For those of my readers who don't know, I work as a volunteer at Wolf Haven International, a non-profit organization that works for wolf conservation and operates a sanctuary for wolves from captive situations. Mostly, I work as a tour guide, and that involves providing a fair amount of information on wolf ecology and behavior to our visitors. Perhaps what I don't fully appreciate is that the people I get on the tours are people who want to learn about wolves, and that there are many more people out there who harbor ideas about wolves which have zero basis in reality.
One of those people is Congressman Steven Pearce (R-NM 2nd). This past weekend, my wife showed me a column from the Seattle Times concerning wranglings in the House over the Interior Appropriations Bill for this year, during which Norman Dicks (D-Wa 6th) crossed swords with Pearce over funding for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, which Pearce wants to terminate. Here's the relevant passage:
To make his case, [Pearce] flashed a picture of a dead horse. The prized possession of an 8-year-old girl named Stacy, the horse was killed by wolves.
Pearce denounced the "feel-good feeling" among wolf supporters, saying he felt trapped in his house by wolves.
He raised the specter of wolf-borne rabies and told people to remember what happened to Old Yeller.
"The most provocative sound to a wolf is a crying baby or a laughing baby," Pearce said. Then he warned that wolves would snatch babies from their cradles.
"Their blood will be on your hands, my friend," Pearce said.
Dicks jumped. He demanded that Pearce retract his words or be reprimanded by the House speaker.
Pearce withdrew his statement, and his amendment failed 172-258.
Italics mine. Pearce deserved to get slapped, though less so, in my opinion, because of any offense caused to Congressman Dicks, and more because he was presenting fairy tales as fact to the House. First, let me deal with "the specter of wolf-borne rabies." It is important to remember that Old Yeller is, first, a work of fiction and, second, is set in 1869, prior to the development of vaccines and post-exposure treatments. Programs to reduce the incidence of the disease have been so effective that, during the 20th century, there were at most five documented attacks in North America on humans by wild wolves who were infected with rabies, of which two resulted in the victim dying (in both cases, the victims died of rabies, not from the wounds inflicted during the attack). All but one of these (including both fatal cases) took place in extremely remote areas, such as northern Alaska and Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Attacks by wild wolves on dogs are more frequent, but with rabies vaccination for dogs now not only being available, but mandatory in all fifty states, for a dog to suffer Old Yeller's fate would almost certainly require criminal negligence on the part of its owner by not having it vaccinated (as an estimated 50% of household dogs are not).
Second, the notion that wolves consider human infants to be some sort of delicacy and will "snatch babies from their cradles" is simply incredible. Pearce might as well be claiming that wolves will eat old ladies, dress in their clothes, and hide in their beds waiting for incautious grandchildren to visit. Unprovoked, predatory attacks by wolves are only slightly more common in North America than attacks by rabid ones. During the 20th century, 16 people fell victim to unprovoked attacks by wild wolves, none of them fatally. Only one of these, a 19 month-old, could fairly be described as a baby, who was not in its cradle, but seated on the ground 6 meters from its parents at a picnic area in the Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. There exists one documented case of a human being killed by wolves in an unprovoked attack in North America in over 100 years: Kenton Carnegie, a 22 year-old Canadian mining engineering student, who was killed in November 2005 in northern Alberta, near a uranium mining camp where the miners dumped their trash in an open pit close to the camp. The association by wolves of humans with food is the primary factor in causing predatory attacks.
Now compare these numbers to those inflicted by dogs. Every year, domestic dogs attack about a million people in the United States alone, of which 60 to 70% are children; some 16-18 people die annually as a result. In other words, dogs kill about as many people every year as wolves attack (not necessarily kill) in a century. Dogs are also the primary vector in transmitting rabies to humans; this in spite of the fact that the only thing preventing dogs from being vaccinated is the negligence of their owners. I'm not interested in hearing excuses: if you can't afford to get your dog vaccinated, you can't afford to own a dog, period. In short, dogs present a larger threat to humans than wolves do by several orders of magnitude. (Source for the aforegoing is the exhaustive study A fear of wolves: A review of wolfs [sic] attacks on humans by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.)
Where predation on livestock is concerned, we see a similar story: in the United States in 2005, wolves killed 4,400 head of cattle (~2.3% of predator-caused deaths); dogs killed 21,900 (~11.5%), five times as many. Even then, predator-caused deaths constituted 0.18% of the total production (source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, compiled by Sinapu, via AGRO).
The Mexican Gray recovery program is, contrary to Congressman Pearce's assertions, not a failure. It may yet become so, but if it does, it will not be because of the rapaciousness of the wolves, but because of the ignorance and stupidity of people like Pearce, who place more stock in fairy tales than in scientific research.
One curiosity regarding the issue of private ownership of firearms as a deterrent to oppression by state actors (and quasi-state actors) is the vehement opposition on the part of certain gun rights advocates regarding the United Nations' campaign to curb the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW). You might think that it's a fairly uncontroversial notion to try to prevent arms sales to warlords, terrorists and organized criminals, but if so, you aren't familiar with people like Wayne LaPierre (CEO of the NRA) and Dave Kopel. They have taken it into their heads that the aforementioned campaign is, in actual fact, directed largely at eliminating private ownership of firearms in the United States. If you don't believe it, buy Wayne LaPierre's book; sure, the list price is $25.99, but the man's done you a personal favor just by having written it, I tell you. Or you can get a free copy by joining the NRA (thereby helping to secure LaPierre's salary).
Predictably, this crap is founded on total ignorance regarding the United Nations; ignorance of the distinctions between the various bodies, ignorance of the powers accorded to those bodies, ignorance of how they operate and how they have exercised their powers in the past, etc. etc. Take this line from the "Book Description" of LaPierre's piece of drivel:
If you think there's no way an armed U.N. platoon of blue helmets can knock on your door to take your guns, this book just became your next must-read.
Please. Has LaPierre not read the papers lately? If he had, he would know that the Security Council cannot authorize the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces without the consent of the national government in question, which has been the primary obstacle to putting blue helmets on the ground in Darfur. And even though there's been a shift in thinking regarding actions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in the past decade or so, there will never be Security Council authorization for a deployment onto United States territory for the simple reason that the US would veto such a move. It's curious how American conservatives will dismiss the UN as being nothing but an ineffectual "talking shop" with one breath, and then claim with the next that the organization not only wants, but is more than able to override the sovereignty of the world's only superpower.
But a question that needs to be asked is: why would any other country want to disarm the American citizenry? The United States isn't Afghanistan or Liberia, where gun violence has repercussions for other countries (refugees, regional destabilization, drug/diamond trade, etc.), and every country with an arms industry or stockpiles of military-surplus rifles is only too happy to export their weapons to the United States for sale on the civilian market. That's a long list: China (Norinco), Germany (Heckler & Koch, SIGARMS, Walther), Russia (Baikal and Remington's SPR line), Brazil (Taurus), Belgium (FN Herstal), Austria (Glock), Italy (the Beretta group), the Czech Republic (CZ), Serbia (Zastava, via EAA), Turkey (which manufactures shotguns and pistols for American and European companies). For such countries, ending private ownership of firearms in the United States would provide no benefit, and obvious losses in export revenue and jobs. Don't expect any coherent explanation from LaPierre and Kopel.
Kopel, for his part, seems detemined to prove that "the UN" (as if it were a monolithic entity) is evil, knowingly pursuing policies which will very probably result in mass murder, even genocide. An article from 2003, co-authored by Kopel and titled "When Policy Kills," has the following as its opening paragraph:
The spread of illicit arms and light weapons is a global threat to human security and human rights," insists United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. But it would be far more accurate to say: "The U.N.'s disarmament policy is a global threat to human security and human rights." It was the U.N.'s lethal policy that was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents in Srebrenica in 1995.
In 1993-1994, I worked on the S-3 Section (operations and training) of the headquarters of the parent brigade of all three rotations of Dutchbat to Srebrenica, and was tangentially involved in the deployment of the first two. I knew quite a few people from Dutchbat III, and naturally took an interest when the enclave was overrun in July 1995. From 1999 until 2001, while working at the ICTY, I provided technical support to investigators and prosecutors in the Krstić case (IT-98-33), making seized Bosnian Serb army documents available to them in searchable electronic format. In short, I know a thing or two about Srebrenica; certainly enough to state with authority that Kopel's article is a tendentious exercise in intellectual dishonesty, selectively citing evidence, quoting out of context, and obfuscating the order of events in order to support a predetermined conclusion.
Most importantly, let me address the claim that UN policy "was directly responsible" for the massacres which occurred in the wake of the VRS (Vojska Republike Srpske—the Bosnian Serb army) overrunning the Srebrenica enclave. Later in the article, Kopel and his co-authors cite the book Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. They should, therefore, have been familiar with chapter 20 ("The Hottest Place") of that same book, from which I draw the following quotes (1996 edition, emphases in italics mine):
In March , after hearing the news that the Srebrenica defenders had run out of ammunition, the Commander of the Bosnian army, Sefer Halilović, warned the UN Force Commander Philippe Morillon that a Serb offensive was about to begin, and that the Muslims in Srebrenica were in no position to defend their territory. [p. 266]
At the beginning of April , the Serbs issued a surrender demand through the UNHCR. The Bosnian Army was given a forty-eight-hour ultimatum. The most senior UNHCR official in former Yugoslavia, José Maria Mendiluce, attended talks in the town of Bratunac, from where the assault on Srebrenica was commanded. "Either they surrender and you get all the Muslims out of Srebrenica," the Serb Commander, Ilić, told him, "or we take the town in two days." Mendiluce started making plans for the evacuation of an estimated 60,000 people. It was to be the biggest single act of ethnic cleansing since the conflict began, and it was to be carried out by the UN. Mendiluce made no effort to hide the moral repugnance with which he approached the task he was now expected to carry out. "We denounce ethnic cleansing worldwide," he said. "But when you have thousands of women and children at risk who want desperately to be evacuated, it is my responsibility to help them, to save their lives. I cannot enter into any philosophical or theoretical debate now. We just have to save their lives." [p. 268]
[On the night of April 14th], Serb forces pushed through the Bosnian lines to the south and east of the town. They stormed the village of Zeleni Jadar on the southern edge of town. The Bosnian defensive positions, such as they were, collapsed. The push brought the Serb ring-of-steel to the very edge of the town. From their hill-top positions, almost every street was visible. [Ham radio operator] Ibrahim Bećirević radioed to Sarajevo—again in coded messages—that the town was hours, rather than days, from collapse. [p. 271]
As the quoted passages illustrate, the ability on the part of the enclave's defenders to mount an effective resistance had ceased to exist well before the creation of the "Safe Area" in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 819, which was passed on 16-Apr-1993, at 2300 New York time (by which time it was already 0500 on the 17th in Bosnia). Kopel's assertion that the massacres would have been averted were it not for the UN's intervention is demonstrably false; indeed, they would have occurred 27 months earlier than they ultimately did, and might have been significantly more vicious, given the Serbs' rancor over the Muslim attacks on Serb villages surrounding the enclave over the previous winter.
For that matter, the assertion that the demilitarization of the Srebrenica "safe area" took place due to any UN policy is a fiction. Demilitarization of the enclave was a demand made by Ratko Mladić, commander of the VRS, in exchange for halting the assault; negotiations regarding the cease-fire and demilitarization between Mladić and Halilović took place in Sarajevo on 17-Apr-1993 (and lasted into the early hours of the 18th), but the arrangements for these negotiations had already been made prior to the passage of resolution 819 less than 12 hours earlier. It's worth noting that none of the resolutions establishing the Safe Areas (819, 824 and 836) call for disarmament of those within the Areas.
The very process by which the Safe Areas were created illustrates, moreover, how there is no monolithic "UN" which pursues policies with one mind. The following description is taken from Blood and Vengeance by Chuck Sudetic:
As dawn broke over Bosnia on Saturday, April 17 , Sarajevo radio's morning news bulletin reported that the UN Security Council had just passed a resolution calling for the Serbs and the Muslims to treat Srebrenica as a UN "safe area." The choice of this term, "safe area," was a part of a diplomatic compromise. Led by Diego Arria of Venezuela, diplomats from countries that belonged to the Non-Aligned Movement and supported Bosnia's Muslim-dominated government, had summoned the Security Council members together at four o'clock Friday afternoon New York Time and demanded that the UN military force in Bosnia be given a mandate to fight to protect Srebrenica's people. They wanted the council to put Srebrenica under UN protection. When France, Britain and other European countries with troops in Bosnia inquired whether the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement would be willing to produce the soldiers and money needed to defend Srebrenica by force of arms, Arria and his colleagues agreed to scratch the words "protected area" from the draft resolution, and with them the demand for military action, and insert in their place the words "safe area."
