Monday, July 23, 2012

Busybodies or gun control

-In light of the discussion below, it perhaps bears mentioning that the latest perpetrator-of-American-tragedy is 24, and so a child according to the new science of brain development. Or experiencing the onset of severe mental illness, which even the old brain science acknowledges can happen at that age. Or - and please, no more of this explanation - a burnt-out PhD student.

-As I know I'm not the first to point out (but can't link to Facebook posts), it's wrong to say that all that we can do at this point is mourn, or that it's somehow crass to try to think of the broader implications. It would seem that, for those of us who didn't know the victims, our concern is precisely how to prevent things like this from happening in the future. It's because we feel for the victims that we want to prevent massacres, but also because the tragedies in our own lives, should there be any, are not the Aurora one specifically that we can jump ahead from "how horrible" to "how do we prevent this?" relatively quickly. Maybe it's "politics" in a sense when different people have different ideas how to stop massacres, but not generally in the opportunistic, politics-as-sport sense.

-Every time something like this happens, we get the reports about how the killer, in his pre-killing days, was not the most extroverted, popular person of them all, how he wrote fiction that wasn't upbeat enough for his creative-writing teacher, etc. He had friends, but not many, which is oh so ominous. In this case, the description of the killer in his younger days, pre-psychotic-break-or-whatever-it-was, makes him sound like a scientist. I live in a community of scientists, and this is not a profession big on making small talk. And yet, a peaceful bunch. But we're meant to believe the problem here the existence, in our society, of people who don't greet neighbors with sufficient chipper enthusiasm, and not, you know, the readily-available access to guns.

-There's a cultural relativism discussion - or is it a regionalist one? a YPIS one? - that comes up whenever the topic turns to guns. The idea being that unless you grew up around Gun Culture (not hunting, but guns as theoretical self-defense should the government take a turn for the worse, should you be wronged one too many times), anything you say about gun control is evidence that your life is like the show "Friends," and you're fancy cityfolk using gun control as a pretext for being snooty. Organic kale, triple soy lattes, and gun control. (What gun lobby?)

It's an effective silencing technique, for sure, but it doesn't need to be. Because yes, it's necessary to consider - whether the issue is anti-circumcision, anti-veiling, or gun control, or anything else - that a do-gooder movement might be just a pretext for cultural domination. It also might not be that at all. Is it really "Blue"/"Fake" America's lust for hegemony that compels some of us to point out that even if the problem is illegal weapons (although not even, in this case), the presence of a great many legal weapons throws more onto the black market? There are certain issues where this kind of relativism ceases to convince, and they tend to be matters of life and death. Honor killings, for example. 

-The vast majority of gun-owners are upstanding, responsible people? I don't doubt it. But a society in which guns are around is one in which the evil-lunatic tiny-minority can inflict major damage. The point isn't that if a gun just happens to be available, any of us might snap at any time and go on a rampage. Most people with access to guns behave themselves. Rather, it's that there are a few out there who are so inclined, and there isn't any effective way of determining who they are ahead of time and keeping them - and them alone - away from weapons. 

-Since it would be nothing but cosmopolitan elitism to suggest that ordinary citizens not have access to weapons, we're left with the nebulous 'but what about mental health?' alternative. Most weird people don't commit murder, nor do most gun owners, so if guns are sacred, addressing weirdness is the only option. The problems are that a) not every killer even meets psychiatric/legal definitions of mental illness, and b) it's asking for a great deal of surveillance on behalf of non-experts, aka intrusion, aka busybody-ness, for everyone to be expected to be constantly on the lookout for unusual behavior, lest that unusual behavior indicate that someone is likely to make use of his Constitutional right to buy as many bullets as are sold on the Internet. The guy down the hall failed to deliver the desired, "Hey!"? Didn't seem interested in discussing last night's game? Warning signs! But I suppose it's cosmopolitan elitism to suggest that anyone has a right to be eccentric or socially awkward in peace.


caryatis said...

Yes, it’s natural to think “how can we prevent this”? --but, you know, some things we can’t prevent. We live in a society which has laws and police and so forth, but it’s also a society built on trust and reliant on human rationality. That means that there will always be gaps in our security systems which certain psychos, if determined and ruthless enough, will be able to exploit. When we think about whether to shrink some of those gaps, a cost-benefit analysis is appropriate: is making mass killings a little harder to pull off worth giving up the right to armed self-defense? (And just a little harder: when we can’t stop people or drugs from illegally crossing our two long land borders, why would we be able to stop guns?)

Also, the geographical division between advocates of gun control and others is not only about culture--it’s about practicality. To city dwellers who see police cars several times a day, it sounds reasonable to make the typical liberal argument that people don’t need guns for self-defense because “you can just call the police”. When the police are 50-plus miles away, that argument is less compelling. Setting aside the fact that the police are not always trustworthy.

That said, I agree with your point about not stigmatizing eccentricities.

Phoebe said...


There are things that can't be prevented, and that would include the presence of murderous people, as well as the existence of guns. That said, gun violence/availability is not at equal levels everywhere. To stick with your drug analogy, that guns are often legal hasn't put a stop to the illegal gun trade - as far as I know, and I'm no expert in this, illegal guns are typically guns that might have been available for legal purchase, but have been purchased illegally.

I've heard the self-defense argument. But is this a common thing - taking out a gun because one lives in too rural an area to call the cops? How much of this is psychological - a gun owned 'for protection' by someone who might not actually be any safer for having a gun should whichever feared circumstance arise?

