At this writing in early 2016, gun ownership had become a major issue in American politics. Perhaps like most people, I had some prior experiences and some views. I had not previously attempted a careful review of the main points of contention, but now it seemed that perhaps I should. This post conveys what I found.
In this inquiry, I was not inclined to focus too much on mass shootings. That was because, while such events seemed bizarre and tragic, they appeared to account for only a tiny fraction of total gun deaths. Various sites (e.g., Washington Post, 2015) offered further discussion of mass shootings, for those who were interested, and GunViolenceArchive kept a list of such shootings.
This post is long. Yet it is brief compared to the mass of material I reviewed along the way. Some readers may find that it provides an informative introduction to many of the issues that arise in the gun debate, with sometimes surprising facts and arguments on both sides. That, anyway, is what this document was for me, as I put it together. My own conclusions appear along the way, with some additional observations in the final section.
Why Do People Own Guns?
Who Owns Guns?
How Many Guns Are There?
Questions So Far
The Second Amendment
The Dangers of Guns
The Weapons Effect and Stand Your Ground Laws
More Guns = Less Crime?
Guns Are Big Business
Connecticut’s PTP Law
Missouri Repeals Background Check Law
Variations in Gun Laws
Why People Approve of Background Checks
Background Checks: Limits on Effectiveness
Federal Gun Database
Universal Gun Registration and Confiscation
Gun Registration Abuses
The Drama of Extreme Statements
Open vs. Concealed Carry
Any Public Carry
Some Concluding Thoughts
Why Do People Own Guns?
I knew, from personal experience, that people might own guns for hunting or target practice. I had owned one myself. I also knew, of course, that people buy guns for self-protection and, sometimes, to commit crimes. For instance, around 1 AM one night, while working graveyard at a rural gas station during my senior year in high school, I was held up by a man pointing a sawed-off double-barreled .410 shotgun at my face. I knew these things, but I didn’t have a comprehensive list or explanation of the reasons for gun ownership.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) was a well-known source of advocacy on behalf of gun ownership, so I started with that organization’s website. The materials I saw on the NRA homepage seemed highly politicized. There were links to articles about “The Godless Left” and how “Our rights are under attack like never before” and about “Hillary’s War on the Second Amendment.” It seemed that I could get a lot of information about what the NRA was against. What I wanted was an explanation of what the NRA was for.
I tried the NRA Publications page. The first link was to American Rifleman, evidently an NRA magazine. It seemed to be about various guns. That magazine, or American Hunter, or Shooting Illustrated or some other NRA publication listed there, probably did have articles expressing some individual’s opinions, like the various stories that the webpage would display for a few seconds. But there did not seem to be a straightforward policy statement, or code of core beliefs or principles, that would specify the NRA’s reasons for favoring gun ownership. As a person who has criticized the self-serving orientations of a number of liberal and conservative organizations and institutions, I had to wonder whether the NRA focused on the negative because that was more useful for keeping its funding sources agitated.
A Google search yielded better information. It led, first, to a Pew Research Center study (2013) in which 1,504 adult American gun owners were asked for their main reason for owning a gun. Minor reasons, chosen by less than 8% of respondents, included target or sport shooting, constitutional right, and collecting/hobby. By far the main reasons were protection (chosen by one-quarter of gun owners in 1999, but almost half in 2013) and hunting (chosen by half of gun owners in 1999, but only one-third in 2013).
I also found a Gallup survey (2013) finding that 60% of gun owners said personal safety/protection was one reason why they owned a gun. Survey participants were able to choose as many reasons as they wished, but no others approached self-protection: 36% indicated hunting; 13% mentioned recreation/sport; and 8% indicated target shooting — along with, again, a number of less common reasons (e.g., hobby, family tradition, related to employment (e.g., police, security, military), animal control). Australian comedian Jim Jefferies suggested a different reason for gun ownership.
About.com offered its own list of reasons. These were impressionistic, not statistical, but they were still interesting. Their list included Because It’s Cool, For Social Reasons, and As an Investment. The author suggested that coolness “may be one of the most overlooked factors in gun ownership.” But he seemed to feel that this would be primarily a matter of having an enjoyable experience when one “goes shooting with a friend,” whereas I felt that a lot of young or impressionable people might like guns for their sense of power and daring. There has been a certain romance about guns in the U.S. since Dodge City and Bonnie & Clyde. Few personal possessions condense so much power into such a small and precise package.
Later, as I continued writing this post, I also detected an element of normalization — a sense that, the more one talks or hears about guns, the more normal it seems to have one. At some point, I thought, the question would be, not “Why? but rather “Why not?.”
Who Owns Guns?
A Google search led to a General Social Survey (GSS) report (Smith & Son, 2015, p. 1) indicating that household gun ownership rates dropped by more than one-third between 1977 and 2010, and that the percentage of adults owning a firearm dropped from almost 31% in 1985 to less than 21% in 2014. But a Gallup survey of households, as distinct from individual adults, found that, while the percentages have fluctuated over the years, on balance the percentage of households owning a gun was about the same in 2015 (41%) as in 1972 (43%). I made a brief effort to translate Gallup household data into numbers of individual adults, but that effort appeared to be complicated by various demographic trends (e.g., more multi-adult households due to adult children living with their parents; more single-parent households).
There were anecdotal reports that both the GSS and/or Gallup estimates would understate the reality, due to gun owner concerns about being targeted by robbers conducting fake surveys, or intrusive government (or any stranger) seeking private information. It also seemed that the question posed by both Gallup and GSS, regarding a gun in the home, might invite understatement where the gun was actually in the car, at the owner’s business, or being carried by the respondent’s spouse at the moment. The anecdotal reports seemed to convey particular concern with giving information about one’s guns to some faceless pollster on the phone. (Gallup used phone polling.)
I suspected trust was more likely to be built, and truthful answers were more likely to emerge, in the face-to-face approach used by the GSS — which did make extensive efforts to draw on alternate sources to compensate for cases where the respondent might have an incentive to falsify (e.g., the respondent is a felon) and where the respondent refused to answer the gun question (Smith et al., 2014). I also suspected that there might be another reason to doubt widespread falsification. In the GSS data (Smith & Son, 2015, p. 2), only about 12% of women now own a firearm, and that figure has not varied by more than 3% in the past 35 years; the decline in gun ownership has been almost entirely due to a drop in male ownership. If the survey data are incorrect due to widespread falsification of survey responses, there would seemingly need to be an explanation of why men and women would falsify at very different rates.
The GSS results were seconded in a survey conducted by Pew Research Center (Morin, 2014). That study contacted people by landline and cellphone, and asked, “Do you happen to have any guns, rifles or pistols in your home?” Despite using a question and a method similar to that of Gallup, Pew found that only 34% said yes, 63% said no, and 3% gave no answer. It tentatively appeared that GSS and Pew were getting a fair approximation of the reality. It appeared, in other words, that gun ownership has declined over the years, and is now limited to about one-third of American adults.Grant (2015) suggested that the “social desirability” hypothesis would explain disparate results in some cases. By this hypothesis, people are more likely to give truthful answers on a Web survey than in a face-to-face interview, if they feel that one answer is more socially acceptable than another. In this case, one might presume the socially preferred answer would be to deny the presence of a gun. There were surely many like the individual (below) who found it easier to downplay the fact that he was carrying a weapon. But I was not sure whether this hypothesis would produce different results in telephone vs. face-to-face polling. A countervailing hypothesis would be that some non-owners might claim gun ownership to discourage potential intruders and to keep visitors on their best behavior.
A different speculation would take note of the boom in gun sales (and, where applicable, corresponding rises in background checks and gun permits) in recent years (Shaw, 2015; Aisch & Keller, 2016). Gun sellers say this rise has been driven by an influx of women and new gun owners into the market, due to concerns about gun control efforts by President Obama and fear of local crime or mass shootings (Haley et al., 2016; Smith, 2015; Sanburn, 2015).
But it was interesting that gun purchases have reportedly been rising ever since Obama was elected, and yet the trends reported by both GSS and Gallup were flat or declining. GSS said that a decline in hunting explained the drop in firearm possession: in 2014, as compared to 1977, Americans were about half as likely to live in a household in which they and/or their spouse was a hunter. There were also demographic factors. For one thing, whites were more than twice as likely as blacks to report the presence of a firearm in the household (39% vs. 18%), and similarly for non-Hispanics as compared to Hispanics (36% vs. 15%). Also, guns were reported in only 18% of households with income below $25,000, versus 44% of households with incomes exceeding $90,000. Households in counties with no town of more than 10,000 people were nearly four times as likely to own a gun as were households in the largest metropolitan areas (56% vs. 15%). Despite a significant drop in the rate of male ownership since 1980, in 2014 men were still more than three times as likely as women to own a gun. Between 1980 and 2014, people under age 35 became much less likely to own a firearm (24% vs. 14%) while people aged 65+ became slightly more likely to do so (27% vs. 30%).
The Pew Research Center (Morin, 2014) survey agreed that an older rural white male was far more likely to have a gun than was a young urban black female. There was also a political dimension: Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to own a gun. Gun owners were 10% to 20% more likely than non-owners to see themselves as outdoor persons and as typical Americans, to say that honor and duty are their core values, and to say they often feel proud to be American.
An NBC News article summarized research at Columbia University (Kalesan et al., 2015) finding that gun owners were most likely to be white males over 55, and that participation in “gun culture” was a key determinant of gun ownership. Gun culture was determined by asking survey participants whether social life with family and/or friends involved guns, and whether their family and/or friends would think less of them if they did not own a gun. At the intersection of those definitional vectors, one could imagine an aging white male whose friends tended to be other aging white male gun owners, and who had long played the role of the household’s gun owner.
The Columbia University study was behind a paywall, but Mother Jones (Lurie, 2015) highlighted some of its other interesting findings. Geographically, gun ownership ranged from less than 20% of the adult population in several eastern states (e.g., Ohio, New York) and Nebraska to more than 50% in Alaska, West Virginia, Arkansas, and the northern Rockies (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming). That article also offered the surprising finding that 46% of gun owners had received their gun as a gift.
I was hesitant to conclude that three major polling organizations were simply wrong in finding that gun ownership had been flat or declining for years, and that only about one-third of Americans owned guns. It did seem that GSS was probably correct in detecting the decline of hunting and a higher rate of gun ownership in white families, and especially in higher-income families.
My guess was that the market was probably shifting rather than expanding dramatically. It seemed that, while licensed gun dealers might be reporting increased sales, other factors might be pushing in the other direction. America had become less white. Real median household income had barely changed in the past half-century (Wikipedia) and had fallen during these recent years when gun sales were rising (Federal Reserve, 2014). Families experiencing financial difficulty would be tempted to raise cash by selling or pawning guns. The U.S. population was becoming less rural and more urban. For years to come, the predominantly older white males whose subculture may have driven gun ownership in the past would face decisions as to whether to retain their guns on into retirement. In light of other findings reported below, it seemed that private sales might be moving large numbers of guns into growing arsenals held by a relatively small group of gun owners.
How Many Guns Are There?
Mother Jones (Lurie, 2015) and others (e.g., Pew, 2013) say there are 300 million guns in the U.S. altogether, but that appears to be an approximation; estimates range from less than 250 million to more than 350 million (Washington Post, 2015; Shorenstein Center, 2015). A report by the Congressional Research Service (Krouse, 2012, p. 8) cites earlier research indicating a dramatic rise in their estimated number of guns in the U.S., from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. The latter figure was estimated to include 114 million handguns (i.e., pistols plus revolvers, the latter previously known as “six-shooters”), 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns.
How many guns per person are there? There seemed to be varying estimates, but it appeared they might tend to converge somewhat.
First, an approach using Gallup data might start with about 120 million households in the U.S. — give or take five million, according to whether one used the summary figure suggested by the U.S. Census Bureau (2014) or the calculation based on a total population of about 320 million (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015) and an average of 2.54 persons per household (Statistics Portal, 2014)). Gallup’s estimate of guns in 41% of households (above) would then suggest that there are guns in about 49 million households, and an average of five to seven guns per gun-owning household. But it was not clear how many gun owners there would be in those households, and an hour spent in various inquiries suggested that this might be a more difficult calculation than one would expect. Roughly, though, with 1.83 adults per household (Olsen, 2014), an increasing number of adult children remaining in their parents’ households, a much lower rate of female than male gun ownership, and an unknown number of child gun owners, one might guess there are about five guns per gun-owning household.
A different approach would focus on guns per person. Given about 245 million adults over age 18 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014), the estimate that about 20% of adults own guns (above) means that there are about 49 million adult gun owners in the U.S. Assuming minors account for a fairly small share of gun ownership, an estimate of 250 to 350 million guns would imply that the average gun owner owns between five and seven guns.
Meanwhile, however, other sources estimated 8.1 guns in the average gun-owning household as of 2013 (Washington Post, 2015), or nine guns per gun-owning household in 2012, with an estimate that some 4.5 million households own more than 50 guns each (Horn, 2015). An earlier study (Hepburn et al., 2004, p. 17) found that the average was skewed by a smallish number of more extreme gun collectors: 3% of gun owners owned more than 25 guns each. After removing those extreme cases, the average was estimated to be about five guns per gun-owning household. Again, there would be more than one gun owner in some households, so these household-oriented calculations would imply less than five guns per owner.
So at least some of these estimates seemed to converge. At present, it appeared that, not counting the more extreme gun-collecting households, the typical gun owner might own four or five guns. Given the numbers stated in the first paragraph of this section, one could guess that, more often than not, a four-gun household would have two handguns, one rifle, and one shotgun, and a five-gun household would tend to add a second rifle. Not all households could be like that, or else the numbers wouldn’t work; that would just be the most likely mix. But a better estimate would distinguish urban and rural households: the former would typically have little need for long guns, while the situation in the latter would usually be just the opposite. Developing that estimate might require data on the numbers of urban and rural gun-owning households.
Finally, I wondered whether American gun exports would account for some of the 300 million guns estimated to be in existence. The reality turns out to be the reverse. A search led to indications that people in the U.S. do export military-style weapons to criminal organizations abroad — in Mexico, especially — but far more weapons are imported from other countries.
Questions So Far
The preceding sections provide statements of who owns guns, why they own guns, and how many guns they own. It seemed appropriate to pause, at this point, and to reflect on some of those statements.
There was, first, the proposition (above) that protection was by far the primary reason for gun ownership. If one sees a gun as a source of security rather than as a danger, then its introduction into a household could make sense for those who can afford it and/or who are especially likely to feel a need to protect the people and things in their homes. It could be like buying high-quality tires for the car: an extra expense, and something you hope you never need, but an additional margin of safety if things go wrong.
I had a harder time understanding the numbers of guns supposedly held by Americans. In my childhood home, we had several guns: my brother’s .22 and my Dad’s rifle and one or two shotguns. But there were always at least two, and sometimes three, adults living in that house. It averaged out to only one or two guns per person. And that was in the countryside, where the guns had some usefulness: my brother took his .22 when he ran his trap line, and Dad tried to kill the robber birds that would drive away the songbirds. So I could understand that a dedicated hunter might have uses for several different guns. But as shown above, protection, not hunting, is by far the primary reason for gun ownership. I was not sure whether people buying guns for protection would tend to keep a gun in each room, or why they would have so many guns. It seemed I would have to learn something about the scenarios and concerns driving the protection orientation.
Or maybe the foregoing adjustment was too modest: maybe, instead of excluding the estimated 3% of gun owners who owned 25+ guns each, one should exclude the 10% of gun owners who have, say, ten or more guns each. Maybe the average, among the 90% remaining, would work out to a more sensible one or two guns per gun owner.
On a different note, there seemed to be an undercurrent of radicalization in some of the foregoing materials. For instance, what I had encountered at the NRA website (above) was not what I would ordinarily encounter at the website of an organization that was prepared to present and explain a clear and arguably reasonable agenda, much less to try to persuade people of opposing viewpoints. Maybe I was sensitive to this because, previously, I had had some discussions with gun owners who did not seem reasonable. For whatever reason, I did notice signs of unreasonableness in some of the materials that were emerging in this investigation. For example, Ammoland.com claimed that “Bearing arms is the Christian thing to do.” The writer, apparently unfamiliar with most of what Christ said and did, used a farfetched reference to Luke 22:36 to justify this belief. I had previously looked at the Cliven Bundy standoff, and could visualize the “gun culture” theory (above) in terms of hunters getting together, but I had little experience with gun owners of a more political bent. So I was not sure what to make of the indication (above) that some people would cite their “constitutional right” as a primary reason to own a gun.
There were also some demographic unknowns. Did minorities have fewer guns just because they were, on average, less able to afford them, or were white people more afraid of crime, or was it just that those with more money were more concerned about protecting it and/or themselves? Why were women so much less likely to own guns? Did hunting explain the rural-urban contrast? I wasn’t sure I would be able to answer all of these questions, or if I would even need to. This exploration was still very much in the early stages.
The Second Amendment
Among those unknowns, I thought I had probably better try to sort out the question of constitutional rights. While the foregoing surveys suggested that the U.S. Constitution was not a primary reason for owning a gun, I had often heard references to the Second Amendment to that Constitution, and I suspected that it was at least in the back of the minds of many gun owners.
Various links indicated that, in the form passed by Congress and considered by the Court (as distinct from the slightly different form ratified by the states, see Wikipedia), the Amendment says this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It seemed that the most important Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment in recent years was that of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). This section examines what the Court said about the Amendment in that case, relying partly on a summary provided by the Library of Congress and mostly on my own reading.
By way of background, the District of Columbia had passed laws prohibiting new handgun registrations, barring anyone from carrying a pistol without a license, and requiring gun owners to keep their guns unloaded and locked. Writing for a 5-to-4 majority of Supreme Court justices in Heller, Justice Scalia stated that all three of these laws violated the Second Amendment.
According to Scalia, the Second Amendment sought to protect an “individual right to keep and bear arms” that had been established, in English law, for at least a century prior to the founding of the United States — just as the First and Fourth Amendments recognized previously established rights of free speech, freedom of religion, and so forth. While that right was “undoubtedly . . . important for self-defense and hunting,” Scalia said the founders added it to the Constitution in order to guard against “the threat that the new Federal Government would destroy the citizens’ militia by taking away their arms.” The citizens’ militia, Scalia explained, is not “a select militia of the sort the Stuart kings found useful” — an “organized militia” composed, that is, of men who supported one political figure or another. Rather, it is a latent “people’s militia” consisting automatically of “all able-bodied men.” That militia would be “well regulated” just in the sense that its members would receive “proper discipline and training.”
As I read Scalia’s argument, I had several questions and concerns. It appeared, for one thing, that he was arguing in favor of a right to take up arms against the government. He referred, for instance, to early Americans’ refusal to surrender their arms when “the Crown began to disarm the inhabitants of the most rebellious areas,” and he noted that, “when the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.” He also said that “the ideal of a citizen militia . . . might be necessary to oppose an oppressive military force if the constitutional order broke down.” But a breakdown of the constitutional order was obviously beyond the scope of an Amendment seeking to shape that order.