The debate on this amended draft resolution dragged on for hours behind closed doors. The British and French delegations warned time and again that the UN Security Council should never make, or even seem to make, promises it could not keep; but the diplomats from the Non-Aligned movement countries refused to withdraw the resolution or delay the vote until after the negotiations on Srebrenica's demilitarization, which were to begin Saturday afternoon in Sarajevo. [...] The diplomats who wrote and voted in favor of UN Security Council resolution 819 did not bother to define the term "safe area" or identify just who was supposed to make it safe. The resolution did not delineate any territory. It did not hint at the duty the UN owed the safe area or the people inside it. [p.206]
Following the rejection of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP) by the Bosnian Serb parliament on 06-May-1993, the Security Council passed resolution 824, declaring the towns of Žepa, Goražde, Bihać, Tuzla and Sarajevo to also be safe areas. Sudetic writes:
The countries of the Non-Aligned Movement seized the opportunity to renew their demand that the Security Council give the UN military force in Bosnia the mandate and the means to defend the safe areas if the Serbs attacked. This issue came to a head a month later, during the closed-door discussions preceding the passage of Resolution 836, the Security Council's most controversial decision concerning the Bosnian war.
France, Russia, Great Britain, and Spain, the very countries whose ambassadors had given the firmest public assurances that Resolution 836 would guarantee the security of Srebrenica and the other safe areas, had inserted language into the resolution that hollowed out the apparent duty of the UN military force to protect them. The resolution was intentionally crafted to say that the UN military force would only "deter" attacks against the safe areas; and the wording says nothing explicit about fighting to protect or defend them.
The frustrated diplomats from the Non-Aligned Movement countries understood that the resolution had no backbone. But they exacerbated the situation by demanding that, since the UN military force was not going to be required to defend the Security Council's safe areas, the council should at least require General Mladić to withdraw his forces from around the areas and allow Bosnia's army to maintain its presence inside them to provide a modicum of protection. The rest of the Security Council members accepted this compromise wording and thereby presented Muslim commanders with the opportunity to mount offensive operations from within the safe areas and leave it to the UN commanders on the ground to persuade Mladić that it was not a good idea to retaliate against the Muslims.
The commander of UN forces in the entire former Yugoslavia, a Swedish general named Lars Eric Wahlgren, warned the Security Council that garrisoning the Safe Areas with sufficient troops to provide a credible deterrent against Serb attack would require some 34,000 troops, at a projected annual cost of $1.7 bn. In this he was backed by the then-Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Kofi Annan, as well as Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali. The Security Council, however, refused to listen, and plumped for the "Light Option," authorizing only 7,600 troops to man the Safe Areas. Or perhaps they did listen, since none of the member states on the council volunteered so much as one of their own soldiers for the job.
At this point, national pride and a certain measure of esprit de corps require that I respond to some more of Kopel's claims. First, this one:
A large share of the blame for Srebrenica was placed on the Dutch government and ill-prepared Dutch "peacekeepers," as detailed in an April 2002 report by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. Dutch prime minister Wim Kok — and his entire cabinet — resigned in shame a week later.
A quick perusal of the report summary shows that the report in fact attached no blame to Dutchbat III, stating:
It performed its task, but that came nowhere near the desired effect. This is more the fault of the inadequate resources and the policy of the UN and UNPROFOR. Dutchbat grew less and less able to carry out its task.
Insofar as the report placed blame on the Dutch government, it was for committing the infantry battalions of the 11th Airmobile Brigade to a job that everybody else had refused to take. The report placed the blame for the massacre squarely where it belonged: at the door of the VRS. The report's conclusions, in and of themselves, were not sufficiently severe to cause the collapse of the "Purple 2" coalition government. The fact was that the coalition had already become unstable previously due to various internal conflicts, and the report was, depending on whom you ask, either the straw that broke the camel's back or a convenient pretext to pull the plug.
Later, Kopel claims:
[I]ndeed, on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces entered Srebrenica without resistance from Bosniac or U.N. forces; not a shot was fired.
This is technically correct, in that neither the ABiH 28th Operational Group nor UNPROFOR Dutchbat III fired a shot on 11-Jul-1995. Kopel, however, glosses over the fact that the VRS assault started five days earlier, and that during the intervening period both the Muslim and Dutch troops did, in actual fact, offer armed resistance to the VRS. From the aforementioned NIOD report, Part III, Chapter 6, Sections 10 and 12:
At around 05.00 hours [on 10-Jul-1995], the ABiH launched a counter offensive in the direction of Pusmulici, at the height of Zivkovo Brdo and Zeleni Jadar. Some ABiH units succeeded at Zivkovo Bdro to attack the rear of the VRS and to isolate them, while other units attacked the VRS as a decoy. The counter offensive was successful and forced the VRS to withdraw. [...] The joy amongst the ABiH was short lived. The VRS brought reinforcements and launched a fresh assault in the afternoon. In the battles that ensued, sections of the ABiH lines were unable to withstand the assault. According to ABiH reports, there was even hand-to-hand fighting. The VRS shelled the lines forcing large numbers of ABiH soldiers to abandon their positions. That resulted in disorganisation and breaking up of units. [...] The early-morning victory of the ABiH was therefore a temporary one and could not be turned into real gain and the effect of the ABiH counter offensive was lost.
At 19.13 hours [on 10-Jul-1995] Hageman [second in command of B-Company and commander of the Dutchbat blocking position] was instructed by [B-Company commander Captain] Groen to withdraw blocking position Bravo 1 in the direction of the city’s market square. After that the teams of blocking positions Bravo 3 and Bravo 4 also began to withdraw towards the market square in Srebrenica. [...] While withdrawing Bravo 4, Lieutenant Mustert ordered direct .50 machine gun fire on the VRS units across the open terrain on foot. His intention was to secure the withdrawal by forcing the VRS to take cover. [...] Bravo 3 received a report from the ABiH to the effect that approximately eighty VRS infantrymen were hidden behind the crest of a hill and would presently become visible. Hageman then instructed Lieutenant Van Duijn to fire over the heads of the VRS as soon as they appeared on the crest of the hill to make them aware of the UN positions. The Bosnian Serbs then retreated beyond the crest of the hill and out of sight. [...] Hageman ordered the Bravo 1 crew to fire the .50 machine gun over the heads of the Bosnian Serbs. After that they did indeed fire using approximately half a case of ammunition, before the APC in question pulled back to two hundred metres from the market square.
Evidently, Kopel needs to learn that when you cite a source, it's a good idea to actually read it first.
Kopel's piece is, frankly, simply incoherent. He asserts that "the U.N.'s disarmament policy" facilitated the Srebrenica massacre by stripping those inside the enclave of the means with which to defend themselves. Yet he also notes that "While the U.N. peacekeepers had collected some of the Bosniacs' weapons, the Bosniacs retained the better ones" with which, to paraphrase Sudetic, the Muslim commanders could mount offensive operations from within the safe areas, thereby inviting Serb retaliation. So according to Kopel, the safe areas were a death trap because those within had been disarmed, and because they had not. He holds up the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone as an example of an outlaw armed group against whom the UN failed to act effectively, but condemns the Programme of Action which is intended to make it more difficult precisely for groups like the RUF to acquire weapons. Evidently, Kopel approached this piece from a preconceived dislike of "the UN," and is seeking to rationalize it by latching onto any complaints (real or imagined) he can conjure up, even when those complaints are mutually exclusive.
As a former UN staff member, I would be the last to assert that the United Nations system is without its flaws. But to understand the mistakes "the UN" has made in the past, one has to understand how the system is set up, and this, critics of "the UN"—such as Kopel and LaPierre—refuse to do. First, one has to understand that "the United Nations" is not a monolithic entity, but is actually composed of almost all the nations of the world (hence the name). The Secretary-General's job is not to set policy, but to carry out the policy formed by those member states currently serving on the Security Council, and to make matters worse, the member states which take part in setting policy are not actually obliged to provide the means to implement it. The "Safe Areas" policy provides a highly illustrative example, with the Non-Aligned Movement pushing for a robust mandate but not willing to put their own troops in harm's way to enforce that mandate; and if Britain and France thought resolution 819 was such a bad idea, why didn't they just use their precious veto power to stop it? This is the biggest problem with the UN: the tendency of its member states to declare a collective responsibility to take action, but to shirk their individual share of that collective responsibility, and to blame "the UN" for failing to act (a process which Dutch journalist Linda Polman has described as "blue rinsing"). After all, when everybody is to blame, nobody is to blame; except, of course, whoever was fool enough to let himself get stuck actually trying to do the job everybody else said needed doing (but didn't want to do themselves).
Given this culture, it is not unreasonable to be skeptical about some large-scale initiative conducted under the aegis of the UN; to ask questions, like "what exactly do you mean by 'illicit'?" But LaPierre and Kopel aren't interested in asking questions because they've already made up their minds. By pointedly ignoring the presence of the word "illicit" in the name of the UN Conferences on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, they are deliberately missing the point; furthermore, by opposing any measures to limit access to firearms by terrorists and other organized criminals, they are being, to paraphrase George Orwell, objectively pro-crime.
An important claim made by gun rights advocates in justifying the private ownership of firearms is that an armed populace acts as a deterrent against "domestic usurpations of power by rulers," foreign invasion and, more recently, terrorist attack. Indeed, when the president of the NRA describes the right to keep and bear arms as "the right protecting all the others," she is claiming that private ownership of firearms is not only a necessary condition for guaranteeing a free polity, but a sufficient condition.
I've spent the past week reading John Lott's More Guns, Less Crime, the conclusions of which I found less than compelling, and Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control by Gary Kleck and Don Kates, which I thought more persuasive, and as a result, I find myself more favorably inclined towards minimal restrictions on private gun ownership, though not quite to the same degree as the authors. For instance, Kleck (who, it should be noted, is a non-gun-owning liberal Democrat) argues that a system of licensing gun owners would provide no added value with regards to curbing crime, as conducting background checks as a part of legal firearms sales would achieve the same result without creating a de facto database of gun owners which might be exploited by a hypothetical future repressive government intent on disarming potential dissidents. Kleck states:
The government could issue certificates of nonfelon status, based on background checks as thorough and prolonged as one could want, without retaining lists of persons receiving the certificates, and then merely require that prospective gun buyers present an up-to-date certificate before a gun could be transferred. Under such a system, there would be no government-controlled list of gun owners generated. Likewise, certificates of completion of a gun safety course, or of residency, could be issued without any government retaining lists of recipients.
In fairness to Dr. Kleck, Armed was published in 2001, before it became apparent that a sufficiently ruthless executive, provided it received no opposition from a Congress controlled by members of its own party and a gutless Supreme Court, could circumvent the checks and balances notionally provided by the Constitution (resulting in warrantless NSA wiretaps, FBI "National Security Letters" et al.) and, even if discovered, get away with at most a token reprimand (and subsequently renege on the promise not to do it again). In June 2001, John Ashcroft imposed a policy requiring records of NICS background checks be destroyed after one day (rather than ninety, as was then standard), but six years later (and post-9/11), would you still trust the Bush administration if it claimed that it had not retained personal data of subjects of gun purchase background checks, thereby generating a "government-controlled list of gun owners"? Without adequate safeguards, any government power can be abused. It is tempting to argue that, in that case, the government should be stripped of that particular power, but this is unrealistic in this instance. After all, even in the most minarchist "night watchman state" model, the state exists at a minimum to provide law enforcement, which certainly includes curbing violent crime.
It strikes me, moreover, that relying on a "background check/certificate" system alone requires law enforcement to make the wholly unwarranted assumption that any citizen found in possession of a firearm must have purchased the weapon legally, when in fact said citizen might very well have acquired the gun in question by stealing it, or buying it from a fence, thereby side-stepping the background check. I doubt anyone will disagree when I say that the removal of firearms from criminals is a legitimate objective of public policy, though gun rights advocates will insist that the pursuit of this objective should not result in restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens to legally own guns. A reasonable enough demand in the United States, given the Second Amendment, but it does mean that law enforcement agencies need to be provided with the tools to distinguish between legally and illegally owned firearms; in practice, this means that they must be able to verify that the citizen with whom they are dealing is not barred from owning firearms (due to a prior felony conviction, history of mental illness, etc.).
This might be resolved by enabling individual law enforcement officers to run checks on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System—in effect giving them the ability to run the same kind of check that firearms dealers do—but, as I understand it, the NICS isn't always "instant," and provisions exist for the contingency that a check may take more than three days to complete. In many jurisdictions, background checks are waived if the purchaser can produce a CCW permit (or the local equivalent), as these require a more extensive background check to acquire. Would it then not be simpler to institute a system to license prospective gun owners, and have that license take the place of background checks (and any other certifications) on each purchase? Provided such licenses would be subject to "nondiscretionary" approval (that is, issuance should be mandatory if the applicant met the requirements), and would not be prohibitively expensive (and clauses were incorporated into the appropriate legislation prohibiting subsequent imposition of "discretionary" licensing or increasing the license fee beyond the rate of inflation), they should no more infringe upon the citizens' right to keep and bear arms than the current system does, and be no more vulnerable to abuse than the current system (arguably less so, since licensing does not create a record of every sale of a firearm).