In terms of distrust of police, that's pretty common among the very same urban liberals who are in favor of gun control.

Anyway, wouldn't the number of truly dire threats - city our country - be fewer if no one had a gun? Not to mention accidents, esp. ones involving kids.

caryatis said...

Why speculate about what if _no one_ had a gun? It's never going to happen, because making guns illegal does not make them magically disappear, because my previous point about gun smuggling primarily from Mexico. Making guns illegal would make law-abiding people less likely to be armed, while making criminals pay slightly more for their guns (because for one thing, diverted legal guns would not be available). Again, cost-benefit analysis. How much are we willing to pay for a slight increase in cost of guns?

You ask how much of owning a gun for self-defense is practical self-protection and how much is psychological. Well, there's research about this, but it tends to be a highly politicized area of study.

I would say that the psychological feeling of security is not to be disdained. Even if there's a very small chance you'll ever use your gun, the chance that you will need to is real--and it helps you sleep better at night. It's a feminist issue too, since women fear crime more than men. That gun can decrease the disparity in strength, size and fighting ability
between the average woman and the average typically male criminal.

I kind of feel like you've probably heard these arguments before. Seems like whenever people talk about gun control, it boils down to personality and culture: did you grow up with guns or did you grow up assuming only criminals had guns? Are you a pacifist who could never imagine killing someone, or do you, like me, feel a strong urge to defend yourself by whatever means necessary? That's the basic source of the disagreement, and statistics about violence are never going to switch someone from one category to another.

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, if you really want a strong argument for gun control, it's not mass murders or accidents, both of which get a lot of attention, but are actually rare; it's suicides. There are an awful lot of suicides by gun (mostly by young men) in this country - more than murders plus accidents combined.

Anyway, wouldn't the number of truly dire threats - city our country - be fewer if no one had a gun? Not to mention accidents, esp. ones involving kids.

Not a lot fewer. The Tutsis were massacred principally by machetes. In any event, we can't magically make guns go away. Plus it's really culture that's the big difference - the Swiss are armed to the teeth and crime is virtually unknown there.

You could probably convince me to favor a law where men were forbidden to own firearms, but women were required to own them and be trained in their use, though.

Andrew Stevens said...

I made my comment before seeing caryatis's second comment, thus why we covered some of the same ground, by the way. (For the record, though, I have never fired a gun in my life.)

Anonymous said...

Caryatis, what do you base your last paragraph on?

I am not a pacifist. I have fired a gun, and did a better than average job of hitting the target. Yet I recognize that there is a *very big difference* between target practice in a controlled environment, and successfully defending oneself in a crowded and dark theatre/two seconds after having woken up/in the midst of chaos in general. Most people, sadly, suck as far as this last category is concerned, but supporters of gun control are considerably less deluded regarding the actual probability that they will be heroes under phenomenal amounts of stress.

Anonymous said...

Above should read "successfully defending oneself without collateral damage." Not easy, and the reason sharpshooters can still find work in a country where it's not difficult for the average citizen to buy a gun.

caryatis said...

isomorphisms, I'm not a hero nor do I have perfect aim or perfect self-control, but I know that I would stand a better chance against a criminal with a gun in my hand than with nothing.

You're right that self-defense is not a firing range: the goal is not to hit the target precisely, it is to hit him if you can wherever you can, scare him away, make noise with your shots, or however you can delay the moment at which you are under his control.

Collateral damage is less of an issue within a person's home than in a crowded theatre--I agree that there's little an armed bystander could have done to stop the latest massacre.

Phoebe said...


"I kind of feel like you've probably heard these arguments before."


"Seems like whenever people talk about gun control, it boils down to personality and culture: did you grow up with guns or did you grow up assuming only criminals had guns?"

I don't think that's quite right, and indeed, that was what I was trying to argue against with this post. I - and I don't think I'm so unusual in this for someone with my cultural background - don't assume only criminals have guns. I understand that some people own guns because that's a thing that's done for protection/comfort/culture. I also understand that this is an issue on which the country is split, and don't think that half the country is on the verge of shooting dozens of people in a movie theater. My feelings about guns stem from my feelings about those close to me, those I don't even know, and, of course, myself being at the wrong place at the wrong time when one of these things happens.

And I'm not a pacifist - I think it's great for the (trained!) army to be, well, armed. Nor am I a vegetarian, so if someone with a proper license has guns that are really just used for hunting, that are kept far from cities, and that aren't designed for a massacre, this isn't, as far as I'm concerned, the first thing for gun-control advocates to worry about, even if, of course, these are still guns, that could still get in the wrong hands, aimed at the wrong targets.


Good point re: suicide. Not ever going to be as compelling a rallying cause as instances of self-destruction that involve killing dozens of bystanders, but still to be discouraged as best as possible.

caryatis said...

Just to clarify, when I talked about the culture separating the two schools of thought on gun control, I was thinking about primarily ways of thinking and feeling about guns that are developed in childhood, and can't easily be changed later in life. Obviously you know now that not everyone who owns a gun is a criminal, but did you know that as a child?

Personally, I grew up with close relatives owning guns. So even though I was never really interested myself, I learned at a young age that people who own guns are my kind of people and aren't necessarily dangerous.

Yes, it's scary to think about being at the scene of a mass killing, but isn't it just as scary to imagine being attacked in your home and being unarmed? Which of these possibilities you focus on is I guess a matter of opinion.

But my broader assertion that how you feel about guns depends on personality and childhood experience--do you agree with that or do you just think everyone who supports the 2nd Amendment is misguided?

