and quips ripped from bumper stickers from those against.

And the thing that kills me is that the jingoism is beating the facts.

A crime generally requires two components, mens rea, the guilty thought, or intent to commit the crime, and actus reus, the actual criminal act. Have you ever seen a toddler throw a tantrum? Kids that age have no emotional control. When they're mad, they're really mad. They're so mad, they would kill you if they could, but unless they're Billy Mumy in that episode of the Twilight Zone, they lack the capability to realize their ambitions. They have the mens rea but are unable to perform the actus reus.

And there is a similar dynamic at work with gun violence. Mass murders have been happening for as long as humans have been congregating in groups of sufficient size to be murdered en masse. However, most people are not capable of killing more than one of their peers at a time, even if they are so inclined. They have the mens rea, but lack the capability to perform the actual act. Now hold that thought.

Mom said I was average, but she was just being mean

Most people have a poor understanding of statistics. I saw this image a lot in the aftermath of the Colorado shootings.

As Maude Lebowski famously said, "Don't be fatuous, Jeffrey." No one thinks that outlawing guns will stop criminals from owning them. That's a straw man. However, reasonable barriers will, on average, reduce the number of criminals who own guns and use them to commit crimes.

According to this chart, they do!

This chart was compiled by Mother Jones with information collected in their copiously researched piece. (Linked below). Over 80% of guns used in mass murders were purchased legally. Criminals do obey gun laws. The shooter in Aurora broke no laws until he started murdering people.

If the Guns Right advocates are to be believed, these mass murders are just things that happen from time to time. Restricting gun access would do nothing to stop them, because in the absence of automatic weapons, crazy people would simply substitute sledgehammers and the results would be pretty much the same. Sun goes up, sun goes down, somebody buys 6,000 rounds of ammo and the internet and uses it to kill a bunch of people, and there's nothing anyone can do about any of it:
Since 1982, there have been at least 36 mass murders* carried out with firearms across the United States. We have mapped them below, including details on the shooter's identity, the date of the event, and the number of victims injured and killed. We do not consider the map comprehensive (and there are countless incidents of deadly gun violence in America, of course). We used the following criteria to identify incidents of mass murder:

• The killings were carried out by a lone shooter (except in the case of the Columbine massacre, which involved two shooters).
• The shootings happened during a single incident and in a public place (except possibly in the case of a deer hunter in Wisconsin who killed his victims after a trespassing dispute).
• The shooter took the lives of at least four people (an FBI crime classification report identifies an individual as a mass murderer—as opposed to a spree killer or a serial killer—if he kills four or more people in a single incident, and typically in a single location).
• If the shooter died or was hurt from injuries sustained during the incident, he is included in the victim count.
One cannot say ahead of time if a specific piece of legislation would have prevented another specific event. As I said before, statistics are only meaningful in the aggregate.  It is eminently reasonable to conclude that stricter gun control laws would result in fewer massacres of this type over time, however. A socially retarded 25-year graduate student is not going to know where to begin to buy a black market assault rifle. If that makes it harder for law-abiding citizens to buy a automatic weapons, well, that's the price we pay for living in a civil society.

Remember how I mentioned that spike in gun applications that follows every shooting? It was not uncommon in the days that followed to hear the cry of the Internet Tough Guy.  If he had been there with his concealed handgun, he would have stood up tall in the theater, peered through the cloud of tear gas with his eagle eyes, and just like Bruce Willis, would have sight-acquire-fired and bullseyed the body-armor wearing shooter before he could bring either the rifle or shotgun to bear and ended the whole thing before anyone got more than their feelings hurt.

Every time someone makes a claim like that, I think of Joe Zamudio, who was on the scene when Gabby Giffords was shot.
 Zamudio was in a nearby drug store when the shooting began, and he was armed. He ran to the scene and helped subdue the killer. Television interviewers are celebrating his courage, and pro-gun blogs are touting his equipment. “Bystander Says Carrying Gun Prompted Him to Help,” says the headline in the Wall Street Journal.
But before we embrace Zamudio’s brave intervention as proof of the value of being armed, let’s hear the whole story. “I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready,” he explained on Fox and Friends. “I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket here. And I came around the corner like this.” Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire. As he rounded the corner, he saw a man holding a gun. “And that’s who I at first thought was the shooter,” Zamudio recalled. “I told him to ‘Drop it, drop it!’ ”
But the man with the gun wasn’t the shooter. He had wrested the gun away from the shooter.
The point of that story is that having more participants in a gunfight is probably going to result in more fatalities, not fewer. If you hear gunshots and see two people blazing away at each other, how exactly are you going to identify the bad one?

Look at the footage of when the police catch the shooter from the Empire State Building yesterday.

It's over in seconds. Even though the suspect must have known that he would be pursued, even though he was as wary as he could possibly be in such a situation, even though he was armed with a gun with the safety off, even then, he gets shot dead and no action he could have performed would have changed that. (And to tie in my secondary point, even though the shooters were trained police officers and I believe they handled things absolutely as best they could, nine bystanders were hit by bullets or bullet fragments.)

That's the thing. If someone gets the drop on you with a modern firearm, you're almost certainly going to die. Just as you're probably going to die if you're struck by lightning or hit by a truck or fall from a great height. It's possible to survive any of these situations, but the circumstances that dictate your survival are largely out of your direct control. Having a gun only provides an illusion of control.

It reminds me of my father-in-law. He was in a car accident as a young man where he was trapped by a seatbelt, in those one in a million accidents where that kind of thing happens, and to this day, he refuses to wear one. And sure, there are situations where having a gun will be to your advantage, but the vast majority of the time, it won't make a difference. Not to get all Prisoner's Dilemma on you but if you're going around with a concealed gun ready to use, you're making the world around you more dangerous for everyone else for a possible marginal benefit to yourself.

I suppose I'll wrap up with this:

A 2007 survey by the U.N's Office on Drugs and Crime found that the United States, which has 5% of the world's population, owns 50% of the world's guns.

The number of households owning guns has declined from almost 50% in 1973 to just over 32% in 2010, according to a 2011 study produced by The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. The number of gun owners has gone down almost 10% over the same period, the report found.

I don't think this level of polarization is a healthy thing for a society at all.

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