If that’s wrong — if the founders had intended to construct an escape valve or governing mechanism by which power would revert to the armed citizens in the event of tyrannical behavior by the federal government — surely they would not have forgotten to mention it until the Second Amendment came along, even then mentioning it only in passing. Surely they would have detailed, in the text of the original Constitution, the nature of the voting or decision process — the trigger, so to speak — at which the people would know that a real tyranny existed, and that their militia could legitimately stand up and fight. After all, the founders had just fought a revolution themselves. It was not something that wouldn’t cross their minds. Or, to look at it another way, if the purpose of the Second Amendment was to anticipate scenarios in which the new republic might break up, why would it attend only to the possibility of tyranny — and why would it leave the state governments out of the equation, going directly from federal tyranny to revolt by the armed individual? If you’re planning for disasters that might befall the new government, why not also build in something about secession of states? That, again, would be an obvious concern: they had just negotiated a form of government in discussions with representatives from various states.
Blame it on a shortcoming in my legal education, but the Constitution did not seem, to me, to be intended as a guidebook to the proper conduct of an American civil war, or of a second revolution against the new revolutionary government of 1776. It was not plausible that the founders would have gone to the trouble of providing for representation of the people, and of making the Constitution amendable, if they had simultaneously intended to facilitate armed insurrection in case the people disliked how the constitutional government was turning out. That sort of arrangement would have undermined the whole project, as various disaffected groups would consider themselves constitutionally authorized to take up arms against the federal government whenever their interpretation of the Constitution diverged from that of the Supreme Court. Even in 1776, not all of the American people were unanimous in the need for revolution: many thought we should remain loyal to the King, and wound up being exiled. In the fractious modern era, some would surely be ready to spill blood, long before most of their neighbors even understood what they were upset about. For such reasons (and for others discussed in a companion post), Scalia seemed to be relying on a flawed notion of the purpose of the Second Amendment.
There were also points at which Scalia’s arguments seemed self-contradictory. For example, he quoted Webster as saying, “The militia of a country are the able bodied men organized into companies, regiments and brigades.” If they had to be “organized” in order to form the militia, then Scalia was wrong in postulating the existence of an unformed people’s militia composed automatically of all able-bodied men. Nor would he be coherent when he said that “the purpose for which the right [to keep and bear arms] was codified” was “to prevent elimination of the militia.” The imagined militia could never be eliminated: it would continue to exist automatically as long as there were any able-bodied men. Moreover, Scalia admitted that Congress had “power to organize, discipline, and arm the militia.” Arming members of the militia would be superfluous if they already had the power to arm themselves. On the other hand, if a well-regulated militia was one that had received “proper discipline and training,” then it would not exist until it had received that discipline and training.
In addition, I was surprised at Scalia’s lack of reliance on prior court decisions. Normally, I thought, a judge would attempt to justify his/her conclusion by cautiously explaining how it is consistent with, or only a slight extension of, what has previously been decided. I realized that the high court might not have decided many cases on the Second Amendment in recent years, but surely there were numerous decisions, rendered by judges in American appellate courts, that had grappled with similar issues. My understanding was that a judge would ordinarily be inclined not to depart too far from settled law that would tend to command respect. I did not investigate this point at length, but a search led to articles in the New York Times and the ABA Journal (Liptak, 2010; Weiss, 2010) on the growing length of Supreme Court decisions; a Yale Law Journal article (Whalen, 2015) finding that “legal writing at the Court has become more complex and difficult to read in recent decades”; a criticism by Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner of what he called the “bullshit” in recent Supreme Court opinions (Mahoney, 2013); and a Gallup poll (2015) noting that public disapproval of the Court has reached a record high. Scalia seemed likely to provoke public disrespect of his judging style, and of the Court as a whole, when he chose to base his conclusions on his personal reading of historical texts, largely ignoring precedents until his mind was made up, to see whether any of them “forecloses the conclusions we have [already] reached.” He apparently considered this approach necessary to circumvent precedents he didn’t like, but the point remains: what’s to keep some later judge from doing the same thing in the opposite direction? What this approach is really about, it seems, is a rejection of judicial caution.
Justice Scalia acknowledged that, “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” He further agreed that, even under his interpretation, “the Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear . . . only arms that ‘have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.'” Those arms, he said, would have to be of a type “typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes,” since this would be most compatible with the founders’ image of a citizen-militiaman who would arrive at the militia staging ground with weapons brought from home. He noted that Congress had permissibly banned machine guns and sawed-off shotguns (in the National Firearms Act of 1934): these did not meet the “lawful purposes” requirement. Similarly, it seems that weapons would not have a “reasonable relationship” to the militia’s “efficiency” if they required many different kinds of ammunition that would somehow have to be resupplied in the heat of conflict, or if members of the militia showed up with more weapons than they could carry into battle, or if repair or maintenance of myriad weapon types would require nonstandard or mutually incompatible parts, tools, or techniques.
Scalia’s interpretation seemed to say that, if you want a constitutional right to carry a weapon suitable for militia service, it may have to be exactly this kind of rifle or that kind of handgun, so that your participation in the militia will be helpful to the militia’s purpose. If you want to use weapons for hunting birds or buffalo that would not be good for hunting people, or if for self-protection you prefer a handgun that requires complicated maintenance, that’s fine as long as the legislature allows it, but those variant types of weapons are not constitutionally protected. Under this interpretation of the Second Amendment, Congress could not flatly outlaw standard militia weapons, but Congress (as well as state and local governments) could outlaw everything else.
According to Wikipedia, Scalia takes an “originalist” approach to the Constitution. Originalism means that we, today, should be guided by either the original meaning or the original intent of a document. A focus on intent would seek to understand the thoughts of the person who wrote the document; a focus on meaning would seek to understand what the writer’s words would have meant to an ordinary person living at that time. There would be a difference if, for example, the writer was a scholar who was using words or ideas in a way that would differ from ordinary thought in his/her era. Wikipedia distinguishes originalism from a “living Constitution” approach, in which one seeks what the words of the Constitution mean under present conditions. A judge applying this approach might recognize that the original text can become outdated in some regards — that the Constitution’s original writers could not and did not anticipate many subsequent developments in American life and law, and that a pragmatic judge has no realistic alternative but to interpret the Constitution in ways that make sense for current purposes.
In Heller, Scalia’s originalism leads him to say, “It may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But . . . [this] cannot change our interpretation of the right.” In other words, if the framers of the Constitution could not anticipate bombers and tanks in the 18th century, too bad for a militia in the 21st century. That was a strange outcome. What would be the point of limiting a modern militia to weapons appropriate for home use, if the constitutional objective was indeed to confront a tyrant’s standing army?
The foregoing Wikipedia articles suggested that, from an originalist perspective, the solution was perhaps that the people of the United States need to amend their Constitution to incorporate 21st-century ideas. Yet the Constitution’s own amendment process has the same problem as the Second Amendment: what worked in the 18th century does not work very well in the 21st. Today, the process of amending the Constitution is inordinately difficult, and amendments are rare. Meanwhile, courts grapple every day with myriad constitutional issues. They have become, in effect, the practical amenders of the Constitution, reading its terms in sometimes novel ways to correct perceived errors — as Scalia did, ironically, with his interpretation of the Second Amendment in Heller.
By contrast, a living-Constitution interpretation could conclude that the idea of a militia does not even make sense anymore. In that case, the Second Amendment would become a mere historical footnote. The large majority of people would probably not notice or care — and perhaps, in the present era, that would amount to an informal ratification of the Amendment’s effective retirement. Scalia’s interpretation comes to very nearly the same thing, by construing the Amendment as authorization for a weak and disorganized rabble.
It appeared that Scalia had attempted to sit on two stools and had fallen between. If the mission is to create a militia that is up to the task of fighting against modern-day tyranny, then it should be organized as a ready but non-standing army, with members who are properly trained and armed. If such a militia needs weapons ill-suited for residential communities, then appropriate laws should arrange for their storage in a safe location within the community. What would not make sense would be an effort to impose 18th-century notions on the 21st century, by acting as though an effective militia could still get by with rifles and pistols. That sort of effort would merely put the Supreme Court out of touch with reality.
Similar thoughts seemed to apply to Scalia’s observation that past tyrants had suppressed political opponents, not only by taking away the people’s arms, but also by “enabling . . . a standing army.” Today’s U.S. Army is very much “a standing army.” If we are limited to an interpretation of the Constitution suitable for conditions of 200 years ago, then that Army should have been disbanded after World War II, regardless of nuclear or other weaponry in the Soviet Union or elsewhere. After all, according to Scalia, the militia “is useful in repelling invasions.”
Scalia said that handguns cannot be banned, as the disputed laws in the District of Columbia effectively did, because handguns of various kinds are at least theoretically compatible with the ideal of the citizen-soldier who would comprise the militia. To arrive at the militia staging ground with weapon in hand, the citizen was expected to be able to bring a weapon from home. Self-defense at home was a lawful purpose for having a weapon at home, so the Second Amendment would reject D.C.’s essential ban on most forms of gun ownership for most citizens. Within his interpretation of the Second Amendment, that made sense.
But what about the D.C. law that required authorized gun owners to keep their guns “unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device” most of the time? According to Scalia, “This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional.” That was an obvious overstatement. There would be nothing impossible about removing a trigger lock. The need to do so would merely introduce an extra delay. The delay could be crucial in some situations — if, for example, a burglar burst into one’s bedroom without warning. But it would be tolerable if one heard the burglar entering the house, or was warned by a door and window alarm system. Some might prioritize the belief that every second counts, and might thus wish to keep a loaded gun next to the bed. But others might feel that doing so would endanger the children who might find and play with that gun. Some gun owners might tend to be groggy when they awaken, or might be traumatized veterans whose first instinct is to shoot, without being entirely clear on whom they were shooting at. People might fear or believe a variety of things. But which of those scenarios or fears or beliefs are supported by data, and which are unrealistic?
Scalia offered, as an example, a scenario in which one’s handgun “can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police.” Having seen many movies, I could imagine that. But things rarely turn out as planned. I could just as easily imagine the cellphone’s battery being dead, the gun not being cocked and loaded, the person shooting but missing, the intruder sensing that the person is afraid to shoot and grabbing the weapon, or the intruder deciding to draw his/her own gun and shoot first. A person can imagine many things. I can imagine constructive uses of heroin. But, again, my imagination would hardly override the data as to what outcomes are most realistic and what laws are most practical. Such matters are for legislators and researchers to sort out — not for judges to decide on the basis of speculation about bedroom burglar scenes that they, themselves, have probably never experienced. If Scalia was indeed concerned about the will of the people as expressed in constitutional amendments, it did not make sense for him to be indifferent to the will of the people as expressed in laws passed by state and local governments.
I quickly looked over the dissenting opinion written by Justice Stevens in Heller, as well as the post-retirement opinion piece he published in the Washington Post (2014). I could not engage in what would be a book-length analysis of the lengthy debate over historical sources appearing in the opinions by Scalia and Stevens. I did notice, though, that the foregoing comments anticipated some of the things Stevens said, such as “Legislatures are in a far better position than judges to assess the wisdom of such rules and to evaluate the costs and benefits that rule changes can be expected to produce.” Scalia’s argument, he said, countermanded 200 years of jurisprudence in which state and local governments had enjoyed power to make decisions appropriate to their own diverse circumstances: “The city of Chicago, for example, faces a pressing challenge in combating criminal street gangs. Most rural areas do not.” Others agreed that Scalia had indeed imposed an interpretation preferred by gun owners but not previously supported in law.
As it turned out, the Heller case was not finished: subsequent litigation in that same case has focused on repeat efforts by the District of Columbia to regulate guns, with some provisions being struck down and some upheld by the lower courts. In a summary of the current state of the law, NYSBA (2015) concludes, “Even with much unsettled about the precise contours of the Second Amendment, we expect most forms of state and federal gun regulation likely will be upheld under the developing post-Heller case law, although the Supreme Court could fundamentally change the law in future cases.”
The Dangers of Guns
A person reviewing the Heller opinions might ask whether the U.S. really needed gun control laws like those at issue in that case. This seemed to include a question of whether guns posed a recognizable danger in American life. I believed they did, but now it seemed I should get some sense of what researchers have concluded.
Having looked at the NRA’s website (above) in favor of gun ownership, it seemed appropriate to look at a leading gun control organization regarding gun dangers. Unfortunately, while the NRA seemed dominant among pro-gun organizations, there seemed to be several well-known gun control entities. These included the Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety (formerly Mayors Against Illegal Guns), the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV), the Violence Policy Center, and Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS).
I paged through those organizations’ websites, looking especially for comprehensive and reasonable data and analysis. The links provided in the previous paragraph are those that I followed to find the webpages that seemed most clearly intended to provide that sort of information. In my brief look at those webpages, it appeared that the ARS and Brady sites did not provide much basic data in a form I could analyze. The CSGV site seemed most comparable to the NRA site: it displayed bombast (e.g., “NRA-drafted laws are turning 3,000 years of jurisprudence on its head”) and drama (e.g., “The truth, however, is far darker . . .”). I was impressed by the filtering technology on the Everytown page, but it seemed I would need a specific issue (e.g., “Guns in Public Places”) to find my way through what seemed to be a mountain of documentation. Finally, it appeared that the Violence Policy Center was misnamed: its list of links “For More Information” seemed more specifically oriented toward gun violence victimization of various subgroups (e.g., women, youth).
For a more comprehensive statement of findings from gun research, I returned to the NYSBA (2015, pp. 1-11) report. It provided numerous citations to support the following conclusions:
- From 2001 to 2010, nearly a million (i.e., 1 out of every 314) Americans were struck by bullets and either killed or wounded.
- Over 30,000 people die from gunshot wounds each year in the United States. Another 66,000 to 78,000 are shot but do not die from their wounds. Many who survive suffer life-altering injuries.
- Guns are responsible for two-thirds of all homicides in the U.S.
- At least 95% of firearm homicides are committed by people who are not suffering from mental illness.
- U.S. gun homicide rates are strikingly higher than in countries considered to be America’s economic counterparts: eight times greater overall, and seventy times higher than in high-income Asian countries.
- Suicides represent nearly two-thirds (i.e., nearly 20,000 out of the approximately 30,000) of all shooting deaths each year.
- Gunshot victims are overwhelmingly male.
- An African American male is nine times more likely to be shot to death than a white male.
- A white male is ten times more likely than a black male to kill himself with a gun.
- The female homicide rate in the U.S. is 11 times higher than in 24 other high-income countries. In those 25 countries, American women account for only 32% of the female population, but 84% of all female firearm homicides.
- Total estimated costs of gunshot deaths and injuries in the U.S. were estimated at $174 billion in 2010.
The BBC (2016) reported that more Americans died from guns, between 1968 and 2011, than in all wars ever fought by the U.S. Between 2001 and 2011, the average annual number of gun homicides was said to be 11,385.
The NYSBA report (p. 99) indicated that, to some extent, information on gun ownership was not available because Congress has significantly impeded the collection and analysis of gun data. But I did recall seeing references to research on whether intruders are the ones who get shot, as anticipated in Scalia’s scenario. A search led to various sources (e.g., Shermer, 2013; Odison, 2011; New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, n.d.; DeFilippis & Hughes, 2015) that pointed toward research reports by numerous sources, including Wiebe (2003); Hemenway et al. (2000, 2002, 2004) and his employer, the Harvard School of Public Health (n.d.); and Kellermann et al. (1992, 1998). A number of studies were summarized by Hemenway (2011), from which we have these excerpts:
The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes. . . . [T]here is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in. . . .
The typical resident from the 15 states with the most guns . . . was 6 times more likely to die in a gun accident than a typical resident from the 6 states with the fewest guns . . . . For every fatality from an accidental shooting, there are more than 10 people injured seriously enough in gun accidents to be treated in hospital emergency departments. . . . Injuries often occurred during fairly routine gun handling . . . . When 34 injury prevention experts were asked to prioritize home injury hazards for young children, based on frequency, severity, and preventability of the injury, the experts rated access to firearms in the home as the most significant hazard. . . . [Hemenway cites the American Academy of Pediatrics for its strong stance against firearms in the home.]
[M]ore Americans kill themselves with guns than with all other methods combined. . . . Many suicides appear to be impulsive acts. Individuals who take their own lives often do so when confronting a severe but temporary crisis. In a study of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, which would have been fatal without emergency treatment, none of the 30 attempters had written a suicide note, and more than half reported having suicidal thoughts for less than 24 hours. In 2 years of follow-up, none of the 30 attempted suicide again. . . . [For most,] the risk period is transient. Reducing the availability of commonly used and lethal instruments during this period can prevent suicide. . . . Having any gun in the home is a risk factor for suicide for everyone in the home . . . . but especially for adolescents and young adults. . . . [Studies] typically find a strong significant positive association between levels of gun ownership and rates of suicide . . . .
The overall homicide rate of our youth aged 15 to 24 years is 14 times higher than the overall homicide rate for youth in other countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In US states with more guns, many more children, adolescents, young adults, older adults, and women are murdered per capita than in states with fewer guns.
The presence of a gun makes quarrels, disputes, assaults, and robberies more deadly. Many murders are committed in a moment of rage. . . . Only a small minority of homicides appear to be the carefully planned acts of individuals with a single-minded intention to kill. . . . [Studies indicate] that a gun in the home is a risk factor for homicide in the home. . . .
[T]here does not seem to be credible evidence that higher levels of gun ownership and availability actually deter crime. . . . An international compilation of victimization surveys in 11 developed countries found that the United States (with the most guns) was average in terms of attempted and completed burglary rates, and there was no relationship between gun prevalence and burglary rates. Studies in the United States across states and counties found that in areas with higher levels of household gun ownership, there were actually more burglaries, and there were more burglaries when someone was at home, not less. One reason may be that guns, like cash and jewelry, are attractive loot for burglars, and burglars may target houses with many guns. . . .
Unfortunately, data on self-defense gun use are not reliable. . . . For example, criminals who use a gun commonly claim that they were acting in self-defense. . . . One study examined Atlanta police department reports of home invasions during a 4-month period. . . . In only 3 cases (1.5%) was a victim able to use a firearm in self-defense. . . . [Other surveys have found that] more people report a self-defense gun use against an animal (eg, snakes, dogs) than against a human; . . . there are far more illegal gun uses against people than self-reported self-defense uses by them; most reported self-defense gun uses do not occur at home, and relatively few protect children . . . .
[In one study], criminal court judges from across the United States read . . . descriptions of the reported self-defense firearm uses from 2 national surveys and found that, even if description of the event [provided by the person claiming self-defense] was accurate, in most of the cases, the self-defense gun use was probably illegal. Many were arguments that escalated into gun use. . . . National Crime Victimization Surveys (NCVS) . . . suggest that legitimate self-defense use is very rare . . . [but also] that self-defense gun use may be the best method for preventing property loss . . . . Overall, the limited data on self-defense gun use . . . does not indicate that having a gun reduces the risk of being a victim of a crime or that having a gun reduces the risk of injury during the commission of a crime. . . .
Various studies have examined who typically gets shot by a gun in the home. . . . [Relatively small studies suggest that] for every self-defense homicide involving a firearm kept in the home, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides, and 37 firearm suicides . . . [and that] home guns were 4 times more likely to be involved in an accident, 7 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault or homicide, and 11 times more likely to be used in an attempted or completed suicide than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense. . . .