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't having one or several trained attack dogs work just as well as guns for in-home protection? The gun owner could be sound asleep, but the dog would be a wide-awake deterrent. If a woman walking alone has a German shepherd with her, her chances of being attacked would go way down.
And, as far as I know, nobody commits suicide by German shepherd.


Sigivald said...

Andrew said Actually, if you really want a strong argument for gun control, it's not mass murders or accidents, both of which get a lot of attention, but are actually rare; it's suicides. There are an awful lot of suicides by gun (mostly by young men) in this country - more than murders plus accidents combined.

Problem: Substitution. As far as I know, all available study suggests that they use guns to kill themselves not because of some magic gun-killy-power, but because they desire to die.

In other words, that the rate has no correlation to the mere availability of guns; they use guns because they are convenient for self-killing. If guns were not conveniently, they'd use ropes or a hose from the car tailpipe, or a bath and a razor. (Eg. see world suicide rates and methods, which generally do not correlate to firearms possession.)

Anoynmous: So to prevent suicide by gun (but not rope, gas, pills, knives, or any other method?), people should rely on large and expensive dogs that need lots of maintenance, for personal protection, because at least you can't kill yourself with them?

Are you serious, or is this an elaborate (Poe's law?) troll of the hoplophobe worldview?

Phoebe said...


What did I think as a child? Not sure - I did go to Israel for a couple weeks when I was eight, and was led to believe that the presence of guns could be a) normal and b) a good thing. So I'm not the perfect representative of the demographic I presumably fall into.

"Yes, it's scary to think about being at the scene of a mass killing, but isn't it just as scary to imagine being attacked in your home and being unarmed?"

I suppose as someone not-so-coordinated, I'd be afraid that attackers would my (theoretical, obvs) gun and use it on me. I'd be much more worried about the wrong person somehow getting their hands on said gun than about intruders. If it were a remote locale where intruders are a real issue - I'm thinking of the movie "Disgrace" - I'd... do everything I could to move.

"[...] do you agree with that or do you just think everyone who supports the 2nd Amendment is misguided?"

I'm not sure it's a matter of "supports" - as I recall from the last time I looked into this, there are different interpretations of it, not all of which say that it's about the right of individuals to own guns, or to own the kinds of guns that exist today but didn't at the founding. (Is there a right to bear nuclear missiles?)


A ferocious yelp from a miniature poodle can do the same. Or so I tell myself.


Suicide attempts with, say, pills probably fail more often. But almost anything else is going to be slower and less effective, no? I mean, maybe not - I can't say I've researched this, and evidently you have - but one big problem with suicide-by-gun is that it makes it that much easier to take a few others out with you.

The dogs remark - which, knowing this Anonymous, I suspect came in part from a pro-German Shepherd stance - may have been someone tongue-in-cheek, but would address not only the suicide issue, but also the massacre one.

Phoebe said...

Also, if even a pro can screw up - with tragic consequences - when it comes to "home invasion," that should give us pause.

And - to re-rail - I'd like it if some comments addressed the issue of busybodiness (aka greater stigmatization of introversion/eccentricity) being offered as an alternative to gun control.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sigivald: I wasn't actually making that argument for gun control. Contra Caryatis, even though I've never fired a gun in my life, I am opposed to most gun control, though I certainly consider myself persuadable on the issue. I was offering the arguments that come closest to persuading me and suicide is the big one. (That and taking guns away from men and putting them entirely in the hands of women, but nobody thinks I'm serious when I suggest that even though I am.) I'm with Phoebe, though. You might be right that many of the gun suicides would still commit suicide, but I find it highly implausible that it would have no impact on the successful suicide rate. (I.e. the number of attempts may not change, but the number of failed suicides would increase and the successes decrease.)

Phoebe: I think the lack of comments on the introversion/eccentricity thing is because nobody thinks it's a good idea.

Anonymous said...

I think what a lot of gun owners think is that the people calling for the bans don't know anything about guns. Frex: I have seen a large number of people make the same point as you, about guns that are just used for hunting. Problem: there is nothing he did with the gun he had that couldn't have been done with a hunting rifle. (In fact, the super-large magazine seems to have jammed, as super-large magazines are prone to do, so his Rambo fantasies may actually have saved lives; it takes a couple of seconds for an experienced hunter to change a clip, which is what he would have had to do without said drum magazine). Hunting rifles fire even more powerful bullets than the ones he used, utilize semi-automatic trigger mechanisms, etc. His other guns were a pistol, and a shotgun--a shotgun being, of course, a hunting gun.

I also don't know why you're so confident that defensive uses are rare. In fact, at least one mass shooting has been stopped by someone who was armed, and there's suggestive data that the number of defensive uses is high. Ultimately it's a black number, but doing a quick check of your imagination and deciding it never happens does not seem like good social science. A better question to ask might be "What are the odds that I, a (let's be honest) coastal-elitish type whose friends do not own a lot of guns and whose local governments strenuously discourage their ownership, would be aware of a lot of defensive gun uses?" And then correct for the huge availability bias. I mean that in the friendliest possible way; I am also a coastal elitish type. But it hugely biases our mental world--just like living in a small town in Alabama would!--and we should always remember that this makes introspection and availability troublesome methods of generating a mental model of the world.

