The Pragmatic Case for Guns

By Andrew Min ’15

I’m extremely idealistic on certain issues. Freedom of religion, for example, is sacrosanct: short of using drugs in ceremonies, religion should generally be left alone. Freedom of speech is another great example: there’s intrinsic value in being able to say what you want to say, and that is enough for me to warrant a general right to free speech.

Not so with the right to bear arms. On the right to bear arms, I’m almost completely a pragmatist. And yet, I still find myself (albeit often reluctantly) on the side against gun control.

The general case for guns

The main reason I, along with many fellow gun rights advocates, support the right to bear arms is that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens can and do save lives. Many opponents of gun rights argue that the highest goal is to keep the police well-trained and well-armed, and to keep civilians out of the fight. But both the empirical data, along with many of the police themselves, disagree. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America (LEAA), which represents tens of thousands of police officers across the United States, noted, “Guns save lives. In the hands of law-abiding citizens, guns provide very substantial public safety benefits.” Later, it quantified this by adding, “the deterrent effect of U.S. home defensive gun ownership… reduces the total U.S. violent crime rate by about 9%. Numerous surveys show that firearms are used (usually without a shot needing to be fired) for self-defense at least 97,000 times a year, and probably several hundred thousands times a year.”

You heard about the Columbine High School massacre. You didn’t hear about the Pearl High School massacre. You heard about the Virginia Tech shooting. You didn’t hear about the Appalachian School of Law, Virginia shooting. You heard about the Aurora, Colorado killing. You didn’t hear about the New Life Church, Colorado killing. You heard about the Sandy Hook deaths. You didn’t hear about Clackmas Mall deaths, three days before, or Mayan Palace Theater deaths, three days after. Why? The would-be killers in the latter cases were all stopped by armed bystanders.

The reason you’ve never heard of any of these incidents is because non-events aren’t news. The murder of dozens will make CNN breaking news. But the prevention of murder will, often, never make it past the local NBC affiliate. For the media companies, it’s just not that exciting of a narrative. Additionally, these killings are often prevented when a civilian pulls out a gun and brandishes it menacingly in front of the perpetrator. As the LEAA notes, this means that many violent crimes are prevented without firing a single shot. These brave acts may save the lives of countless innocents without harming a single individual, but will never make The Today Show.

Of course, guns can also be used for evil. But as will be argued below, gun control is often ineffective. Given this, policymakers must ask the following question: is it preferable to tie the hands of law-abiding citizens and hope that criminals won’t get guns, or is it preferable to put more power in the hands of the citizens? In some cases, indeed, the first case is preferable. This is particularly true in the cases of nuclear weapons and fully automatic machine guns, where the weapons are both well-defined and limited in number. But on balance, when talking about gun control in general, the second option is more pragmatic.

Additionally, guns are used for many legitimate entertainment purposes. I don’t particularly care for hunting, but then again, my roommates don’t particularly care for baseball, which I love with a passion. It’s hard to see the value of something you don’t enjoy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to a large minority of others. And the crucial lynchpin of freedom is the affordance of allowing everyone to pursue their own desires, as long as it doesn’t infringe on other pursuits of happiness.

Of course, some argue that guns are different: they are dangerous and thus should be banned. This argument is persuasive but insufficient: junk food is harmful to individuals and creates health care externalities, but we still allow individuals to consume junk food, because we think that the harm isn’t great enough to warrant a ban. Other instruments, like kitchen knives, can also be deadly, but again, under a cost-benefit analysis, aren’t harmful enough to warrant a ban. Therefore, in order to justify state intervention on gun ownership, advocates must not only show that guns are harmful, but also that they provide such a great harm as to outweigh any self-defense and recreational benefits.

The theoretical case for regulation

Unlike most gun advocates, I’m not against regulation in theory. That’s because unlike most gun advocates, I don’t believe that the 2nd Amendment precludes all regulation on the right to bear arms. This article couldn’t possibly delve into the legal interpretations of the Constitution, but on face, regulation of other fundamental rights seems to be permissible. For example, the right to free speech isn’t absolute: you can’t falsely shout “fire” in a theater. Even for the right to bear arms, we recognize certain limits: we don’t (and shouldn’t) allow civilians to own nuclear weapons. Generally, there are also very few legitimate uses for a machine gun, so most also support banning automatic weapons. This includes the government: these weapons are, for the most part, already illegal in the status quo.

