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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, October 02, 2015

TGIF: Ending Gun Violence: Logic versus Magic

What passes for thinking about the prevention of gun violence is not thinking at all. Thinking (as problem-solving) is a search for means that can be reasonably expected to achieve a given end. By reasonably I mean that supporting arguments can be provided to demonstrate to the satisfaction of reasonable people the connection between the means and ends. What we get from gun-control advocates is nothing like that; instead they operate on the magical belief that uttering certain words -- codifying just the right incantation -- will accomplish the end.

We know they believe in magic, not logic, because those who propose to restrict individual rights regarding guns see no need to explain how their proposals would reduce or end gun violence. For them it's enough to declare their sincere belief that this is the case and to invoke polls showing that a majority of people also believe in whatever is being proposed.

What's belief got to do with it?

Passing "common-sense gun laws," gun controllers say, would prevent mass shootings. "Universal" background checks is the most popular proposal. But where is the explanation of how that would achieve the end? Not only is this not explained; the people supposedly paid to raise such questions -- journalists -- never even ask. Most of them operate on the basis of magical belief too.

Let's look at "universal" background checks. The term indicates that all would-be gun buyers would actually undergo a check. Leaving aside the recent mass murderers who passed background checks, we know that universal checks are impossible no matter what the legislation says because buyers in the black market, gun thieves, and those who are given guns will not be included.

Similar objections apply to the anti-gun lobby's other magical proposals. Each would leave untouched those who obtain their guns through already illegal channels. We can have no reasonable expectation that people who intend to commit violent offenses against others will be deterred by mere restrictions on gun purchases and possession. Stubbornly ignoring that self-evident truth is the sign of a magical disposition.

We see the same disposition in the "mental health" approach to preventing gun violence. Some conservatives like this approach presumably because it deflects attention from guns. But proposing, as Mike Huckabee and others have, that the government "do a better job in mental health" -- whatever that means -- tells us nothing about how it would prevent gun violence. What justifies the belief that psychiatrists and others in the field can predict with reasonable accuracy who is likely to commit mass murder? (Psychiatrists are not known to be competent at predicting who among their own patients will become violent.) Isn't it more likely that people who never would have committed violent acts would be drugged and imprisoned (in "hospitals"), while others never even suspected of being potentially dangerous would go on to commit horrendous acts? One shudders at the civil-liberties implications of "doing a better job in mental health." Do we want the police to have pre-crime units?

In contrast to the incantations offered by practitioners of public-policy magic, gun-rights advocates propose measures that reasonably can be expected to prevent or reduce the extent of mass murder: for example, eliminating government-mandated gun-free zones. (Property owners of course should be free to exclude guns, however foolish that is.) Those with ill-intent are unlikely to respect gun-free zones, but most peaceful individuals will. Thus they will be defenseless against aggressors. Gun-free zones, then, are invitations to mass murder. Refusal to acknowledge that fact is also a sign of a magical disposition.

When this objection to gun-free zones is raised, gun-controllers typically respond that the answer to gun violence cannot be "more guns." But when aggressors are the only ones with guns, what would be wrong with more guns if they were in the right hands? Eliminating gun-free zones would in effect put guns in the hands of the innocent at the scene of the attack. As it now stands, the only people with guns are the killers and police, who may be miles away. (Too often the killers are the police.) The connection between means and end is clear. If would-be mass killers suspected they would meet resistance early on, they might be deterred from launching their attack. But even if not, the chances of minimizing an attack would obviously be greater if some of the gunman's intended victims were armed.

Another reasonable measure would be to remove all restrictions, such as permit requirements, on concealed or open carry of handguns. Again, the link between means and ends is clear. Concealed carry has the bonus of a free-rider benefit: when people are free to carry concealed handguns, assailants, who clearly prefer their victims unarmed, won't know who's carrying and who's not. That extra measure of deterrence -- that positive externality -- could be expected to save innocent lives.

Believers in gun-control magic refuse to acknowledge that one cannot effectively delegate one's right to or responsibility for self-defense. With enough money, one might arrange for assistance in self-defense, but few will be able to afford protection 24/7. It's a myth that government assumes responsibility for our security, since it does not promise round-the-clock personal protection and its officers are not legally obligated to protect you even if an assault occurs before their eyes. The only defender guaranteed to be present at any attack against you is: you.