Even such a notion, however, is anathema to the NRA leadership (the NRA is sufficiently large that I do not assume its leadership speaks for the entire membership in every respect), let alone more radical organizations like the Gun Owners of America (GOA) or Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO). Part of their objection is based on a "slippery slope" argument, to the effect that moderate gun control measures will pave the way for more far-reaching controls, and, possibly, ultimately complete prohibition of private firearms ownership. To a certain extent, they have a point; examples abound of prominent gun control advocates welcoming moderate restrictions as "a good first step in the right direction," and many of the arguments their organizations present do not only support such restrictions, but outright prohibition as well. On the other hand, existing restrictions—such as those prohibiting persons who have been convicted of a felony or have a significant history of mental illness from owning guns, tightening controls on licensed firearms dealers, and requiring background checks for firearm sales by licensed dealers—have not led inevitably to more stringent gun control legislation; or at least, none that did not come with a sunset clause, like the 1994 federal ban on "assault weapons" and "high-capacity" magazines. But even if the gun control opponents were entirely correct, and even the slightest gun control measure were to lead inevitably to total prohibition of private ownership, would that also inevitably lead to imposition of a tyrannical regime, while leaving the populace incapable of revolt? One might think so, but only if one were utterly and wilfully ignorant of the history of every country except the United States.
In 1929 the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, approximately 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915-1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, 13 million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and others, who were unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million "educated" people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
That places total victims who lost their lives because of gun control at approximately 56 million in the last century. Since we should learn from the mistakes of history, the next time someone talks in favor of gun control, find out which group of citizens they wish to have exterminated.
The assertion is made that these people died "because of gun control." There are three major flaws in this litany. The first two are ones of logical fallacies, to wit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy ("victims [...] lost their lives because of gun control") and a hasty generalization ("some governments imposed gun control to facilitate mass murder, therefore all governments who seek to impose gun control do so in order to facilitate mass murder"). The third is more subtle, as it lies in an unstated premise: for the litany to make sense, you have to assume that imposition of gun control legislation alone automatically results in the disarmament of the citizenry. In the case of China and Cambodia, however, the governments that conducted the exterminations were not the ones that had imposed the gun control measures in question; in both countries, non-state actors (the Communist Party of China and the Khmer Rouge) managed to seize power by force of arms, in both cases inexplicably unhampered in any way by their possession of those arms being illegal for over a decade.
Given its demonstrable falsity, then, why have this unstated premise at all? Because without it, one might be forced to confront the question how it is that the victims, had they been armed, would supposedly have been able to successfully resist being exterminated, but powerless to resist having their firearms confiscated in the first place. Assuming that all the examples listed are accurate (which is next to impossible to verify, as trying to Google any of them brings up countless reiterations of this litany and genuine information is utterly buried, if it is present at all), we have a string of repressive regimes imposing gun prohibitions on selected segments of their population for reasons which must, even at the time, have been fairly transparent. Does anyone honestly believe that in Germany in 1938—after five years of Nazi rule which had seen the banning of left-wing political parties and the rounding up and incarceration of their members, the forced sterilization of the "racially unsound" and the 1935 Nuremberg laws stripping Jews (and other "Non-Aryans") of their citizenship—any Jew, Communist or homosexual who still owned a gun thought to himself "oh, this is clearly a measure aimed purely at improving public safety; I'd best pop down to the police station this afternoon and hand in my guns"? Or that in the Soviet Union in 1929, after the devastating civil war, the brutal crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion, Stalin's abandonment of the New Economic Policy and his demagoguery against "Nepmen" and "kulaks," any gun owner would have regarded the imposition of more stringent gun controls as anything other than an attempt to facilitate yet another wave of state repression? Of course not. So one way or another, the gun control laws in question didn't make a difference, either because the target population didn't own guns to begin with (because, for example, they couldn't afford them) or because the offending government had the means to disarm them by force, or a combination of the two.
The fact is that private ownership of firearms is not a sufficient condition to guarantee freedom from tyranny, and historical examples abound to illustrate this fact. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the present-day border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina marked the confrontation line between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and able-bodied males on either side of the frontier were armed and trained in order to resist any incursion by the opposing side. Yet neither population ever threw off the yoke of their own overlords. The same area saw a series of localized peasant rebellions in 1949 and 1950, in response to Tito's adoption of Stalinist policies of agricultural collectivization. The rebels had no heavy weapons, but they did have plenty of small arms; gun ownership had long been common in the Balkans, for the purposes of hunting and providing protection against wild animals and bandits, and many of the rebels had fought as Partizans during the war and retained their weapons. Each of these rebellions was, however, repressed by Ministry of the Interior police troops and regular army in a matter of days (with mopping up taking a few more weeks), their leaders were executed, and a government clampdown was imposed on the district in question. In every case, the rebels had been unaware of the other rebellions taking place. Smaller-scale, though more tenacious, uprisings occurred in Romania throughout the 1950s.
Alternatively, we could look at the Arab world, where private gun ownership has long been commonplace in such bastions of democracy and respect for human rights as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Frankly, the ignorance of the folks over at Enter Stage Right is painfully evident from the fact that their anti-gun control gear features an image of Saddam Hussein; even after the (failed) uprisings in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, gun ownership in Iraq continued to be practically universal. Even in Basra, a predominantly Shi'ite city which had been a focal point in the rebellion, there were, on average, two guns per household prior to the 2003 Coalition invasion. Typically, at least one of those guns was an AK-variant (and not some watered-down, semi-auto-only "assault weapon" suitable for the American market, but the original selective-fire model). Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of small arms in Iraqi society, it ultimately took an invasion by foreign armed forces to knock Saddam from power.
What of the supposed success stories? Vietnam and Afghanistan are cited with depressing frequency as examples of a force of armed citizens defeating the military might of a superpower. In both cases, of course, the force of armed citizens operated from bases outside their own country, and received a steady stream of weapons from the other superpower. Nor, in either case, did the successful repulsion of the hostile superpower result in a free and democratic society; the reunification of Vietnam put the North Vietnamese Communists in charge of the whole country, while in Afghanistan, the factions who had fought the Soviets turned on each other, paving the way for the Taliban takeover in the 1990s.
There is, of course, one success story which does stand up to closer examination, namely the American Revolutionary War, though even this is not as unalloyed a victory for the armed citizenry as is all too often contended. Certainly, in the opening stages the colonial militias of the Puritan colonies of New England operated with sufficient effect to cause the British forces to evacuate that region, and militia activity throughout the war denied the British permanent control of the countryside. But the militia alone was incapable of forcing a decisive strategic victory, a fact which was acknowledged even before the battle of Bunker Hill, and reinforced by the Patriot defeat at that battle. Ending British colonial rule required the formation of the Continental Army, composed of full-time soldiers, and ultimately substantial foreign assistance, including use of French ports and the assistance of the French fleet. That is not to say the militia did not play a crucial role in the conflict, but before we see this as a vindication of the gun rights advocates' position, we must take certain matters into consideration. The effectiveness of the militia cannot be attributed solely to its members possessing firearms; training, organization, and experience from the French and Indian wars played at least as large a part. At the time that, as Emerson put it, "embattled farmers [...] fired the shot heard around the world" at Concord on 19-Apr-1775, those farmers were part of an armed force in which every able-bodied man had been required to serve since 1636, many of whose officers and senior NCOs were veterans of the French and Indian war (which had ended twelve years previously), and which had been training intensively (up to three times a week) for the past year to prepare for the day a confrontation like this would come about. The "minutemen" regiments, which formed the colony's rapid reaction force, had been instituted at the command of the Provincial Congress, which had also asserted control of all arms and military supplies in the colony(!), thereby setting a precedent for Massachusetts' present-day attitude toward gun ownership.
Similar considerations also apply to another example so beloved of gun rights advocates, Switzerland. The deterrent to invasion presented by the Swiss militia arguably has less to do with the fact that Swiss reservists are required keep their army-issue weapons at home—the ammunition issued with the weapon is not a full combat load, but only that deemed necessary for self-defense while traveling from home to the assigned assembly point, which implies that even Swiss soldiers are not considered to be fully "under arms" until they reach said assembly point—than with the fact that Switzerland has long had a highly comprehensive defense plan, including an extremely high level of organization and training on the part of the (again, conscripted) militia, demolition charges planted at strategic bridges, tunnels and mountain passes etc.; all of this set in a mountainous terrain, which greatly favors the defender. It should be fairly obvious that 450,000 Swiss reservists defending Switzerland would present a significantly more difficult challenge to an invading army than 450,000 NRA members (or even double that number) defending, say, Kansas. [Update: Switzerland is considering tightening its guns laws after two incidents of multiple shootings involving army-issue firearms.]
Obviously, if one intends to mount an insurgency against a repressive government or foreign invading or occupying power, it helps to already have some guns on hand in advance. But it's not a sufficient condition for success, nor is it a necessary condition. For example, if the film is to be believed, Michael Collins initially acquired most of his weapons by stealing them from the British. Similarly, the Soviet partisans managed to be a thorn in the Germans' side from 1941 until 1944, Stalinist gun control measures notwithstanding. Conversely, the black American civil rights campaign of the 1950s and 1960s managed to achieve its goals using tactics of nonviolence. Note that I say "tactics," rather than "principles"; King, like Gandhi before him, opted for nonviolent methods, not because his conscience would not countenance armed revolt, but because he judged that the latter would alienate potential key (i.e. white) sympathizers. And King was demonstrably correct in this; how many street names, counties and federal holidays are dedicated to Huey Newton? Even though gun control is supposedly racist, the right to keep and bear arms didn't help MLK, and it didn't help Huey Newton either.
The latter raises another question: if the Second Amendment does indeed exist to enable "the people" to revolt against and overthrow their government, who gets to make the decision to do so? What are the criteria by which the criminal justice system is supposed to distinguish legitimate rebellion, as supposedly provided for in the Constitution, from simple criminal activity? Presumably, the framers of the constitution did not intend to provide a legal defense for anyone who killed a county sheriff or town constable. Indeed, we can divine the contemporary attitude regarding rebellion from the government response to Shay's Rebellion of 1786 and especially the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794; in the case of the latter, Washington and Hamilton personally led the militia that crushed the uprising.
Apart from domestic tyrants and foreign would-be occupiers, of course, there's the threat of terrorism. Gun rights advocates argue that an armed citizenry will be capable of halting terrorist attacks in progress, before they can realize their full damage potential. One example often heard is of three (presumably Palestinian) terrorists who opened fire on a crowded cafe in Jerusalem, and found their plans thwarted when many of the civilians returned fire, killing two of the terrorists and incapacitating a third. A second is of a Palestinian gunman who opened fire on people waiting at a bus stop in Ashdod; again, Israeli civilians produced concealed weapons and opened fire, killing the assailant. In both instances, only one civilian was killed. These examples do indeed provide some support for the pro-gun position, but it is by no means a slam-dunk. For starters, the examples date from 1984 and 1994, respectively; two examples over a twenty-five year period does not provide a very strong basis for the formulation of public policy. And while enabling citizens to shoot back does, in fact, appear to have put a halt to attacks by gun-wielding terrorists, it has not halted terrorist attacks, but instead caused a shift in methods to suicide bombings. In addition, of course, the advantages must be weighed against the fact that Yigal Amir used a handgun licensed to his brother, Hagai, to assassinate prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; a murder with severe repercussions for the peace process. Moreover, in attempting to apply these models to American society, it has to borne in mind that there are significant differences with Israeli society; first, due to various factors, the threat presented to the average Israeli by terrorist activity is significantly higher than to the average American, and second, because Israel has universal conscription for men and women, with frequent call-ups for reservists, the state has a significant measure of oversight and control over how much firearms training its citizens get.
Since the horrific events at Beslan in September 2004, the specter of a possible repeat performance, this time on an American school, has loomed large in pro-gun rhetoric. Without privately owned guns, the children would be defenseless, just as they were in North Ossetia. But here's an article from the Sydney Morning Herald:
"From the start, (authorities) weren't doing things right," said Artur Belikov, 35, attending a wake at the graves of his relatives Albina Budayeva, 38, and her three-year-old daughter, Valeria. He said armed locals charged ahead of special forces troops to prevent them from moving in.
Another Beslan resident who called himself Robert said he arrived soon after the siege started and stood guard throughout the entire standoff.