But setting aside this theoretical regulation, the actual regulation proposed is often quite questionable. The questions presented below aren’t questions of liberal vs. conservative philosophy; they are questions of pure pragmatism and workability. The utilitarian calculus is where the most gun control regulation truly falls apart.

Policy proposals

Complete gun bans. Very few people advocate this position, and for good reason: there’s almost no empirical data supporting it. The most-quoted study is a 2004 National Academy of Sciences literature review (commissioned under President Clinton) that evaluated eighty gun-control measures. It concluded that not one of these regulations had been effective.

There are a variety of reasons that gun bans are ineffective. First is the aforementioned deterrence effect of keeping guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens. Additionally, the United States currently has much more guns than most nations. This makes comparisons to other nations implausible. John Howard, the prime minister of Australia, recently penned a New York Times op-ed headlined, “I Went After Guns. Obama Can, Too.” The difference, of course, is the number of guns: for better or worse, America has a much stronger gun culture than Australia. Under its program, the government received 700,000 guns from its citizens. Compared to the 300,000,000 guns in the United States, this number seems almost paltry.

Assault weapon bans. My position here is pretty simple. Like most gun controllers, I agree that most people don’t need to own an AK-47. Unlike most gun controllers, however, I don’t think you can craft a reasonable policy that bans AK-47s without either banning a lot of legitimate guns, like hunting rifles, or creating gigantic loopholes that would render the assault weapon ban nearly toothless to perpetrators of violence.

The main example that gun control advocates point to is the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban. However, the problem with this assault weapons ban is the problem with almost all types of assault weapons bans: it had massive loopholes. So why do these loopholes exist? The underlying issue is that there is no standard definition of an “assault weapon,” because “assault weapon” isn’t really a technical term. Fully automatic weapons (think machine guns) are, for the most part, already illegal. The “assault weapons” that most gun control advocates, like the authors of the 1994 ban, target are semiautomatic rifles like AK-47s.[1] However, banning all semiautomatic rifles would be impossible, because most guns are semiautomatic. Congress recognized this problem and instead defined “assault weapons” as all semiautomatic rifles with two of the following five criteria: folding/telescoping stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, grenade launcher, and flash suppressor.

However, most of these features don’t affect a gun’s ability to mass murder. The exception, of course, is a grenade launcher, but mass killings with grenade launchers are not all that common (and regardless, a gun with a grenade launcher and without the other four features is not considered an assault weapon under the ban). But the other four features don’t really change anything. And simply creating stricter criteria isn’t an easy task. As the Stanford Law and Policy Review noted, “Prior to 1989, the term ‘assault weapon’ did not exist in the lexicon of firearms. It is a political term, developed by anti-gun publicists to expand the category of ‘assault rifles’ so as to allow an attack on as many additional firearms as possible on the basis of undefined ‘evil’ appearance.” Often, the only difference between an assault weapon and a hunting rifle is that one looks scarier than the other.

As a result, it’s extremely easy for gun manufacturers to get around whatever criteria policymakers put forth. For example, the assault weapons ban would have banned the Colt AR-15, used by James Holmes in the Aurora shooting. However, a nearly identical weapon, the Colt Match, would have been perfectly legal, and the changes were minor details like the lack of a bayonet mount. It’s somewhat doubtful that losing his bayonet mount would have made Holmes’s senseless rampage any less deadly. Similarly, Adam Lanza’s weapon, the Bushmaster M4 carbine, was legal in Connecticut despite a similar assault weapons ban, because it met the technical criteria.

Even if one could ban these scary assault weapons without banning hunting rifles, the effectiveness of a ban would remain questionable. Standard assault weapons aren’t more powerful than “legitimate” guns, like hunting rifles. In fact, because hunting rifles are legally required to use large ammunition, hunting rifles are often more powerful than so-called assault weapons. For example, Lanza’s Bushmaster uses .223 ammunition, which is smaller than what many deer-hunting rifles use.

Of course, this all assumes that such bans would actually keep assault weapons (whatever that might mean) out of the hands of criminals. This is an entirely different debate, and equally controversial. After all, Columbine occurred five years into the 1994 assault weapons ban. And as noted before, getting guns out of the hands of criminals, given the amount that are floating around the United States, is no easy task.