When people make pronouncements about gun control, while making errors that demonstrate that they really don't understand what gun control can and can't do (like reliably distinguish between "hunting guns" and "dangerous guns for killing people")--and are themselves supremely confident in their judgement that it must be easy--then they leave themselves open to charges of cultural bigotry. THis has been happening a lot. To be sure, the gun-control opponents are also annoying the hell out of me with their stridency. But when you ask "why do people assume this must be cultural bigotry", the answer is "because you are proposing regulations that have zero cost to you, paired with statements that indicate that you don't have a solid grasp on what those regulations would actually accomplish". And I say this as a general thing (your post is comparatively rather careful): I'm frankly amazed at the shit people feel free to say about guns without bothering to even rudimentarily familiarize themselves with, say, how a semi-automatic gun works, and what they might be used for by the general population.

I don't own a gun myself, and am certainly open to discussion of whether things like 100-bullet magazines should be illegal, but I am appropriately modest as to whether this would actually make a difference. The data from our experiment with the "assault weapons" ban does not offer much hope that it would. Most of the gun controllers, however, seem to have started off with the assumption that there was some relatively simple way to prevent this, and then worked backwards to . . . well, actually, nothing. They just state that we need to talk about gun control because this was preventable. Unless you have a detailed plan for removing the hundreds of millions of guns now in American homes, and closing the thousands of miles of border across which contraband like drugs seems to flow pretty freely, this is really unwarranted confidence.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

It does seem very odd to me (a non-American but from the countryside so the sight of a firearm doesn't make me squirm ) that the right to own guns can't be reconciled with public safety. The second amendment doesn't give anyone the right to own any kind of gun and carry it anywhere. I guess that even in Colorado you can't mount a quad fifty on the back of your truck and just drive around letting off the occasional burst into the air(please don't tell me that you can), there are limits already, people with obvious mental problems and criminals are prohibited no? So it's not " you are a citizen, you have the right to a gun", there are already limits. it shouldn't be gun control or no gun control. It's a question of how much. the aurora slaughter suggests that there isn't enough in colorado

Phoebe said...


"I think the lack of comments on the introversion/eccentricity thing is because nobody thinks it's a good idea."

No one in this thread, perhaps, but this is effectively the alternative that's on offer. Each article where former classmates and neighbors are interviewed, and it's like, some will say the guy was normal, others that he was "shy" or "weird" and you're meant to think, aha, shy and weird, the profile of a killer!

And it's important - even separate from the far sexier gun-control debate - that this is the alternative. A focus on "mental illness" as it's being presented isn't some innocuous or positive thing, just getting the mentally ill to the right professionals. It's more like a societal pact to sniff out weirdos and treat anyone who fails to conform as a would-be homicidal maniac.

Phoebe said...


Your contribution here offers up a very good example of why writing about this topic is so difficult. Since there's no way I can write about it without being who I am, which is to say, someone who didn't grow up around guns, I'm forever (in your view, which is a popular one) not only not allowed to discuss this topic except to say the pro-gun folks must know something I don't. In saying I'm in favor of gun control, am expressing snobbery that veers on bigotry. You want it to sting that you're calling me a "coastal elite" (thus your rhetorical dancing around it), but come on - a central point of this post was that people of my background can't talk about gun control without eliciting accusations of snobbery and aloofness.

"I also don't know why you're so confident that defensive uses are rare."

With what you're referring to, I was asking another commenter - one on your side of the fence, but who grew up in Gun Culture - how common they were. A commenter whose response was that studies are biased. Which didn't exactly make me think my hunch was wrong. This commenter - Caryatis - also said that the sense of safety one gets from a gun matters, even if self-defense situations don't arise.

The issue with hunting... fine, guilty as charged, I don't know much about the difference between different types of guns, which semi-automatics, which nuclear missiles, are used to capture which game. If I were intricately involved in gun-control policy, I'd look into which gun is like so, but it's absurd to say that if you're not an expert on all the varieties, you don't know well enough what a gun is and can do (i.e. kill a whole bunch of people) to have an opinion. Oh, it's a clever silencing technique, because "coastal elites" don't want to seem snooty, god forbid, which is why, as you may notice, the gun-control side is rather weak politically, despite its allegedly all-powerful supporters.

"Unless you have a detailed plan for removing the hundreds of millions of guns now in American homes, and closing the thousands of miles of border across which contraband like drugs seems to flow pretty freely, this is really unwarranted confidence."

Hmm, no. All I need to advocate for is an end to the laws that allowed these guns into homes in the first place. Gun supporters appear to be saying both that guns are inevitable, and that They are forever threatening to take away our guns. Which is it? And why, when guns in the U.S. are not typically (or is my ignorance showing?) smuggled in from abroad, but purchased legally in the U.S., are we so concerned with contraband? Yes yes, then only the bad guys would have guns. Well, the bad guys and the cops, the army. Keeping guns away from good-guy civilians with so-so shooting/hiding gun from offspring skills is fine by me.

Phoebe said...


As I understand it, there are several issues.

One is that background checks, etc., can be flawed, allowing the wrong people access to guns, esp., it would seem, when it comes to online purchases.

Another is that mental illness with a violent edge (and of course, most mentally ill people aren't violent) announces itself when it announces itself, and a shy but normal-seeming PhD student/dropout isn't going to be in The System, isn't necessarily going to seem like someone not to sell a gun to.

Yet another is that there is (as you may have gathered from this thread, and from elsewhere) a culture of guns being owned not for some specific purpose (i.e. hunting, being in the army, being a cop), but for "self-protection." A gun is simply something one has in one's home because that's what one does, to exercise that right. And that, above all else, is why guns are just around. Those on that side of the debate think the more non-criminals with guns, the safer we are, forgetting that a) criminals can get their hands on guns far more readily if there are guns around, and b) criminals have to start somewhere, and may not have had a criminal record at all when they made their purchases.