He demurred when asked how he got the gun he used since private citizens aren't normally allowed to keep weapons in Russia. However, the myriad of conflicts that have erupted since the 1991 Soviet collapse have made weapons easily available.
And yet, this knowledge evidently did not deter the terrorists. So did the armed civilians at least make a positive contribution? Not according to the Washington Post:
[Alexander Torshin, chairman of the parliamentary investigation commission] said the security services had failed to create an effective cordon around the school, which allowed residents, some of them firing weapons, to break through police lines to try to save their children. While the anguish of parents was understandable, he said, it hampered an effective police operation.
This is consistent with the passage in the SMH story (which was published shortly after the massacre, while the WaPo story is from December 2005) about "locals charg[ing] ahead of special forces troops." The SMH story also notes:
The siege left 11 soldiers from Russia's elite special forces units dead, according to official statements - their largest number killed in a single battle. Some reports have said they were shot in the back by overanxious locals at the scene.
Oops! Another WaPo piece from the same date corroborates the latter claim, stating that "in the chaos, armed civilians accidentally shot several members of Russia's special forces." But it gets worse. From BBC News:
A key negotiator from the school siege in Beslan, south Russia, has said shooting by armed civilians provoked the final slaughter of the hostages.
Ruslan Aushev told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that the civilians had opened fire at the school after an explosion sent children streaming out. [...]
The shooting by the irregulars - described by Mr Aushev as an "idiotic third force" - started a chain reaction, he said.
Suddenly, the idea of armed civilians getting involved in hostage crises loses some of its appeal, doesn't it? There's the possibility of arming teachers, of course, but there were 32 or more terrorists at Beslan, presumably all well trained and/or experienced, and armed with assault rifles. How effective could a few teachers with concealed handguns possibly be, especially if the terrorists were forewarned of the possibility that the teachers might be packing? A change in the law allowing teachers to carry concealed in the classroom would be in all the papers, and it's dangerously complacent to think that terrorists don't read newspapers. So wouldn't they anticipate the possibility of teachers offering armed resistance by simply shooting the teachers first, and checking for concealed weapons later? The teachers will never have the initiative when they're focused on teaching a class (which is, after all, what they're there to do, not playing security guard).
What I am arguing here is not that private gun ownership can never be helpful in deterring or resisting tyranny, invasion and occupation, or terrorist attack; what I'm arguing is that the beneficial effects are by no means certain—that guns might be of help, not definitely would be—and an appeal to such effects should be not be given excessive consideration in formulating public policy. By which I mean that they should not be dismissed out of hand, but it should be understood that envisaged situations may never occur, and that the effectiveness of weapons in private hands will be limited. And that has to be weighed against the likelihood of some private citizens abusing the powers they have been given, and the resulting harm. No matter how you slice it, mass shootings—like those at Virginia Tech, Trolley Square Mall, West Nickel Mines School, the Seattle Jewish Federation, Seattle's Capitol Hill, and Red Lake High School, to name the notable incidents of the past two years—are the elephant in the room where private gun ownership in America is concerned. Yes, mass shootings constitute (much) less than 1% of gun homicides, let alone total homicides, even in the worst years, but they do constitute a phenomenon which conspicuously occurs far more in the United States than anywhere else, even when one takes into account differences in population. I think, though, that it's simplistic in the extreme to attribute this fact solely to the legal availability of guns in American society. In principle, the murderers in the incidents listed above all really shouldn't have possessed the guns they used: Talović (Trolley Square Mall) and Weise (Red Lake High School) obtained their guns illegally; Huff (Capitol Hill) had had his guns confiscated when he was charged with felony criminal mischief (shooting at a statue of a moose in Whitefish, Montana), but had them returned after he plea-bargained the charge down to a misdemeanor; Haq (Seattle Jewish Federation) had been diagnosed as being bipolar, and Cho (Virginia Tech) had been suspected of being "an imminent danger to self or others" by a district court; it's a safe bet that Roberts (West Nickel Mines School) had known issues as well, that should have resulted in his being disqualified from owning firearms, if only somebody had bothered to take action. The fact, nobody ever "just snaps"; there always turns out to have been a slew of "pre-incident indicators" (as Gavin de Becker terms it), often including one or more people thinking "that guy's going to kill somebody someday." Theoretically, the laws required to prevent the aforementioned spree killers from owning guns are already in place. Convicted felons and the mentally ill are prohibited from owning firearms under federal law, but the problem is that the law does not take into account the possibility of plea-bargaining to a felony charge down to a misdemeanor charge, and requires that a person judged mentally ill be involuntarily committed to a mental health care facility before he is disqualified from owning firearms. Possibly, the answer is to amend the existing law that felonies involving use of a firearm should not be permitted to be plea-bargained to less than a felony, and that disqualification on the grounds of mental disturbance be expanded to not necessarily require the subject being committed (though, as I suggested in my previous post, there should be a way to appeal such a decision).
While I'm on that topic, though, something I thoroughly oppose is this: on 26-Apr-2007, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), in response to a legislative proposal from the Department of Justice, introduced a bill which would disqualify "prohibit terrorist suspects from purchasing firearms." No, no, a thousand times no; this is exploiting right-wing bullshit regarding terrorism to push left-wing bullshit regarding gun ownership, and the primary victims will be due process and, by extension, the rule of law. There is a crucial difference between "terrorist suspects" and ordinary "criminal suspects," namely that "criminal suspects" are people who are suspected of having committed a crime which has actually (already) taken place, whereas "terrorist suspects" are people who, according to certain parties within the executive branch of government, might commit an unspecified act of terrorism at some unspecified future time, based on no clear criteria. Leaving aside whether or not you think this should be the case, the right to keep and bear arms is a constitutionally guaranteed right, and it's a very bad idea to start stripping people's constitutional rights on the basis of suspicion alone, especially ill-defined suspicion. Sure, the bill supposedly "includes due process safeguards that afford an affected person an opportunity to challenge a denial by the Attorney General," but no matter how you slice it, this still translates to "guilty until proven innocent." And proving oneself innocent can be tricky, given that the bill also "protects the sensitive information upon which terrorist watch list listings [sic] are based" by permitting the Attorney-General to withhold from the petitioner any information the release of which would, according to the Attorney-General, "likely compromise national security," and to submit only "summaries or redacted versions of documents" containing such information to the court. We've seen how wonderfully federal watch lists have worked with the TSA's "No Fly" and "Selectee" lists, and the same argument applies here: if the government has probable cause to suspect someone of criminal activity, that person should be arrested, charged and prosecuted; if not, that person should be left alone. This is one issue where I side with the NRA, and I'm sad to say that I've read a few too many left-wing bloggers who welcome this as an erosion of private gun ownership without recognizing the fact that it is also an assault on due process; one in a long line under this administration.
That, perhaps, is what makes me most skeptical about the assertion that the right to keep and bear arms is "the right protecting all the others": we've had warrantless wire-taps, we've had a US citizen (Jose Padilla) held for several years without being charged, we've had abuse of National Security Letters, we've had the undermining of the right of habeas corpus and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment with the Military Commissions Act, all utterly undeterred by the presence of 270 million guns in private hands.
I am so very disappointed in The Economist this week. Or, to be more precise, in the lead editorial. In response to the spree killing last week of 32 people by Cho Seung-Hui, the leader asserts that the only thing that can help prevent this sort of massacre is increased gun control. That's not an unreasonable claim to make, but the piece gives the impression that the author has swallowed without question a large number of gun control lobby's talking points. For openers, take the description of Cho's primary weapon, a Glock semi-automatic pistol (in this particular instance, the 9mm model 19); The Economist states this is:
a rapid-fire weapon that is available only to police in virtually every other country, but which can legally be bought over the counter in thousands of gun-shops in America.
Glocks are not significantly more capable of "rapid fire" than any other weapon which can be fired as quickly as one can pull the trigger, including double-action revolvers. Nor is their ownership typically limited more than any other semi-automatic handgun; Robert Steinhäuser, the gunman in the 2002 mass killing in Erfurt (Germany), used a Glock 17 which he owned legally. A perusal of Dutch-language internet discussion boards dedicated to shooting sports indicates (licensed and registered) Glocks are by no means unusual in Belgium and the Netherlands. The larger-framed models like the 17L and the 24 are used for competition shooting, and they are mechanically identical to the smaller models. I'm honestly surprised that old canard about Glocks not showing up on metal detectors wasn't repeated as well. Perhaps the author was unwittingly confusing Glocks in general with the model 18 specifically; sale of this model is restricted to government agencies, since it is capable of automatic fire. But because it is selective-fire, its manufacture or importation for civilian use has been prohibited in the United States since the passage of the Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986, and since production of the Glock 18 started at most a year or two earlier, very few, if any, are in civilian hands in the United States (and those that are require a "Class III permit").
Let's move on to this passage, towards the end:
In poll after poll a clear majority [of Americans] has supported tightening controls. Very few Americans support a complete ban, even of handguns—there are too many out there already, and many people reasonably feel that they need to be able to protect themselves. But much could still be done without really infringing that right.
The assault-weapons ban should be renewed, with its egregious loopholes removed. No civilian needs an AK-47 for a legitimate purpose, but you can buy one online for $379.99. Guns could be made much safer, with the mandatory fitting of child-proof locks. A system of registration for guns and gun-owners, as exists in all other rich countries, threatens no one but the criminal. Cooling-off periods, a much more open flow of intelligence, tighter rules on the trading of guns and a wider blacklist of those ineligible to buy them would all help.
Almost none of the recommendations given here would have made one iota of difference to the events at Virginia Tech. Cho did not use an "assault weapon," but two handguns (and The Economist concedes that there are legitimate reasons not to ban those). Child-proof locks don't stop the person who owns the guns, the best evidence for this being that the Walther P22 (Cho's secondary weapon) is fitted with an integrated trigger lock. Registration allows guns found at a crime scene to be readily traced to their owners, but in the case of spree killings like this one, the perpetrator doesn't need to be traced, since he (it's almost always a he) is still on the scene, dead either by his own hand or by police fire; there is a good case to be made for registering guns, but preventing spree killings is not part of it (as demonstrated by the spree shootings in Hungerford, Dunblane, Emsdetten and Erfurt, all of which were conducted with registered guns by licensed owners). Cho purchased the Glock over a month before the killings, so evidently a "cooling-off" period wouldn't have helped either. Moreover, Cho bought the guns from Roanoke Firearms, a "regular" gun shop operating openly out of a storefront (and thus readily subject to scrutiny by the relevant authorities), not from a "kitchen table dealer," a private seller, or a "straw buyer."
The one thing that realistically could have made it difficult (though not impossible) for Cho to acquire his weapons would have been the last option listed, i.e. widening the criteria which would exclude an individual from purchasing firearms. In a very real sense, however, the law which would have prevented Cho from legally acquiring firearms was already in place: federal law already prohibits the sale of firearms to those "adjudicated mentally defective" and Cho was arguably already suspected to fall into that category. As the accompanying article in The Economist states:
A district court found reason [in late 2005] to believe him "mentally ill" and "an imminent danger to self or others" and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric test. But the examination found "his insight and judgment are normal" and he was discharged.
I would not want to be the psychiatrist who signed off on that evaluation. I'm loth to condemn anyone on the basis of 20/20 hindsight, and that includes the psychiatrist in question, but right there we see that there was a safeguard, only it failed. The flaw in the system may be that the psychiatrist was reluctant to declare Cho mentally ill because that would have resulted in Cho being committed, and the psychiatrist judged that Cho's condition was not sufficiently severe to merit that and/or felt that Cho would not have benefited from being committed. Perhaps, then, the answer is to amend the law so that a psychiatrist can recommend an individual can be barred from possessing firearms, even if his condition is not so severe as to merit involuntary commitment to a mental health facility (provided there is a process by which the individual in question can appeal such a decision, since evidently psychiatrists cannot be relied upon to be accurate 100% of the time).
At this point, I need to make a small aside to deal with this sentence:
No civilian needs an AK-47 for a legitimate purpose, but you can buy one online for $379.99.
First, the claim that you can buy any type of gun online is misleading. You can buy a firearm from an online distributor, but it must be delivered to a federally licensed dealer in your state of residence, and that dealer is required to conduct the legally required background checks etc. and get you to fill out the infamous BATFE form 4473 before he can hand over the weapon to you. Unless you hold a Federal Firearms License, it is impossible to legally purchase a firearm on the internet and have it delivered directly to you, no questions asked.
