Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Hard Problem of Gun Control

Leah Libresco is a statistician who used to write for FiveThirtyEight. While she was with FiveThirtyEight she was part of a major statistical study on the effects of gun laws that changed her mind about the politics:
Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.

Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence.
This is the thing I keep coming back to. While I personally hate guns and wish there were many fewer of them around, I have never thought that any of the gun control measures seriously proposed in my lifetime would have a real effect on gun violence.

I don't mean there aren't things we could do; it seems like there is an actual chance of banning the "bump stock" that Stephen Paddock used to make his semi-automatic rifles fire faster. That might have saved lives in Las Vegas. But only a small percentage of gun deaths are caused by rapid-fire rifles, so the effect on the big numbers would be tiny.

Many of the regulations gun opponents have proposed are downright silly:
When I looked at the other oft-praised policies, I found out that no gun owner walks into the store to buy an “assault weapon.” It’s an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, a rocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos.

As for silencers — they deserve that name only in movies, where they reduce gunfire to a soft puick puick. In real life, silencers limit hearing damage for shooters but don’t make gunfire dangerously quiet. An AR-15 with a silencer is about as loud as a jackhammer. Magazine limits were a little more promising, but a practiced shooter could still change magazines so fast as to make the limit meaningless.
The main effect of some of these proposals is to make gun owners think that legislators are too ignorant about guns to be trusted with the regulation of them.

To my mind, the only gun laws that would have any real impact on the rate of firearms violence would be the sort of near-total bans in place in some European countries. And in America that is not going to happen. Even if such a law could be passed, resistance to it across much of the country would render it impossible to enforce. America has a lot of gun violence not just because we have lax laws, but because we have a gun culture, and I can't imagine what might change those very deep-seated attitudes.


David said...

Hear, hear. I would only make a trivial, technical point, which is that the category "assault rifle" is not quite as artificial and "invented" as the source is claiming. The category goes back at least to the German Sturmgewehr (literally, you guessed it, "assault rifle") introduced as an infantry weapon for the Wehrmacht late in WWII. The Kalashnikov is closely modeled on, and closely resembles, this weapon. The intention was that it be lighter than an automatic rifle like the BAR but fire on both semi-automatic or automatic. Modern technology may have made the category fuzzy, but it's not a myth.

G. Verloren said...


There's technically a (rather stupid) difference in terminology between an "assault rifle" which is a real thing, and an "assault weapon" or "assault style weapon", which is pretty much just made up.

A great example is comparing the M16 rifle and it's "civilian" variant, the Colt AR-15.

The former is a classic assault rifle - a lightweight, intermediate caliber, selective fire, medium range, military grade weapon. The latter is basically the exact same thing, but artificially limited to semi-automatic fire (and sadly all too easily converted back to operating on fully automatic).

Unfortunately, "assault weapons" seems to be ones of those terms that was invented by the media as a sort of buzzword to talk about complicated technical issues like firearms without actually requiring their viewers to understand anything. It doesn't really have a fixed definition.

I've heard it used to refer to guns which fire military grade ammunition; guns which are "civilian" modified versions of military weapons; guns which are capable of being modified for fully automatic fire; and even just guns that merely visually resemble actual assault rifles regardless of technical specifications. (I've seen a bolt action .22 rifle labeled an "assault style weapon" because some idiot slapped a picatinny rail and a barrel shroud onto it to make it look "Tacti-Cool".)

This confusion is a big part of the problem. We need restrictions that are based on concrete definitions and actual technical capabilities of the weapons.

G. Verloren said...


"banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes"

These seem like cherry picked examples, purposefully chosen for the fact that they represent only a small part of this country's gun problem.

Contrast to the issue of handguns. The vast majority of gun violence involves handguns, not longarms. Why? Because they're small and concealable. That's the entire point of a pistol. They aren't designed for hunting and sporting purposes. They're designed to provide lethal firepower in a convenient package. The entire reason for their existence is to make it easy to kill humans at close range.

So why do we let people carry handguns? People want to own rifles for hunting or for target shooting? Yeah, okay, that's at least somewhat reasonable. But there's little justification for allowing handguns. "Self Defense" is the typical argument made, but it's a pretty shoddy one. What are you defending yourself from? Overwhelmingly, if you get into a situation where you need to employ lethal force with a handgun, it's because you're dealing with other handguns.

G. Verloren said...

2/2 So what might actually help?

