Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Guns

I don't want to write this. I have never wanted to write this. Still, I am going to write this. I'm going to say a piece about guns.

My blog is about God, religion, and faith, so let me get this out of the way first: God doesn't answer our gun questions for us. God doesn't grant us the right to own weapons or even to defend ourselves from armed or unarmed others. God doesn't protect us from weapons. God doesn't take home our fallen when they are killed with weapons. There's no reason to think that God does anything or even that God exists. God is therefore irrelevant to this discussion, and all insertions of God to it are beneath reasonable commentary. God is a useless hypothesis. The title of my book is God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. This is about humans solving a real human challenge.

This is a hard question; we need to stop pretending it isn't

The first thing to say about guns is that what is most wrong with the entire discussion about guns is that everyone, particularly those who are very unfamiliar and those who are very familiar with them, seems to think they know what they're talking about on an immensely complex problem, with most of the proposed assessments being embarrassingly simple. I therefore think nearly everyone is wrong about the matter, including possibly even the inimitable Sam Harris, with whom I seem to agree on almost every point in the world. Harris's “Riddle of the Gun” (and attendant FAQ on Violence) is a must-read, drawing widespread support and intense criticism, including from friendly organizations like Richard Dawkins's Foundation for Reason and Science. Harris's thinking is very clear and level, admitting the complexity of the issue, though, and he is appealing to the one thing that actually matters here: looking at the data--which does not include the passionate anecdotes that attempt, nearly universally, to pass for it. To be fair, so are the majority of his detractors and many of his supporters. So far as my potential disagreement with him goes, I'm not as fully convinced as he is that a gun is the best available way to handle some of the violent or dangerous situations that we may find ourselves in, though his argument is very convincing and well-reasoned.

About that data: There are a lot of data out there, and they aren't terribly useful for answering the kinds of questions we want to answer about guns and gun violence. The main reason for this problem is that we aren't even sure what questions we want to answer. Do we want to diminish gun massacres, gun homicides, gun violence, gun suicides, gun accidents, gun thefts, gun-enabled theft, massacres in general, homicides in general, crime of passion, violence in general, specific classes of violent crimes, suicides in general, accidental deaths in general, rates of theft, all of the above, some of the above, most of these things only when theoretically “preventable,” or what? There are a lot of parameters here, many of which we do not understand the underlying causes for, and they're very complexly interrelated. To pretend that we know what works and what doesn't, even given all of the data, is highly presumptuous. This isn't the same as saying we must throw our hands in the air and pretend to know nothing, but it does make it hard to use data to answer these questions.

The data about gun violence, etc., is also unfortunately patchwork. Much of this issue stems from the fact that there are an enormous number of confounding factors, and so some of the would-be relevant studies have not been done or have been done but have inconclusive results. In other cases, there are good reasons to believe the kinds of studies done (and not done, as it happens to be) have been deliberately tampered with to leave the data obfuscating on the issue. This makes it quite hard to draw clarity out of very muddy water.

Still, data, of as limited use as it is, is immeasurably better a way to look at this question than is any ideology, and there is an obscene amount of that dictating the debate on literally every side. It is, in fact, nearly impossible to have a sane, level-headed discussion about guns without someone appealing to some deeply baseless argument about them. Ideology, which pretends questions are easier than they are, is not going to solve any of these so-called riddles, but detecting the signal of reason within the deafening cacophony of nonsense is becoming increasingly difficult as the pot boils nearer and nearer to the top. Worse, ideology has made this topic a political hot potato that prevents even the reasonable voices from moving any pens in the Capitol.

It's about the guns, but really it's not just about the guns

There is no question that there is a great deal more work to be done regarding all of these problems than can be done by straightforward legislation about firearms, weapons, or violence. Indeed, the underlying problems are primarily cultural—it's neither guns nor gun legislation that are the main problems but rather an underlying gun culture that is out of control and getting worse. Further, it seems likely that the most relevant legislation may not relate directly to firearms in the first place. Instead, a great deal needs to be done to remove the socioeconomic—yes, economic—forces that contribute to the patterns of violence that we see running as swift currents in our society.

Whether or not violence is diminishing as a whole (as it almost unequivocally is, which apparently has an enormous amount to do with environmental legislation regarding lead in gasoline instead of some other kind), many of the underlying causes of violence in our cultures are a direct result of processes that have their roots in a disaffecting and depressing socioeconomic situation, a trend that maintains itself. Gangs, for example, which represent a significant proportion of the gun crime in the United States, are fundamentally a self-sustaining local values system (that does not match with the prevailing societal moral system) based upon violence and rooted in socioeconomic disadvantage. In other situations, shooting sprees like we saw in Newtown, CT, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, appear to have a strong underlying trend of personal disaffection with society, to the point of wanting to seek revenge upon it, which can very easily result from the sustained perception of a society that will not sustain the people who embody it.

