Friday, December 21, 2012

Is There Such a Thing as "Common Sense" Gun Reform?

Mass shootings are a tragedy. What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week was even more appalling than the shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, CO last summer because the victims were primarily children, which makes it all the more morally repugnant and disdainful of an act. One of the reasons I gave myself a week to write this is because if one is to have a serious discussion on effective gun policy, not only does there need to be time to reflect, but cooler heads need to prevail if one is to discern a response that is proportionate to the frequency and magnitude of the problem [of gun violence].

Two things I would like to re-iterate from my previous blog entry on the topic that are relevant here:

1) If we have limited resources, we should prioritize by focusing on the causes of death that produce the highest death tolls. Guns do not even make the top ten list in this country (see CDC data). Causes of death such as suicides, car accidents, smoking, and cardiovascular disease, amongst others, all top homicides caused by a firearm. This is not to say that suicides, accidents, or homicides caused by firearms aren't lamentable. However, the low number of overall deaths caused gives us an idea of the relatively low magnitude of the issue.

2) Mass shootings constitute less than one percent of overall homicides. Policy should not be dictated based on a tiny subset of what is already a relatively small cause of death (i.e., gun homicides). For good policy, we cannot look at a small subset to determine overall gun policy, which begs the question of "What is the overall trend of gun violence?" Answer: Overall gun violence has been declining for over the past twenty years, and gun violence is at a thirty-year low. If the trend were upward, this would be a different conversation. Therefore, if we are to have this conversation in sincerity, we need to recognize the trend is downward. Anything short of that is folly.

I personally think this should be adequate to quell the call for more gun control. Nevertheless, I understand that many are shocked by the idea of children being murder en masse, and are still processing that. In spite of the overall downward trend of gun violence, are there "common sense" gun reforms that can be implemented without trampling the Second Amendment? Like many libertarians would, I hesitate to go down the path of even asking this question because if you "give them an inch, they'll take a mile." As an intellectual exercise, I would like to answer the question at hand and see what the consequences of implementing "common sense" gun laws would be:

Confiscation of firearms. This would be the most extreme form of gun control. Essentially, the government would come in and seize every last firearm from the populace. The government would be the sole possessor of firearms. Aside from it being an atrociously Orwellian assault on an individual's liberty, why else would this be a terrible idea? There is an issue of practicality. There are an estimated 310 million firearms in a country of approximately 315 million people. It wouldn't be impossible to enact, but it would be downright difficult. Second, there is political feasibility, which goes beyond the clout of the NRA, which is America's second largest interest group. Even after this shooting, people are still divided on the issue. Third, there is something about American gun culture that is distinct from other developed nations. Without delving into something as "American exceptionalism," there is something unique about being founded on the ideas of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In this country, the right to bear arms is as sacrosanct as freedom of speech or freedom of religion. It is an ultimate, quintessential form of freedom. Trampling that freedom goes at the core of what it societally means to be an American, as well as a free human being. Since this has not been ingrained into much of European society (or Israeli, Australian, or Japanese, for that matter), it permeates different societal and cultural norms, all of which are more resilient to surrendering one's right to bear arms. Surely, there must be "middle-ground" options between total confiscation and a completely liberalized firearms market.

Gun-free zone. People have been talking about the link between mentally unstable people and how they cause mass shootings, but there is one commonality that doesn't get talked about, and that's gun-free zones. Aside from the 2011 Tuscon shooting, all mass shootings in the past 50 years took place in gun-free zones (yes, Fort Hood was a gun-free zone). How can this be the case? When you declare a site to be "gun-free," you've disarmed law-abiding citizens. As if this were a surprise, criminals do not care about the law. Criminals think it's an added bonus that they don't have to deal with anyone law-abiding citizens that are armed because that means pulling off their crime would be that much more difficult. A gun-free zone is nothing more than a feel-good policy that makes it more convenient for the criminal.

Assault weapon ban. In all sincerity, when the term "assault weapon" is already an ambiguous term, what would this entail? The term "assault weapon" is vague because it it makes one think of automatic weapons, which means that the basis for the ban would be on appearance and not functionality. An automatic weapon is one in which it will continue to fire if one continues to hold down the trigger. These weapons have been rendered all but illegal since the 1934 National Firearms Act (i.e., they are all but impossible for a citizen to acquire). Semi-automatic guns, on the other hand, only fire once per trigger pull. Any further ban would most probably go after semi-automatics that "look scary," such as the military-style AR-15 or the SKS rifles, even thought they do not function the same way a machine gun does. They are no more lethal, shot-for-shot, than a wooden hunting rifle.

Background checks. We already have a nationalized, computerized background check system in which we prohibit certain people (e.g., fugitives, those in mental institutions) from legally acquiring guns. There is talk about closing the "private collector" loophole, which is estimated to account for forty percent of gun sales. I have some issues here with going about background checks. One is with those who use illegal, controlled substances, which means, amongst other substances, marijuana. Considering how many people try pot, I think the government needs to loosen up its laws, as well as change its definition of felon, in terms of who is a real threat to society. I also worry about what happens if the mental health angle is hyper-sensitized, which could lead to an ever-broader expansion of who is mentally fit to own a gun (e.g., you want to own a gun, therefore you're crazy). I do consider myself a classical liberal and a consequentialist libertarian, so having a background check to stop the legitimate threats (i.e., negative externalities) is what I would deem a "necessary evil." A background check will deter some, but for those hardened criminals who truly don't care about the law, they'll find a way to obtain firearms. Regardless, we do need to be diligent that any background checks enacted need to ensure that the Second Amendment is not violated.