Anonymous said...

No, I am not saying that you are not allowed to have an opinion because you're a coastal elite; I'm a coastal elite. Or whatever you want to call us.

I'm saying that if you want to discuss it, you should learn something about guns. Learn basic things like "What is a semi-automatic weapon" and "what sorts of guns are used for hunting". Maybe even read up on what sorts of gun control have been tried and what the effects have been. Ask why switzerland requires every able-bodied male to have a military weapon--not a military style weapon, an actual military weapon--and has virtually no gun crime. Struggle with the mysteries of American violence a little, without assuring yourself you already know the answer.

I'm saying that if you *don't* do those things--if you say that you're in favor of some generic thing called "gun control" while admittedly having no idea how such a thing would actually work in practice, then don't complain that you're being silenced because people are accusing you of snobbery and prosecuting the culture warriors. They're telling you to shut up because you have no idea what you're talking about.

Part of the reason that I am on "my side of the fence" is that I've actually tried to think through what sort of gun control would work. And in the case of Aurora, what would work isn't a vague "people can have hunting guns far from cities, though frankly I don't really give a shit if they can't because it's not really any skin off my nose, is it?" What would work is a total ban, with house-to-house searches of every home in America combined with draconian penalties for gun ownership and sealing the border tight enough to also prevent the movement of America's other great black market goods: drugs and illegal immigrants.

And then I think, "hoo, boy, I guess we could use what's left of the fourth amendment for toilet paper and then light it on fire, at massive expense, but that doesn't sound like such a hot idea."

Like I say, I don't own any guns. I advocate gun licenses like driver's licenses, requiring you to show that you know how to use the thing. I'm fine with banning 100-round drums, though I'm also aware that the result would, in this case, probably have been more dead, not fewer. The NRA is not going to give me any awards for defending their point of view.

But I feel entitled to this opinion, because I have bothered to familiarize myself with the rudiments of how guns, and gun control work. Most of the coastal types writing this week sound about as smart as those folks with the all-gif webpages who think that Libruls in Academia and the Media-Government Complex are conspiring to make them adopt sharia law: it's a theory that makes borderline sense only if you have absolutely no idea what goes on in the vast world beyond your doorstep. Moreover, they've gotten all self-righteous about it, which makes them sound like jerks, as well.

I think this is a fine time to have a conversation about gun control. But it is never a good time to advocate half-baked policies that you don't understand, endorsed for emotional comfort rather than practical effect.

Phoebe said...

This is, dear person so confident in his/her opinion s/he uses not even a pseudonym, a load of bunk. Weighing in on gun control without a) knowing exactly which gun does what, or, relatedly, b) exactly which policies would work (does anyone?) means, yes, that I'd be the wrong person to go to for policy specifics, but it in no way shape or form has anything to do with elitism, snobbery, anti-rural bigotry, whatever it is you're driving at.

Because, yes, I'm horribly bigoted... against laws that permit gun ownership just 'cause. You say that guns purchased for hunting are just as dangerous as any others? Fine, ban those as well, at least when it comes to private ownership, and if there must be hunting, set up regulated lodges of some sort.

What do I know? I know that guns can be used to kill far more readily than other available means, which, for me, is enough. Private citizens do not need to own guns. I honestly don't see what would change about this if I knew the particulars (which gun can kill how many, how to operate a gun), other than that I'd be able to comment anonymously on blogs and show some unanticipated "Real American" credentials. Policy-wise, I know that there's the NRA, as well as its popular interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, and that many Americans value owning guns. So I don't have the policy solution to what is quite possibly an unfixably crap situation.

Yes, I'm a huge snob for not wanting people in Colorado whom I've never met getting massacred. I think I can live with that.

Andrew Stevens said...

With what you're referring to, I was asking another commenter - one on your side of the fence, but who grew up in Gun Culture - how common they were. A commenter whose response was that studies are biased. Which didn't exactly make me think my hunch was wrong.

Caryatis correctly answered that it was a highly politicized area of study. You apparently took this to mean, "Ah ha. So the research shows that defensive uses of guns are rare and he thinks they're nonsense." In fact, the research usually shows that they're pretty common, and it's the gun control people who don't like the methodology (but then neither do I and apparently neither does Caryatis). Caryatis was correct that we really don't know the answer to this one. I've actually thought through how I would design a study to answer this question definitively and I did not find a solution. Newspapers often don't bother to report them, interviewing people means you have to include the people who imagined that they stopped a crime or who felt their lives were in danger when they weren't, etc. There is no good way to design the study which would not open one up to charges of bias.

On the Second Amendment, by the way, I am reasonably sure that it did mean that Congress could not prevent ownership of military munitions (including whatever the 18th century equivalent of nuclear bombs was) just as the First Amendment meant that Congress could not pass any law whatsoever abridging freedom of speech (including shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater).

Because we have applied the Bill of Rights to the states, we think that interpretation could not possibly be what they meant, but the First and Second Amendments, when originally passed, did not apply to the states which had the power to restrict speech or weapon ownership in any way they wished, subject to their own constitutions and democratic process. Because the First and Second Amendments mean what they mean, it was a serious error for the Supreme Court to apply them to the states and, because of that decision, we end up having some truly stupid debates about things like whether "no law" really means "no law."

caryatis said...