Those who believe in the right to bear arms have common sense on their side in the matter of ending mass shootings. Magic won't do it.

Sheldon Richman keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society. Become a patron today!


Anonymous said...

I think it is time that liberals and progressives embrace the principles of secession, in order to establish a total ban on guns and capitalism and personal responsibility. Should they succeed, I would recommend bulding a huge wall in Oregon borders, to prevent anyone with guns from entering. Also, Oregonians should raise a permanent army to watch the coast and the borders. They could draft Dondald Trump as their king.

Why people are selectively tolerant? Why oregonians will not accept the rules that oklahomans like, but they want oklahomans to live under the rules that oregonians like?

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, studies have shown that more people with guns also means that guns are more likely to be used as a means of intimidation, not just self-defense. Moreover, if more people have guns, they are more likely to view situations of conflict as potentially eventuating in gun violence, and will thus judge a person's hostility (in a simple argument, for example) as higher (more likely to result in violent behavior) than it is, and as a result judge their need for a gun as a means of self-defense as more likely as well. Let's call this the "if-all-you-have-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail effect." Even heated arguments over small things can stimulate our fight-or-flight response.

The human capacity to gauge threatening situations is, on the whole, pretty poor. If gun-free zones are "invitations to mass murder," gun-replete zones are invitations to mass suicide.

Anonymous said...

When seconds count, the police are only minutes away!

Anonymous said...

In response to the second commenter: What studies have shown this? What science can you cite to back up your post?

anon1 said...

Congratulations, you are the 3,000,000,000th intelectual victim of logical positivism. Either that, or you do not have a sense of humor.


Unknown said...

here's a "magical" belief for you... all you need is God.

Sheldon Richman said...

Regarding the second commenter, every time a state legislature debated a "shall issue" law for concealed carry we heard dire predictions about guns being widely used to settle arguments over neighborhood card games and fender benders. Did it happen? Where are the news stories?

Sheldon Richman said...

anon1, I have no idea what you are talking about.

Andy said...

Google Joe Zamudio. He nearly shot the guy who had wrestled the gun away from Jared Loughner.

There are no simple solutions to our mass shooting problem. It is sick and disgusting and largely outside of public control.

Anonymous said...

Second poster here again. As far as evidence, one study by Hemenway/Azrael/Miller, "Gun use in the United States: results from two national surveys" (2000), reports, "Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society." Other reports by the same authors reflect similar results in more specific areas (for example, the majority of self-reported accounts of "self-defense," even assuming the reports are honest, described illegal uses of firearms).

As shown in a study by Denton and Fabricius, "Reality check: using newspapers, police reports, and court records to assess defensive gun use," self-reported defensive uses of guns tend to be skewed. Further detail shows that guns are at least as likely to be used offensively (to intimidate or threaten) as defensively.

Furthermore, we should keep in mind that there's likely to be a gap between reports of uses of guns and actual uses of guns, just as there is a gap between reports of domestic violence and actual rates of domestic violence (speaking of which, another study, "In the safety of your own home: Results from a national survey of gun use at home," indicates that guns used in the home are more often used to intimidate partners/others than for defense). Certainly there is much that we cannot know, but from the beans we've drawn from the jar thus far, we should be at least as concerned with the use of guns for intimidation as for self-defense.

As for dire predictions, we're living them out now. We've had hundreds killed by the police this year alone, not to mention mass shootings by others. If we can see the power over life and death being abused by police, why should we expect something different from anyone else?

Of course there are no "simple" solutions to the gun violence problem (this includes mass shootings, police shootings, non-defensive uses of guns, and so on). But saying it's "outside of public control" goes against the facts -- other countries have successfully curbed gun violence (not entirely, of course, as even Australia had a recent shooting, albeit not a mass shooting, several days ago). Even those who dislike the idea of the use of the state to alleviate the problem should at least consider how methods of direct action and social cooperation might be used to regulate gun ownership and use.

Unknown said...

You're a moron.

Sheldon Richman said...

I can't be too bad. I have you for a reader.