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.

Timothy Geithner's Secret Thoughts on Elizabeth Warren - watch more funny videos


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This video was AWESOME! I laughed so hard I had to rewind it 3X to catch all the subtitles...almost cried! Secret and very clever...Baby!

Posted by NE water removal guy on July 30, 2010 10:14 PM

i don't think you've acknowledged the most compelling argument for gun control, which is that it could help reduce the amount of violence in some of the country's most dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhoods.

Posted by Uri on July 30, 2010 10:32 PM

Sorry for not staying on topic...regardless of how you "feel" about gun control, how do can you craft an effective argument against the second amendment? I think that Right trumps, and has, the efforts to circumvent it.

In my opinion, violence is not going to change in some cultures. The method of violence is probably not as important as the cause of the violence. Regrettably, many of these kids don't have a chance, and you can thank their parents...

Posted by NE water removal guy on July 31, 2010 01:07 AM


Even apart from the serious Second Amendment objection raised above, the question of whether tighter gun control laws would reduce crime in some neighborhoods is an empirical one that can be examined to see if it is true. As a counter-example, Mexico has strict gun control laws nationwide but we all know that the drug gangs there are armed to the eyebrows.

What I would like to see is gun ownership tied to training in its responsible use. It is like the better martial arts training, where along with the physical skills, students also learn restraint, self-discipline, and responsibility. One rarely hears of people with deadly martial arts skills using them to settle domestic disputes or to attack weaker people. Or maybe they do and it is not publicized as much as gun violence. It is another empirical question worth studying.

Posted by Mano on July 31, 2010 08:36 AM

LOL. The video was just too good not to voice my reaction. Thank you.

Perhaps a worthwhile study for Pfizer or another such company would be to find a drug that would sufficiently sedate the aggressive behavior of gang members and the sort of people prone to gun violence. But, I suppose, the likelihood of them using the drugs is about the same as them giving up their guns just because they are outlawed. Neither of those solutions appear particularly viable.

Posted by San Diego Real Estate on August 1, 2010 03:17 AM

I once had a crazed neighbor follow up a choking his wife routine by trying to attack me with a tire iron. I got my rifle and while he was still acting aggressive he didn't try hurting anyone else that day. He wasn't overly fond of me after that and he repeatedly menaced me with his chain saw (yelling threats as he paraded by the fence) and the like. However, he also loudly complained about my "machiiine gun" and never stepped foot on my property. I absolutely believe his knowledge that I had superior force kept him in check. Thankfully he's in jail now, but I firmly believe that law abiding citizens need access to guns. This particular individual showed a general disregard for the law, he tried attacking someone else with a axe and attacked his own wife with a chainsaw (fortunately off at the time). I'm quite grateful the law allows for the legal ownership of guns.

Posted by KrAzY3 on August 1, 2010 06:30 AM

I dont agree with Mano´s comment on Mexican gun laws,
I have been in Mexico some 23 years now and have seen at first hand how easy it is to aquire a gun on any street corner. The problem comes down to corruption on a great scale especially in law enforcement. I dont believe that any gun law would work except total prohibition, something that would be impossible to enforce!

Posted by David Dunham on August 2, 2010 02:03 PM

I feel that violence is not going to change in some cultures. The method of violence is probably not as important as the cause of the violence. Regrettably, many of these kids don't have a chance, and you can thank their parents...

Posted by Water damage company on August 2, 2010 04:26 PM

David, that's part of the point. The old "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" argument. Making guns illegal or limiting legal gun ownership does not rid us of guns, it simple makes the behavior more lawless and hence more likely to be criminal. Even total prohibition won't work, look at what that did to America when they did it for alcohol. It created an era of law breakers and crime.

Posted by KrAzY3 on August 3, 2010 04:53 PM

It's far easier to kill someone with a gun than with a knife or other weapon - you just have to point it and pull a trigger and you can be a distance away. With other weapons you have time to have 2nd thoughts before you commit murder.

Posted by Family Martial Arts on August 4, 2010 09:42 PM

How about people carrying weapons in schools? Students and educators know the rules. But some decide to bring weapons in anyhow.

Should some adult(security personnel)be permitted to carry a gun in the school to "protect" the innocent? Some parents do not want the security person armed with a gun fearing that more problems might occur.

Posted by John on August 6, 2010 01:42 AM

Making gun illegal wont help much. As long there is someone that will want the gun, there will be another one willing to selling it to him/her. That is how market works, even if is illegal. As long the law says that you can own the gun, nobody sees the gun as something bad, but as something to protect them self. What we need to do is building up awareness, starting with the young ones. Teach them that guns are not something that should be taken lightly.