Well, I can think of a few things. And in my mind, there's absolutely nothing stopping us from preserving our gun culture while also introducing measures that will actually help save lives. We can allow people to own weapons, while still doing more to make the weapons they do own are less numerous, less dangerous, and easier to keep track of and police the usage of.

Universal background checks. Mandatory gun licensing, registration, taxes, and insurance requirements - similar to what we have with automobiles, but ideally more stringent. Revocation of licenses for unsafe gun usage, criminality, et cetera. Restrictions on how guns may be stored and transported. Restrictions on where guns may be legally taken or used (e.g. - if you buy and register a rifle for target shooting, you can only legally use it at government certified shooting ranges).

People want to own automatic weapons? There's not much logical reason to allow that. But people REALLY want to own them? Fine, we can make them available - after all, there are some edge cases that are justified, such as collectors and historians. But ramp up the cost and difficulty of obtaining them, and increase the level of scrutiny you need to go undergo to be approved. Only the most dedicated and highly vetted of individuals should be allowed access to these most dangerous of guns.

People want to own handguns? Too bad. Ban them all. Their only truly legitimate usage is urban combat. Unless you plan on killing other humans, you have no reason to own a handgun. Heck, we already use the exact same justification to ban the owning of "sawn-off" longarms. Why do we exempt handguns? They're just not worth it.

People want to own multiple firearms? They need to demonstrate reasonable cause. You want to own two or three hunting rifles, maybe so you can keep one at home and also have one at your cabin up in the woods or whatever? That's pretty reasonable, and shouldn't be made too hard to accomplish. But you want to own a half dozen handguns, eight rifles, three shotguns, and a pair of submachine guns? You're gonna need a pretty compelling justification for that much firepower.

Obvious exceptions can be made - for example, for highly trained professional in law enforcement or similar. Special licenses can be granted, special certifications can be earned, special waivers or exemptions can be issued, et cetera. The more trustworthy you establish yourself to be, the more and more dangerous firearms you can be trusted to handle.

But there are way too many people in this country, who have way too many weapons, that they got a hold of way too easily, that they paid way too little for, and which they have way too much leeway to tote around fully loaded where ever the hell they please for whatever reasons they wish.

Other people get this stuff right, without having to implement total weapon bans. Why the hell can't we?

JustPeachy said...

Verloren says: "Overwhelmingly, if you get into a situation where you need to employ lethal force with a handgun, it's because you're dealing with other handguns."

Spoken like a nice middle class man. Because it's obvious you've never been a woman living alone in a crappy neighborhood. My sister believes (and I concur) that handguns are useful tools because she gets to deal with neighborhood meth-heads on a semiannual basis. If they get all the way to the door because they're too stoned to notice the big dogs, the mere threat of a firearm is enough to get through the fog to their self-preservation instincts. Never yet had to actually shoot: the great thing about handguns is that for defensive purposes, "lethal force" is so rarely required, and they take gender-related size disparity and the upper body strength disadvantage out of the equation for us women. Not all of us care to keep a man around to defend us: they're high-maintenance. A gun just needs occasional cleaning and oiling.

JustPeachy said...

Re: your second comment: There's a reasonable argument that a twelve-gauge shotgun is a better choice for home defense. That lovely chambering noise they make is a great dramatic effect (and I have heard it's enough to make most prowlers leave VERY quickly), the pellets tend not to go through walls and cause unintended damage, etc. etc., but they take two hands. You can't dial the cops and hold a bead on the creep on your porch at the same time. Handgun: yes, you can! Either way, though, your proposals for insurance and licensing would price people like me and my sister completely out of the market. People who actually need firearms for home defense, because they can't afford to live in nice neighborhoods like yours, also can't afford convoluted licensing and insurance schemes designed to keep guns out of their hands. Your proposals are pretty classist, at a glance.

Shadow said...

Outdoor ticketed events where thousands are crowded into a relatively small space and barriers are set up to restrict entrance and exit are a big problem. Cordoned off street festivals are another potential problem.

When I first moved to Nevada from the NYC area I took a bus from Vegas to Reno. At one of the stops (possibly Tonopah) about 15 people boarded, each carrying a rifle. They threw their rifles up onto the baggage carriage and sat down. It was hunting season. No one was surprised except me. Just shows how much geography (rural versus urban, countryside versus cityscape) affects POV. Later, I bought a gun and with friends would go out into the desert and practice.

That was some time ago. I doubt you can do that anymore. The laws tightened some as population increased.