Justice Scalia evidently believed more strongly in his own visualization of possible crime scenes than in the realities presented by cold-eyed research — such as that of Kellermann et al. (1995), who had already studied 198 cases of unwanted entry into an occupied home. In that study, Kellermann had found that, “Although firearms are often kept in the home for protection, they are rarely used for this purpose” (see also Planty and Truman, 2013, p. 12).
There was, to be sure, the story of the homeowner who killed an intruder and was thus believed to have “saved his sleeping children from danger” (Chumley, 2013), and of the 14-year-old boy who shot an armed intruder into his home (Nance, 2012). There were websites and organizations (e.g., Secrets of Survival; USA Carry; Doomsday Preppers) that seemed (sometimes for profit) to use the claim, reportedly made by NRA’s executive vice president Wayne LaPierre but not featured on NRA’s website, that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” There was the claim that “firearms are used over two million times a year” for personal protection — a claim that, again, appeared previously but no longer on the NRA Publications website. In support, Leshner et al. (2013, pp. 15-16) said, “Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence,” and cited several older studies finding “consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.” But Leshner et al. also acknowledged that “keeping a gun in the home or carrying a gun in public . . . [may raise risks that] could cancel or outweigh the beneficial effects of defensive gun use.”
Other anecdotes ran in the opposite direction, and seemed far more numerous. For example, there was the homeowner who faces the death penalty for shooting unidentified people who were invading his home, who turned out to be police officers conducting a drug raid (Fairbanks, 2014); the gun owner who killed a 19-year-old girl who was knocking on his door to ask for help after a car accident, and another who shot his wife in her own kitchen in the dark, thinking she was an intruder (DeFilippis & Hughes, 2015); the five-year-old boy who was given a rifle as a gift and, while playing, used it to kill his two-year-old sister (U.S. News, 2013); the Japanese exchange student who was shot and killed when he went into the wrong home by accident (Wikipedia); and horrific stories of the damage done in the life of a woman who survived being shot (Follman et al., n.d.). Other sources discussed the number of things to take into account before shooting (Peacekeeper) and the potentially fine line between self-defense and a murder conviction for the handgun user in real-world crisis situations (Shooting the Bull). Still more stories were available from Everytown’s #NotAnAccident Index page, which shows specific case information on children who have been killed by handguns that were not properly stored. For more than a year, ending in June 2014, Joe Nocera’s Gun Report apparently provided daily writeups of gun violence. Starting in 2016, Gun Violence Archive seems to be trying to provide details for each incident of gun violence in the U.S.
It appeared, at this point, that Justice Scalia’s speculation about what might happen in real-life gun use situations was simplistic — evidently more informed by Hollywood, or by other sources of myth and fear, than by any serious wrestling with real-life possibilities. It seemed that a person with common sense might really only need to know two things — that guns are designed to be lethal, and that things can go wrong in many unexpected ways — to conclude that the foregoing researchers (and those hundreds of thousands of personal gun tragedies, stretching back a half-century and more) are probably on the side of truth, in the question of whether guns are dangerous.
The Weapons Effect and
Stand Your Ground Laws
The foregoing discussion of the dangers of guns led to a more psychological kind of danger. It seemed that the mere presence of guns, like merely thinking about money, tended to increase aggression. Research into this weapons effect identified a variety of interesting associations. For example:
- Drivers following a vehicle with a gun visible in a rifle rack were more likely to honk in response to an excessive delay at a stop light (even though honking at a visibly armed stranger might not be the smartest thing to do);
- Drivers with guns in their cars were more likely to drive aggressively;
- People who were angered by a research confederate tended to administer more extreme electric shocks in punishment when guns were on the table than when badminton racquets were on the table;
- Individuals possessing a gun were found to be 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than individuals not possessing a gun, apparently due to a false sense of empowerment, an increased tendency to enter into unsafe environments, or introduction of a gun into an otherwise gunless conflict; and
- Study participants holding a gun were more likely to think another person was holding a gun than were study participants holding a neutral object (Bushman, 2013 & 2016; Branas et al., 2009; Witt & Brockmole, 2012; Yuhas, 2015; Lurie, 2015).
(I did not explore the separate, but equally interesting, theory of violence as a contagion; see e.g., Swanson, 2015.)
The weapons effect theory seemed to support the view that gun ownership is like anything else that confers power upon a person. Power tends to corrupt, and yet a person wants more of it. For instance, the honorable ideal of using lethal force to defend one’s nation — what one might have thought was the purpose of an Amendment that connects “the right to keep and bear arms” with “a well regulated militia” — grows into the claim of a right to use lethal force to defend one’s family — and, sometimes, one’s right not to be irritated.
That last phrase refers to “stand your ground” laws in which an individual located in any place where s/he has a right to be is not obliged to retreat before using deadly force, as long as s/he reasonably believed s/he or someone else faced physical attack (possibly involving nothing more than raising a fist). (Situations inside the home appeared instead to be governed by the separate Castle Doctrine.) According to Wikipedia, Florida — the site of the notorious Trayvon Martin shooting — illustrated a key problem with stand-your-ground laws:
Florida’s law makes it very difficult to prosecute cases against individuals who shoot others and then claim self-defense. The shooter can argue that he felt threatened, and in most cases, the only witness who could have argued otherwise is the deceased.
While I appreciated the idea that I, not a boxer, would not have to stand and be beaten by a stronger adversary, I was concerned about “stand your ground” extremes that might work to the disadvantage of a person like me. ProPublica (Lee, 2012) offered the story of a man who went out of his house to shoot and kill two men whom he correctly believed were robbing a neighbor’s house. But in that example, ProPublica appeared to be mistaken. The New York Times (Ellick, 2008) reports that the shooter was not charged, not because of a stand-your-ground law, but rather because state law permitted use of deadly force when “the other is fleeing immediately after committing burglary.” I had no patience for burglars, but I also had to hope that nobody would shoot me in the mistaken belief that I was one. Investigation of another ProPublica case yielded a similar conclusion that, in that case, the shooter’s reaction was questionable but not completely unreasonable, given aggressive behavior by the person who was shot.
The Huffington Post (Sonner, 2015) offered more convincing stories that appeared to amount to outright murders, committed in reliance on Nevada’s stand-your-ground law, but those were tending to result in prosecutions and convictions. There appeared to be considerable risk of killings, and a not inconsiderable risk of prosecution, based on overly aggressive lay interpretations of stand-your-ground laws.
According to Everytown.org (2013), justified homicides increased by 53% in states that passed stand-your-ground laws, in contrast to a 5% decrease in other states. Having made that horrific investment, however, I wondered whether the difference would diminish in subsequent years, along with other crimes — whether, that is, such laws would bring about a change toward a less aggressive culture. I doubted it, given the “weapons effect” theory and the Everytown indication that a number of states had decided to scale back their stand-your-ground laws. It seemed that, as just suggested, such laws would instead continue to facilitate the murder of carefully framed adversaries. This was one of the concerns voiced by the American Bar Association (2015), whose report urging repeal of such laws found no reduction in other kinds of crimes. Florida, however, appeared determined to forge onwards. A New York Times (2015) editorial reported that the state was preparing a law that would eliminate the need for shooters to prove that they were in fear for their lives; instead, prosecutors would be required to prove that they were not.
More Guns = Less Crime?
While looking into what people thought would happen if guns were present in a given situation, I encountered John Lott’s (2013) book, More Guns, Less Crime (available in free download). His message, as stated in that book’s overview (pp. 19-20), was that
Allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns reduces violent crimes, and the reductions coincide very closely with the number of concealed handgun permits issued. . . . Accident and suicide rates were unaltered by the presence of concealed handguns. . . . I find no crime-reduction benefits from state-mandated waiting periods and background checks before people are allowed to purchase guns. At the federal level, the Brady law has proven to be no more effective. Surprisingly, there is also little benefit from training requirements or age restrictions for concealed-handgun permits.
Brady Law is shorthand for the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (a/k/a Brady Act or Brady Bill).
Badger (2015), writing in the Washington Post, took issue with Lott’s claim (which Lott had been presenting since at least 1997) that reductions in violent crime keep pace with increases in concealed handgun permits. Badger quoted Daniel Webster, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, for the view that Lott’s argument had been “completely discredited,” and for a pointer toward a study by Donohue et al. (2012). Donohue’s study found (a) aggravated assault rates rise dramatically when right-to-carry laws are adopted and (b) little to no consistent impact on any other category of crime.
As Badger suggests, the assaults found by Donohue et al. would presumably include not only the acts of gun-armed criminals but also misbehavior by newly armed and emboldened citizens who, without the gun, might not have gotten themselves into trouble. For instance, in a study of concealed handgun licensees in Texas, Phillips et al. (2013, p. 88) found that the older, predominantly white Texans who met licensing requirements (which, at the time, included a background check and hours of instruction) were much less likely to use guns to commit crimes than were the younger, often minority males who would be disproportionately likely to enter the criminal justice system, with or without guns. But when the older, white licensees did commit gun crimes, their crimes were much more likely to include sexual offenses, weapons offenses, deadly conduct, and intentional killing.
There was apparently a fair amount of research on Lott’s hypothesis that more guns means less crime. In a study of the effects of changes in gun licensing laws in four states, Phillips et al. (2015) concluded that there was no relationship between concealed-carry licensing and crime rates (see also McElroy & Wang, 2014; FactCheck.org). The Harvard Injury Control Research Center provided a webpage rejecting Lott’s view, citing several studies by Hemenway et al. DeFilippis and Hughes (n.d., n.d.) offered extensive and detailed rebuttals of Lott’s claim. For instance, regarding the argument that crime dropped in recent years just as the numbers of guns possessed rose dramatically, they pointed out that a person can use only so many guns — that, as noted above, the numbers of gun owners were not rising; it was just that those who had guns were buying more of them — so the numbers of guns owned would not significantly increase the numbers of potential crime situations in which someone with a gun was present.
If concealed carry of weapons reduced crime, one would expect that police would be greatly in favor of it. Along those lines, I encountered references to a PoliceOne survey of law enforcement officers. But as pointed out by FactCheck.org, the officers participating in the survey were not randomly selected. This means they did not represent police officers generally. They might have been notified or solicited to participate in the survey due to their membership on a certain mailing list (maintained by e.g., the NRA). Suspicions of a political agenda among the participating officers would be heightened by their answers to questions 14 and 15 on that survey. In response to those questions, a substantial majority of the selected officers approved the idea that law enforcement officers would simply refuse to enforce more restrictive gun laws in their jurisdictions (see Oath Keepers).
There was certainly an intuitive appeal to Lott’s theory. If a person with criminal intent fears s/he might get shot or at least herded to the police by a citizen carrying a gun, then the criminal will be deterred from committing a crime. The problem identified here is simply that careful research does not support that theory. The U.S. Department of Justice offers a flyer, “Five Things About Deterrence” (2014), that suggests why Lott’s theory would fail: those five things include reminders that the certainty of getting caught is important, whereas increasing the severity of punishment — right up to and including the death penalty — does not deter criminals.
Once again, as I continued this investigation, it appeared that common sense aligned with research: if you have more guns, you have more opportunities for things to go wrong — and this continues to be true when you take guns out of the home and into social interactions with other people. The U.S. is by far the world leader in privately held guns and, as one would expect, it is also by far the leader in homicides among industrialized nations (Donohue, 2015).
Guns Are Big Business
By one estimate, America’s firearms and ammunition industry creates more than 263,000 jobs — more than twice as many as General Motors employs in the U.S. — and generates about $43 billion in economic impact, producing very substantial tax revenues for governments in the process (National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), 2014; see Hall, 2013). Annual profits for primary gun merchants approach $1 billion, and NRA revenues exceed $200 million, as American gun owners acquire one-third of all guns in the entire world while comprising less than 1% of the world’s population (Kim, 2013). Meanwhile, firearm injuries cost the U.S. $174 billion in 2010 (see Miller, 2012). As Brasch (2015) puts it, mass murders have been good for the gun industry, in recent years, because each such event stokes fears of gun control, which stimulates gun lovers to head to the store and buy more before it’s too late.
According to Valentine (2013), NRA and NSSF together spend several million dollars each year on lobbying. NSSF represents gun and ammunition manufacturers and dealers, while NRA ostensibly represents individual gun owners. I say “ostensibly” because NRA frequently takes extreme actions and positions that do not appear to represent the views and preferences of most of its members. It has been suggested that this extremism has turned off ordinary gun owners to such an extent that perceived association with NRA now makes politicians less electable (Valentine 2013; Rosenwald, 2015). That may be. But Pew (2015) found that, while Republicans in 2015 were much less likely to feel (and only a small minority now felt) that NRA had too much influence over U.S. gun laws than in 2000, Democrats overwhelmingly think so. Similarly, Gallup (2015) finds that 77% of people identifying themselves as conservatives, 56% of moderates, and only 30% of liberals have a favorable view of NRA.
The other thing to note, in this bit on guns as big business, is that in 2005 Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), providing a great deal of immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers (SmartGunLaws, 2015; CSGV). So while people were able to sue Big Tobacco for some of the damage that it did to generations of Americans, gun buyers and local governments have very little opportunity to use the courts to compel gun manufacturers or dealers to take some share of the responsibility for adverse outcomes — for sales to inappropriate persons, for example (see Vice, n.d.; Vernick et al., 2007). Indeed, local governments are increasingly intimidated from passing laws to reduce gun violence (MacGillis, 2015).
I had heard various things about gun control in other countries — that it worked well, that it didn’t work at all. Before getting into details on different kinds of gun control proposals in the U.S., it made sense to find out whether there were indeed any success stories out there in the great beyond.
A key point in the pro-gun argument, in terms of international comparisons, seemed to be that some countries have strict gun control laws and yet have terrible levels of violence (e.g., O’Reilly, 2013). Examples included Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, and Venezuela. Throughout these countries, a key problem seemed to be that it was just too easy for criminals to obtain guns from abroad — especially in Mexico, where guns could flow in from the U.S., but in other countries as well (e.g., Norway). In some such countries, this appeared to be another way of saying the police were underfunded. Another Fox News page featured an article by John Lott, pointing out that some of the world’s worst mass shootings have occurred in Europe, despite strict gun control laws. But since mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction of gun deaths, I was more interested in a possible relationship between gun control and total gun homicides.
An article in Boston magazine referred to an analysis in Harvard’s Journal of Law and Public Policy by Kates and Mauser (2007). That analysis quoted Malcolm (2002) for the contention that, in comparing specific regions within England and the U.S., there is actually “a negative correlation” between gun possession and violent crime. That seemed to be Lott’s claim, and it seemed to me that this claim had not held up (above). The analysis quoted Kleck (1997) for the conclusion that “[T]here is no consistent positive association between gun ownership levels and violence rates.” But that ran against the many findings summarized by Hemenway (above), and Hemenway responded with a rebuttal of Kates and Mauser in 2009.
The claim that there is no clear correlation between levels of crime and gun ownership seemed inconsistent with the Fox News argument that countries like Mexico have a lot of violence precisely because their criminals can easily obtain guns. It seemed obvious that, if criminals can get guns, there will be more gun crime.
It was not hard to imagine why Mexico could have a lot of gun violence despite stringent gun control laws. Mexico’s police are notoriously bad. Transparency International’s (TI) Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) indicated that 42% of Americans, but 90% of Mexicans, felt that their police were corrupt. (See also Wikipedia.) Gun control laws would probably make little difference if the nation’s so-called law enforcement system was not actually willing and able to enforce those laws.
That made me wonder whether levels of gun violence in the U.S. were perhaps comparable to those in other countries with comparable levels of police corruption. I downloaded TI’s GCB data and sorted by the Police column for their Question 6 (Perceptions of Corruption, by Institution). I looked for other nations, with lifestyles relatively similar to that of the U.S., whose people evaluated their own police forces similarly. Within a range of 5% either way (i.e., rated corrupt by 37% to 47% of the nation’s population), the list (and, parenthetically, their annual rates of firearm homicides per 100,000) included Spain (0.15), Hungary (0.10), Portugal (0.48), Turkey (0.79), Slovenia (0.05), Belgium (0.33), France (0.19), U.S. (3.59), Latvia (0.18), and Uruguay (3.43). (The data came from GunPolicy.org, at the pages linked in the preceding sentence. Data were for 2010, the most recent year for which all of these nations had data; 2011 for Uruguay; see also Wikipedia). But as I could see from the gun homicide rates just quoted, aside from Uruguay, these other nations whose levels of reported police corruption were close to that of the U.S. still had far fewer gun homicides than the U.S. Police corruption, and perhaps failure to enforce gun laws, did not seem to explain much of what was going on in the U.S.
Gun control advocates (e.g., DeFilippis, 2015); Greenberg, 2015) seemed inclined to compare the U.S. against other advanced nations. DeFilippis suggested that the comparison be limited to members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with a per capita gross national income (GNI) of at least $12,616. In that sort of comparison, the U.S. fared very poorly. In 2011, for example, the U.S. had 3.55 firearm homicides per 100,000 people, while a country like Switzerland had only 0.28, or less than one-tenth as many. Japan typically experiences no more than a few dozen gun homicides in its entire population of 127 million — thanks to a historically based intolerance of guns that will not take hold in the U.S. anytime soon. But Japan is not alone: “The number of guns per capita per country [is] a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death” (Bangalore & Messerli, 2013); hence the U.S. has “far higher rates of firearm deaths – firearm homicides, firearm suicides, and unintentional firearm deaths – compared with other high-income countries” (Richardson & Hemenway, 2011). (Interestingly, though, Richardson and Hemenway concluded that the U.S. suicide rate was not out of line with other countries; the problem was just with homicides.)
The U.S. wasn’t just an outlier among advanced nations. As just shown, it had vastly worse gun homicide rates than Turkey, whose $10,830 GNI lay well below the cutoff suggested by DeFilippis. Indeed, Humanosphere (2015) said, “The U.S. has higher rates of homicides from guns than Pakistan. At 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people, the U.S. rates aren’t much lower than gun homicide rates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (5.2 deaths per 100,000 people). Annually, the U.S. has about two fewer gun homicide deaths per 100,000 people than Iraq.”
A New York Times editorial (2012) offered Australia as an example of an advanced nation that had “reacted quickly [against mass shootings] to impose new and stricter gun laws.” That response reportedly stopped the problem: there have apparently been few if any mass shootings since the law was passed. Hickey (2013) explains that Australia prohibited automatic and semi-automatic weapons, required background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases as well as proof of need for a gun (e.g., farmer, sport shooter), and started a gun buyback program. Donohue (2015) reports that the Australian murder rate has fallen to less than one-fourth that of the U.S. and that robberies occur at only about half the U.S. rate. Wikipedia and Malcolm (2012) reported that the evidence on the Australia experience was mixed. There did not seem to be any doubt that rates of gun-related crime had dropped; the doubt was whether the gun control measures were responsible for that reduction. Interestingly, though, Malcolm cited a report indicating that assaults and sexual assaults had increased dramatically during that same period. That posed the question of whether gun-related crimes would have risen too, if those gun control measures had not been in place.