Phoebe & Andrew,

I said that it was a politicized area of study because a) it is, results are mixed and often depend on who's doing the study and b) I'm too lazy to actually look up any research statistics for you. (As with a lot of social science, research is hard because you can't find two groups of people identical in all characteristics besides gun ownership to compare.)

Also, Andrew, you realize a lot of women live with men? Or have close male relationships? It's not possible to allow women to have guns but keep them out of men's hands.

And, Phoebe, I think you're drawing a false dichotomy: either stricter gun control or we stigmatize the eccentric. But there's an unlimited number of possible reactions to a mass killing, like trying to ban violent video games (Columbine), persecuting gays (9/11), creating carpets of flowers ( or hey just accepting that bad things happen and no easy policy change can stop them all.

Andrew Stevens said...

That's probably one of the reasons why most people think I'm not serious. And, in a way of course, I'm not, because I know there is no chance of getting such a law passed.

I don't know that your objection is fatal, though. The same reasoning would say that we should not have age restrictions on anything, such as alcohol, cigarettes, or firearms. (Children often live with adults and have close relationships with them.) The fact that a law doesn't create utopia doesn't mean it might not do good. I'd still like to see it done as an experiment somewhere, maybe in New Jersey or something, but, alas, it would probably be found unconstitutional as well.

Phoebe said...


I took "politicized" to mean we don't know, and thus that the "self-defense" contingent can't point to facts, and - what Caryatis mentions - a sense of comfort gun ownership can provide. That sense strikes me as the more important issue.


But it is being presented, to speak only of this case, as either gun control's the answer, or some (equally) vague platform of 'greater awareness of mental illness'. David Brooks's column today, for example, takes that approach: "The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships — when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control." Which sounds appropriate, if what you're imagining is a neighbor who's visibly stockpiling weapons, writing some kind of murderous-intentions blog, etc. But relatives, neighbors, acquaintances probably already do notice and speak up about such things, or if they don't, aren't about to start. Someone who's shy and eccentric doesn't need to be reported, which, as someone whose neighbors are almost exclusively shy and eccentric, I think is for the best. As it stands, we feel a certain reticence when it comes to reporting behavior that's maybe suspicious, probably not. Which is, I think, a good thing.

caryatis said...

Andrew, adults have a lot more control over the children they live with than over other adults. And adults usually don't succeed in keeping the cigarettes and booze away from a determined teenager. Plus, you'd have to convince women that the men they love can't be trusted with guns (even though men are more likely to know how to handle a gun).

Phoebe, I agree. We should generally be reluctant to report people to the government when their behavior harms no one.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis, sure to all of that. Though most men who "snap" aren't in such a relationship. You're still making arguments from utopia though. I am not arguing that such a change would create a perfect utopia where no evil men can get their hands on a gun. I am arguing that handing a legal monopoly on gun violence to women would likely work better than what we have. That there would still be a black market providing guns to men (probably more often from a profit motive than a love motive, though) and that male criminals would still use them occasionally, I have no doubt.

And it wouldn't take long under such a law, a couple of decades maybe, until it was no longer the case that men were more likely to know how to handle a gun.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, I certainly much prefer this man's answer, which he wrote in the wake of the Loughner shooting.

"It would be unfortunate if we were to conclude from probing the alleged Tucson massacrer that mental illness, and schizophrenia in particular, is a significant risk factor for extreme acts of violence. It would be worse if we were to become increasingly wary and suspicious of the mentally ill who live among us. Instead, we should focus more on those who, like Loughner, are loners and losers. Offering our friendship and support can go a long way toward helping them cope with disappointment. And who knows? It might even prevent a mass murder."

Phoebe said...


Can't seem to load that, but going by what you quote here, I'm not sure I can agree with you that this is the way to go. I'd certainly prefer advice to befriend the shy-and-potentially-insane than to call the cops on them. That much, yes.

But there are so many problems with this, not least of which that pity friendship probably comes across as such. My high school had a few especially odd kids, and there were always do-gooder-type classmates who made this kind of outlandish effort to be nice to them, one that was certainly better than bullying (which, to my knowledge, wasn't happening, but probably would have at another, less geeky high school), but that could seem unkind in its own way.

Meanwhile, if someone isn't just shy and eccentric, but gives off a vibe that they are a menace, but not (yet) criminally so, maybe this isn't someone it's in any individual's best interest to get involved with? And there's a pretty obvious gender component - when it's a woman who's the only person in the whole world to reach out to Mr. Off - which will often be the case, given who's socialized to be nice, nurturing, etc. - this has the potential to be more dangerous still. If Mr. Off is genuinely off, not just lonesome, it could be that your reaching out to him will not be what stops him from lashing out, but what inspires him to lash out at you first.

Andrew Stevens said...

Something seems to have gone wrong with the site. Ah well.

I take your point on the gender issue and I agree with it. When talking about male loners, the advice should be aimed primarily at men (and it was a man writing). On the other hand, while much rarer, there are certainly female loner losers as well and they too very occasionally go off the deep end (see Brenda Ann Spencer). There are similar dangers for men doing the befriending then (risk of romantic obsession).

I think your loner high school classmates probably took the outlandish efforts to be kind to them a lot better than you probably suspect. I grew up with a kid in my social circle who was "off." He never once initiated a conversation with me or, as far as I know, anyone else. Even if talked to, he rarely responded in more than monosyllables. I never really got to know him, but I know he joined a band with some of my other friends and I personally believe the communal playing of music with these people who reached out past his extreme social awkwardness was very helpful to him. It's very easy to believe that loners are happy being loners, but this is very rarely the case.