But even if assault weapons bans could differentiate between illegitimate and legitimate weapons, and even if these weapons were more powerful than legitimate weapons like hunting rifles, and even if the bans could get rid of all of these weapons, the impact on violent crime would still be called into question. The FBI’s Crime in the United States 2010 report found that 68.5% of murders involving firearms used handguns. Assault weapons, in contrast, were likely 1%-2%. After all, most intelligent criminals wouldn’t want to commit a crime with a big, obvious weapon: it would be much more effective to use a concealable weapon, like a handgun. As Handgun Control spokesman Philip McGuire admitted, assault weapons “play a small role in overall violent crime.”

Magazine limits. The magazine limit was another policy that many gun rights advocates initially agreed with. However, here too, we need to look at the likely impact that magazine limits would have. Because magazines exist, shooters can reload their weapons with ease and speed. Some argue that the victims could rush the shooter while he reloads, but this is usually unrealistic: since reloading only takes seconds, there’s usually not enough time to process that the shooter has stopped shooting, decide to rush the shooter, and actually rush the shooter before the shooter has finished reloading. More importantly, the victims are usually paralyzed into fear. Thus, shooters simply get around magazine limits by carrying a larger number of magazines. The evidence bears this out: the Virginia Tech Review Panel, for example, admitted that limiting magazine capacity to ten rounds “would have not made that much difference” in the 2007 shootings.

On the other hand, there are a few legitimate reasons for having high-capacity magazines, though admittedly in very rare situations. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, shopkeepers would fire several rounds in the air to scare off the rioters. If there were a low magazine limit, this tactic would have been extremely ineffective: firing a half-dozen shots to get people’s attention would leave only a few bullets left, allowing the rioters to rush the shopkeeper with ease. Since the rioters were stirred up by anger, rather than paralyzed by fear, this scenario is not unlikely. Thus, shopkeepers would have had to choose between firing the warning shots and hoping no one was counting, or firing directly into the mob to prove that they meant business. With their high-capacity magazines, however, there was no such danger. Thus, high-capacity magazines allowed many shopkeepers to defend their property and their lives without taking a single life.

Admittedly, this is a very rare case. Most of the time, a high-capacity magazine isn’t necessary. But a policymaker needs to balance the potential costs and the benefits of a proposed policy against each other. Is it more likely that the above scenario occurs, or that a perpetrator attempts to commit a mass murder with only one ten round magazine, never intending to reload?

Mental health. Mental health is one area in which, generally speaking, most gun advocates agree there is something the government could do to reduce gun violence. Even the NRA doesn’t want mentally handicapped people getting guns. But the problem here, again, is that some of the proposed policies fall flat.

The most problematic proposal related to keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally handicapped is New York State’s proposal to have mental health care professionals alert officials if a patient “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” The government would then seize this patient’s weapons, and the patient would be added to a national database.

While this sounds beneficial on face, this completely violates doctor-patient confidentiality. Doctors already have to respond to threats of violence, but this law provides much vaguer guidelines. Under the new law, doctors may feel more pressure to disclose, even if they don’t actually feel that the patient is a threat. Besides the obvious ethical issues, there are also substantial pragmatic issues. As the executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services noted, this law could lead to patients simply not sharing all their symptoms and thoughts with their psychiatrist. This loss of trust in the mental health care system could result in less health care to mentally handicapped patients, along with increased legal costs for their doctors.

Background checks. This is the one policy that most gun rights advocates and gun control advocates agree on. Should a dangerous ex-convict be allowed to own a gun? Probably not. What gun rights advocates do caution, however, is that this should not be considered a silver bullet. While licensed gun owners may only sell to individuals with clean backgrounds, there’s no effective way in the status quo to stop the buyers from reselling their guns to people with more unsavory backgrounds. Certainly, this is not reason enough to block more stringent background checks or more sharing of databases across state lines. However, when policymakers pass a policy, they often congratulate themselves and assume that their work on that issue is done. Increased background checks are a good idea, but not a panacea. They need to be coupled with other effective policies — for one, ensuring that law-abiding civilians have the ability to protect themselves against law-breaking civilians by owning guns.

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