The Times editorial cited Britain as another example of an advanced nation that took decisive and effective action to control guns in 1996. As in Australia, this action was taken after a mass shooting. The result, according to the Times, has been “a decline in murders involving firearms.” Hickey (2013) agreed that such measures were responsible for the fact that, except for 71 firearm homicides in 2000 and 61 in 2006, Britain has not seen more than 45 gun homicides in any year since 1996, in a population of 60 million (GunPolicy.org). Wilkinson (2013) says,
According to bare statistics, the ban initially appeared to have little impact, as the number of crimes involving guns in England and Wales rose heavily during the late 1990s to peak at 24,094 offenses in 2003/04. Since then the number has fallen in each year. . . . Criminologist Peter Squires said the real picture shows a slight but significant decline in the use of firearms . . . . “[T]he murder rate has fallen and all the indicators are moving in the right direction.” . . . [He] said he believed the fall in crimes where guns were used was due to new legislation coupled with better policing against gangs. . . . [W]hile tighter gun control removes risk on an incremental basis, significant numbers of weapons remain in Britain.”
Closer to home, Hickey (2013) noted that Canada lost only 173 people to gun homicide in 2009. In 2013, the total was 131, for a rate of 0.38 per 100,000 (GunPolicy.org) — about one-tenth the rate of the U.S., despite a relatively high rate of gun ownership. Hickey attributed the difference to various gun control measures (e.g., background check, bans on certain kinds of weapons) taken, again, in response to a mass shooting in 1989 (see Masters, 2016). But Wikipedia reported that several studies had failed to find that the gun control measures had been responsible for any difference in crime rates.
Collectively, these international comparisons seemed to indicate that it was not clear that gun control efforts had helped. But something was certainly helping in those other countries: gun homicides remained much higher in the U.S. As in Britain, the situation in the U.S. seemed to be that there are many guns; there will continue to be problems with gangs, as well as some evident denial of the dangers of guns; but gradual steps can be taken to reduce the risk of guns in the wrong hands, perhaps without too much unfair imposition on those who want guns for legitimate purposes.
Connecticut’s PTP Law
I wondered whether contrasting state laws on to gun control within the U.S. would demonstrate the superiority of one approach over another. For starters, I had encountered repeated references to a controversial gun law in Connecticut. According to an article by Rudolph et al. (2015), that “permit-to-purchase” (PTP) law strengthened background check requirements, raised the handgun purchasing age from 18 to 21, and required the would-be purchaser to apply for a permit in person with the local police and to complete at least eight hours of approved handgun safety training. Rudolph concluded that Connecticut’s PTP law was “associated with a subsequent reduction in homicide rates.”
In a Fox News article, Lott (2015) offered several criticisms of this study. Some of his criticisms made no sense. For example, he claimed that Rudolph et al. should have studied “all the state laws for all the years available.” There is no rule that researchers must study everything at once. The authors were clearly focusing on Connecticut, and that was reasonable. Likewise, it was not clear why Lott criticized Rudolph for a decision “to ignore other violent crimes.” Rudolph was reasonably focusing on homicide, which most people would consider the most serious form of gun damage.
Lott seemed to be saying that, if an article was going to be covered by numerous major media outlets and timed for publication on the very day when a new Handgun Purchaser Licensing Act was being introduced in Congress, then it would have provided better guidance if it had covered all of the states that had similar laws, and if it had examined the fact that Connecticut actually experienced rises in rates of robbery and aggravated assault after passage of its 1995 law. If those were the facts, then Lott had a point — and nobody was stopping him from conducting his own research along those lines. Rudolph’s CV indicated that she was a junior researcher who had just received her PhD in 2014. Even with coauthorship with Webster from Johns Hopkins, no doubt she would have welcomed funding for the kind of ambitious research that Lott proposed. It seemed reasonable to hope that Lott would use his influence in conservative circles to persuade Congress to renew such funding.
I did think that Lott was probably right about the politics — that Rudolph’s article was probably being used as the occasion for a major initiative on gun control efforts. I reached that conclusion, not because I found Lott’s rant persuasive, but because I discovered that an apparently broad faith-based project was indeed being timed for the day when Rudolph’s article was published. That initiative’s name — A Tale of Two States — was a reference to the contrast between the results in Connecticut and Missouri (below). I didn’t mind the use of research to promote a viewpoint or a cause. I did mind if the research was in some sense compromised or manipulated to serve a preconceived purpose.
Lott’s article complained that multiple media outlets failed “to ask another academic if they had any concerns about the [Rudolph] study” because “apparently it was too good of a story to bother with journalistic concerns about getting both sides.” But the article did seem to have been peer-reviewed, and it was published in the American Journal of Public Health, which appears to be an established journal with a solid reputation in its field, so it seems pretty clear that qualified academics were consulted prior to publication. It is true that academic peer review is not always as critical or intelligent as it should be, and that people of very different perspective are not always consulted. But based on what I was seeing in Lott’s own work here, it was not obvious to me that he would be an example of an academic who should have been consulted on the Rudolph article.
Bizarrely, one of the links provided in Lott’s Fox News essay led to a Fox Business article, which — he’s right — does not seem to have consulted other academics. But another one of Lott’s links led to a Huffington Post article (Lachman, 2015) that, contra Lott, did cite a critic who voiced some of the doubts expressed by Lott. Another of those linked sites (Timmer, 2015) offered an intelligent analysis of Rudolph’s technical approach. Still another linked article (Fritze, 2015) cited an NRA spokeswoman who explained why she “dismissed the study.” It appears, in short, that Lott’s accusation of failing to get “both sides” was false, and this would be obvious to Fox News readers who would bother to follow his links.
Lott incorrectly calculated that U.S. firearm homicides fell 27% in the 1995-2006 period; Planty and Truman (2013, p. 2) show that such homicides fell by only 18% in those years. Lott agreed that, as the study says, Connecticut experienced a drop of 40% in firearm homicides during the study period of 1996-2005. He correctly noted that the rate would have been significantly lower if, as he prefers, the authors had ended the study in 2006. But that appears to be the same cherry-picking of which he accuses Rudolph: the latter’s 40% drop would also have been obtained by extending the study period past a few years of higher rates around the start of the Great Recession, as shown in a Pew Research graph offered by Shaw (2015), showing the general trend for both Connecticut and the nation.
Like Lott, Shaw (2015) attempted to ridicule Rudolph’s statistical model without displaying a deep grasp of the relevant statistics — unlike others who did seem to offer educated reasons for suggesting specific improvements in Rudolph’s method (e.g., Timmer, 2015; Doherty, 2015). Shaw may have been correct in contending that, if Connecticut did experience an improvement greater than that experienced by the nation as a whole, it may have been due, at least in part, to an improved law enforcement effort. In any case, though, he appears to agree that, following passage of the PTP law, Connecticut definitely did not experience the upswing in firearm homicides that would have resulted if Lott’s “more guns = less crime” thesis (above) were correct.
The bottom line appears to be that Connecticut experienced a significant improvement in gun homicides during the period studied by Rudolph. That improvement may have been due mostly to the PTP law, or mostly to improved law enforcement, or to both. It would make no sense to ridicule or discard either of those elements without further experimentation in Connecticut and perhaps elsewhere. Doing so would risk additional gun deaths that might have been avoided. The criticisms by Lott et al. seemed to prioritize a gun rights agenda over actual reduction in homicides.
Missouri Repeals Background Check Law
I discovered that Webster et al. had done an earlier study, this time focusing on what happened when Missouri repealed its own PTP law in 2007. As with Connecticut, Lott offered a dissenting Fox News opinion piece (2014) that ridiculed major media outlets for their “breathless” embrace of Webster’s research.
Between the two, I found that Webster (2014, p. 294) provided a better history of the relevant laws. According to that history, from 1921 to 2007, Missouri required all would-be handgun purchasers to obtain a PTP license, valid for 30 days. The license required an in-person application at a local sheriff’s office, which would then facilitate a background check. There does not seem to have been a training requirement. Wikipedia and another site indicate that, in Missouri, it is illegal for a felon or person adjudged incompetent to possess a firearm, so presumably those would be two things the background check would look for.
Among states generally, according to Webster et al. (2009, p. 525), “comprehensive regulation and oversight of gun dealers and state regulation of private sales of handguns [are] each associated with significantly lower levels of intrastate gun trafficking.” “Associated” means that trafficking is lower in states with more gun regulation. It does not mean that researchers have proved that regulations cause a reduction in trafficking. As the saying goes, correlation is not causation. Researchers have merely noticed that the two seem to occur together. It is sort of like observing that Jason only seems to get into trouble when he “associates” with William: it may be tough to prove that William is the cause, but the repeated co-occurrence certainly raises questions. Proof of causation would require the researcher to eliminate competing explanations, and that can be difficult to do. A Martian, observing American behavior, might conclude that wearing shorts and T-shirts causes an increase in ice cream consumption, but that would be incorrect; both can actually be caused by rising outdoor temperatures. But if no such alternate factor is found, at some point such associations can become persuasive. In this case, until some better explanation comes along, it is reasonable to suspect that sensible gun regulations do cause a reduction in trafficking.
Webster et al. (2013, p. 112) studied what happened to trafficking when Missouri repealed its PTP license requirement effective August 28, 2007. To study this, they focused on guns that had been recovered by law enforcement in connection with a crime. They found that, prior to repeal, 44% of recovered guns used in crimes in Missouri had come from outside the state, but after repeal only 29% of those guns came from outside Missouri. In other words, with the laws that remained on the books, it seemed many criminals might still find it less noticeable, more convenient, or more affordable to buy from interstate traffickers, but after repeal criminals were about one-third more likely to buy in-state instead.
In addition, Webster et al. (2013) looked at “sale-to-crime intervals” for guns recovered by law enforcement — at, that is, the amount of time that elapsed between a gun’s last known sale date and the date when it was used in a crime. If criminals were able to obtain guns only by stealing them from law-abiding citizens, there would tend to be a long average sale-to-crime interval: people would typically have their guns for years before someone was able to steal them and use them in a crime. By contrast, if criminals could easily obtain guns by buying them shortly before committing a crime, the sale-to-crime interval might be only a few days, or even a few hours. Webster et al. found that, in Missouri, the frequency of short (i.e., less than three-month) sale-to-crime intervals tripled after repeal of the PTP law. Before repeal, only 2.8% of guns recovered after a crime had been sold within the previous three months. After repeal, that percentage was 8.5%. In this case, there was no similar, simultaneous national trend underway, as had occurred in Connecticut: “in fact, the average sale-to-crime interval increased nationally from 10.2 years in 2006 to 11.2 years in 2011” (p. 114). Webster (2014, p. 294) reported that these findings were consistent with other research showing that background checks and recordkeeping for handgun sales result in lower levels of diversion of guns to criminals within a year after sale, as well as in fewer guns exported to criminals across state borders.
Those studies focused on interstate gun trafficking. But according to Webster et al. (2013, p. 112), “Strong regulation and oversight . . . [is also] associated with 64% less diversion to criminals by in-state gun dealers” among states generally. Within Missouri in particular, Webster et al. (2014) found that repeal of the background check requirement was associated with a 23% rise in firearm homicides. If this association did indicate causation, then the repeal was responsible for about 70 additional Missouri firearm homicides per year (see Webster erratum).
Lott (2014) contended that the murder rate in Missouri had risen 32% in the five years prior to repeal, so a rise after repeal was not surprising; moreover, the rise in the five years after repeal was only 17%, suggesting that repeal had actually reduced the rise in homicide rates seen before repeal. DeFilippis (2014) replied that Lott’s claim was possible only because he cherry-picked one atypical year (2002) as his starting point; Webster had correctly identified the longer-term trend. In brief separate research, VerBruggen (2014) roughly confirmed Webster’s findings.
As in Connecticut, Lott faulted Webster et al. for focusing on just one state. A New York Times article (Tavernise, 2015) indicated, however, that Missouri is the only state in recent history that has eliminated background checks and permits for all handgun sales.
I had not previously appreciated the extent to which DeFilippis (2014) had extensively examined (and, it seemed, shredded) various assertions by Lott. But now that I had already done some of that labor myself, in the case of Connecticut (above), and had more of a sense of what the concepts and the outcomes might be, the work by DeFilippis did seem persuasive. In my own reading, it had seemed that Lott was unwilling or unable to differentiate between serious and frivolous objections. It seemed that he did not appreciate that his credibility would be damaged — that a thoughtful reader might cease to take him seriously, if he repeatedly appeared to be wasting the reader’s time.
In another related piece, Crifasi, Meyers, Vernick, and Webster (2015) found that, consistent with prior research, data supported an estimate of a 15% reduction in suicides in Connecticut after adoption of the PTP law and a 16% rise in suicides in Missouri after repeal of that state’s PTP law. In both cases, the changes in suicide rates were unlike patterns in suicide rates in other similar states. Here, again, correlation is not causation. But if further research and state experience did support these findings, adoption of PTP laws nationwide would prevent several thousand suicides per year.
So far, unfortunately, it appears this sort of research is not making an impression in Missouri. A CBS News article (Dahl, 2014) says that NRA pressure has resulted in the elimination of a law that would require gun owners to report a gun theft within 72 hours after noticing that the gun was missing. Tavernise (2015) says that Missouri has also recently lowered the age to carry a concealed weapon to 19. Tavernise’s article discusses the damage done to inner-city families and communities by endemic gun violence, and observes that the changes in laws have made it harder to prosecute gun crimes.
Massachusetts has a national reputation as a bastion of gun control, but crimes and injuries related to firearms have risen — sometimes dramatically — since the state passed a comprehensive package of gun laws in 1998. Murders committed with firearms have increased significantly, aggravated assaults and robberies involving guns have risen, and gunshot injuries are up, according to FBI and state data.
The Globe article went on to discuss certain factors that could explain that situation — factors that Lott did not examine carefully. For one thing, even with the rise in gun crimes (according to MacQuarrie, citing CDC data), Massachusetts continues to have the second-lowest rate of firearm homicides in the U.S. Firearm homicide rates in neighboring New Hampshire are reportedly double those of Massachusetts, and those in Maine are triple. In addition, MacQuarrie notes that some in Massachusetts blame rising gun crime on large cuts in police budgets and recession-related poverty.
Another factor identified in that Boston Globe article: guns from out of state. MacQuarrie pointed to a study conducted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG, now located at Everytown.org, 2010). That study found that ten states with lax gun laws supplied about half of all of the guns in the U.S. that crossed state lines, were used in crimes, and were then recovered by law enforcement personnel (p. 2). In the ten states with the lowest per capita rates of exporting firearms (including Massachusetts), 44% of recovered guns were imported from other states (p. 7). MacQuarrie cited unspecified data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) indicating that New Hampshire and Maine, neither of which required a permit to buy a gun, were the sources of nearly one-third of the recovered out-of-state guns. (See also Marans, 2015.)
What Lott did say on the matter was, “It is hard to see how the presence of these other states could cause Massachusetts’ murder rate to rise. Those states were there before the 1998 law and criminals could obtain their guns before the law.” These remarks seemed absurd. They implied that criminals would normally obtain guns years before using them. They did not explain why Massachusetts would have significantly lower homicide rates, when Lott’s “more guns = less crime” theory would suggest the opposite. They avoided the obvious possibility that reducing the availability of guns in New Hampshire and Maine might force criminals to go farther afield — with greater expense, difficulty, and risk — in order to bring guns into Massachusetts.
Having observed several claims that Lott is a great researcher with many published articles, it seemed appropriate to suggest that blog posts and non-research articles are fine for those of us who do not have access to research funds and literature sources — but that someone like Lott should be putting out his own peer-reviewed research on these issues, not just sitting back and taking poorly reasoned pot shots at those who are doing the hard social science work.
Variations in Gun Laws
By this point, I was becoming somewhat bored with the investigation. This happens, I find, when the opposing perspectives are not being well captured by the materials under review. There did not seem to be serious grounds to doubt, on the levels of either common sense or formal research, the value of laws designed to prevent bad people from getting guns, and to hinder good people from doing bad things (e.g., suicide) with guns. If the reasons for resisting such laws were based on anything more than profit, corruption, or unreasonableness on the part of gun manufacturers, dealers, organizations like the NRA, and proponents like John Lott, then it seemed I should be discovering what those reasons were.
As a step in that direction, I wanted to review the question of how gun laws differ from one state to another, and what difference those variations make. I had already gotten a sense of the latter question in my explorations of the laws and consequences in Connecticut, Missouri, and Massachusetts (above). But now I had come across a couple of sources that provided a bigger picture.
One of those sources was the study by MAIG (2010). Along with their inquiry into the states most responsible for interstate gun trafficking (above), they laid out a set of ten crucial gun laws. The ten states responsible for the most interstate gun trafficking, they said, had enacted (on average) only 1.6 of these ten laws, while the states least responsible for interstate trafficking had enacted 8.4 (p. 3). Those ten laws dealt with:
- State Criminal Penalties for Straw Purchasing;
- State Criminal Penalties for Falsifying Purchaser Information;
- State Criminal Penalties for Failing to Conduct Dealer Background Checks;
- Background Checks for All Handgun Sales at Gun Shows;
- Purchase Permits for All Handgun Sales;
- Local Law Enforcement Discretion to Approve or Deny Concealed Carry Permits;
- Gun Possession By Violent Misdemeanants;
- Reporting Lost or Stolen Guns to Law Enforcement;
- Local Control of Firearms Regulations; and
- State Inspection of Gun Dealers.
A straw purchaser is a person who buys a gun on behalf of another person, typically using his/her own name instead of the name of the person who will actually come to possess it.
MAIG indicated that there did exist federal laws on some of those ten points, but apparently there was slippage in federal enforcement. Regarding the first item on the list, for example, MAIG said (p. 11) that it is a felony under federal law to falsely state that one is the buyer of a gun, and yet states responsible for the most exporting of guns to other states were much less likely to criminalize straw purchasing. Similar concerns evidently arose for items 2 and 3 on the list, as well as the last item (p. 26), regarding state inspection of gun dealers. According to MAIG, ATF has a goal of inspecting every federally licensed gun dealer once every three years, to verify that they are keeping appropriate records and that their records match their actual gun inventory, but such dealers are presently being inspected only once every ten years, on average.
I found it problematic that there might be an absence of funding or inclination to pursue federal inspections and prosecutions that existing laws apparently did permit. In the spirit of parsimony (not to mention avoiding confusion), it seemed to me that a sensible response might be to decide who is going to prosecute such crimes, pass laws accordingly, and implement incentives and penalties that would stimulate the appropriate entity to do its job.
In other cases, according to MAIG, there was an absence of relevant federal law. This was the case for the fourth item on the list (above), regarding gun shows (p. 14). The issue was that, in states permitting a “gun show loophole,” private sellers who claim to sell guns only occasionally do not need to be licensed, and are thus exempt from running background checks. MAIG said that gun shows thus provide an easy way for convicted felons and people with serious mental illness to obtain guns. Crime guns are exported from gun show loophole states at nearly three times the rate of states without such a loophole. The export rate is even higher for states without a PTP requirement (item 5, above; p. 16). Such a requirement is considered especially intimidating to criminals and traffickers when the permit must be obtained from a law enforcement agency, and especially effective when it allows for enough time for a thorough background check.