(Bullying in high school is fairly rare everywhere, despite what you see on every TV show ever made set in high school. Bullying in middle school is very common, but most kids have grown out of it by high school and the cliques ignore each other rather than doing the cartoon bullying which is a staple of television shows. There are, of course, outliers who don't give up bullying at older ages, but most kids do.)

caryatis said...

Andrew, your plan would make it harder for men to get access to guns, but would it do so by enough to pass the cost/benefit test? (It would definitely not be found to be constitutional, but you knew that.)

I agree with Phoebe's point. There's a difference between friendship and pity friendship, and even the awkward loner can (often) tell the difference.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think it probably does. The argument about guns is whether guns cause crime or prevent crime. The answer is clearly both, but the net effect is hard to see. There's little question in my mind (though I know there are ideologues who disagree with me) that the presence of guns does much to deter or prevent a lot of property crime and probably quite a bit of violent crime as well. On the other hand, despite ideologues on the other side, it's pretty clear to me that guns cause a great deal of violent crime as well (including suicides, particularly in teenage boys and young adult men). While we would still have the occasional massacre without easy access to guns (Oklahoma City), there would almost certainly be less of them. Plus simply less arguments ending in gunfire, etc. So what's the best way to reduce total crime via guns? Take them away from men to reduce the violence they create, but let women keep them and be trained with them to keep their benefits in deterring criminals. The one major downside is the loss of sporting gun use by men such as hunting, which I acknowledge as a cost, but have a difficult time quantifying since I can't just turn it into lives gained/lost. You can certainly argue that I am underrating that cost and perhaps I am, but I believe substitutes exist such as bow-hunting and similar activities.

Yes, I agree it would be found unconstitutional under standard interpretations. See above comment about the wisdom (or lack of it) in incorporating the Bill of Rights to apply to the states.

On the "pity friendship" thing, I am mostly advocating that people should try not to make snap judgments about "weird" people and try to get to know them instead. I am even going to argue that this is likely to create more benefit for the person doing it than the "weird" person. I have done this all my life (I'm not taking any great credit for this - it is very easy for me in a way that I realize it is not for other people with different gender, backgrounds, or personalities) and in every case I probably learned more from them than they did from me. I can think of at least one case which ended quite badly (in angry threats, thankfully never acted upon, and he was arrested for a different incident a few weeks later), so I'm not saying it's riskless, but neither is crossing the street. I believe the risks are much, much lower than people seem to intuitively believe and the rewards are much higher than is commonly believed.

Andrew Stevens said...

I hadn't thought about him in years, but I looked up the "off" kid I remembered from my youth on Facebook. Married with a couple of nearly grown children, an electrical engineer, seems to have done well for himself. Still plays guitar and is a lot more talkative online than he ever was in person back then. Still looks like a potential serial killer in his pictures, but I was pleased to see that his handicaps didn't cripple him. Obviously he might have had the same life regardless, but I think it can be chalked up to the adoption of him by my old social circle (who he still seems to be in contact with). I believe it is a demonstration of the power of "pity friendships."

PG said...

And just a little harder: when we can’t stop people or drugs from illegally crossing our two long land borders, why would we be able to stop guns?

Could someone supply some data on this influx of guns from Canada or Mexico? Because the Canadians seem to hang onto their guns well enough (as Michael Moore admiringly noted in "Bowling for Columbine"), while the Mexicans are constantly bitching that they're being killed by U.S.-sourced guns. (And the Republican House recently held the Attorney General in contempt because of the death of a Border Agent at the hands of a Mexican who used a U.S.-sourced gun that ATF lost.) I would be curious to hear about the percentage of guns recovered from crime scenes/ criminals in the U.S. that were originally bought from a legal dealer somewhere other than the U.S.

If we have to offer our personal bona fides, my family's was the only house in our neighborhood that didn't contain a firearm. But I've fired a Chinese-made military weapon from the Korean War that came to its current owner from a local gun swap and was illegal to sell under the silly Clinton assault weapon ban. So I know not every gun in America is of U.S. manufacture. But I don't know anyone who thinks Mexicans or Canadians make the good shit.

The state that seems to have most effectively combated gun crimes through strict gun laws is Hawaii. (Places like DC that have strict laws on the books are frequently adjacent to, and not separated by an ocean from, much more gun-liberal jurisdictions.) Judging by Obama's autobiography, plenty of drugs still make it to Hawaii, so perhaps there is some difference in how easy it is to get a lot of one versus the other.

Ask why switzerland requires every able-bodied male to have a military weapon--not a military style weapon, an actual military weapon--and has virtually no gun crime.

Switzerland has mandatory military service, starting at 18, for all able-bodied men. When your own population is your sole defense against the next time Germany feels feisty, probably the cultural sense about guns is quite different from a society in which even people who claim that Mexico wants to take over the U.S. say it's happening through high Latino immigrant birthrates, not an armed Mexican populace coming over the border. (Although when they come, we'll probably have armed them!)

"This is a country where you are both a citizen and a soldier. We have a militia here and the gun reflects a sense of responsibility and trust given you by the state. Here the debate on guns is about national security, whereas in the U.S. it is about protecting yourself.” -- Daniel Mockli, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, quoted in the WSJ

PG said...

