July 30, 2010
Crime and guns (part 2 of 2)
(See part 1 here.)
Opponents of personal gun ownership worry that easy access to guns may cause needless death and injury in situations which otherwise might end peacefully. We have all heard horror stories where children have accidentally killed people because they stumbled upon firearms left unattended. We worry that people in drunken states or people prone to violent rages may use guns in deadly ways. We also fear that this would increase the risk of armed crimes.
People also fear that carrying guns around might cause people to respond more aggressively than otherwise to the minor slights and annoyances of everyday life, like the person who cuts you off in traffic, or gives you the finger, or for any of the many minor aggravations that are a part of life. We fear that having a gun might cause people to channel their inner Travis Bickle, saying, "You talkin' to me?" before unleashing a fusillade of shots, or that a fender-bender might escalate into the gunfight at the OK Corral.
How realistic are these fears? Not very, says Dan Baum in his article Happiness is a worn gun in the August 2010 issue of Harper's magazine (subscription required, I think). He says that the data does not seem to support most of those fears. He also says that carrying a concealed weapon gave him a heightened sense of awareness about his surroundings and a sense of security that actually made him react more calmly when challenged, like when two men yelled a slur at him on the street. He just walked away with a 'Zen-like calm', with less anger and tension than he would have had when he was unarmed because he knew he had a gun and thus felt less put upon and more in control of the situation. He had the inner confidence that comes from knowing he could have handled the two men if things had turned ugly.
Rage wasn't an option, because I had no way of knowing where it would end, and somehow my brain and body sensed that. I began to understand why we don't hear a lot of stories about legal gun carriers killing one another in road-rage incidents. Carrying a gun gives you a sense of guardianship, even a kind of moral superiority. You are the vigilant one, the sheepdog watching the flock, the coiled wrath of God. To snatch out your gun and wave it around would not only invite catastrophe but also sacrifice that righteous high ground and embarrass you in the worst possible way.
He also points that an armed citizenry might be of real help in many situations. Most people think that the police will protect them from crime but in reality police are nowhere around when crimes are committed (unless you are dealing with really stupid criminals who act in the presence of police) and usually arrive long after the fact, whereas your fellow citizens are all around you and may be able to rescue you from crime or violence.
It is feared that the mere possession of guns will make people into vigilantes, seeking out crime so that they can enact their Dirty Harry fantasies, waving a huge gun and saying to some hoodlum "You feel lucky, punk?" But is this true? Baum writes:
But shall-issue [i.e., laws that made gun ownership much easier by requiring authorities to issue any adult a carry permit unless there is good reason to deny it-MS] didn’t lead to more crime, as predicted by its critics. The portion of all killing done with a handgun—the weapon people carry concealed—hasn’t changed in decades; it’s still about half. Whereas the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., can produce a list of 175 killings committed by carry-permit holders since 2007, the NRA can brandish a longer list of crimes prevented by armed citizens. I prefer to rely on the FBI’s data, which show that not only are bad-guy murders—those committed in the course of rape, robbery, and other felonies—way down but so are spur-of-the-moment murders involving alcohol, drugs, romantic entanglements, money disputes, and other arguments: the very types of murders that critics worried widespread concealed-carry would increase.
It is true that the US has extraordinarily high levels of violence and violent crime involving guns whereas countries like Canada and those in Western Europe (where gun ownership is highly restricted) have much lower rates. But how much of this is due to easier ownership of guns and how much is due to other factors? Are Americans just historically and culturally more prone to settling conflicts using violence and would find other ways to harm others if they did not have guns? As jpmeyer points out in a comment to yesterday's post, even within America there is huge variability with respect to crime and violence that (at least superficially) seems to show little correlation with gun control laws. Since guns can always be obtained by anyone in any country determined enough to do so, doesn't restricting its availability simply deny access to those who would use it in a responsible manner?
Gun ownership is a tricky question that inexplicably arouses a lot of passion. Like global warming, it is not an issue that has moral or religious overtones (like god and gays and abortion) so it is surprising that people get so worked up about it. It really should be one of those questions that could and should be discussed on a very clinical and empirical basis, involving questions such as: What does the data tell us about the effect of widespread ownership of guns? What is the impact of allowing people to carry them either concealed or openly? What does widespread ownership of guns have on the level of violence and crime and death and injury?
Baum says that after going around for some time carrying a gun both openly and concealed, he will stop doing so because it is "uncomfortable, distracting, and freaks out my friends; it's not worth it… If I lived in a dangerous place, I might feel different, and I may continue wearing a gun when I travel to such places (at least to the ones that allow it)."
In an interesting aside, Baum says that "Young adults buy markedly fewer guns than older people. They want to be urban and digital, and guns are the opposite of that. A big push by the industry to feminize the shooting sports has fallen flat; only in hunting has women’s participation increased, and even there just by a little."
So ultimately the issue may simply be decided by changing demographics and social trends. Guns may come to be seen as uncool as smoking cigarettes and John Wayne may go the way of the Marlboro Man.
POST SCRIPT: Will Wall Street win again?
In the wake of the financial scandals, a new agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been set up to protect ordinary citizens. Elizabeth Warren would be the natural choice to head it since she has been a key mover of the idea and has shown herself to be a smart and fearless fighter. (For Warren's appearances on The Daily Show, see here.)
Naturally, this makes her disliked by the banks and credit card companies and they are exerting pressure on the White House and Congress to scuttle her nomination. The Democrats know that if they overlook her, their progressive supporters will see this as yet another gross betrayal and capitulation to their Wall Street overlords.
Funny or Die reads Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's secret thoughts on Warren.