MAIG exposed some complicated areas in which there appeared to be considerable disagreement among states. One was the issue of local law enforcement discretion to approve or deny concealed carry permits (item 6, above; p. 18). I did not think that I would want some local police officer deciding whether I could have a gun or not, if I wanted one; but I also understood that local law enforcement might be, as MAIG said, the best source of knowledge on a person’s misbehavior, at least in smaller towns.
I was rather surprised that, according to MAIG (item 7, above; p. 20), the large majority of states had no prohibitions against gun possession by any violent misdemeanant, including for example those convicted of misdemeanor assault. It seemed to me that perhaps a waiting period of a year, or some other limitation, might be appropriate. I was even more surprised that only seven states and the District of Columbia required gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to law enforcement (item 8, above; p. 22), and that only eight states gave cities and counties broad authority to regulate guns (item 9, above; p. 24). In other words, in the overwhelming majority of states, the law for the most remote county in a place like west Texas is also the law for a place like downtown Houston. This was obviously not what the mayors behind MAIG would prefer.
A second source I found interesting, in addition to MAIG, was the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (a/k/a SmartGunLaws.org). This website offered a map with information comparable to (but somewhat more detailed than) that provided in the MAIG report (p. 28), showing the gun laws in each state. Among other things, SmartGunLaws also provided a link to the Gun Law Scorecard, which showed in various ways the direct connections between strong gun laws and low death rates, as well as articles summarizing research on the use of guns for self-defense, describing background checks as the single biggest gap in U.S. gun laws, and attesting to the effectiveness of background checks.
Why People Approve of Background Checks
Among the various issues raised by gun control proponents like MAIG, SmartGunLaws.org, and CSGV, background checks seemed especially important. Background checks were among the gun control measures that other countries had implemented, in their largely successful efforts to minimize firearm homicides, and were key to the Connecticut and Missouri PTP laws (above).
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (Karberg et al., 2014) found that, from the start of the Brady Act in 1994 through 2012, federal, state, and local agencies had denied more than 2.4 million applications (1.6% of all applications) for firearms transfers or permits. The most prominent reasons for denial by the FBI were prior felony conviction (43%) and fugitive from justice status (19%). State denials were principally due to felony conviction (29%) or state law prohibition (21%). Other reasons for denial, under the Brady Act, included unlawful use of or addiction to a controlled substance, adjudication as a mental defective or commitment to a mental institution, illegal alien or nonimmigrant status, dishonorable discharge from the armed forces, renunciation of U.S. citizenship, restraining order, misdemeanor conviction of domestic violence, or being underage.
Gallup (2015) asked, “Would you favor or oppose a law which would require universal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. using a centralized database across all 50 states?” Those in favor: 86%. Those opposed: only 12%. Presumably survey participants understood that this would be a database of gun buyers. Other surveys (below) found that only a smaller majority favored a database of guns. I was not sure why those two sorts of databases would enjoy significantly different levels of support.
A poll by Pew Research Center (2015) concurred: 85% of Americans favor expanded background checks. An Everytown survey (2012) found that 74% of NRA members support requiring criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun. That survey also found that majorities of NRA members also favor requiring gun retailers to perform background checks on all employees, and granting concealed carry permits only to applicants who have completed gun safety training, only to applicants aged 21 or older, only to those who have no prior arrests for domestic violence, and not to those who have committed any violent misdemeanors.
In another poll, Gallup (2013) asked people to indicate which factors they considered most responsible for mass shootings in the U.S. Participants were able to select more than one response. The three factors cited, by at least one-third of participants, as bearing “a great deal” of blame for mass shootings were the mental health system (cited by 48% of participants), easy access to guns (40%), and drug use (37%). There were no major differences by political affiliation for two of those three factors. But only 22% of Republicans vs. 57% of Democrats placed a great deal of blame on easy access to guns. When I first saw those results, I interpreted them as meaning that Republicans believed that mass shooters would always be able to find guns somehow. Later, though, it occurred to me that some Republicans (such as those living out in the countryside) might consider gun availability to be a normal thing, like oxygen availability, and might thus see that question about “easy access” as somewhat silly.
It seemed, then, that Democrats and Republicans might favor background checks for somewhat different reasons. It seemed that the majority of people in both parties would want to screen out criminals and people with severe mental illness. Doing so would screen out some drug users as well. Background checks would thus address some of the factors considered most responsible for mass shootings, and perhaps for firearm homicides generally. Concerns of these kinds had been featured in many articles (e.g., CNN, 2013; Sanchez, 2015; Weiss, 2015).
But it was not clear that this sort of screening would satisfy the Democratic concern about easy access to guns. Democrats did not want more concealed weapons; they probably did not want more weapons at all. For them, the purpose of background checks was perhaps not merely to insure that guns would be held by responsible individuals; it was to reduce the number of individuals who would have guns. The intense concerns that motivated the District of Columbia to pass the gun restrictions at issue in Heller seemed to be on display in a Washington Post editorial (Ehrenfreund, 2016) opining that “confiscating Americans’ guns . . . is likely the only policy that would dramatically reduce gun violence in the United States.”
Background Checks: Limits on Effectiveness
Short of confiscation, there did appear to be measures that could make a difference. Given overwhelming public support and the evidence from Missouri, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, background checks seemed like a good place to start. It seemed, indeed, that background checks should long since have been the law of the land. So why weren’t they? The answer appeared to be that, even with the high and rising visibility of mass shootings, it has been possible for a small but determined and well-funded opposition, led by the NRA, to trump the desultory preference of the large majority (Clement, 2013; Rucker & O’Keefe, 2013; Bernstein, 2013; Pew, 2013).
In this setting, on January 4, 2016, President Obama’s WhiteHouse.gov released a Fact Sheet listing executive actions that he was planning to take in order to reduce gun violence. These included ATF background checks, at least for those “in the business of selling firearms”; hiring of 200 ATF agents and investigators; expanded efforts to prevent acquisition of firearms by people with severe mental illness; and research into smart gun technology. Obama followed this with a New York Times editorial on January 7. In response, NRA’s LaPierre challenged Obama to a debate on guns, FactCheck.org reviewed specifics, and Ehrenfreund (2016) stated that Obama’s plans would likely have only a modest impact.
Jacobs, a New York University professor interviewed by Davidson (2015), shed some light on Ehrenfreund’s reaction. According to Jacobs, “It’s very hard to find an initiative that is implementable and enforceable that would make any kind of an impact on gun crime.” In the case of background checks, he said,
I think that requiring background checks for all gun sales, period, would be a good idea in principle. The problem is implementing and enforcing such a system. There’s no universal registry of firearms, so if the police were to arrest somebody and try to prosecute whoever sold them their gun without the required check, there’s no way to verify who the seller was or when the sale took place. To have an effective system of regulating private sales you would need a registry, and the idea of a registry is an anathema to the gun owning community because they see a registration system as a precursor to a general confiscation—which it was in the U.K. and has been in other countries as well. . . .
Another problem with background checks is surveys of inmates show overwhelmingly that criminals obtain guns on the black market or the grey market. Almost no prison inmates say they went to a licensed dealer and filled out forms. And why would they? Even the lowest estimates show 30% of U.S. households own at least one firearm, making it very easy for someone banned from purchasing a gun to obtain one from a friend, family member, or fellow criminal who already has one.
In response to that last concern, I felt that the remarks from Britain (above) were relevant: it can take a while to drain the swamp, but you can at least make it more difficult for criminals to obtain guns illegally.
In his book, Can Gun Control Work? (2002), Jacobs identified cost as another problem. Gun control paperwork and databases are not free. Davidson (2015) notes, for example, that Canada has recently discontinued its program of registering rifles and shotguns, due partly to expense. Cost was also a factor in Printz v. U.S. (1997), where Justice Scalia, writing for a 5-4 majority, held that portions of the Brady Act were unconstitutional, insofar as they effectively drafted state police officers into enforcement of a federal law, giving the federal government an unconstitutional extension of its powers. This view was illustrated by the remarks of a sheriff from Val Verde County, Texas (Jacobs, p. 84), who said, “Congress can’t sit up there and tell this lowly little sheriff out here at the end of the world what to do.” Despite such complaints, though, Wikipedia says, “The vast majority of local and state law enforcement officials . . . were happy to comply with the background checks” required under the Brady Act.
Davidson (2015) also quotes Jacobs on the matter of using background checks to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill individuals:
It seems sensible to practically everybody that people who are extremely mentally ill are not reliable enough to be gun owners, but building a policy around that is more complicated than one might think. The federal law says that a person who has ever been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital or who has been found by a court to be mentally defective is prevented from buying a firearm, but that would disqualify a very small number of people.
If we wanted to move beyond this, we’d have to expand the definition of who is mentally ill—no easy task—and even if we did, the government has had a difficult time getting mental illness data on individuals because many in the mental health treatment community strongly oppose these types of controls. They believe mental disqualifications are stigmatizing, that they would deter people from seeking treatment, and that they are detrimental to the therapeutic relationship. As a result, there’s been strong opposition from these groups when more aggressive laws on guns and mental illness are proposed.
Others have expressed concern about the potential invasion of medical privacy entailed in disclosure of relevant mental health records to the people who are reviewing gun permit applications. The conclusion advanced by Jacobs — to some, a disturbing conclusion — was that “we should be talking in terms of crime control rather than trying keep irresponsible and dangerous people from getting a weapon in the first place.”
Various sources have suggested other measures, in addition to those already discussed (e.g., CBS News, 2015; Washington Post, 2015; CSGV). These include banning assault rifles, banning high-capacity magazines (i.e., clips that can hold large numbers of bullets), microstamping, and promoting smart guns that can detect the owner’s fingerprint. There have also been discussions of outright bans on handguns.
To take the first of those, the discussion on assault rifles appears to be somewhat confused. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines them as “any of various automatic or semiautomatic rifles with large capacity magazines designed for military use.” An automatic weapon is basically a machine gun: just squeeze the trigger and many bullets come out, one after another. A semiautomatic weapon is a single-shot weapon, but one that does not require cocking, pumping, sliding of a bolt, or other user intervention: it fires one bullet per trigger squeeze, for as long as the user keeps re-squeezing the trigger, until the magazine is empty. Some guns offer a burst fire capability that allows several bullets to be fired with each trigger pull. Wikipedia offers an expanded definition of “assault rifle” that requires the weapon to be fully automatic, and also requires the weapon to use intermediate-power cartridges (i.e., more powerful than those of a pistol but less powerful than those of a standard rifle), with detachable magazine. The requirement that the cartridges be more powerful than those of a pistol is dubious. That Wikipedia entry also suggests that assault weapons are different from assault rifles, but notes that there have been varied definitions.
There seems to be no pressing need for further legislation against fully automatic weapons, which continue to be closely monitored under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) (as do silencers and grenades; see also Title II weapons). The contemporary concern is strictly with semiautomatic weapons. In at least some cases, semiautomatic weapons can easily be converted to fully automatic firing, but this is not necessary: even the ability to quickly fire one bullet after another, with no more than a trigger squeeze, and to quickly replace empty magazines with full ones, makes the semiautomatic rifle capable of doing a lot of damage in a short time. As various sources (e.g., NSSF) have pointed out, various cosmetic features of assault weapons (e.g., folding stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, flash suppressor, grenade launcher) add little to lethality. In other words, an assault weapon tends to be more lethal than an ordinary semiautomatic rifle primarily if it differs in offering a detachable magazine, and less lethal if it uses a smaller cartridge. Since such weapons lack full automatic capability suitable for military assault, firearm owners seem justified in preferring to call these weapons “tactical” or “modern sporting” rifles (see Goode, 2013).
Assault weapons were banned under the Brady Act, from 1994 until that ban expired in 2004. The Huffington Post (Sugarmann, 2015) contends that they should be banned once again (see also CSGV). Unfortunately, such claims sometimes display ignorance of some of the points just expressed (regarding e.g., legality of automatic weapons). According to Wikipedia, multiple studies have concluded that the Brady ban had little effect upon violent crime rates. Shaw (2015) points out that, for example, FBI data indicate that rifles of all kinds were responsible for only 323 of the 12,664 murders committed in 2011 — considerably less than the number murdered with blunt objects. According to Follman et al. (2015), handguns are much more common than rifles in mass shooting situations (see Sullum, 2015). In place of a focus on assault rifles, Beckett (2014) observes that (contrary to the advice of Jacobs, above), some (perhaps most) gun control organizations are now focusing on background checks and other ways of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Beckett suggests that widespread misunderstanding of assault rifles and gun violence statistics may be responsible for the 2014 poll finding that 59% of Americans still want to ban assault weapons (Rasmussen, 2014). Pew (2015) indicates that such sentiments have been falling fairly steadily since 1994.
Beckett (2014) says the Brady Act banned magazines (a/k/a clips) holding more than 10 rounds (i.e., bullet cartridges), based on research finding that high-capacity magazines (HCMs) had been used in about one-quarter of gun crimes. The rationale for such a ban is probably clearest in the case of mass shootings, where the need to stop shooting to reload has sometimes provided a life-saving opportunity for potential victims to flee or subdue the shooter.
Since 1980, Violence Policy Center (2015) attributes a total of 436 homicides, in at least 50 mass shootings, to the use of HCMs, while Blumenthal (2013) found HCMs in half of 62 mass shootings, and U.S. News & World Report says HCMs “have been used in every mass shooting in recent history.” According to Wikipedia, such a ban, found in eight states and at least eleven cities, would apply to handguns as well as to rifles because most pistols hold 10 to 17 rounds.
McCarthy (2013), participating in a debate on that U.S. News webpage, rejects the claim that criminals can and will circumvent the law: she contends that mass shooters tend to use only the weapons that they can acquire “legally and easily.” As Yablon (2015) observes, “only the most rigid gun-rights advocates” are likely to oppose a ban on 100-round drums.
Hoffman (2013), also participating in that U.S. News debate, suggests that “high capacity” should be defined as what exceeds standard equipment: more than 30 rounds for rifles, and more than 17 for handguns. Bendory (2011) suggests that gun owners should want “whatever cops choose to carry” — if not more, as police are rarely on the front lines in, for example, the riot situation where one might need to protect oneself and one’s property against a pack of would-be attackers. Hoffman, meaning to argue in favor of those larger (e.g., 17-round) magazines, offers the counterexample of a mother who was able to repel her attacker by shooting all six bullets in her revolver, hitting him five times and (understandably) persuading him to flee.
In that same U.S. News debate, Pratt (2013) claims that any limit on gun magazines means “threatening all of our God-given rights.” Like Hoffman, Pratt offers a counterexample, involving a mass shooting incident where one of “the good guys” was able to end the attack with ten rounds, which Wikipedia identifies as being at or below the threshold set in most HCM bans. Pratt also cites a New Orleans firefight, following Hurricane Katrina, where neighborhood defenders shot more than two dozen times.
I could appreciate that a person in a scary situation might want to be able to just keep shooting until anyone who looks threatening is lying dead on the ground. Even in military situations, however, friendly fire incidents demonstrate that that urge can be extremely counterproductive. In Pratt’s New Orleans scenario, there would be no telling where all those bullets were flying, or how many bystanders could get shot. It could be for the best that the good guys might find themselves compelled to pause to change magazines — even if for only three seconds, using Hoffman’s estimate (see also Illinois Tactical Blog, 2013). True, the fleeing homeowner might not have been able to grab spare loaded magazines before the fight began. But that may be another way of saying that the attacker usually has the luxury of choosing key terms of engagement. If we are to be steered by rare and romantic scenarios, we could just as easily recognize that the individual who stands alone against well-armed gang-bangers is not likely to stand very long.
It seemed to me that the New Orleans anecdote made a different point: a widely understood and supported community self-defense effort would be vastly superior in multiple ways. I had seen multiple references to the arrangement in Switzerland, where there is no standing army — where, instead, “virtually every male is conscripted into the militia where they receive comprehensive weapons training” (Parton, 2015). But the Swiss perspective was evidently captured, not by an apparently flawed contrast against Honduras (which reportedly has high gun control and high crime), but rather in the statement, “The gun is not given to me to protect me or my family. I have been given this gun by my country to serve my country.” When it comes to the situation where one person feels the need to fire dozens of rounds in order to fight off a gang or a riot, the real question is, why do you have to be Rambo? Where are all the other good guys? And part of the answer to that may be that gun extremists are pretty much turning off the neighbors who might support a more moderate and shared responsibility.
Pew (2013) found that Americans favor a ban on HCMs by 54% to 42%. There did not seem to be a specification of what would count as “high-capacity.” I was also not sure what the long-term trend in that opinion might be. The Center for American Progress (Omero, et al., 2013) cited nine different polls on HCMs — which, after discarding the highest and lowest result, seemed to indicate that Pew’s finding was at the lower end of the range. At the upper end, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found 65% in favor of such a ban. That article also suggested that female support for such a ban runs about 15% higher than male support (and likewise for an assault weapon ban).
My sense at this point was that there was little reason to oppose a ban on at least the relatively large capacities mentioned by Hoffman: 30 (or fewer) rounds for rifles, 17 rounds for handguns. It seemed to me that such a ban should be accompanied by a repeal of relevant provisions of the PLCAA, making manufacturers of large magazines liable for damages traceable to their seemingly excess capacities. This view seemed consistent with the foregoing contention that shooters tend to use whatever guns are legally and/or easily available, and with the impression that the person buying a 90- or 100-round magazine might tend to be a gang member or some other individual who expects that s/he may want to shoot a large number of people.
Microstamping is a technology by which the gun that fires a bullet imprints its identifying code onto each shell that it fires. To be clear, this is not the same as ballistics investigations that seek to match recovered bullets (from e.g., the body of a victim) with the gun that fired them. That process of bullet identification compares scratches in the lead bullet with the rifling of a gun barrel (i.e., grooves that make a bullet spin as it flies through the air, so as to help it maintain a more accurate flight path). Rifling can vary, not only from one gun manufacturer to another, but also among similar guns from the same manufacturer. Ballistics investigations are aided by various kinds of tests and by databases containing detailed information on, among other things, bullets found at crime scenes and the capabilities of various kinds of bullets. This sort of investigation obviously requires expertise as well as recovery of bullets fired from the gun (which is unlikely if the bullets fly off into the distance, rather than becoming embedded in something or someone nearby).
Microstamping offers a much simpler form of identification. The (usually brass) cartridge that one loads into a gun typically contains the lead bullet and the gunpowder whose explosion will propel that bullet. Brass, which is softer than steel, is relatively susceptible of being marked by impact. In microstamping, according to Wikipedia, the gun is designed to place microscopic, laser-cut markings on the brass cartridge at the moment when the bullet is fired. So the bullet is fired and the cartridge is ejected. At crime scenes, especially, the cartridges are not usually picked up by the shooter. Cartridges recovered by police can thus demonstrate that a specific gun appears to have been at that location. Investigation can then focus on the question of who would have had access to that gun or its spent cartridges.