When it comes to gun legislation itself, perhaps the most outrageously annoying argument to have to bear is when anyone pretends that they have more special insight into what the Founding Fathers of the United States intended when they wrote the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Frankly, what they wrote is ambiguous, and it can and has been read in a huge multitude of ways throughout the decades. (Speaking of those decades, far from being timeless, there are very salient arguments to be made that the Framers' opinions about weaponry are outdated and possibly even obsolete.) The Constitutional argument, then, holds very little convincing weight in any direction, for as the most extreme gun-supporters have reminded us, rocks are a form of armament, and the only thing the Constitution technically provides us the right to bear are “arms,” the kinds of which go entirely unspecified even though nearly everyone thinks a reasonable limit to what constitutes a legal “arm” exists somewhere between crossbows and nuclear weapons.

I say all of this particularly to avoid having to get into any of the insane arguments that usually come up about this supposed “natural” right to own things like AR-15s or 9mm handguns that hold 18+1 rounds or anything semi- or fully-automatic. These rights are not only not-natural, they are not explicitly endorsed by the Constitution itself and are supported instead by Constitutional interpretation by the courts which is technically subject to change anytime a sufficiently high court changes its mind about the interpretation, however difficult that may be in practice. That they aren't natural or explicit in the Constitution, though, doesn't mean that they cannot or should not be legally secured by our legal structure. That remains to be decided and is certainly not decided by some appeal to magical “natural rights” that not only do not apply automatically to firearms of any class, but also that we have no reason to believe are a meaningful concept in the first place. (No, God doesn't secure rights, laws do.)

Now, about gun legislation itself.

On the one hand, those who operate outside the law will, indeed, always be operating extralegally and therefore are likely to have guns, large magazines, and anything else banned by law. On the other hand, harder to get quite literally is harder to get, so in terms of probabilities, there will be a lower likelihood of encountering a gun-wielding criminal if there are fewer guns available for the criminal to potentially get a hold of. Indeed, simply by introducing barriers to obtaining weapons, the probability that an “average criminal” will take the effort to overcome those barriers goes down. That means that sufficiently prohibitive gun legislation, if universal enough (rendering contravening and possibly specious data about Chicago essentially moot—because Gary, Indiana, isn't that far away), will lower the probability that gun crimes will be committed and thus, on average, lower the number of gun crimes. As Sam Harris rightly notes, though, this requires some protocol, which would probably have to entail a very expensive buyback program, to remove the three hundred million or so guns from citizenry of the United States first. Please note that a voluntary buyback program is not equivalent to President Obama sending men in black suits to anyone's house to pry the guns out of any cold, dead hands, though the fact that people literally value their ability to possess firearms over their lives, or at least claim to, expresses something deeply troubling about the psychology of gun ownership in our country at present.

Then again, because of our cultural heritage, in light of the last bit of the previous paragraph, it is very unlikely that the American people would go willingly into highly prohibitive gun legislation. We the people want to be secure, but for a variety of reasons, we the people want to own firearms (including because we want to feel secure). Furthermore, as is rightly being pointed out all over the Internet, to be properly effective to the problems people most want to solve, restrictive legislation would have to extend to handguns, which Sam Harris notes is very unlikely to happen in America.

I agree that criminalizing handgun ownership is probably politically impossible, and given a look at the highly equivocal data, it may not even be desirable—though it possibly may. This last statement is controversial, but it is true that other forms of violent crime are potentially likely to rise with a full-on handgun ban, but that leaves us back at those big, hard questions about what problems we're most wanting to solve in the complex web of violence and crime. Let's not deceive ourselves though, firearms are designed particularly for the goal of making people (and animals) dead with a high probability upon their use, but on the other hand some kinds of violent crime induce horrendous suffering, potentially worse than death. In this kind of a discussion, we may well have to face deeply unpalatable and perhaps unanswerable questions like “How many brutal rapes is a prevented murder worth?”