Removing large-capacity magazines. The premise here is to remove cartridges with more than ten rounds from circulation, which supposedly reduces damage caused by mass killers. The problem with this policy is similar to Bloomberg's ban on sodas greater than 16 oz. If I want more soda, I will just buy another soda. It doesn't stop the consumption, but merely cause a slight inconvenience. The same thing with this policy. Most people don't carry guns that require large-capacity magazines. Even if you do limit them, one can just buy and carry more cartridges on their own person. And remember that criminals don't care about the law, so they can go to the underground market to acquire more.

Conclusion: There are other gun laws that I can analyze, but these are the most relevant in response to the recent mass shooting. In summation, any reasonable gun law has to target criminals instead of engendering the unintended consequence of aiding them, and must do so while making sure that the individual's right to self-defense is not adversely affected. (And to think that I have not even addressed the other half of the equation, i.e., the broken window fallacy aspect: deaths prevented by guns). With exception of intelligently addressing background checks, I find that the response of the gun control advocates will not lead to anything productive. Given the downward trend in gun violence, I hope the hype dissipates in the next couple of weeks and that the government doesn't pass any drastic legislation in response. I won't hold my breath since it wouldn't be the first time idiotic legislation is passed, and it won't be the last.

12-1-2015 Addendum: The Cato Institute released a policy analysis of "common sense" gun reform that essentially comes to the same conclusion as I did about three years ago.

6-28-2016 Addendum: The Foundation for Economic Education published an enthralling piece entitled "Why the Gun Debate Never Ends." Essentially, a) both sides are prone to bad arguments, and b) enacting good gun policy is difficult.


  1. Your facts are well-presented and I am heartened that the gun violence in this country is going down. But I have to disagree with you on two points. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not institutionalized, even those who need to be. Funding for such institutions and services has been slashed over and over again; the mentally ill constitute a disproportionate number of our homeless and prison populations. But the system is so broken that these people had to kill before they could receive treatment in one of the only places still providing it; jail. This needs to be addressed before anyone can feasibly claim to be having a rational conversation about Sandy Hook.

    There are indeed "hardened criminals" ignoring the law; but to assume the existence of a homogenous "Criminal Class" completely separate and distinct from the ordinary population is a bit of a big jump to make. Yes, criminals will ignore the law, but I fail to see how tighter gun control would actually "aid" criminals Reducing the supply of available guns or tightening access would, at the very least, make it more difficult for criminals to obtain firearms or leave a more visible trail of evidence for how they did obtain them. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the perps in these mass shootings, and in most gun violence, were and are not career criminals using illegal guns; they were first-time offenders using guns legally purchased by themselves or their relatives. That's the impression I'm getting; I'd be welcome to hear what you have to say on this. In fact, please hook me up with some stats.

    I'm with you on the stricter background checks, though.

    1. Mark, I apologize for the delayed remarks. I would like to thank you for your insightful comments. In response to your two main points…...

      Mental Illness: State budget cuts notwithstanding, I do not know how much we need to focus on the mental health aspect. Saying that a disproportionate amount of mass shooters is not equivalent to most mentally ill people are violent, in part because most mentally ill people are not violent. I agree that most people in the prison population have a mental illness, but I would contend that when looking at the prison population, we have to differentiate between them having a mental illness and then asking what sort of mental illness the prisoners have. Most prisoners either have depression or are manics. Obviously, I'm much more worried about those with psychotic disorders than the former two, but they still make up a smaller portion of the prison population, as does the overall civilian population.

      What worries me about putting a mental health spin on this is that it will be taken too far and that the idea of "mental health" issues will be taken broadly enough where a good number of citizens will be unable to own a gun. I'm with you on prison reform, especially in light of the inefficacy of the War on Drugs.

      Criminal Class: From what I recall, most (if not all) the mass shooters are not hardened criminals. However, when creating policies around the idea of gun reform, it's not as if we can create a policy that only affects mass shooters in isolation and won't have any residual effects on the general population. Since mass shootings make up for 1% of overall firearm homicides, if we are to talk stricter gun laws, then we should target the largest group of those who commit firearm homicides, and that would be gang members and felons (i.e., the "criminal class").

      In theory, the idea of restricting the supply of guns sounds appealing. Aside from the 300 million-plus guns in circulation in America, there is the issue of guns going to the black market, which would only benefit criminals. It would seem as if an underground arms market would be a strictly Third World phenomenon, but as this article illustrates, it's an issue in Europe, as well. In this country, we even have an underground market in goods such as cigarettes.

      What a huge majority of the gun legislation does is makes it more difficult for law-abiding citizens acquire arms. In the meantime, it's not like the market for guns is non-existent; it just gets relocated to the black market. Although most law-abiding citizens wouldn't touch the black market with a ten-foot pole, that wouldn't stop a criminal, who would just go there to acquire the arms. Especially with an example like gun-free zones, it aids the criminal because a) it ultimately didn't stop the criminal from acquiring the gun, and b) those who could have been armed (which would have evened the odds considerably in a mass shooting) were not armed. Criminals are empowered when law-abiding citizens are unable to self-defend.

      If you have any questions or need further clarification, please let me know.