SmartGunLaws.org (2013) says that, in addition to aiding in crime investigation, microstamping discourages gun trafficking, because the microscopic code facilitates tracing back to the gun’s source. In 2007, California passed a law requiring microstamping in all new models of semiautomatic pistols, but SmartGunLaws (2015) says that pro-gun groups have taken various legal steps to delay implementation of that law. SmartGunLaws cites support for microstamping from the American Bar Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. MAIG (2014) says that microstamping could change the fact that, at present, nearly 40% of firearm homicides and 60% of firearm assaults in the U.S. go unsolved. MAIG quotes a former Baltimore police commissioner as saying, “I just can’t comprehend the opposition to it.”
A search led to an NRA (2015) article characterizing microstamping as “a de facto gun ban” and repeatedly stating that it “does not work.” That article seemed to be either poorly written or deliberately intended to muddy the waters, as it appeared to confuse microstamping with a prior and seemingly unrelated California requirement that manufacturers recertify gun models that have been changed. Separately, an NRA (2015) press release noted that a judge had rejected the claims that microstamping is “easily defeated by criminals and unworkable on a practical level” and also “economically impossible to implement.” This kind of argumentation did not seem to be advancing NRA’s cause.
Echoing that former Baltimore police chief, Time (Cohen, 2012) said, “It is hard to see why the critics [of microstamping] are so upset” because (unlike gun control legislation) microstamping laws do not prevent people from owning or using guns. Time concluded that microstamping will cost between 50 cents and $6 per gun, and that the technology appears highly reliable. The New Republic (MacGillis, 2014) suggested that opposition to microstamping is driven by certain concerns that were evidently not presented to the judge:
Tracing guns used in crimes raises the specter of the biggest bogeyman of all, gun registration, while also making it more likely that the public will get a clearer picture of the derivation of the guns used in crimes—a picture that will lay bare that more such guns derive from “law-abiding” owners or dealers than we now realize. . . .
But underlying the gun makers’ fight against microstamping and its [sic] legal arguments in California, above all else, is its conviction that it is simply immune to any such meddling, period. “It is a case of an industry that is arguing that it can’t be regulated, essentially.
That last remark appears to be informed by other words from MacGillis’s article:
Turns out, a gun industry that trumpets every last advance in precision and firepower is less than enthusiastic about technological developments intended to increase the safe operation of guns. . . . The industry is refusing to comply [with the microstamping law]. Not a single gun maker manufacturer [sic] has yet produced a compliant handgun for sale in California and Ruger and Smith & Wesson have announced they won’t sell new handguns in the state, period.
To me, MacGillis’s most important words were the ones about “the biggest bogeyman of all, gun registration.” It seemed that gun safety issues kept running into a certain kind of political problem. It seemed I might be well advised to wrap up this gun safety angle soon, so as to explore that problem.
Incidentally, my exploration of microstamping led into the territory of ammunition control. I did not explore this in detail, but an article by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (2013) said that laws regulating the purchase and possession of ammunition, and recording who was buying how much of it, had been useful in helping California to identify felons illegally possessing weapons, and could also be very useful in reducing criminal gun violence in Mexico. The article also said that ammunition could be microstamped by manufacturers (as distinct from microstamping when fired), creating a connection between the cartridge at a crime scene and the place where the ammunition was purchased.
According to Wikipedia,
A personalized gun, or smart gun, is a firearm that includes a safety feature or features that allow it to fire only when activated by an authorized user. These safety features can prevent misuse, accidental shootings, gun thefts, use of the weapon against the owner, and self-harm. Smart guns distinguish between authorized users and unauthorized users in several different ways, including the use of RFID chips or other proximity tokens, fingerprint recognition, magnetic rings, or mechanical locks. . . .
Smart guns have been criticized by gun-rights groups like the NRA as well as by gun-control groups like the Violence Policy Center. The Violence Policy Center argues that smart guns will make firearm ownership more commonplace by making firearms seem safer. The NRA and its membership boycotted Smith & Wesson after it was revealed in 1999 that the company was developing a smart gun for the U.S. government.
To illustrate the technology, authors (e.g., Rosenwald, 2014; Jeffries, 2014) describe guns (manufactured by European corporations Amratix and TriggerSmart, among others) that would fire only if the person holding the gun was wearing a watch or a ring containing an RFID chip. These sources said that such guns might be designed not to operate in the vicinity of electronic markers that could be placed around schools, for example. The technology was not new: ten years earlier, Wired had carried an article about a police gun that would only fire when wielded by an officer bearing an RFID chip implanted in his/her hand. The Violence Policy Center (VPC, 2013) contended that
- many if not most households own multiple guns, and therefore (at least for the foreseeable future) would probably own regular as well as smart guns;
- newer guns tend to have larger magazines, so new smart guns would tend to pack more firepower than the older guns that they might replace;
- many of the people who shoot themselves are the owners of the guns they use, so smart gun technology would probably not prevent many suicides;
- homicides are most frequently committed by people who use their own guns, smart or not;
- few gun deaths involve young children, and most of those could be prevented with simple trigger locks;
- adult unintentional gun deaths occur most often while cleaning a gun or hunting, neither of which would be affected by smart gun technology (though of course palm recognition technology would prevent a gun cleaner from accidentally shooting him/herself unless the gun was in his/her palm when the trigger was accidentally pressed);
- gun thieves are unlikely to stop stealing guns just because sometimes the stolen guns happen to be smart guns, especially if (as seems likely) they can sell the gun to someone who knows how to modify the technology;
- in the case of smart guns requiring a watch or other RFID device, gun thieves will presumably seek to steal that item as well;
- more reliable existing technology (e.g., trigger adjustments, positive safety devices, load indicators, magazine disconnects) and appropriate laws (requiring e.g., safe storage) would probably be more effective; and
- perhaps most importantly, a 1997 study found that 35% of people who considered themselves unlikely to buy a gun would at least consider buying a smart gun.
VPC stated its opposition to the use of tax dollars for smart gun research, recommending that such expenditures go instead into research on firearms violence, youth violence prevention programs, and public education on gun risks.
I felt that some of those VPC positions were excessively pessimistic — that, in particular, smart guns had some potential to dilute the gun market over time — but also that VPC had neglected to mention another potential drawback of a push for smart guns. It seemed to me that a major commitment of political capital into smart guns would carry considerable risk of backfiring. Smart guns were reported to be very expensive. Also, I had encountered fingerprint detection technology that was not actually very reliable. In addition, I was not sure whether gun owners would plan on wearing their RFID watches constantly, or would have chips implanted by the millions. For all these reasons, it was not presently clear that smart guns would come across as anything more than a fad and, eventually, another joke about governmental intrusion into the free market. But of course I would not mind further exploration of possibilities.
At this writing, a recent survey (Mole, 2016) had found that 59% of Americans were willing to buy a smart gun. That included 43% of gun owners, with another 33% saying they were undecided. As VPC anticipated, 71% of liberals and 65% of people with children expressed interest (as did 56% of conservatives). On the other side, an article in Fortune (Parloff, 2015) observes that traditional gun manufacturers are likely to oppose the technology because theirs is “a fairly small, low-margin business whose participants haven’t historically had to invest much in capital expenditures. . . . For companies like these to shift to digital technologies would entail major financial upheaval.” That Fortune article describes retaliation and death threats against gun dealers and others associated with smart guns, as well as concerns that a successful smart gun could give product-liability lawyers an argument that other guns, lacking that technology, are inherently defective and should not have been sold.
A TechCrunch article (Stokes, 2016) focused on the electronic aspects of smart guns. I had already seen concerns about the reliance on batteries, and about the risk to electronic circuits posed by heat, solvents, water, mud, and other conditions in which guns must fire. This article said,
[V]ery few people will trust a gun that can be turned into a brick by a failure of some on-board circuitry . . . . [S]oftware security is a virtual arms race, and when you put software into a weapon, you turn it into a literal arms race. Ultimately, adding software to guns (or cars, or pacemakers, or anything else) does not make them safer or more secure — rather, it makes them less secure because it gives creative bad actors a whole new avenue for exploits. . . .
The single most important requirement for a firearm is that it shoots every time you intend for it to. . . . Gun buyers are so obsessed with reliability that they will sacrifice pretty much anything — weight, capacity, accuracy, cost — to get as close to 100 percent reliability as possible. . . .
[G]uns are made to be disassembled for regular cleaning and maintenance. So no matter where you put the RFID chip, biometric lock, or other electronics on a gun, anyone with a bit of time and information will either be able to grind it out with a Dremel, cover it with something that will prevent it from transmitting, or simply replace that particular part. . . .
[I]t would be very difficult to prevent bad guys from gaining the ability to remotely lock the guns of police or of potential victims, or from using any wireless signal that these guns emit to identify concealed weapons and target those weapons for theft. . . . The minute a criminal can somehow scan an area and identify who’s packing by picking up RFID hits, then anyone who’s armed becomes a potential target. . . . [W]ould-be gun thieves [may eventually be able to] case a row of houses for guns just by driving by them . . . just like crackers looking for an open WiFi network to hijack.
Jeffries (2014) quoted a gun-control advocate who blamed hostility to smart guns on the gun industry and the gun lobby. After reading the foregoing materials, I was not so sure. In this particular battle, I saw merit in NRA’s (2013) statement:
NRA does not oppose new technological developments in firearms; however, we are opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire. And NRA recognizes that the “smart guns” issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.
I wasn’t sure how many guns our country needed in private hands. But I was pretty sure that, if someone had a legitimate need or reasonable desire to own a gun, and spent the money, s/he should get a product that worked as expected.
Federal Gun Database
Pew (2015) reports that, in recent years, about two-thirds of Americans have favored creation of a federal database to track gun sales. This approval has lagged, by about 15%, the 85% majority favoring background checks (above). In 2015, Democrats favored the database by 85%, while Republicans favored it by 55%; 61% of those who reported having guns in their homes favored such a database. Pew’s surveyors probably did not explain the details of present law and how the proposed database would differ. Some survey participants may have felt that “federal database” sounds more comprehensive, permanent, and/or intrusive than “background checks.”
There does already exist something that could become a federal database: the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), mandated by the Brady Law. The FBI explains that gun dealers (i.e., Federal Firearms Licensees, or FFLs) contact the FBI to determine whether sale of a gun to a specified individual would be illegal. According to SmartGunLaws.org, the FBI then searches NCIC, the Interstate Identification Index (containing state criminal history records), Department of Homeland Security databases (containing records on non-U.S. citizens), and the NICS index (containing records on people prohibited by state or federal law from owning a gun).
SmartGunLaws says that 91% of background checks are completed within minutes. The other 9% require more time, often entailing an inquiry by the FBI to the ATF that may take a month or more. According to ATF, its National Tracing Center (NTC) is “the only organization authorized to trace U.S. and foreign manufactured firearms for international, Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies.” It appears to be limited to tracing “crime guns” (i.e., those recovered by law enforcement agencies that were used in committing a crime). The FBI is one of many law enforcement agencies that use the NTC.
SmartGunLaws says that, when someone seeks to buy a gun, federal law requires a decision within three business days; otherwise, the sale may go ahead. Thus, in recent years, several thousand gun sales have been approved before it was belatedly discovered that the purchaser was not eligible to make the purchase. To its credit, Walmart reportedly refuses to process the sale until the background check is complete. The FBI webpage lists about a dozen categories of ineligible purchasers, including convicted felons, drug addicts, persons adjudicated mentally defective, illegal aliens, and persons convicted of certain acts of domestic violence. The FBI says that NICS “must destroy all identifying information on allowed transactions prior to the start of the next NICS operational day” (see Kiely, 2013). There is apparently an express provision that “NICS is not to be used to establish a federal firearms registry.”
SmartGunLaws.org says that some states allow their gun dealers to contact the FBI directly; others require the contact to be made through state or local agencies, which may run their own background checks. States also vary on the types of information that they collect. For example, it is apparently quite common for a state to fail to record the final disposition of a felony charge — in which case “law enforcement cannot immediately determine whether a person who was arrested for a crime was ultimately convicted of that crime and became prohibited from possessing firearms.” There may also be no check to verify that the driver’s license (for example) presented by a would-be gun purchaser is in fact a valid license. It is sobering that, even with such limits, “Since the federal background check requirement was adopted in 1994, over two million prohibited persons have been denied a firearm transfer or permit” via NICS.
The SmartGunLaws webpage provides a summary of related federal and state laws. Other sources provide further information. For example, the FBI offers an NICS Participation Map, showing variations in how the states interact with NICS. The Sunlight Foundation (2013) also provides a map showing that most states prohibit access to gun records, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers a summary of access to gun data in all 50 states. Zimmerman (2014) passes along the beliefs of an anonymous former police officer who appears to dispute, or not to understand, some aspects of this system. Paulsen (2015) says
Generally speaking for the majority of American gun owners there is no system, database, or registry that ties us to any of our firearms. . . . Now, don’t forget that just because the law says something is illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t being done or that there is any sort of a loophole. . . . In addition to the local authorities who may disregard the local law we also know that the ATF keeps at least 5 databases of specific firearms and their owners . . . .
According to Paulsen, those ATF databases cover multiple sale reports, suspect guns, traced guns, out of business records, and theft guns, each containing several hundred thousand to several million records. The big exception, according to Paulsen, is the Out of Business Records database. According to Mother Jones (Berlow, 2013), that database contains 597 million gun sale records from 700,000 out-of-business gun dealers. Unfortunately, Berlow says, ATF is specifically prohibited from putting those records in an electronic database. Paulsen is technically correct in calling these piles of paper “databases,” but evidently they do not function as such in a modern sense of the term. Berlow, citing one former ATF director, says “working through mountains of paper and microfiche records is a huge waste of agents’ time and taxpayer money.” This appears to explain why it can take weeks to get answers for some background checks (see SmartGunLaws).
Wikipedia reports that these “databases” are kept at the NTC facility, and that there were efforts to digitize them, starting in the 1990s. I was not sure where those efforts stand at present. Since 2003, according to SmartGunLaws, the Tiahrt Amendments (named after a congressional representative from Kansas) have been responsible for the requirement that records be destroyed before the next business day and have also barred ATF from requiring gun dealers to submit their inventories to law enforcement. NRA (2013) acknowledges that the Tiahrt Amendments also prevent anti-gun organizations from obtaining data for research purposes or for use in litigation against the firearms industry. Wikipedia says that, according to MAIG, city police forces also need (but cannot get) these and other data for purposes of fighting crime.
It seemed to me that there would be many possible uses for an open and complete federal gun database. In the ideal case, from the perspective of one seeking full information, laws would be amended so as to permit such a database to track each firearm from manufacture to destruction, so as to establish who owned it at any moment. It would ideally be linked with a database that would track persons who had owned guns or sought to purchase them, and also with an ammunition database, so as to cross-check for uses of properly registered guns by unauthorized persons, or purchases of ammunition for weapons that the ammo purchaser does not appear to own. It might also be linked, eventually, with a database on smart guns, or even with RFID chips that laws might someday require to be incorporated into or to accompany a dumb gun (e.g., by driver’s license, key fob, dogtag, holster, or bracelet), so as to be able to establish the location of any gun at any moment. If such databases were available to the public, insurance companies could access the database to determine whether an insured individual was exceeding any thresholds suggesting a high risk of liability; attorneys and credit scoring organizations could obtain information on gun-related irregularities in the individual’s past; and concerned persons could keep an eye on weapons accumulations in their communities or by ex-spouses, gang members, and other potentially hostile parties.
Needless to say, such a database could be abused. In my reading, the potential for abuse seemed to arise most frequently in connection with discussions of gun registration, so I decided to turn to that topic.
Universal Gun Registration and Confiscation
A federal gun database could arise from, or could be greatly enhanced by, a federal law requiring all guns to be registered. Registration could thus be reasonably viewed as an important step toward creation of universal federal databases of guns and purchasers. Multiple sources reported that substantial majorities of Americans (typically around two-thirds, it seemed) favored gun registration (e.g., PollingReport, 2016; YouGov, 2015; SmartGunLaws, 2012).
As quoted above, the New Republic (MacGillis, 2014) described gun registration as “the biggest bogeyman of all.” Why? Because, according to Graham (2013) at The Atlantic, for many gun owners, “registration means confiscation.” The NRA offers Australia as a recent example of a governmental confiscation of firearms. As noted above (New York Times, 2012), in 1996 Australia executed a dramatic change of laws, in response to a mass shooting. Among other things, the Australian government implemented a gun buyback program. NRA (2015) says, “Citizens were paid for turning in their guns, indeed—but they faced jail time if they did not. There is another word for a mandatory buyback: confiscation.”
Certainly some individuals and organizations hostile to guns would be overjoyed at their confiscation. In support of such a perspective, this post has cited the extremely low homicide rate in Japan, as well as a Washington Post editorial (Ehrenfreund, 2016) suggesting that confiscation may be necessary to achieve a significant reduction in American gun violence. And it appears that Australia’s change in laws, including the mandatory buyback program, did make a difference. GunPolicy.org provides data indicating that firearm deaths began dropping after 1987, at a rate of about 20 fewer deaths each year until 1996, when the laws changed. At that point, the rate of decrease was much greater. Even when averaged over the next ten years, there were 27 fewer deaths each year. Within the first half-dozen years or less after the change of laws, the average decline was 37 per year or more. The change was even more dramatic in the narrower class of firearm homicides, and if the sharp drop from 1987 to 1988 was excluded: aside from that one year, in the more remote past, there was essentially no drop prior to the change of laws, as compared to a noticeable and immediate drop thereafter. Brown (2013) points out that there have been no mass shootings since the change of laws, and rebuts clumsy efforts to distort the data (e.g., Wainwright, 2005, claiming that a dramatic fall in firearm murders in New South Wales was offset by a slight rise in attempted firearm murders, and suggesting without evidence that visible improvements were due to changes in drug trafficking; see also Ryall, 2015).
Registration evidently did mean confiscation in Australia, but that was not the end of the story. Wainwright observes “a renaissance in firearm ownership in the state – a 25 per cent increase in three years.” Rising gun ownership after confiscation is not what one would expect from the oft-repeated claim that confiscation is a step toward tyranny (e.g., Trotter, 2016), exemplified in the Nazi Gun Control Theory, which incorrectly claims that weapons confiscation was an important step in the Nazi rise to power (Wikipedia). Likewise in Canada: Forbes (Fisher, 2013) points out that, as noted above, an effort to register long guns (e.g., rifles) proved expensive and unproductive, and was ultimately abandoned — again, not what one would expect if the authorities were trying to disarm citizens rather than merely fighting crime. No doubt the effort caused a lot of unnecessary expense and upset. But there appear to be no signs that the governments in either Australia or Canada are on the road to dictatorship.
LaPierre (2015) seems to feel that gun registration is intrinsically abusive, insofar as it “virtually always” results in confiscation. He uses examples from New York in 1967 and 1991, and in the District of Columbia in 1976-77. These examples seem disingenuous: LaPierre obviously knows that Heller (above) had changed the landscape for gun control laws in 2008. Indeed, he cites another Supreme Court opinion in that very article. He does also cite a D.C. law from 2014, but fails again to admit that the constitutionality of that law was being litigated at that time, in another round of Heller, which would ultimately find that some of what LaPierre was complaining about was constitutional and some was not. Confiscation was not part of that law, and did not occur. LaPierre did seem to be identifying ways in which bureaucrats were yanking people around. But that is what bureaucracy does. It is not unique to the context of gun ownership. If LaPierre wants a government that functions well, he should be advocating for one.