Second, what with this "needs" business? Baseball bats and golf clubs can be (and often are) used to commit acts of violence, and nobody needs them for a legitimate purpose, in that nobody needs to play baseball or golf. Why don't you play Wiffle Ball instead, if you need the exercise? Nobody needs sports cars either, or motorcycles; for transporting people or cargo, there are much more efficient options available, and the speed of which these vehicles are capable only encourages irresponsible driving, which will almost inevitably result in people being killed. Nobody needs to drink alcohol or take drugs, either. Sure, for the most part, these substances harm only the user himself, but some people are incapable of handling them responsibly, and become violent, or socially dysfunctional, and harm others as a result. FBI statistics indicate that "assault weapons" were never involved in more than 1% of gun crimes, even before the imposition of the 1994 ban; their fearsome reputation is almost entirely based on media hype. One of the tenets of liberalism is that the fact that a small number of people cannot use a particular good or engage in a particular activity responsibly is insufficient reason to prohibit it to the entire populace. "Assault weapons" are no different. Frankly, I find it strange that a newspaper like The Economist, which trumpets the supposed merits of the classic liberal free-market economy at every opportunity, is prepared to ditch those principles without a second thought when it comes to a product it doesn't care for. As Penn Jillette put it in the episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on recycling, "everybody got a gris-gris."
I hope I've made it clear in previous posts that, in my opinion, the key to reducing violent crime (especially lethal violent crime) is to control (would-be) gun owners, not particular types of firearm. All the gun owners I know, I would trust with any kind of small arm, including those capable of automatic fire. By contrast, if I found myself in a dark alley confronted by a mugger, it would make me feel no safer that this miscreant were using a revolver rather than a semi-automatic pistol, or a double-barrel shotgun rather than an "assault weapon." And, lest I had not made it clear, I am not interested in results which are measured solely in "reductions in gun violence"; this is a hollow phrase too often employed by gun control types to mask the failure of policies they support, namely by claiming success when stabbings and stranglings take the place of shootings, and the body count does not drop (like in Australia; see previous entry).
If we can draw any lesson from the Virginia Tech shootings, it's that "Gun-Free Zones" are ineffective at providing any actual protection. That is, without the will and the means to enforce them they won't stop a crime, and enforcing them effectively would probably require violating the Fourth Amendment in a major way. Not that I think the claim made by many gun enthusiasts—that allowing concealed carry on-campus would have prevented much of the bloodshed—is much more realistic; I mean, it's possible, but equally, one can imagine scenarios of concealed carriers shooting each other, or being shot by police while attention was drawn away from Cho, etc. That said, though, I do understand people refusing to accept that they should be rendered incapable of defending themselves from a spree killer like Cho, and instead be forced to rely on the police, whose timely arrival is by no means guaranteed. I'm not saying it's absolutely correct; I'm saying it's understandable, and such concerns do need to be addressed, and not with some "your gun can be easily turned against you anyway" bullshit like the Brady Campaign peddles.
And, ultimately, for better or worse, the right of the people to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution. That doesn't make it unassailable, but only by nothing less than a constitutional amendment; anything less would set the very ugly precedent that the Constitution can simply be bypassed. And in a political climate where organizations like the ACLU already have to fight tooth and nail against infringements on the separation between church and state, and the right of habeas corpus, that is not a precedent I want to see set.
My primary motivation in writing this series of posts on the Second Amendment has been to reexamine my own opinions on the issue of private ownership of firearms, and reformulate them on the basis of the best available information. Accordingly, in researching these posts, I have waded through a lot of material put out by both gun enthusiasts and gun control advocates, and the single most valuable observation I have come across was Dr. Gary Klecks' invocation of Sturgeon's Law, namely that 90% of everything is crap. In the first installment, I remarked upon the "extensive amounts of 'fact sheets' [...] larded with statistics supposedly refuting the other side's 'myths' and presenting the reader with the ostensible 'truth.'" Where these are concerned, Sturgeon's estimate was, if anything, conservative.
Propaganda is information disseminated for the purpose of influencing opinion. Note that the information does not necessarily have to be false, and most propaganda isn't; at the same time, most propaganda doesn't give the full story either, but only the bits which will lead the reader to draw the desired conclusion. The only hesitation I have in labelling these "fact sheets" as propaganda is that it doesn't so much seem to be intended to influence opinion among those who do not yet subscribe to the disseminating party's position, as to reinforce it among those who do. Whether this is a cause or an effect of the polarization of the gun control debate is a question I cannot answer. I can say that, for someone possessed of some measure of critical thinking ability and fact-checking skills who is trying to find some decent information on which to build his opinion, it is highly frustrating to keep running into the half-truths, selective quoting, obfuscations and fallacious reasoning that makes up these "fact sheets." Thus, in this installment, I am going to take a short break from trying to be constructive, and indulge my urge to give some selected samples of these "fact sheets" a well deserved fisking.
Let me turn first to the topic of gun control in Australia. Following a series of spree killings from 1984 to 1996, culminating in the "Port Arthur [Tasmania] massacre" of 28-Apr-1996, Australian states (under pressure from the federal government) tightened their firearms laws considerably, banning the ownership of semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic shotguns and pump-action shotguns in all but a few cases (and engaging in a massive "buy-back" program); requiring registration of all other legally held weapons; requiring gun owners to acquire a license to keep firearms; and imposing more stringent requirements on storage of firearms and ammunition. Because of broad similarities between Australian and American gun culture, activists on both sides of the gun control issue in the United States have looked to Australia as a test case, and both claim the results vindicate their position. They can't both be right, but is either?
First, for the pro-gun control side, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence:
Has anything changed in Australia since the new laws went into effect? Homicides committed with firearms have been declining – from 21 percent of all homicides in 1997 to 16 percent in 2002-2003.
Along with the declining use of firearms in homicide, Australia saw a 44% decline in the use of firearms in armed robberies from 1993 to 2003. From 1997 to 2003, the proportion of robberies committed with a firearm dropped from 10 to 6 percent.
Suicide rates using a firearm dropped 48% between 1991 and 2001 and firearm-related accidental injuries in Australia are also declining.
[Emphases in original.] First, note what the Brady campaign's "fact" sheet does not say: it does not say that the total number of homicides and robberies (armed or otherwise) decreased. That's because they didn't. According to one of the cited sources, Australian Crime: Facts and Figures 2004, in the four years following the imposition of the tighter gun laws, the number of homicides and armed robberies remained more or less stable, while assaults and unarmed robberies increased. Moreover, that same source notes (in fig. 11, p. 17) that "the percentage of homicides committed with a firearm continued a declining trend since 1969." Got that? The percentage of homicides committed with a firearms had been declining for almost thirty years before the firearm controls were enacted, and looking at the trend curve in the graph, it strongly appears that the tighter gun laws had no effect on this trend. When we take a closer look at the source cited for the decline in suicides by firearm, "Firearms related deaths in Australia, 1991-2001", a similar pattern emerges. Most of the 48% decline cited by the Brady Campaign occurred before the firearms controls were enacted; indeed, looking at fig. 1 and table 1 in that publication, it's clearly visible that, from 1998 onwards, the downward trend ceased and the number of suicides using guns stabilized. The Brady Campaign's "fact" sheet doesn't cite a source for the claim that firearms related accidental injuries declined, but the aforementioned "Firearm related deaths in Australia, 1991-2001" shows no decrease in the number of firearms related deaths, indeed, the highest number in the period covered occurred in 2000 (45 killed), and was half again as many as the second and third highest numbers (30 in 1996 and 29 in 1991, respectively).
So was increased gun control in Australia a success? That depends how you look at it. Note that the Brady Campaign's goal, according to its name, is "to Prevent Gun Violence," not necessarily to prevent violence in general. Now, if your objective is limited to preventing people being killed specifically by use of guns, then the Australian firearms controls were mostly ineffective; any reduction in the "death by gun rate" (i.e. the percentage of violent deaths inflicted using a firearm) was part of pre-existing trends anyway, and those trends were not accelerated by the tighter gun laws. But most people (or so I would like to think) aren't amenable to the idea of gun control for the sake of limiting gun violence per se, but because it will—hopefully—curb violent crime overall. From the perspective of these people, the Australian gun control measures were an abject failure; homicide and armed robbery were not reduced as a result, while assaults and unarmed robbery increased. This makes the conclusion of the Brady Campaign's "fact" sheet all the more galling:
The next time a credulous friend tells you that Australia actually experienced more crime when it got tougher on crime, offer your friend a Fosters and a helping of truth.
This is where the Brady Campaign goes from lying by omission to lying by commission: the truth is that Australia did experience more crime following the tightening of its firearms laws, at least according to the sources cited in the Brady Campaign's "fact" sheet. Words fail me to describe the degree of smug, self-satisfied arrogance that must have gone into writing that, especially since the author was relying on his readers to be the credulous ones, lest they actually check his cited references to see what they really said.
Nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between "failing to do good" on the one hand, and "doing harm" on the other. Guy Smith's Gun Facts is the most cited "fact sheet" on the gun enthusiasts' side, and even though it's nowhere near as arrogant as the Brady Campaign's, it's still pretty mendacious. On the issue of Australia, see p. 53:
Crime has been rising since a sweeping ban on private gun ownership. In the first two years after gun-owners were forced to surrender 640,381 personal firearms, government statistics show a dramatic increase in criminal activity. In 2001-2002, homicides were up another 20%.
Remember how I mentioned the trends in "death by gun rate" predated the enactment of the firearms controls? Similarly, the increases in crime which followed the imposition of those controls were part of another trend which also predated those controls. Violent crime in Australia was on the rise prior to 1997, and while increased gun control didn't slow it down, it didn't accelerate it either. The language here is deliberately deceptive. Yes, in 2001-2002, homicides were up 20%... compared to the previous year only; the cited reference qualifies that figure by noting that:
the overall number of homicides in Australia each year tends to be low, and this recent increase is not statistically significant. [...] [A]lthough 2001–2002 had the highest ever number of deaths in the NHMP database (381 victims), in the previous year (2000–2001) the lowest number of homicides was recorded (317 victims).
Emphasis mine. Homicides weren't up another 20%; they were up 20% from the lowest ever recorded number of homicides, which occurred three years after the tighter gun laws were introduced (not that this proves the tigher laws were effective, given that the following year saw the highest ever recorded number of homicides). The NHMP report goes on to state:
Between 1 July 1989 and 30 June 2002, despite yearly fluctuations, the rate of homicide in Australia has remained relatively stable.
So Gun Facts cites the two data points which support its claims, while concealing the fact this was an exceptional instance, which was, moreover, not statistically significant, according to the cited source. Gun Facts also states:
Fact: Gun crimes are rising throughout Australia after guns were banned. In Sydney alone, robbery rates with guns rose 160% in 2001, more in the previous year.
The cited reference is an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which does not support the "160% increase" assertion; instead, it says that "robberies with a firearm rose by 34.1 per cent across the state," which is markedly less. The article also states the reason for the increase in robberies:
Four areas of Sydney have borne the brunt of the rise, which has been blamed largely on a heroin drought driving up prices and pushing addicts into more desperate robberies.
Emphasis mine. The Gun Facts claim is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The fact is that both the pro-gun and anti-gun publications are misleading; the imposition of tighter gun control in Australia failed to have any obvious effect on violent crime or fatal accidental shootings either way. The matter of suicides is a bit more complex; as I noted, from 1998 onwards, the percentage of those suicides that were committed with a firearm remained more or less stable (contrary to the Brady Campaign's implication). However, since during the same period the suicide rate showed a downward trend, it is highly likely that the absolute number of firearm suicides also dropped. But while I think trying to reduce the number of suicides is commendable, I believe the legitimate way to do this is by addressing the desire (i.e. by trying to prevent or stop people from wanting to kill themselves), rather than by restricting access to the means. When a gun control advocate argues (in so many words) that the state should prevent its citizens from owning firearms in order to stop them from intentionally killing themselves, that person is essentially arguing against the individual right to self-determination; in this instance, the right of people to with their own bodies as they see fit. That's a "pro-life" argument, and I'm pro-choice (and not just when it comes to abortion). Besides, the most common method of suicide in Australia is by hanging, strangulation or suffocation; thus, anyone genuinely concerned with limiting suicides should place a higher priority on restricting access to rope, scarves, neckties, belts, plastic bags and pillows than on restricting access to firearms.
Moving on, now, to the Brady Campaign's "fact sheet" on Women and Guns.
For years, the gun industry and gun lobby have perpetrated the myth that owning guns will protect women from violent crime. [...] Separating out facts from myth makes clear that women are endangered rather protected [sic] by the proliferation of handguns.
Sounds promising, if you don't read too closely...
Myth: Guns protect women from gun violence.
Fact: Rates of female homicide, suicide and unintentional firearm death are disproportionately higher in states where guns are more prevalent.