The reason we would have to extend such a ban to handguns is because the vast majority of gun crime is done with handguns. AR-15-style rifles or not, handguns are responsible for the vast majority of the gun-related carnage that we have seen over the last several decades, including the bit that really gets us all scared: shooting sprees on innocent individuals. Incidentally, the reason shooting sprees elicit a response so disproportionate to their scope, given the tiny fraction of deaths in the U.S. that occur in these shooting sprees, is an analysis of certain probabilities and the perception of an element of control. Most of us feel either relatively secure or all-too-aware that our circumstances will not or will be likely to make us the victim of gun-related violence, respectively. The sense of being out of control of the probabilities in these random, “senseless” massacres of innocents is precisely what triggers the enormous amount of attention and response to them. Sadly, if we want gun legislation that is likely to impact the number of these that occur, banning handguns is almost certainly necessary. As noted, it may not be worth doing it, and it is very unlikely to get serious political traction here anyway (not to say it's not possible or worth pursuing if the data, and the resulting cost-benefit analysis, indicates that it matches the goals we decide are best—like very few random public massacres and potentially higher rates of rape and home invasion).

All of that said, if we want to control guns sensibly, bans probably aren't the way to go and, because of the current political climate may be foolishly dangerous to pursue—we certainly don't need 1776, or really 1861, to occur again anytime soon. Indeed, the most sensible legislation is probably regulation, and not so much of the weapons themselves but rather of the people who own them. Indeed, as I will argue at the end of this piece, attempting to regulate the tools themselves may be a complete waste of effort.

Now, as many have noted, including Sam Harris, the reason we call the police when someone opens fire on a crowd of people is because we want someone with a gun to show up and stop it. Furthermore, for the purpose of self-protection and home defense, a firearm literally can be the element that makes all the difference—not that they're nearly the perfect self-defense tool gun-advocates would have us believe they are as their scope of usefulness is surprisingly limited. Still, banning firearms outright would let the criminals remain meaningfully better armed than others, and given the number of guns available, very extensive and very successful buyback programs would have to take place before such a prohibition would bear a semblance of effectiveness.

A couple of big things get swept under the rug here, though, and require mention. First of all, guns are a powerful tool. When a “good guy” shows up with guns and pulls the trigger, there is a high probability that if he his successful with his shot, someone will die. This is simultaneously why guns are and aren't a great deterrent: a criminal can still kill before there is any realization for a need for defense. A gun is absolutely no defense against someone who shot you with the element of surprise, and the majority of gun crimes are single-person homicides. In other words, having more guns doesn't necessarily prevent gun homicide or attempted homicide. All someone needs is surprise and good aim to win that interaction.

What really gets swept under the rug here, though, is that it isn't “someone with a gun” or even just a “good guy with a gun” that we want to have show up when we call the police, ostensibly to bring their guns. When we call for the police, we want a highly trained someone with a gun to show up—someone highly trained in firearm use in chaotic, stressful situations. We no more want someone who has gone shooting once or twice in their lives to show up than we want a chef with a paring knife to arrive at the scene of a medical emergency that requires emergency surgery. After all, when someone has a medical condition that requires emergency surgery, something rather important is lost if we say that what we do is “call someone with a knife and expect them to use their knife,” right?

We should demand responsibility out of gun owners and carriers

The absolute last thing any reasonable person wants to have happen, when it comes to guns being used in public, is to have more insufficiently trained people adding more bullets, many wayward, to the mix. In reality, no one wants everyday citizens to risk additional lives by playing out their Bruce Willis movie fantasies—in most cases people with only the typical concealed-carry permit level of training are not able to stop active shooters and become targets themselves, and even highly skilled, well-trained individuals using a minimal application of fire sometimes hit innocent bystanders instead of the targets, who are increasingly frequently armored as well as armed. Hence, the bulk of the truth to “more guns deter problems or could solve them when they arise” lies in the assumption that those firearms are in the hands of sufficiently qualified individuals to do something with them in chaotic scenarios. This requires extensive, specific, and regular training.

Of note, though, it is true that sometimes merely the possession of a firearm is a deterrent that saves the day, and sometimes it is the force-equalizer that prevents other kinds of violent crimes. But it is also true that sometimes merely the possession of a firearm is the psychological cause of the application of deadly force in situations that otherwise wouldn't rise to it and that don't or wouldn't warrant it.

It seems very difficult to get around the idea, though, that having stringent carry-permit qualifications is likely to be a good idea, since more guns is arguably an effective strategy that outweighs the costs when the weapons are in the hands of sufficiently qualified people. It is difficult to make a salient point other than that effective criminal background checks, some level of training, and perhaps even a degree of mental health screening are desirable carry-permit regulations on enabling “law-abiding citizens” to obtain and carry firearms in person. Canada implements a vastly more stringent plan than the U.S. in this regard, without any infamous gun-show loopholes making them easy to get around if desired (making it relatively easy for people previously convinced of violent felonies to get guns without resorting to a black market), so it is certainly a possibility. What I personally think is appropriate goes pretty far beyond what I hear most people advocate.