As Graham (2013) points out, there is essentially no chance that the U.S. Supreme Court would find gun confiscation constitutional. There would also be very little political support for it. Gallup (2015) found that opposition to an outright ban on handgun possession remained near an all-time peak, at 72% against and only 27% in favor. That was a substantial reversal from the 60% in favor, 36% opposed back in 1959 — and confiscation did not even happen back then. In another question, Gallup (2015) has continued to find a long-term trend favoring pro-gun views and that, since 2009, nearly equal numbers of Americans prioritize “the right of Americans to own guns” vs. the need to “control gun ownership.” BBC News (Zurcher, 2015) finds, moreover, that whatever the opinion polls say, conservatives are disproportionately likely to vote and to wield influence in Congress.
It remains conceivable that some new political development would produce a radical reversal in Americans’ views about guns, to such a point that confiscation would happen where it has never happened before. But it is not easy to imagine what kind of development would be needed to bring about such a reversal. Weldon (2015) points out that the idea of a handgun ban did not become significantly or enduringly more popular even when John Lennon, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II were all shot within a period of approximately six months in late 1980 and early 1981 (see Wikipedia), nor in the wake of Columbine or other mass shootings.
In opposing basic common sense in matters of gun registration, it seemed to me that NRA’s position was continuing to jeopardize its own credibility:
NRA also opposes gun registration. Expanding background check systems and allowing records to be kept on people who pass background checks to acquire guns would be steps toward transforming NICS into the national gun registry that gun control supporters have wanted for more than a hundred years.
This stance was particularly embarrassing when it was reported that NRA itself owns a massive database compiling a tremendous amount of information on gun owners and their guns (Friess, 2013). I was not surprised that Gallup (2015) indicated that, after a nearly equal division of opinion from 2010 to 2012, opinion had begun to trend in favor of stricter laws on firearm sales. As of 2015, the split was 55% in favor of stricter laws, 33% opposed. Weldon (2015) cites a Roper poll finding a continuing trend against “stricter gun control laws,” but some of this may be a matter of terminology: perhaps “gun control” conjures up images of confiscation (Ball, 2013).
Americans seemed, in other words, to be favoring more sensible gun restrictions, but not confiscation. Within my knowledge, there has never been a time, in more than 200 years of history, when a controlling majority of Americans would consent to or approve of mass gun confiscation, and the present is distinctly not a time when this is a realistic worry. What does seem realistic, at present — what seems to be reflected in the polls — is to worry about America’s unbelievable rate of gun homicides, and to recognize that even today’s hobbled databases play a helpful role.
We register many things, varying from one city or town to another. Examples can include dogs, bicycles, and little battery-powered flying drones (Harvey, 2014; Kopstein, 2015). We register automobiles and require training and insurance before turning people loose in them. Guns, unlike cars, are designed to kill. It seems absurd to let people use them without comparable protections. To use another example, it seemed to me that guns are at least as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, and that the recent tendency favoring treatment rather than prosecution for users of hard drugs (Pew, 2014) might appropriately favor proactive treatment for, or other precriminal responses to, people who appear to be trending toward aggressive gun violence. My travels exposed me to quite a bit of material along these lines (e.g., Metzl & MacLeish, 2015; Binelli, 2014; Schaeffer, 2013; Swanson et al., 2015; Wikipedia).
Basically, concerns about governmental gun confiscation in the U.S., rising out of efforts to register and record gun data, struck me as unrealistic. Such abstract scenarios did not seem to outweigh the real need for concerted efforts to reduce the incredible numbers of gun deaths and injuries that Americans suffer every year. I did not feel that I was among those who always believe that gun violence happens to someone else. I knew it could happen to me. Hence there seemed, again, to be a profound need for an arrangement more like that of Switzerland, where the citizen is trained and authorized to possess a weapon compatible with what Justice Scalia would see as his/her role within a national militia.
I could imagine needs beyond that — that, for example, the hunter and the person living out on a lonely country road might reasonably desire more than a single handgun or rifle. That sort of thing seemed to be readily accommodated within, for instance, laws that would authorize several different kinds of legal gun ownership profiles (e.g., standard profile, hunter, rural resident) and that would allow individuals to apply for permits to purchase additional or variant guns corresponding to their particular circumstances. It did not seem that the only solution was to allow criminals to accumulate inadequately secured weapons caches capable of supplying a thousand felons.
Gun Registration Abuses
Law school, life, and other people’s stories had made me very aware that law enforcement agencies and personnel are capable of abusing their power. While researching this post, I encountered examples of such abuse.
One example provided an explanation for today’s restraints on the ATF (above). According to Wikipedia, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) was a response to abuses noted in a 1982 report from the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. The concluding section of that report described a number of ways in which ATF displayed excessive zeal in pursuit of ordinary citizens while failing to pursue “the primary object of limiting access of felons and high-risk groups to firearms.” ATF reportedly acknowledged that a third of its prosecutions involved people with no prior police contact at all, often based on technical violations by gun collectors and other “individuals who lack all criminal intent and knowledge” by “[a]gents anxious to generate an impressive arrest and gun confiscation quota.” It was appalling that ATF continued to abuse its power for years thereafter, as elaborated in discussion of events at Waco, Texas, and elsewhere (below).
Another story of potential abuse emerged in the remarks of Kopel (2013). Kopel described a situation in New York, where handguns must be licensed. It seems a newspaper obtained and published the names and addresses of every handgun licensee within a certain county. Kopel pointed out that Cook (2013) at Gawker.com did something similar, releasing the names of all gun owners in New York City. Kopel objected that such actions exposed individuals’ names and addresses to potential stalkers; but Cook noted that, in fact, the names and addresses of gun owners in New York State have been a matter of public record for years, and that another site had been providing all of those (at least for all handgun owners) since 2010. I appreciated Kopel’s concern, but it seemed he was arguing against the idea that anyone’s name and address should be available as a matter of public record for any purpose. Kopel said that prisoners had told prison guards that, thanks to this listing and the aid of their friends on the outside, they now knew where those gun-owning guards lived. But I suspected that people capable of searching the Internet would typically be able to find such information anyway. Kopel cited another local newspaper’s finding that former convicts agreed the gun address list would be a useful resource for gun-seeking burglars. But I wondered whether stolen guns would be highly marketable in a land with microstamping or a comprehensive ammunition database (above). In short, I was not completely unsympathetic to Kopel’s concerns. But I felt that he overstated them to serve a prior agenda.
As I read further on the incident, I found that the publication of those names and addresses inflamed public opinion in neighboring counties, suggesting that the state legislature might eventually reconsider the wisdom of its law. I also saw that gun owners retaliated by publishing the names and addresses of the journalists responsible, and that their newspaper hypocritically defended itself by hiring armed guards. None of this seemed to be what a normal person would do for fun on a typical afternoon. There probably was some harm done; apparently at least one or two burglaries were in fact traced to publication of that list. For us outsiders, the episode seemed to provide a number of thoughts and cautions. For example, as a victim of some idiot’s misguided attempt to expose bad guys, I could appreciate that owning a gun might not justify being highlighted, as though one were doing something wrong. One could certainly understand discomfort at the publication of names and addresses of a county’s gay people or Jews.
On a policy level, I felt that such experiences would help to form a foundation on which, over time, a state, county, or other jurisdiction would base its decisions on how to handle the information contained in a gun database. Perhaps this episode would suggest that, for example, members of the public would be allowed to use their access to a gun database to monitor the possession of guns only within a certain distance from their homes or offices, or only for a limited number of individuals, or that perhaps one’s weapons cache would become a matter of public knowledge only when it exceeded a certain number of working guns or rounds of ammunition. I did recognize, in other words, that abuses were possible, but I believed that their resolution was likely to come through relatively small adjustments, over time, within a generally well-conceived and empirically justified arrangement.
H. Rap Brown (1969), a leading member of the Black Panthers (Gregg et al., 2005, p. 88), famously or perhaps notoriously said, “Violence is as American as apple pie.” Interestingly, though, when the Black Panthers exercised their Second Amendment rights and openly carried weapons in the 1960s while copwatching in Oakland, the NRA endorsed the Mulford Act, which banned open carrying of weapons, in order to prevent such Black Panther activity. California Governor Ronald Reagan approved the Act, and then went on to change his mind and support white people who wanted to arm themselves as the blacks had done (Sullum, 2014).
Rolling Stone (Feuer, 2016) tells of the epiphany that occurred to Sam Andrews of the Oath Keepers when he attempted to tell black men in Ferguson, MO that they had a constitutional right to carry weapons: they explained that, if they were visibly armed, the police would kill them (see Hands Up – Don’t Shoot). The Washington Post (Kindy et al., 2015) observes that, “Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police” in 2015. National Review (French, 2015) suggests this is because “[B]lacks commit homicide at close to eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined” — as if the police were hired to be executioners. That sort of reasoning doesn’t go far when confronted with the reality of cold-blooded police murders of black men.
And so, according to Rolling Stone, Andrews did try to organize those blacks in Ferguson, to march with him and a handful of whites, all carrying guns, to demonstrate “a necessary counterweight against ‘the government’s monopoly on violence.'” Similar views appear to be gaining some traction in black communities. Feuer points to a Pew (2015) study finding that blacks emphasize gun control over gun rights by a ratio of three to one, and feel that gun ownership creates danger rather than safety, by 56% to 37% — but Feuer also notes that there is now a Huey P. Newton Gun Club and a National African American Gun Association and a New Black Panther Party, along with a general increase in black orientation toward using guns for self-protection (e.g., Mzezewa & Dinapoli, 2015). There has also been, for some years, an inclination to praise the killing of police officers — not only among blacks but also, in my experience, among at least some white convicts.
These developments tentatively suggested, to me, that there may be a difference in how people see the right to bear arms. Some appear to construe it as meaning that — as in this post’s references to Switzerland (above) — we are entrusted with weapons in order to help defend our country. Others appear to see it as a right to use weapons to protect Me and Mine against Them — a claim of a right of anarchy, one that is not so ardently defended when They (e.g., blacks) expect the same in return (e.g., Wilkinson, 2014).
Reading about the Black Panthers, Ferguson, and the Oath Keepers took me into the realm of armed militia groups and confrontations with the authorities. I tried to summarize relevant materials in one section of this post, but as it turned out there was a great deal to explore there. So I prepared a separate post on such matters. The following paragraphs summarize and link to specific sections of that long post.
The first half of that other post discusses a number of situations and movements in which people have seen themselves as exempt from or opposed to the federal government. Most have involved the use of guns to threaten and/or defend against armed federal agents.
The 1993 siege involving David Koresh and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX may have been the most widely known of those events. As described in the other post, it was the largest massacre of civilians in the history of American law enforcement. Key factors in its notoriety seemed to include perceptions of a quasi-military assault upon a quiet rural settlement; failure to explore opportunities to reduce the death toll and to resolve the situation peacefully; denial and cover-up of governmental ineptitude and misbehavior; false federal accusations and distortions regarding Branch Davidian actions and intentions; ignorance of the apocalyptic mindset influencing Branch Davidian behaviors; poor public relations in general and toward rural, gun-owning, and religious subcultures in particular; and the distribution of acclaimed critical materials, including a film that won an Emmy Award and was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.
As detailed in the other post, Waco (and another widely criticized standoff, at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992) seems to have spread and cemented an impression, in the minds of many gun owners, that the federal government was inordinately preoccupied with limiting or ending gun ownership, and would take outrageous measures to achieve such ends. Anger arising from such incidents was most vehemently expressed when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people in retaliation. Similar hostility was captured in a letter from NRA’s Wayne LaPierre to NRA members in 1995 (Powers, 1995). That letter spoke of “Federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens” and of “jack-booted government thugs, wearing black, armed to the teeth” who “break down a door, open fire with an automatic weapon, and kill or maim law-abiding citizens.”
For some, that letter was over the top. It may have marked a turning point in perceptions or priorities of the NRA, demonstrating a growing split between the moderate rank-and-file members from extremists. Perhaps the most prominent response was that of former President George H.W. Bush, who reacted with a publicized letter to the NRA, praising federal agents who had served their country well, including some who had been killed at Waco and Oklahoma City (Snopes.com; New York Times, 1995). Bush said,
Your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.
You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre’s unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list.
The perspective expressed by former President Bush appears to have been shared by Justice Scalia, whose opinion in Heller praised a standing army that “is the pride of our Nation” and “well-trained police forces [that] provide personal security.” That said, Waco and Ruby Ridge did prompt investigation and change in federal law enforcement agencies. At the very least, those episodes made clear that a hamfisted approach resulting in unnecessary death could be very counterproductive for agency priorities — winning the battle but losing the public relations war.
A change in technique was evident by 1996, in the Montana Freemen standoff detailed in the other post. Then and in subsequent episodes — including most recently the federal response to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016 — federal agents have taken a much lower-key approach, emphasizing negotiation and flexibility rather than absolute demands and overwhelming force. If anything, the other post contends that the Obama Administration can be criticized for its an excessively low-key reaction to the Bundy Standoff of April 2014, thus encouraging subsequent events like the Malheur Occupation. At any rate, the government does appear to have developed a more popular approach, erring on the side of caution until the public insists upon a more forceful response.
H. Rap Brown was right: the U.S. was forged in a violent revolution against Britain, and has constructed its current position through a bloody Civil War and wars abroad, and violence remains a fundamental fact of American life. For example, the Global Peace Index Report (GPI, 2015) ranks the U.S. 94th out of 162 countries, with internal variations ranging from a few (mostly northern) states that are comparable to Canada (7th in the world) to a number of (mostly southern) states that do much worse. The GPI (pp. 4, 79, 112) notes that the U.S. spends by far the most of any nation on violence containment (i.e., consequences or prevention of violence against people or property) — more than double what China spends, with more than four times the population. And yet, despite that expenditure, in terms of societal safety and security, the GPI (p. 115) gives the U.S. a score of 2.23, somewhat behind Indonesia (2.12) and far behind top-ranked Japan and most Scandinavian countries, Canada, and Australia (ranging from 1.20 to 1.52).
In the other post, after summarizing key militia events like those at Waco and Ruby Ridge, I reviewed the insurrectionary theory of the Second Amendment. This is the theory that the Second Amendment is intended to give citizens the means to overthrow the federal government, if that government becomes tyrannical. In my review, this theory was not credible. The other post expands upon a number of considerations offered by Dunlap (1995) opposing such a theory. Examples include the fact that, in American history, rebellions have been viewed as treason, not as legitimate defenses of the nation against tyrants; the very poor track record of amateurs (like the proposed Second Amendment militia) who attempt to fight professional armies; the absence of a warrior culture (unlike e.g., Afghanistan) that might support a long-term revolution in the U.S.; the absence of barriers in the U.S. (e.g., language, culture, technology — unlike e.g., Iraq) that might hinder governmental efforts to monitor rebel activities; co-optation of public opinion through use of financial incentives and effective media coverage; FBI infiltration, treachery, and opportunism among rebels; and probable public hostility toward revolutionary upheaval.
The other post then considers two examples of the kind of thinking that I seemed to be encountering, as I read through various materials relating to the insurrectionary theory. The first was a post by Bob Owens. Owens sketched out what he thought would happen if the U.S. passed a law compelling gun owners to register their guns. The result, he felt, would be an armed insurrection in which millions would be deeply alienated, and tens of thousands would commence armed revolution. My reply explains why I felt that Owens completely neglected the political dimension; overestimated the effectiveness of his rebels, and the extremes to which people would go in insisting upon the right to own an unregistered firearm; and underestimated the effectiveness and power of law enforcement and of the military, the public preference for peace, and the vulnerability of the rebels’ loved ones. For reasons detailed in the other post, it seemed to me that Owens was interested, not in developing a realistic scenario, but rather in venting hostility toward politicians and others whom he would like to see shot. As such, Owens seemed to be making himself a poster child for those who hear “revolution” and immediately think “gun nut.”
In the second example discussed in the other post, Mark Wachtler of Whiteout Press offered the rather extreme fantasy that, since one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. population has signed petitions seeking secession of various states from the Union, perhaps armed rebels will come to control half of the United States. Wachtler also expressed concern that special units of the U.S. Army are training to attack or defend in what appear to be typical American settings — using, for example, a mock town that contains a generic office building. Wachtler and others appeared not to understand that federal law does provide for the Army to be called out in response to domestic emergencies. He also seemed to confuse a scenario floated in an essay, involving militant seizure of Darlington, South Carolina, with actual Army training. Generally, throughout multiple webpages cited by or explaining ideas presented in Wachtler’s post, there seemed to be a tendency toward exaggeration, distortion, and outright confusion of readily available information. It was not that I doubted that such material could lead some impressionable individuals into becoming revolutionaries indeed. It was that hardly anyone would think those materials and conclusions made sense.
The other post closed its discussion of violent revolution with a look at the Oath Keepers organization. The thesis of this organization appeared to be that soldiers, police, and first responders take an oath; that that oath’s reference to the Constitution is vastly more important than anything else in the oath; and that the oath-taker may therefore pick and choose which parts of the oath s/he will honor. Thus, behind the appearance of being a stalwart defender of the Constitution, there is the reality that the Oath Keeper cannot be counted on to keep his/her word. The post discusses numerous false claims on the Oath Keepers website; mentions that Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, has reportedly been cited for potential disbarment from the practice of law, and removed as attorney from specific cases, in two states; offers examples of unreasonableness in the Oath Keepers’ refusal to obey certain orders; and refers back to the possibility of criminal liability for such refusal, and perhaps even for the act of joining Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers organization appears to be relevant to the topic of violent revolution, not because the organization directly advocates such revolution, but because its apparent rejection of numerous federal laws seems to inspire some of its members to participate in recent armed confrontations with federal authorities (e.g., Bundy Standoff; Malheur Occupation).
Against that, I found it refreshing to read thoughtful articles by present or former radicals on the left, articulating an intelligent struggle with the evils of a police state and the limited capabilities of the armed individual (e.g., Gupta, 2013; Muraskin, 2014). That reading was, in a sense, humbling: I had considered myself something of a radical on the left, but in the final analysis it seemed I was very reluctant to agree that shooting people, other than in genuine self-defense, would lead to an improved situation.
Reading criticisms of the federal government written by radical leftists reminded me of my own exposure to the violent left, at Columbia College in the late 1970s. But in the present context, it was also a reminder that the “police state” government, hated in different ways by the armed right and the armed left, might well be the only thing preventing those two groups from going at each other in earnest, with the rest of us caught in the crossfire. I could see how rearming and reradicalizing the left might help people on the right to think twice about the glories of guns, though history suggested that a generation might only appreciate peace after obtaining its own refamiliarization with war. In other words, it was possible that gun control would be appreciated only after passionate people on the political extremes managed to kill a lot of us while killing each other. The challenge at that point would be to develop sufficient trust and calm to make gun control work. It did seem to me that the more sensible response would be to cut to the chase and make gun control work now.