Also, according to the Swiss government,

"As a general rule, the Arms Act requires a permit for each transaction involving weapons or relevant parts of weapons purchased from an authorized gun dealer's shop. Permits for purchasing weapons are issued by the competent authorities of the Cantons, which have to ensure that the necessary legal requirements are fully met. The selling party has to verify the absence of any legal obstacle on the buyer's side (18 years of age, absence of an apparent risk to the buyer or third persons, no entry in the Register of Convictions for Violent Crimes and Misdemeanors). Subsequent transfers either by sale or by another transaction among private individuals have to be documented through a written contract between those individuals themselves, which they have to keep for at least ten years. ... In order to obtain a permit, foreign nationals have to present an official certificate issued in their home country to prove that they are entitled to purchase a weapon or a relevant part of a weapon. [I don't even know where an American would get this certificate, because aren't we all by default entitled to purchase a weapon?]

"In addition to requiring the above-mentioned permit to purchase weapons, the Arms Act also requires a special certificate to bear arms in public. A person who requests such a permit must demonstrate that he needs to bear arms in public in order to protect himself, other persons or goods against specific risks. To obtain a permit to bear arms one also has to pass an examination on the correct handling of weapons as well as a test on legislation on the use of firearms. Permits are normally valid for a specific type of weapon and for the entire territory of Switzerland, but are limited to five years.

"Due to the long tradition and the special organization of the Swiss armed forces as a militia army, special rules are applicable for army weapons. Between their regular annual service of two or three weeks per year, Swiss soldiers and officers keep their personal weapons at home. After they have left the army, they may keep those arms in order to continue practicing at rifle or pistol ranges managed by local communities. Special rules also govern hunting or sporting rifles."

PG said...

Wikipedia claims, "Up until October 2007, a specified personal retention quantity of government-issued personal ammunition (50 rounds 5.56 mm / 48 rounds 9mm) was issued as well, which was sealed and inspected regularly to ensure that no unauthorized use had taken place. The ammunition was intended for use while traveling to the army barracks in case of invasion. In October 2007, the Swiss Federal Council decided that the distribution of ammunition to soldiers shall stop and that all previously issued ammo shall be returned. By March 2011, more than 99% of the ammo has been received. Only special rapid deployment units and the military police still have ammunition stored at home today."

If a Swiss James Holmes decided to stockpile, there'd be a document filed with his canton for each purchase; he'd have to explain what specific risk he was afraid of in order to get a public carry permit, or would have to be on his way to or from military practice; but once he got in a movie theater, the return fire of Rep. Gohmert's fantasies probably wouldn't happen either because people would have to run home and go down to the cellar to get their own guns.

Maybe nothing to do with low crime rates, contra Freakonomics, but did you know that the Swiss individual mandate requires health insurance to cover 1st trimester abortions? If we're going Swiss, let's go Swiss -- conscription (with a higher income tax on those deemed unfit for reasons other than actual disability), abortion coverage, the whole ball of cheese and chocolate.

(The mind boggles at the likely reaction of some Americans to having to pay a higher income tax if they didn't want to serve under a Commander-in-Chief Obama.)

Phoebe said...


Thanks for all this re: Switzerland. I wonder if the U.S. really is unique in allowing gun ownership for the sake of self-defense against what are largely imaginary/theoretical threats. (There are no doubt places where many are armed because of permanent civil war, that sort of thing.)

PG said...

The places where people are heavily armed because of civil war tend to get referenced by Nick Kristof when he's being sarcastic about libertarianism, but are less popular comparison points among those who sincerely defend individual rights to firearms.

The American concern about self-defense is not just against criminals. My individual-gun-ownership-friendly interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is that it was important to the Founders because had the colonists not been able to access plenty of guns, it would have been difficult to stage the American Revolution. (Though many of the firearms used were technically British property, e.g. had been issued to colonist soldiers during French and Indian War.) So if it's necessary to overthrow a tyrannical government again, the American people will be ready.

This is the interpretation that makes the most sense to me, anyway. People who say they're ready to gun down government agents who are coming for them individually -- not as a repression of all Americans -- never seem to have a good answer about whether Japanese-Americans should have taken that approach when being forced into internment camps. (I'm sure Japanese-Americans' exercise of their Second Amendment rights against the wartime U.S. government was just the thing to cure their white neighbors' fears of a fifth column.)

I don't know of many other nations that were birthed quite the same way. Most other former British colonies became countries either wholly peacefully and still part of Dominion (Canada, Australia), or not by having actually successfully kicked out the Brits through superior militarism, but by the Brits getting tired and leaving mostly voluntarily (India, Kenya). While the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya tried to obtain firearms, most of their insurgency was carried out using traditional weapons like spears, machetes, etc.

The fundamental attitude toward government in the U.S. is basically the polar opposite to that in Switzerland, at least when it comes to firearms. In Switzerland, the government arms you so you can defend the mountain passes against outsiders. (I don't think people who never qualified for military service have those military weapons in the first place. If the Swiss were at all concerned about personal self-defense, they'd require women to own guns too, what with women these days being allowed to live without a man.)

In America, you arm yourself so you can defend your freedom against government tyranny and your fellow citizens. The go-to example for who needs a handgun is Phil Gramm's mama living miles away from the nearest police station, and too fragile to heft a long gun.

Phoebe said...


"The American concern about self-defense is not just against criminals. [....]"

Yup, that's in Item 4 of this post.

Good point re: the Japanese-American internment camps.

PG said...

It would probably be even more inappropriately politicized for me to wonder what's wrong with a society where people who are shot in a movie theater massacre then have to worry about paying medical bills and be grateful for the munificence of a hospital's donating care.

Phoebe said...


You're preaching to the choir on this, at least as far as I'm concerned.