Notice the "bait and switch" here: the supposed "myth" is that gun ownership will protect women from violent crime. Suddenly we're talking about "gun violence," a term which handily excludes threatened or actual assaults with blades, blunt objects or unarmed personal force, all of which qualify as "violent crime", while including self-inflicted harm, which (intentional or otherwise) is not normally considered to be a criminal act. Note also that the excerpt speaks of "states where guns are more prevalent," not "states where gun ownership among women is more prevalent." From the abstract of the cited reference, it is not apparent that this distinction was a factor in the study in question, and may thus reasonably be assumed to not have been. Hold on to this thought, as I'll return to it later (when the question of how many women own firearms comes up).
Fact: In the US, regions with higher levels of handgun ownership have higher suicide rates.
Although women have higher rates of depression than men, it is the handgun-suicide connection, rather than depression, that accounts for higher suicide rates.
Again, what this has to do with violent crime is beyond me. When we speak of violent crime, we think of assaults, robberies and homicide; harm intentionally inflicted on others, not on oneself. This alone renders this "fact" a red herring, but it bears examination anyway, just to illustrate some of the pseudoscientific methodology that produces studies which support gun control positions.
Let's take a look at the cited reference, the article "Association of Rates of Household Handgun Ownership, Lifetime Major Depression, and Serious Suicidal Thoughts with Rates of Suicide across US Census Regions," which appeared in Injury Prevention 8 (2002). Note that the authors, Matthew Miller and David Hemenway, also conducted the study on women and gun violence cited earlier. I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Miller and Hemenway state they began:
[...] with three explanatory variables, which are included in all analyses: rates of household handgun ownership, lifetime prevalence of major depression, and lifetime prevalence of serious suicidal thoughts. We also add a fourth explanatory variable—which is (1) the percent of the population living in metropolitan areas, or (2) the percent with at least some college, or (3) the percent unemployed, or (4) the per capita alcohol consumption. These four control variables are added, one at a time, to regressions that include (as independent variables) the prevalence of household handgun ownership, lifetime suicidal thoughts, and lifetime major depression (that is, these regressions have four rather than three independent variables).
Ultimately, they conclude that:
After controlling for major depression and suicidal thoughts (and any of the four additional control variables), handgun ownership rates remain significantly associated with the overall suicide rate.
Note that there are two factors Miller and Hemenway did not control for: first, how long the handgun had been in the household prior to the suicide taking place; and, second, the number of failed suicide attempts. As attentive readers of the works of Michael Shermer will acknowledge, "correlation does not imply causation." Still, one cannot readily dismiss the causal relationship between handgun ownership and suicide, but one can query which way the relationship runs. The implication of Miller and Hemenway's conclusion, as worded, is that handgun ownership makes one more inclined to commit suicide. Another post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, if you ask me. It strikes me that a more plausible interpretation of the data is that individuals contemplating suicide who live in areas with higher prevalence of handgun ownership (and thus increased availability of handguns) are more likely to resort to these weapons as their chosen method of committing suicide; if they don't have one, they go out and buy one. And since handguns are an easier, more reliable and more fast-acting means of inflicting self-harm than most alternatives, such individuals are more likely to be successful than those who resort to hanging, slitting their wrists, overdosing on sleeping pills, and what have you.
Back to the "fact sheet."
Myth: Handgun ownership increases women’s ability to defend themselves.
Fact: In 1998, women were 101 times more likely to be murdered with a handgun than to use a handgun to kill in self-defense. Women were 302 times more likely to be murdered with a handgun than to use a handgun to kill a stranger in self-defense. Women were 83 times more likely to be murdered by an intimate acquaintance with a handgun than to kill an intimate acquaintance in self-defense.
Another "bait and switch," as the statistics fail to even address the "myth," let alone refute it. The only effective counterargument possible would consist of demonstrating that women who keep handguns for self-defense are equally likely to be victimized as women who do not. In fact, given the claim in the cited reference (a VPC "study") that "handguns don't offer protection for women, but instead guarantee peril" (emphasis mine), one may reasonably demand evidence that keeping a handgun results in a greater likelihood of being victimized. The numbers presented do not support any such assertion.
First, the murder victims are not broken down into those who had ready access to a handgun at the time of the attack and those who did not. In fact, the source document does not explicitly define "woman" for the purposes of this comparison, leaving open the distinct possibility that the murder victims include females too young to legally own a handgun. Now, someone without ready access to a handgun at the moment she is attacked has practically zero chance of using one to defend herself against her assailant. Handgun murders of women do occur, so the chance of such an event is greater than zero. Where x is any finite number, x / 0 = ∞ (infinity); i.e. someone without a handgun is infinitely "more likely to be murdered with a handgun than to use a handgun to kill in self-defense." That the factor by which a woman is more likely to be murdered is a finite number, rather than infinity, can be attributed only to the fact that some women do have ready access to a handgun; ergo, the presented "fact" only serves to demonstrate that the notion that "handgun ownership increases women's ability to defend themselves" is anything but a myth.
That the ratio remains so disproportionate may be explained, to some extent, by a number of factors. As the VPC "study" observes, "handgun ownership among women was, and remains, uncommon." The number of adult women in the United States who own a handgun has been fairly stable since 1980, generally fluctuating between 6% and 8%. So for every woman who has some (i.e. more than zero) chance of shooting an assailant, you've got another 11 to 15 who do not. Moreover, that's only adult women, i.e. those eligible to legally own a handgun. The statistics on criminal victimization maintained by the Bureau of Justice Statistics start at age 12, so the pool of potential murder victims includes 12-20 year-olds, who are prohibited by federal law from purchasing handguns and handgun ammunition, making it unlikely that these women will have a handgun available. Note that I've been talking of "ready access to," rather than "ownership of" handguns. This is because a woman who owns a handgun will not necessarily have it available all the time; for example, if she lives in a "may-issue" state where concealed carry permits are rarely issued, like California or Massachusetts, or a state which prohibits carrying a firearm in public altogether, like Illinois, she may have to leave the weapon at home when she leaves the house. But most importantly, for a homicide to be justifiable, one has to be reacting to a threat, which means that the threat has to manifest itself first. That means a criminal assailant, by definition, has the initiative. As Massad Ayoob writes in his book The Truth About Self-Protection,
Criminals come in tight and poised and hyper, already prepared to kill to get what they want. The citizen reacts from "a state of peace," and even under the worst circumstances is reluctant to take the life of fellow human being.
But at least a prospective victim who is packing has a chance of reacting effectively, even against an assailant with a firearm, whereas an unarmed victim does not.
Now, it might be asserted that the flood of statistics proffered in the VPC "study" support other arguments in favor of gun control. For example, one might argue that handguns are used in the commission of crimes far more than they are lawfully used to prevent or halt crimes, and that therefore there would be a net benefit to public safety to be derived from eradicating handguns. And perhaps that's true, but it is not the claim the Brady Campaign and the VPC make in this context, and one can only assume that the reason they don't make it is because they really have no evidence to support it. The motion under discussion here is that, all other things being equal, women are at greater risk if they own a handgun than if they do not; that is the motion put forward by the Brady Campaign and the VPC, and they can't even provide evidence to support that claim.
Next item on the Brady Campaign "fact sheet":
Myth: Guns protect women from rape.
Fact: Guns are rarely used by rapists - less than 2 percent of rapes are committed with guns, while almost 70 percent are committed with personal weapons (physical violence).
Ergo, a handgun gives a woman an advantage over a would-be rapist using only personal force or a hand-to-hand weapon.
Women would be safer knowing self-defense to fight off an attacker than using a gun which can easily be turned against them.
You what? At worst, this assertion is plainly sexist: "oh, the little ladies, God bless 'em, they couldn't possibly learn how to wield a handgun effectively; the big, nasty man would just take it away from them." At best, it displays a (wilful) failure to understand the factors involved in deciding to attempt to wrest a firearm from one's opponent when one does not have a firearm oneself. It is tempting to think that it is an easy thing to do, given that American law enforcement officers take seriously the risk that they might be shot with their own weapons, as indicated by the fact that LEOs are advised to wear body armor capable at minimum of resisting a bullet from their own service weapons. And this despite the fact that "weapon retention" training is increasingly a standard part of police training curricula nationwide. But cops are commonly known to be armed, and the uniformed ones carry their weapons openly on their duty belts; I would surmise that the majority of cases in which LEOs are shot with their own weapons involve the weapon being taken from the holster, rather than taken from the officer's hand. This surmise would appear to be borne out by the fact that holsters marketed by American holster manufacturers as "duty" models feature one, two or even three "retention devices" which have to be disengaged before the weapon can be removed.
These considerations hardly apply to a private citizen carrying a concealed handgun. Because only a small percentage of Americans adult are actually licensed to carry a concealed handgun, and because these weapons are—by definition—concealed, any assailant is unlikely to expect his prospective victim to be carrying (if he did, would he not be likely to seek out another, "softer," target?), and even if he did, the location of the firearm would not be readily apparent. Concealed carriers take great pains to keep their handguns well hidden, as "being made" by a fellow citizen can result in lengthy and uncomfortable conversations with law enforcement responding to a 911 call about "a man (or woman) with a gun." In Washington state, for example, it is a gross misdemeanor to "to carry, exhibit, display, or draw any firearm [...] in a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons (RCW 9.41.270)" and being convicted will result in the revocation of the offender's concealed pistol license (if he or she has one). It is unlikely that one would be convicted for this offense when one was making a demonstrable effort to not let the weapon be noticed, but deliberately drawing it is another matter. As a result, a concealed carrier who has familiarized herself with the law (and a large majority do, especially the women) knows that she is only legally justified in drawing her weapon when she reasonably perceives an imminent threat of unlawful force. What this boils down to is that is extremely unlikely that an assailant will ever have the opportunity to snatch his victim's firearm while it is still holstered (as he might with a police officer), since in almost all cases, the assailant will not discover his prospective victim is armed until she has identified him as a threat, has drawn the gun and is in the process of bringing it to bear on him. It is highly implausible that, at this stage, she is not anticipating the possibility that the assailant may try to gain control of her firearm, and is prepared to react accordingly. Admittedly, there is still a possibility that the victim may be unable to cope with the psychological stress of finding herself attacked ("paralyzed by fear"), or lack sufficient aggressiveness to inflict harm on her assailant, allowing him to overpower her anyway. But if that is the case, "knowing self-defense" isn't going to do any good either. Insofar as "knowing self-defense" is of any use at all; it takes extensive training to become effective in hand-to-hand fighting, especially against a larger, more aggressive attacker, and this requires a substantial investment of time and effort. A single four-hour (or less!) "self-defense workshop" just isn't going to cut it, and if anything, will do more harm than good by inspiring false confidence. Like it or not, guns are "equalizers"; with a modicum of training, a firearm allows even a person of the most diminutive stature to take down an opponent three times as big.
But what of the consequences of an assailant gaining control of the gun? What of the risk that he will turn the gun against its owner, and use it to threaten or kill her? Frankly, I fail to see how this scenario is any worse than what he would do otherwise. If the assailant is capable of overpowering his victim when she has a gun, he is certainly capable of overpowering her if she did not. If he is prepared to kill her with her own gun, he was already prepared to kill her by some other means, such as stabbing or strangulation. I honestly fail to see how the presence of a gun could make any such situation worse than it already would be.
Myth: Women need guns to protect against stranger rape.
Fact: Stranger rape is not the greatest danger for women as most women (75 percent) are raped by offenders known to the victim.
That leaves 25% of rape cases which are "stranger rape"; over 25,000 victimizations in 2004, down from almost double that in 1998 (source: BJS). "Not the greatest danger" does not equate to "no danger." Besides, according to the statistics presented by this same fact sheet, the ratio of women murdered by "intimate acquaintances" (with handguns) to women who kill an intimate acquaintance (with a handgun) in self-defense (83:1) is better than the ratio of women murdered to justifiable homicides (101:1). This indicates that, overall, women are more prepared to use lethal force against a would-be assailant who is known to them than against a stranger. The obvious explanation is that women are more prepared to shoot an abusive (former or current) boyfriend or husband, whom they know to be a scumbag, and are more reluctant to shoot someone they don't know and might be misjudging. In short, the "fact sheet" fails to demonstrate that guns are ineffective in protecting against "stranger rape," and shows that, if anything, they are even more effective against assaults by a person known to the women in question.
60 percent of rapes are committed against victims under the age of 18 who are forbidden by law to own a gun.
So the majority of rapes are committed against individuals who, in the estimation of the perpetrators, would almost certainly not be armed. Evidently, the possibility of a prospective victim being armed does have a deterrent effect, which is precisely what the Brady Campaign claims to be a "myth." I can only conclude that honesty demands the Brady Campaign's "fact sheets" be renamed "truthiness sheets."