There was another possibility, though: the radical right and the radical left in America might ultimately be functionally united, disagreeing on various policies but willing to shoot only at the federal government that was arguably making such a hash of things. For example, Aziz (2014) contended that America was not ripe for armed revolution because, “[A]side from economic inequality, mass institutional corruption is necessary to galvanize the anger necessary for civil unrest.” Aziz cited Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perception Index (CPI) as indicating that the U.S. is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. What Aziz failed to take into account, however, is that — as I present in more detail in another post — a different TI measure, and other measures as well, find that corruption in the U.S. is considerably more intense than the CPI would suggest. Others had reached a similar conclusion. For example, a Gallup (2016) poll found that “A staggering 75% of the American public believe corruption is ‘widespread’ in the U.S. government.” In that article, Gallup’s chairman joined those who suggest that this sense of corruption could be driving the public interest in 2016 election candidates (notably Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump) who are perceived as being outside the scope of traditional corrupt party politics.
Be that as it may, it did not presently appear that revolutionaries were in tune with mainstream views. As noted above, Americans widely favor universal federal background checks and gun registration. Such views appear to convey a substantial rejection of the view that the citizenry needs to arm itself anonymously in preparation for possible war against the U.S. government.
The Drama of Extreme Statements
NRA’s remark about “jack-booted thugs” was pretty extreme. As I continued reading, however, I came to see that some pro-gun people said a lot of strange things. Wayne LaPierre was probably the most visible one but, as shown above, there were others. A site called NRA On the Record reported many dubious statements by NRA board members and officers. For example, board member Charles Cotton has reportedly made bizarre statements about shooting kids and using wolves to kill homeless people (McKinney, 2015). The most visibly over-the-top statements may have come from NRA board member Ted Nugent.
At some point, it occurred to me that the rest of us might be misunderstanding the mental processes at work in such individuals. It was easy to conclude that people would say such things because they were paranoid or pathological liars or in some other way “nutty” or “crazy.” In some cases, that could be true. But it could also be that the world of guns was especially attractive to some people because it offered opportunities to act a bit crazy.
The opportunity to act a bit crazy could simply mean that these people liked to bring out their inner animal, once in a while, and visualize themselves as being tough, or decisive, or willing to fight to the death for what they believe in. But that would raise the question of why such attitudes or priorities would seem desirable. Plainly, this was different from following a role model who would emphasize nonviolent resistance, like Gandhi, or turning the other cheek, like Jesus, or working hard and being fair and humble, like St. Benedict. The role model guiding these people seemed to be someone from Hollywood, like Dirty Harry or James Bond or the Terminator, or perhaps an amalgam of all of the above and more.
Of course, a person would not have to advertise the fact that s/he wished to be like a Hollywood hero. An occasional extravagant statement might be nothing more than a form of self-affirmation, a small reminder or assertion of one’s ability and willingness to defend oneself. But many pro-gun utterances went well beyond that, in frequency and also in intensity — and, of course, there was quite a bit of verbal and physical posing, and in some cases a willingness to back up the words and poses with extreme actions.
A combination of guns and extreme action tends to mean “felony” and “prison.” Somehow, though, it seemed that many people welcomed extreme gun-related statements from individuals who did not appear to be headed toward prison. Again, as one would expect from a Hollywood connection, there was an obvious glamorization of the kind of person who would say Make my day or Hasta la vista, baby. Guns, it seemed, were not just for using and storing: they were for displays of a certain attention-getting style.
These recurrent dramatic elements suggested that some of these people, posing with their weapons and uttering outlandish statements, might be engaged in a sort of tacit cosplay, a visual and especially auditory representation or interpretation of a Hollywood ideal. An air of tough-guy seriousness seemed to be essential in this cosplay; hence, it would not be acceptable to be caught as a mere poser, indulging childish mimicry of any particular rapper or movie star. There would instead be the necessity — and the greater creative possibilities — of positioning oneself as one’s own interpretation of selected traits from within the bad boy (or, occasionally, bad girl) genre. If the interpretation was good, one would get noticed.
This seemed to explain why arguments about gun safety, for example, would not get through to a substantial number of gun owners. It was as if one were trying to use logic to defeat a religious belief. The answer is, it’s really not about that — in other words, you don’t get it. For a certain subset of gun owners — and, more importantly, for the many who look up to them — it is more like a form of cultural display or affirmation of independence, an assertion of the validity of whatever it is that one has chosen to think or do at this point in time. Within this game, there is a way of playing that is particularly likely to draw approval. As with other catchphrases (e.g., Adam and Steve; Just Do It), there would be a certain amount of applause for the sheer audacity of a claim that “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people.” For those who liked it, its appeal would lie, not in any boring factuality, but in its simple and direct muddling of the issues: its seven words would invite a rebuttal whose length would seem to imply that something meaningful was under discussion. In effect, the point would be, not that it is true, but simply that, as an actor, I have every right to say this, and nobody can stop me.
Not that such cosplay would be entirely innocent. If the actor’s bluff is called, s/he might feel obliged to kill someone, and spend the rest of his/her life regretting it. In that regard, the mental symptom embodied in some of the more extreme displays coming from gun lovers might be, not paranoia or antisociality, but rather an extreme dearth of self-esteem, to the point that one would feel obliged to ruin one’s own life in order to make a convincing pretense of toughness.
Probably the worst aspect of this cosplay was that most people would not realize it was just for show, or was a manifestation of a narcissistic personality disorder, or was in any way gratuitous or insincere. A great many gun owners seemed to gather that this might be how they, as gun owners, should be thinking and acting.
What Wayne LaPierre says is not likely to have any serious consequences for his own wealth and freedom. For a person in his position, it would be counterproductive to use one’s weapon in any way that would entail risk of death or prosecution. Persuading others to consider such risks, however, would be a real demonstration of influence. In other words, what was missing from LaPierre’s harsh words about Waco was the fact that he, personally, does not seem to have spent much time in Waco during that two-month standoff. Rather than pitch in — as, say, a volunteer negotiator — it seems to have been more profitable to sit back, preach about the outcome, and use the episode as an opportunity to become more noticed.
Open vs. Concealed Carry
Much of the foregoing discussion is vague about where, exactly, a person keeps or uses his/her guns. There was some discussion of storing weapons in the home, and using them for protection against intruders. But aside from that, there is the controversial topic of carrying firearms around town or elsewhere in one’s day-to-day business.
I encountered many expressions of opinion on the question of whether gun owners should conceal the guns they carry in public places, or should display those guns openly. Bob Owens (2015) suggested that open carry was more comfortable, would enable faster access to one’s gun, and would help the public become acclimated to the presence of guns, whereas concealed carry would be better at deterring criminal activity because criminals would not know who is armed, could enable comfortable gun access nearly as fast as open carry (with some investment of time and money in the right holster), and would be less likely to provoke undesirable reactions from law enforcement. Owens suggested that open carry tended to be more about the assertion of gun rights, that it was more psychologically comfortable, and that the worry about having one’s gun taken away was less of an issue outdoors than in a crowd. Owens pointed to the story in which an unprepared open carrier became an easy target of a robber who wanted his gun. Owens further said that responses to one discussion thread on the subject indicated that those who favored open carry “overwhelmingly” tended not to have significant firearms training and experience, and noted that 8% of law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty were killed with their own guns.
BloombergView (Wilkinson, 2014) offered an email interview of John Pierce, founder of OpenCarry.org. Pierce seemed to confirm that there was a political rationale (essentially, use the right — and get the public used to it — or lose it). But Pierce also said that concealed-carry permits are not always available under state law. In some state constitutions, he said, open carry is a right, while concealed carry is only a privilege. ConcealedNation (Brandon, 2015) offered what I saw as two reasons favoring concealed carry: maintaining the element of surprise and avoiding becoming a target, when dealing with a bad guy; and a preference for blending in, and not letting it become an issue with one’s friends or companions, rather than attracting attention to oneself. Kimberlin (2008) said that the element of surprise was precisely why Virginia’s law, at least, restricted concealed carry more than open carry. Wikipedia noted a contrast, perhaps a point of pride, wherein proponents of open carry distinguished themselves from criminals, who were historically inclined to conceal their weapons.
There appeared to be some resistance to the idea that the public needed to learn to become comfortable with guns. Kimberlin (2008) said that, in Virginia, business and landowners had a legal right to prohibit firearms (however carried) on their property. Otherwise, though, in Virginia, “Open-carry has always been allowed in bars,” whereas schools, military bases and other federal property, courthouses, airports, and places of worship are “off-limits to almost all civilian guns.” These remarks seemed to suggest some continuing dislike of open carry.
In some settings, that dislike seemed especially appropriate. For example, NBC (Stuckey, 2009) told about people openly carrying weapons in the vicinity of some public appearances by President Obama. NBC cited one prominent gun advocate who saw no problem with a scenario in which thousands of people would carry guns to an Obama appearance. Perhaps the theory would be that these gun carriers would monitor one another: if one began to point a weapon at the president, a half-dozen others would be prepared to shoot that would-be assassin. But that was not what happened when likeminded, armed individuals assembled at the Bundy ranch.
NBC said that Pierce of OpenCarry.org did perceive the potential for “a very mixed message” (what others might call outright intimidation) if gun advocates openly carried weapons to an Obama appearance for the purpose of expressing disagreement with Obama’s stance on a given issue (e.g., health care). NBC also cited another gun advocate for the concern that these provocative open-carry actions would be counterproductive, feeding an image or fear of “whack job” individuals and encouraging anti-gun sentiment. NBC quoted a Brady Campaign representative in agreement: “When folks see [that you can legally carry a .50-caliber sniper rifle down the street], then maybe they’ll wake up to the fact that we really don’t have many laws on the books with regard to guns.”
Wikipedia reported more than twenty attempts to kill sitting and former presidents, four of which have succeeded. In some cases, the attempts were committed by mentally unstable individuals. I saw no reason to make the already difficult job of the Secret Service essentially impossible. Regardless of his/her politics, a president represents an enormous investment of national time, attention, and money. Allowing unknown individuals to carry large numbers of unlicensed lethal weapons near a president seemed about as sensible as placing Fort Knox under the supervision of bank robbers. In my case, at least, excessive display and assertion of open carry rights did serve to push opinion toward increased restrictions on firearms in public, as well as diminishing confidence in the common sense of gun advocates.
There were occasional accounts of a police officer who favored concealed carry of weapons. For example, I came across the assertion, by Detroit’s chief of police, that concealed weapon permits contributed to the safety of life in Portland, Maine, where he had worked previously, as compared to his prior experience in Los Angeles (National Review, 2014). Having lived in both Portland and Los Angeles, I felt that the officer was completely mistaken, and that this would be obvious to anyone aware of the extreme differences between the two cities and of various factors contributing to the safety of life in places like Portland. The more typical view, by police, appears to be that the presence of weapons complicates encounters (e.g., Luthern, 2015; Knoll, 2014), and that gun possession is therefore best limited to those who are licensed or at least properly screened and trained (e.g., Brandon, 2015; Miller, 2014). If the preferences of police were taken into account, it is unlikely that states would be adopting open carry laws. Open carry laws appear to make officers’ encounters with visibly armed citizens much more complicated and risky (e.g., Farago, 2014; Reece, 2015).
In light of the remarks of Owens and others (above), it was not obvious to me that open carry was generally a good idea, as long as concealed carry was an available alternative for trustworthy gun owners. The fact that a state constitution might permit open carry merely begged the question; I felt that voters could and should reverse that if the dangers and drawbacks dramatically outweighed the advantages.
Any Public Carry
The big question left unanswered, in the preceding section, is whether carrying guns in public is a good idea at all, regardless of whether the carry is concealed or open. On this question, recent polls tell an interesting story.
First, Gallup (2015) indicates that, over the past several years, Americans have been increasingly inclined to favor stricter laws on the sale of firearms. That parallels the results of surveys finding a rising dissatisfaction with U.S. gun laws, especially among Democrats (Gallup, 2016). But the Huffington Post (Weldon, 2015) also reports that Roper polls have shown a growing long-term rejection of bans on handgun possession: as of 2014, 73% against, only 26% in favor. These results suggest that gun ownership is increasingly acceptable, as long as guns are kept out of the wrong hands.
Why would gun ownership be increasingly acceptable? A logical answer would be that the alternative has become less acceptable. Traditionally, the alternative is to let someone else take care of the things for which a person would want a gun. Especially in the case of self-protection — which, as noted above, is the dominant reason for owning a gun these days — it seems that the old idea of relying on the authorities may have lost some of its appeal. Other Roper polls cited in that Huffington Post article seemed to support this interpretation. Prior to 2005, those polls found a near-even split on the questions of whether government can prevent mass shootings, and whether stricter gun control would reduce the level of violence in the U.S. But since 2005, by contrast, respondents doubting government efficacy in such regards have outnumbered respondents expressing faith in government on those questions by as much as two to one.
It is not hard to come up with reasons why people might have lost some of their faith in the authorities’ ability to guarantee personal safety. That faith may never have been too strong among rural folk, for whom law enforcement will usually be miles away when trouble comes. But it seems a similar mindset may be taking hold among many people in cities as well. Part of that may be due to the recurrent, widely publicized, and, for some, deeply frightening spectacles of people being gunned down by mass shooters in all sorts of ordinary settings. Part may be due to growing anxiety, by whites, as minorities become more prevalent and communities seem less predictable. There is also the impression, perhaps becoming more widespread, that the police are more oriented toward cleaning up after a crime than toward stopping crimes in progress, not to mention lower-income and minority concerns that police may be inclined to discriminate against them. (Recall the indication, above, that gun possession is becoming more popular among blacks.) It cannot help that there seems to have been a profound loss of faith, if not in the idea of government, then at least in our particular form of government, with significant long-term declines in public approval of Congress (Gallup, 2016) and of presidents since Eisenhower (by the party in opposition, Pew, 2016) and, at this point, a strong majority perceiving corruption in American government.
But if people are becoming more comfortable with or resigned to private gun ownership, as an alternative to reliance on the police, what should we make of the possibility (above) that the number of gun owners is declining? Decisions to play a more active role in guaranteeing one’s personal safety would seem to call for a rise, not a drop, in the percentage of American adults who own guns. I suspected that the answer could be glimpsed in the responses to another Gallup question, evidently asked for the first time in 2015:
Suppose more Americans were allowed to carry concealed weapons if they passed a criminal background check and training course. If more Americans carried concealed weapons, would the United States be safer or less safe?
Gallup found that a majority (56% to 41%) felt that the country would be safer if more people carried concealed weapons. It was interesting that 50% of female respondents felt more concealed weapons would make the U.S. safer (45% said less safe). As noted above, only about 12% of women personally own guns. Hence, even if the number of gun owners was actually steady or rising, it seemed that many women may have wanted more people to carry concealed weapons, not because they personally intended to do so, but because they believed or at least hoped that, in time of need, there would be someone nearby with the ability and inclination to pull out a gun and stop the bad guys.
Nor would women be the only ones thinking that way. Those of any gender who doubted their own ability and willingness to afford, master, qualify for, maintain, safely store, and effectively use a handgun might readily defer to an idealized subset of fellow citizens who, as the question suggested, would be qualified and trained for the role. It appeared, in effect, that a majority of Americans would like to see a substantial number of their fellow citizens informally deputized as peacemakers. Compared to the larger 73% majority that rejects a ban on handgun possession, this 56% figure seems to suggest that, as one might expect, many are willing to tolerate gun ownership only for home defense. But if those licensed to carry concealed weapons tended to demonstrate their reliability over time — within, that is, an American gun milieu in which people will apparently continue to kill each other by the thousands — then at some point there could develop a de facto militia comprised of self-armed individuals, complete with opportunities for further training and experience. Indeed, there may be a demand for such a militia, organized by the government, as an alternative to the prospect that the best-trained gun lovers may instead continue to become aligned with private gangs committed to something other than public safety.
Responses to the Gallup question about concealed weapons differed considerably among some subgroups. The largest such difference was that between the percentages of Republicans (82%) and Democrats (31%) who felt that more concealed weapons carriers would make the U.S. safer. The split was not surprising: the parties tended to differ on demographic factors linked with gun ownership (above), including race or ethnicity, income, and rural vs. urban location (see Pew, 2014 & 2015; Kron, 2012). Only 25% of Americans think government has a positive effect on the way things are going in the country, but Democrats are nearly three times as likely as Republicans to think so (35% vs. 12%) (Pew, 2015), so Democrats would be much less likely to favor concealed carry because of a loss of faith in government. Historical trend data would have been helpful, but it did seem possible to be surprised that a full 31% of Democrats thought that more concealed guns would make the U.S. safer. Some of that may reflect, not a complete embrace of concealed carry, but rather a decision to try to make the best of a nation that seems incapable of understanding and achieving the degree of gun control that many Democrats would prefer.
Some subgroup divisions suggested that enthusiasm for concealed carry might decline with experience. Gallup found that adults under age 30 favored more concealed carry by a ratio of two to one, but that support eroded with age: only a slight majority of people aged 50+ did so. Similarly, Gallup found that 63% of people in small-town or rural settings favored more concealed carry, as compared to only 50% of those who lived in big cities, where one is more likely to encounter a large and sometimes unsettling variety of behaviors. I suspected that the percentages favoring concealed carry would be especially low among older residents of big cities who had been exposed to gun threats, gunfire, or individuals with deeply unstable thoughts or behaviors — or, perhaps, that those older people would be enthusiastic about concealed carry by truly qualified individuals.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Given the fact of widespread ownership of hundreds of millions of guns, it appeared likely that guns would continue to be available to criminals and unstable individuals for some years after an aggressive gun ban, which itself was unlikely in the U.S. within the foreseeable future. A simplistic effort to pass laws to reduce the numbers of guns, and of persons owning guns, would seemingly pose a risk that the most law-abiding people would be the first to relinquish their guns. I could not definitively reject the claim that, if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns — though I certainly could revise it to say, If machine guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will have machine guns.
It tentatively seemed wiser to begin with steps toward creation of comprehensive databases tracking gun and ammunition purchase and ownership, combined with careful background checks, restoration of normal legal liability for gun manufacturers and sellers, and possibly a Swiss-type national militia licensing and training program. Such measures could eventually make it more difficult for the wrong people to acquire guns, or to keep using the ones they did acquire. At some point, it might be politically feasible and appropriate to turn the public discussion to the types and numbers of guns owned.
My impression was that, in general, the dangers of handguns outweighed their benefits and that, in particular, it did not make sense to permit continued public carry of handguns without proper licensure and training of owners and registration of weapons and ammunition. I felt such measures could help to reduce the risk of accidental or impulsive gun injuries and deaths, without depriving gun owners and the public of possible protection through public carrying of handguns.
These conclusions depended upon a firm rejection of the idea that gun ownership should be kept deliberately anonymous and untraceable, so as to facilitate armed revolution against the federal government. It seemed wiser — more constructive, less treasonous, and less suicidal — to urge aggrieved or worried individuals to seek change by peaceful means to the extent possible. It was not that I was always optimistic about peaceful revolution. It was that, at present, the time for a sensible, successful, and productive armed revolution appeared to lie very far in the future.