Posted by Dining tables on August 6, 2010 03:21 PM

Family Martial Arts, I disagree with the premise that it takes more thought to kill with a knife than a gun. A close proximity to the victim can often force an instant reaction, rather than being a relatively safe distance away. If you do decide to stab someone, you sure as heck won't be able to sit there and contemplate your action. It certainly isn't a sound argument to contend that guns are unequaled as weapons. Consider how many people cars kill (for the record I'd rather be hit with a .22 than with a car going at a high rate of speed).

John, it generally seems to be a bad idea to disarm everyone in an environment. Consider spree killers, they usually deliberately chose a place in which people are not armed (schools or work for example). The fact is that if we as a society were more acceptable of responsible, law abiding adults carrying weapons we would be harder to victimize. On the other hand, I don't really know of any instances in particular in which someone being legally allowed to carry a weapon at school or work resulted in the loss of innocent life. The main premise is that if someone is willing to kill, they're not going to care about existing laws anyway.

Posted by KrAzY3 on August 6, 2010 08:40 PM

Little late to the party here, but I just got around to catching up on your articles. A very well reasoned piece by someone without the "carry mindset."

Ohio CCW courses, and the majority of individuals advocating concealed carry teach that you are to 'deescalate the situation and extract yourself from the situation first, resorting to deadly force only if that fails.' Permit holders as a whole 'bring their guns and leave their egos'. They do no want to use their weapons, but are prepared to if necessary. You wont see them "patrolling" or looking for trouble, in fact you wont see them. They will conceal their guns as much as possible and will go about their daily lives as normal citizens. Those involved in vigilantism are criminals just the same as the ones they claim they are out to stop, and that is an important distinction that must be maintained.

No carry zones are a huge problem because someone who wants to cause harm will ignore them, they are already intent on breaking the law so what do they care if they are committing a firearms violation in the process. They simply disarm those who would normally be able to protect themselves and other victims. Case is a good example, as a student I can not carry on a day to day basis because I run the chance of being kicked out of the school, but muggings occur on campus on a frequent enough basis that I feel carrying may one day save my property or my life.

Posted by Dan on August 11, 2010 07:42 PM

criminals are criminals because they don't respect laws. Why do we expect that if we increase or improve laws limiting firearm possession that the bad guys will suddenly start paying attention to them? what will happen is less law abiding citizens will be armed but the criminals will continue to arm themselves through legal or illegal means. i really doubt that any gang members (for example) think "Damn i'd sure like to shoot this guy but this this rec3entpsssed legislation is going to make it hardly to procure a weapon".

Posted by wedding invitations on August 12, 2010 04:01 PM

I don't know which is more typical among states with strict gun laws - the Mexico type with strict laws and high levels of gun crime, or the UK type with strict laws and low levels of gun crime. And then there's Canada, with fairly lax gun control but low levels of gun crime. I guess that's what the Michael Moore film was about, eh? :-)

I guess I'm reacting to the group that I most often hear advocating for gun control - poor, racial minority, urban communities that think gun control would reduce the level of terror in their neighborhoods.

Posted by Uri on August 12, 2010 09:46 PM

The reason gun ownership is such a "tricky question that arouses a lot of passion" is that it involves the fundamental right to protect oneself and one's family from those who would do harm. This is in fact a right, not a privilege to be "allowed" by a government. I have never been able to understand the train of thought that says making guns illegal will curtail their use by criminals, who by definition do illegal stuff. It just doesn't make sense.

I also don't see how anyone who takes a truly objective look at the issue can fail to acknowledge that wherever laws are passed to make it easier for law abiding citizens to possess and carry firearms, the violent crime rate invariably goes down. The reverse is also true in almost every instance.

There is no rational, logical reason to eliminate firearms from a responsible, law abiding populace except to make them easier to control. That may sound like some sort of conspiracy theorist rant, but there is an old saying that fits. "If it quacks like a duck it ain't no chicken".

Posted by Easy Guitar Songs To Learn on August 16, 2010 10:32 PM

Gun control opponents often cite the example of the Nazi regime, claiming that once the Nazis had taken and consolidated their power, they proceeded to implement gun control laws to disarm the population and wipe out the opposition, and the genocide of disarmed Jews, gypsies, and other "undesirables" followed.

Posted by Bob on January 23, 2011 01:06 PM