That is still not to say that ownership of firearms is free of risk. By handling firearms negligently, one places oneself and (more importantly) others at risk, and a prime factor in fostering negligence is complacency. This is why I take issue with a great deal of the material produced by photographer Oleg Volk. A gun enthusiast, Volk has a talent for creating eye-catching propaganda, and his posters are popular with other gun rights supporters. Unfortunately, he is just as prone to operating from a sense of truthiness as gun control advocates, and this is expressed in the (possibly unwitting) use of logical fallacies, a tendency to gainsay, rather than address, the opposition's arguments, and a reprehensible disregard for historical fact. I want to make it clear that I have nothing against Mr. Volk specifically; I'm referring to his work because it is both representative of the more tendentiously misguided rhetoric of the gun rights movement, and because it is frequently encountered on pro-gun websites and printed matter.
The first example can be found on the front page of the website a-human-right.com, which he runs; this shows two identical images of a hand holding a Heckler & Koch USP, one labelled "A Liability," the other "A Useful Tool," while the title bar instructs the visitor to "Make a choice." The fact is, of course, that whether a gun is useful or forms a liability depends on the circumstances in which it is kept and handled; thus the "choice" is a false dichotomy, as the correct answer is "potentially either or both." It comes as no surprise, perhaps, that in Volk's opinion, choosing the answer "A Liability" is always incorrect. I feel that, by discounting legitimate concerns in this area, Volk assists in fostering complacency about the potential risks of improperly handled firearms. With regard to the issue of whether handguns increase women's safety, another contribution of his is no better: a poster titled "Asthma," found on his companion site. The poster depicts a woman sleeping in bed, while on her nightstand we see an asthma inhaler, right next to a Glock 9mm handgun. The text declares:
A woman living with asthma can't use pepper spray for protection.
She can't run away, either.
This gun keeps her safe.
People familiar with the name Vicki Childress would not necessarily agree with that last statement. Ms. Childress, of Key West, Florida, suffered from asthma, and kept her inhaler under her pillow, along with a loaded .38-caliber revolver. During a nocturnal asthma attack in October 1991, she reached under her pillow for her inhaler, and managed to pull the trigger on the weapon, shooting herself through the jaw. A gun does not provide safety if it is not handled with due care.
Another example of overstating safety benefits without giving due attention to the care and effort required to create that safety is this poster, which declares: "FUN! Shooting sports: clean, safe fun." And of course, it is perfectly possible to practice shooting sports safely, but any activity which involves pieces of lead being projected at supersonic speeds will always be potentially lethal, and only by applying
due care can it be made safe.
Another particular bee Volk has in his bonnet is the notion that there is no good reason to restrict sound suppressors ("silencers," to use the more common, though technically incorrect, term) for firearms. True, suppressors do serve to cut down on noise pollution, and protect shooters' hearing, but when he asks "Why restrict this basic safety accessory?" as if it were merely a rhetorical question, he is displaying a lack of realism. The primary deterrent to criminal activity is a perceived risk of capture. The sound of gunfire tends to advertise the commission of a gun crime in progress, which will bring law enforcement to investigate, which increases the chance of the perpetrator(s) being captured. Here's a scenario which may sound familiar: one or more robbers hold up a restaurant, generally near closing time; the robbers herd the employees, and any customers who may be present, into a freezer, and proceed to shoot them "execution-style." It should sound familiar: it's what happened at Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant in Palatine, Illinois in January 1993 (7 dead); at a Wendy's in Flushing, Queens, New York in May 2000 (5 dead); at a Jack in the Box in Mesa, Arizona in May 2002 (3 dead). Why this fixation with freezers? Because the insulation muffles sound, making it less likely that the shots will be heard and thus increasing the amount of time that the crime will remain unnoticed. To murderers like these, ready access to suppressors would be most welcome. And imagine the possible consequences of Cho Seung-Hui* having had suppressors on his weapons (a Glock 19 and a Walther P22). The fact that there are legitimate uses for suppressors is good reason not to ban them outright, but the fact that there are also plausible criminal uses for them is a legitimate reason to restrict them; one may consider that reason to not be sufficiently compelling, but don't pretend it doesn't exist at all. Besides, the AAC Evolution suppressor shown on that Glock 19 retails for $795 dollars; for that kind of money, you can buy several sets of top-of-the-line electronic earmuffs.
Volk subscribes to another meme propagated by gun enthusiasts, namely that "gun control is racist," based on the fact that the earliest gun control laws in the United States were part of Jim Crow legislation. This is a bit of a red herring, as the laws in question were transparently not intended to actually restrict private gun ownership in general, but to prevent blacks specifically from owning guns. In addition, this argument is akin to that subset of argumenta ad hominem now colloquially referred to as argumenta ad Nazium; these take the form of "you support X; Hitler (/some other Nazi/Stalin/Mao/Mussolini/Pol Pot/Idi Amin) supported X; therefore, you are morally equivalent to Hitler (/whoever) and your opinion is therefore not to be taken seriously." Problem is, because of the variety of murderous totalitarian SOBs in the 20th century alone, it's hard to take a position on anything and not be in the company of at least one dead dictator. For example, Hitler hated cigarettes, whereas Stalin and Mao were heavy smokers; either way, you're tainted. Unless, of course, we recognize this tactic of "guilt by association" for the fallacy it is.
My last peeve for this post concerns the use by many gun enthusiasts of the term "goblin" to refer in particular to home invaders, though it sometimes gets used to refer to other types of criminal assailant as well. I can only regard this as an attempt to dehumanize criminals, an impression which is supported by Volk's page on home defense. The text on this page talks of "predators" and "perpetrators," two images use the term "goblin" and another uses the term "trash," as if you have to be a different species, one less than human, to break into somebody's house. Now, I'm no "bleeding heart liberal" peddling a "criminals are humans too and it's society that is to blame" viewpoint; I spent more than three years working at the UN Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, dealing with man's inhumanity to man, and as a result of that experience, I actually shifted from being opposed to the death penalty in principle ("the state should not lower itself to murder on our behalf") to opposing the death penalty for practical reasons alone ("we can't guarantee we won't execute the wrong guy sometimes"). But I do believe there is a difference between someone who breaks into your house intent upon visiting assaulting, raping, even murdering members of your family on the one hand, and some dumb teenager who's only after your jewelery and electronics (and hasn't realized that the fact there's no car in the driveway doesn't mean everybody's out of the house) on the other; the problem is, they don't have obvious visible distinguishing features which obligingly permit you to tell the two apart. This is because (I'll let you in on a little secret known to D&D players here) there's no such thing as goblins. People who break into your house are still human, and if you condition yourself to think they're not, you're setting yourself up for homicide charges after you shoot someone whom you really didn't have sufficient justification to shoot.
I believe one the most effective ways to lose an argument is to overstate your case; after all, if you feel the need to exaggerate, you yourself evidently don't think your case will stand on its own merits, so why should anyone else? In the matter of guns, however, activists on both sides are guilty of overstatement, so we're still no closer to resolving the issue. Still, if there's one benefit to the gun control debate, it's that it gives you the opportunity to give your critical thinking ability a really thorough workout.
* - While I can't avoid being forced to comment on the Virginia Tech murders, what with their having taken place while I was in the middle of writing this series, I shall address the matter more fully in a later post.
In the first installment of this topic, I established what I understand to be the correct interpretation of the Second Amendment, namely that it established an individual right to own weapons, albeit to serve the collective purpose of creating a pool of armed citizens who could be mustered to respond to threats to the general populace and, by extension, the state which represents them. I left unaddressed the issues of the use of weapons for self-defense and deterring and/or resisting "domestic usurpations of power by rulers" (to quote Justice Joseph Story); it is the former of these two that I will turn to now, leaving the latter for a third installment.
The Second Amendment does not explicitly provide for the right to use the weapons a citizen may keep and bear for the purpose of self-protection, but it may readily be construed from constitutional "penumbras" (so detested by American conservatives where personal privacy is concerned, but readily embraced when it comes to matters of gun ownership), other law and historical evidence. First, the right to defend oneself against an assailant is well established in every legal system with which I am at least passingly familiar. However, while the right to self-defense may be uncontroversial, considerable variation may be found in which means are considered permissible. In the case of the United States, this is where historical context comes into play. It must be considered that from the beginning of the Colonial Era through to the end of the War of 1812, the militia was "enrolled"; that is to say, conscripted.
The Militia Act of 1792 required all free, able-bodied men ages 18-45 to serve in the enrolled militia and to provide their own weapons and equipment. (Michael Doubler, 2003, Civilian in Peace, Soldier in War: The Army National Guard, 1636-2000, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas)
In doing so, the Act essentially formalized into American law what had already been more or less the case prior to and during the gaining of independence*, and indeed in Anglo-Saxon culture going back centuries (as I noted in my previous post with regard to the practice of fyrd). In a context where the state requires a free man not only to bear arms in its defense, but also to acquire at his own expense the weapons he needs for that task, it would seem more than a little unreasonable to then forbid him to use those same weapons for the immediate protection of himself and his family. It must also be borne in mind that, for colonists in early American history, the distinction between defending oneself and defending one's community was largely a matter of degree; the problems colonists had to deal with, like bandit, pirate, Indian or (later) British raiding parties, presented a threat to the entire community, and participating in repelling such threats was simply a matter of enlightened self-interest, for even if such raiders did not (yet) specifically menace one's own residence and its occupants, it was only a matter of time before they got round to doing so. There was a long-standing tradition among New England Puritans that, following Sunday worship, the men left the church first; the reason for this was so that the men, who came to church armed (as required by law in Massachusetts from 1640 onwards), would be the first to meet any hostiles who might have come into town during the service, while the women and children remained in the comparative safety of the church (or, to use the correct term, meetinghouse). New Englanders were also legally obliged to provide armed assistance to law enforcement, in the form of the village constable, if the latter encountered a problem too great to deal with single-handedly.
However, this is the 21st century, not the 18th or the 19th; entire communities are no longer menaced by marauding groups of pirates or Native Americans, and even biker gangs are more of a threat to each other (fighting over illegal drug markets) than they are to the average citizen. Police departments are larger, and their members can usually call on the assistance of a special response team of some sort, be it the department's own SWAT team in large cities, or some kind of inter-agency unit (here in Thurston County, Washington, the local SWAT team is administered by the county Sheriff's Department, and composed of members of that department and various municipal police departments in the county). There are nonetheless legitimate arguments to be made why private citizens should not be prevented from owning, and using, guns for the purpose of self-defense. The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on numerous occasions that law enforcement agencies cannot be held accountable for failing to prevent crime, or intervene in those taking place. Even when, as in the case of Castle Rock, CO v Gonzales, said failure strongly appeared to stem from unwillingness, rather than inability, on the part of the police to adequately perform their job. When the state abdicates its responsibility to protect the life and limb of its citizens, those citizens may legitimately claim the right to perform that task themselves, and to do so with the most effective means available, which at present means firearms.
In an appendix to his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker argues, while not advocating gun control, that there is a practical need for what he calls "bullet control." While I disagree with the details of his argument (which mainly relate to gun locks), I think his principal point is valid. Bullets do not respect property lines, or make the distinction between legitimate targets and innocent bystanders. Given current population densities, the nature of construction materials used in American housing, and advances in firearm ballistics since the 18th century, discharging a firearm in an inhabited area is significantly more likely to lead to an innocent being hit than in the past. Gun advocates argue that the right to self-defense is predicated upon the human rights to life and security of person (as expressed, for example, in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; note that the UDHR did not establish the "classic" human rights, but rather, codified ideas which had been articulated during the Enlightenment at the latest). These latter rights, however, also grant persons the right not to be killed as a result of incompetent handling of firearms by their fellow citizens.
Even though many gun ownership advocates may be loth to admit it, no right is absolute. In a free society, as the United States purports to be (and which, to a very great extent, it still is, certainly more so than most, possibly all, others currently in existence), the freedom of any one individual or group can and must be limited to the extent that this freedom does not infringe upon the freedom of others, and vice-versa. We accept, for example, that the right to freedom of religion does not extend torturing or killing members of other sects which one's own considers to be heretics (as Massachusetts Puritans did to Quakers during the Colonial Era). As the saying goes, "your right [i.e. freedom] to throw a punch stops where my face begins"; a negligently discharged firearm throws the equivalent of a punch capable of traveling several hundred meters, penetrating one or more walls and killing a human being on the other side. John Stuart Mill, in the first chapter of his essay "On Liberty," states that:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
Emphasis in italics mine. The state, then, has a legitimate interest, acting on behalf of its citizens, to regulate ownership of firearms for the sake of limiting the likelihood of unintentional deaths resulting from unsafe firearm use by others. That doesn't mean I favor gun control measures, as that term is commonly used; in my opinion, the overwhelming bulk of restrictions imposed on gun owners with regard to what kind of firearms (and firearms accessories) they are allowed to possess utterly fails to address actual public safety concerns.