In brief, I personally think that the permit to carry a gun in public carries with it an enormous responsibility, and therefore the level of training and quality of screenings should be quite stringent. Regular training, at least bimonthly (since data from police officers often report that training less often than monthly is insufficient to maintain the psychological edge required in such situations)--involving gun safety, gun use, targeting, defensive shooting, situational awareness, and minimum application, i.e. essentially para-police training—is a worthy requirement, given the responsibility on the weapon carrier. Furthermore, regular and thorough mental health screenings, particularly for various classes of stresses and depression, are probably reasonable requirements. Various situations that arise that threaten the mental stability of a permit holder should serve to temporarily or permanently disqualify a permit carrier, for example, just as they do with security clearances already. Furthermore, thorough background checks and stringent responsibility requirements should be required, and any illegal behavior indicating irresponsibility or violence should serve to temporarily or permanently disqualify a permit carrier.

This is all costly, though, as Sam Harris notes. Thus, if such strict requirements are to be implemented, it is not unreasonable to have these costs borne at least in part by the state that benefits from the protection that these well-trained, responsible, mentally fit people provide. Indeed, as time and risk are additional costs in this situation, I think it would be appropriate to pay these people some quantity for their service out of the public coffer. If it's in the public interest to have these people, then the public should be willing to pay for it—and here we see a major problem with the guns-rights advocacy we see nowadays. Many of these calls for more armed citizens are actually calls for unpaid-for policing, and frankly, we get what we pay for. Again, as I will explain at the end of this piece, having far more qualified gun-carrying people than the police forces alone can provide is likely to be a reasonable need.

Ownership of a firearm that isn't to be carried publicly is another matter that needs to be taken more seriously. It is probably correct that we should have the right to arm ourselves with firearms in our homes for the purposes of self-defense, though it is unequivocal that a certain public health risk is incurred by allowing this. Thus, there should be relatively stringent requirements for this behavior as well, given the large number of incidents of gun violence (especially domestic), gun thefts, and accidental gun deaths (and suicides). Though less stringent and frequent than for carry permits, home ownership permits should also come with background checks, regular mental health checkups, and training, particularly on proper gun storage and safety. Situational red flags—like a particularly ugly divorce—and criminal behavior could lead to temporary or permanent revocation of these permits as well. With gun security, even with training, inspections could be done on any private home that wishes to keep guns. However ridiculous this seems, many states already require it for owning a swimming pool—a danger Sam Harris notes without realizing that home inspections are now required in many places in order to have one. This too could see public subsidy, particularly if the data indicates that it is in the public interest to have people armed in their homes. Accidental gun injury or death or gun theft as a result of negligence in gun storage and security perhaps should carry civil or criminal liability as well to strengthen the resolve for safe storage and management of firearms for home or office protection.

There are additional technological possibilities to improve gun safety that could be considered. Of some use would possibly include modern safeties and trigger-locks that might only allow a registered owner to fire his or her own weapon, via fingerprint reading. This could prevent many accidental injuries and deaths and prevent a firearm from being taken in a tight situation and used against its owner. On the other hand, it could cause problems in some cases like when a person threatened by a criminal with a gun is able to wrest it away and turn it on her assailant. This kind of technology may cut down on the impetus to steal firearms, though hacks and workarounds would be relatively easily employed in most cases.

It is noteworthy that none of these self-defense situations strongly justifies a need for high-capacity magazines, which I've avoided talking about so far, though there exists a good argument that a person defending his or her home and family shouldn't incur extra threat to themselves because of relatively bad aim in the situation leading to a need to reload before neutralizing the threat. This point, then, comes down to an argument about which legislation makes people feel more secure against a few low-probability occurrences—would we feel safer as a society with more bullets per gun to defend ourselves and our homes or with criminals being more likely to have to briefly pause to reload more often. Relevant data and cost-benefit analyses are therefore the way to answer these questions, not “good arguments.”

There is some benefit to controlling the weaponry available, however, making calls for high-capacity magazines and certain classes of firearms, including “assault-type” rifles potentially worthwhile. First, for instance, harder to get it still harder to get, as noted before, so this will reduce some of the potential for criminals to overcome the barriers to obtain these kinds of weapons, allowing possibly for more reloading breaks during which someone can stop the shooter more successfully than in an active fire-fight, even if that break lasts only a second or two. More importantly, such laws have a band-aid effect of providing security to people, a certain peace of mind. If this isn't to be considered valid because of the increased risk of being taken advantage of, which already has a low probability of occurring, the argument that people need to be armed in order to feel secure against an event that has a low probability of occurring also stands on shaky ground. It may not be a vacuous point that people are less likely to use firearms as their line of defense in cultures that don't give them the feeling that they should have to.

Remember when I said this is hard? It's harder than that.

There's a lot of reasonable desire to control guns, then, and the easiest way to do that is by controlling what can be purchased legally. Controlling the point of sale on firearms and gun accessories like this is easiest, but there's a major technological fly in this soup: a great big, hard, awful on the other hand.

Technology has possibly rendered controlling the point of sale moot. Three-dimensional printing is a technological reality, and it works on a variety of materials. Printing a functional AR-15 rifle and a .22 caliber pistol has already been done—for a pittance in raw materials. Though these guns were not production grade and failed after a number of rounds (200), they will improve rapidly with technology and designs. Notably, for several thousand dollars, a price that will drop precipitously in the coming years while its resolution improves, a printer that prints in cold, hard steel is a tool that already exists. Within a few years, printing commercial-grade (or military-grade) weaponry will be a functional reality, at home, cheaply.

It is worth noting that a printed firearm cannot be controlled at the point of sale and need not bear any serial number. While controlling a black market for firearms under the old situation is imminently more tractable than one for drugs—given that weapons and intoxicants hardly fall into the same class—controlling the sharing of the computer files that diagram for a printer how to print essentially any of these weapons—and thus a black market under the new situation—is not in any way tractable.

Banned or otherwise, with three-dimensional printing of them a reality, guns will be impossible to control by conventional means, rendering ammunition, or its components (notably, gunpowder), more relevant to point-of-sale control and regulation. Thus, by the time the ink were to dry on any gun legislation that controls rifles or handguns at the point of sale, even if nearly every gun in America could be bought back in the meantime, it would probably be on the verge of being entirely obsolete. Incidentally, such technology would rapidly bankrupt buyback programs as well, creating another layer of problem (though it will also undercut the entire gun-manufacturing industry and as a result severely diminish their lobbying power in Washington). This technology will usher in an entirely new paradigm in the gun-legislation debate. This change cannot be avoided by any means I can think of.

Note that if this is the real scenario that we face, my call for very highly trained, and compensated for it, civilians that can carry guns in public may be an important component in the actual reality of handling gun-related violence in the relatively near future—at least until some equally effective nonlethal technology is developed for the purpose. The argument that the bad guys will always have guns actually turns out to be extremely plausible given that they would be able to manufacture them for themselves at low cost once a three-dimensional printer was obtained. This quite literally changes everything about the debate, almost.

One way this changes everything is by changing nothing

As important as the component of “good guys with guns” would be, though, other factors would be, and thus are, immensely more important. This new era of technology presses upon us the reality that the underlying causes of violent crimes, particularly the kind that are catastrophic to people's lives, have to be identified and dealt with in more meaningful ways than by focusing on the weapons themselves, whatever band-aid effects such legislation would provide. Some progress has been made in identifying that lead contamination from leaded gasoline was a significant contributor to violent crime, but it clearly isn't the whole story.

Some answers in this deeper puzzle are easier to see than others. For example, nearly every mass-murderer in the last several decades has depression and disaffection from society in common. Mental healthcare in the United States, along with healthcare in general, is in an abysmal state. Our economy, not least because of the looming healthcare crisis, is pressing more and more people more and more firmly, squeezing disaffection out of the fringes like juice from a grape press. Some of these people seek revenge on society, and apparently some of them do it in truly horrendous ways. Many of these problems can be addressed—in fact, they have solutions in which many of the components are already known. My political stance leans to the left in these cases. I will not hesitate to say that the conservative anti-government movement, which has been opportunistically purchased by the plutocratic one, is the major contributor to this problem. A return to a more socially responsible economic structure that rebuilds the bottom eighty percent of society is almost a clear necessity when it comes to this problem.

Fundamentally, not only by changing the underlying economic fabric of our society, I think the primary thing that has to change is our gun culture, not our gun legislation. I say this without inane references to pop culture but rather with the way we feel about guns, violence, and the way those avenues can be used to solve problems. Even if they install some bad habits of mind or sensitization to violence, nearly every mature, sane person sees video games, television, and films as portrayals of fantasy, a problem that does not extend into real life. By contrast, the underlying whisper of our culture, passed from individual to individual in real life, is that “fighting solves everything,” this being a real slogan on a real t-shirt that is popular in certain significant circles of American culture. This culture of using violence, particularly the ability to render someone dead with the flick of a finger if desired, to solve our problems absolutely has to change to answer the riddle of the gun.

Grimly, another fact has to be accepted here: there will not be a perfect solution. To throw out otherwise reasonable attempts to correct these issues because the answer isn't perfect is cannot be acceptable. 

 

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

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