Here's a scenario I believe is preventable, and should be prevented: A man is at home, familiarizing himself with a newly bought handgun by "dry firing" it. Unfortunately, he has failed to properly clear (that is, remove all ammunition from) the weapon, and when he pulls the trigger, it discharges. The bullet exits the man's house, penetrates the house across the street, and strikes a female occupant in the head, killing her, and narrowly missing her eight month-old infant (who is left motherless as a result). This is not a hypothetical scenario: I took it from Kathy Jackson's page on safe dry fire**. It is also not a scenario that would have been prevented by any legal restriction advocated by the gun control lobby:
This incident illustrates that what is commonly understood under the term "gun control" largely misses the point when it comes to providing for public safety. The main threat to citizens' life and limb where guns are concerned stems not from any specific piece of firearms technology—be it magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds, pistol grips on long guns, or whatnot—but from irresponsible handling, both intentionally (i.e. deliberately using a firearm for criminal activity) and unintentionally (as in the aforementioned scenario). Ensuring that private owners are competent to handle firearms will go significantly further in cutting down on deaths and injuries inflicted by otherwise law-abiding citizens than limiting the types of firearms they can own.
That said, this incident also illustrates a fallacy in the rhetoric employed by "gun rights" advocates, namely that humanity is divided into "criminals" on the one hand and "law-abiding citizens" on the other, that ne'er the twain shall meet, and that public safety is best achieved by keeping guns out of the hands of the former while not in any way limiting the latter's ownership of firearms. The obvious problem is that, if those are the only two categories you allow for, the difference may be just a single negligent discharge, and a subsequent assault or manslaughter conviction, away. Conversely, in any country operating under rule of law, a person is not legally considered a criminal until he has, at the very least, been convicted of committing a crime; thus, measures designed to keep firearms out of the hands of convicted felons will not be effective on individuals who do not yet have a criminal record, but are acquiring a weapon which will be used in a crime at a future date. Very simply, there is no way to reliably distinguish a law-abiding citizen from a prospective offender. Or, indeed, a responsible gun owner from some idiot who's going to wind up shooting a neighbor or other bystander†. In addition, one cannot ignore cases of spree killers like James Huberty, George Hennard, and Mark Barton, who were "law-abiding" gun owners right up to the moment they went on the rampage, each murdering a dozen people or more.
I don't like the idea of restricting people's freedoms for acts they have not yet committed, and might never commit, but I am equally reluctant to accept that the only way determine that someone is mentally unfit to own a firearm requires that someone else be put in a body bag first. The answer the NRA proposes is heavier sentences for crimes involving guns; this is wholly inadequate for the types of shooters I've described. The deterrent effect of increased judicial punishment is dubious to begin with, but those who inflict injury or death due to negligent discharges do so unintentionally and are thus unlikely to have considered (much less be deterred by) the consequences of the crime they didn't intend to commit. At the other end of the spectrum, spree killers apparently tend to be motivated by an urge to kill as many people as they can before they either kill themselves, or are killed by law enforcement; you might as well try to deter a suicide bomber by threatening him that, if he succeeds, he'll be sent to prison.
And I do believe it's incumbent upon the gun rights advocates to come up with a solution, unpalatable though it may be, lest another, even less palatable one, be imposed upon them. Having read some threads about negligent discharges on gun owners' fora, I'm frankly appalled at the rather nonchalant attitude displayed by many gun owners. Admittedly, I don't know how representative these views are of gun owners as a whole, but I wouldn't want to live within two blocks of these particular people. Many gun rights advocates accuse proponents of gun control of believing that nobody can be trusted with firearms, except agents of the state such as military and police personnel. This is a straw man fallacy (with a dash of ad hominem, as it is implied that gun control advocates hold their opinions because they are "élitist" and/or "statist"), because really, all that is needed to justify the pro-gun control position is that some people can't be trusted with firearms, absent supervision by persons in authority. Given that, every year, there are several hundred unintentional firearm deaths in the United States (730 in 2003, 661 in 2004; source CDC), and probably thousands of non-fatal injuries caused by firearms‡ in addition, such a view is supported by evidence. Nor do gun control advocates necessarily believe that soldiers and policemen are inherently more trustworthy with firearms merely by dint of being agents of the state; the point is that, unlike private citizens, military and law enforcement personnel are required to periodically demonstrate that they are capable of properly handling a firearm, and are subject to at least some measure of scrutiny on the part of the hierarchy of which they are part to determine that they are psychologically stable enough to be trusted with arms and live ammunition.
Admittedly, the number of deaths and injuries inflicted, intentionally or otherwise, using legally possessed firearms (the overwhelming majority of guns used in crimes are acquired illegally) is a drop in a bucket compared to accidental falls (18,535 in 2004), contact with or exposure to toxins (19,250 in 2004) and the 500-pound gorilla of accidental death in America, motor vehicle accidents (46,933 in 2004; source for all three figures CDC, again, with similar figures reported for 2003). Still, for a person to be killed in one of these ways requires a certain voluntary assumption of risk on the part of that individual, by choosing to climb a ladder, or use toxic household chemicals, or participate in traffic. Moreover, because we assume such risks knowingly, we are in a position to take precautions to minimize the risk involved; to be forewarned is to be forearmed, and all that. But we rightly do not willingly and knowingly accept the risk that we might be injured, maimed or killed in our own homes, due to no fault of our own, but purely because some yahoo proved himself incapable of meeting the responsibility concomitant to the exercise of his Second Amendment rights. I am not a gun owner, but I handled firearms on numerous occasions during my (compulsory) military service, and I take pride in having scrupulously observed the safety rules for firearms during that period. I never came close to having a negligent discharge, and I expect no less from those who handle firearms by choice.
For its part, however, the gun control lobby misses the mark by not actually supporting measures which substantially address this concern. Instead, its members operate in an opportunistic fashion, seeking to get any type weapon banned which has recently been used in a high-profile shooting incident, thereby slowly whittling away at the Second Amendment, but without ever challenging it directly, for the lobby knows it would most likely lose such a confrontation. I am not unsympathetic to the position of people who support gun control in general; I believe the overwhelming majority are motivated by a sincere wish to prevent what they perceive to be unnecessary loss of life, though this motivation is often accompanied by a hefty dose of self-righteousness and selective reading of information (though it should be noted that the latter charge applies equally to many gun enthusiasts). The problem I have with the gun control movement is that the organizations at its forefront—the Brady Campaign, the Violence Policy Center, et al.—present highly tendentious, and sometimes downright mendacious, information to support their claims. In my book, if you have to lie and obfuscate to get your point accepted, you yourself evidently don't think it will stand on its own merits. So why should I agree with you?
If there is one phrase which highlights the dishonesty on the part of both extreme sides of the gun ownership issue, it is the slogan "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." On the one hand, this is a gross oversimplification on the part of the gun rights lobby. The overwhelming majority used of guns used in crimes in the US may be acquired illegally, but the primary source for the black market is theft from private owners. The Houston Chronicle conducted a four-part special report on guns in America in 1997. One segment describes how the black market operates:
The street gun trade is inextricably tied to the street drug trade, say Texas convicts.
Addicts burglarize homes and trade stolen guns for drugs. The dealer sells the guns to the more brazen carjackers and robbers. A murder weapon dumped in the bayou is quickly and easily replaced, and so the cycle continues.
"Guys don't steal VCRs no more, TVs no more," Hughes says in an interview at the Texas prison system's Connally Unit in Kenedy. "First thing the guy's going to do is look up under the bed, under the shelves. He's going to look for a gun immediately."
That's it, just guns and jewelry. Everything revolves around he who is selling crack. This crack dealer, all the guns are going to come to him. He's going to distribute the guns how he feels."
According to criminologist Gary Kleck, speaking in 2000, at least three quarters of a million guns are stolen from legitimate gun owners every year, a number which more than meets the criminal demand for guns. Gun rights advocates like to point out that weapons go missing or are stolen from federal law enforcement agencies, but we're talking 1,012 weapons over a four-year period there, for an annual average of 253; negligible when compared to thefts from private owners. Thus, if it were possible to magically cause every legally privately owned firearm in America to disappear tomorrow, it would deprive the criminal arms market of its primary supply source. Thus, "if guns are outlawed," it will be significantly more difficult for outlaws to acquire guns. Unfortunately, it will not be impossible; there will always be a supply from other sources, such as theft from government agencies and smuggling. But even if there were not, even if the elimination of legal firearms would eventually cause the supply of weapons to the criminal black market to dry up, there would be an interim period in which indeed "only outlaws would have guns," and citizens would be unable to offer resistance to armed home invaders and the like. Even if gun death could be completely eliminated over time, how—to paraphrase John Kerry—do you ask a man, or woman, or child, to be the last to die?
* - This fact is eagerly overlooked by the Libertarian Party, which idolizes the Founding Fathers and the Bill of Rights, but blithely ignores the practice of the "enrolled militia" when it claims that "conscription is slavery." Interestingly, it cites the Thirteenth Amendment to support its position, despite the fact that this amendment is not part of the Bill of Rights, and was adopted due in no small part to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln, whom many libertarians vilify. Tempted as I am to engage in an explanation why I (NB as a former conscript) do not think conscription does not equal—in fact, does not even remotely resemble—slavery, that is best left for another post.
** - I should note that, of gun owners who write on the internet (which includes those who only post on discussion fora), Mrs. Jackson is one of the most responsible, least complacent, and thus one of the most effectively safety-conscious, I have come across. If all gun owners were like her, much of this essay would be redundant.
† - I'm not overly concerned about gun owners shooting themselves; that's equivalent to mountain climbers, bungee jumpers or practitioners of other "extreme" sports dying as a result of the risks they take. It's endangering others I object to.
‡ - The CDC reports 30,136 firearms injuries in 2003 and 29,036 in 2004, but this number represents all firearms injuries, including assaults, intentional self-harm (i.e. botched suicides), legal interventions and unintentional shootings. Nevertheless, one may approach the number of unintentional injuries by comparing ratios of firearm deaths by cause. Very roughly, the ratio of firearms deaths for 2004 was: legal intervention - 1: unintentional - 2: assault (homicide) - 34: intentional self-harm (suicide) - 50. Ergo, for every lethal unintentional shooting, there were ~17 homicides and ~25 suicides. Unintentional shootings account for ~2.3% of firearms deaths, and if this percentage were applied to firearm injuries, only 667 (= 0.023 * 29,036) could be attributed to accidental shootings. However, it must be borne in mind that anyone intent on committing suicide with a firearm has the luxury of being able to aim carefully for a vital organ, and even if the shot is not immediately fatal, such an individual may have sequestered himself in a place where he will not be discovered in time for a medical intervention to save him; thus, it may be plausibly argued that suicide will figure far higher proportionally in fatal shootings than in non-fatal ones. Similarly, perpetrators of "assault" shootings are significantly more likely to be "shooting to kill" (deliberately aiming at "center of mass") than those who commit unintentional shootings. It is thus highly plausible that unintentional shootings represent a much higher proportion of non-fatal shootings than they do of fatal shootings, and thus, it is not unreasonable to suspect that unintentional shootings result in at least two or three thousand non-fatal injuries every year.
Today's Seattle Times features an op-ed column by David P. Barash, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, who argues that religious faith in a candidate for public office should be seen as a liability, not an asset. It is a welcome breath of fresh air, seeing that discussion of presidential candidates has focused only on whether they are too religious, or the right kind of religious, rather than asking whether they should be religious at all.
My only niggle with the piece is that Barash uncritically refers to the assertion allegedly made by president Bush in 2003 that "God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did." This purported quote is of highly dubious provenance, being based on a note made by Mahmoud Abbas in Arabic, presumably based on a translation into Arabic of something Bush said in English, and then translated back into English, possibly via Hebrew. In my book, it doesn't even rate as hearsay, but it keeps getting repeated as if it were gospel. However, the precise details do not detract from Barash's point, given that Bush does emphasize his religious convictions at every opportunity.
Read the whole thing.
Two weeks ago, the New York state legislature passed a bill providing for the continued incarceration of certain sex offenders after they have completed their prison sentences, if these individuals are thought to present a risk of re-offending. On the 14th, governor Eliot Spitzer signed it into law. Thus, New York is the twentieth state to adopt some form of "civil confinement" (which, to my shame, includes my chosen state of residence, Washington). This kind of practice, of locking people up on the basis of crimes they might commit, but have not actually committed, was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1997, in Kansas v Hendricks, in which then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist (in)famously asked "So what's the State supposed to do, just wait till he goes out and does it again?"
Well, frankly, yes. At least, given the current state of the American criminal justice system, which is founded upon the notion that the state can punish a criminal only for offenses he has actually committed, and that once said convict has served his sentence, he has "paid his debt to society" and starts out anew with a clean slate. You can argue that that is a fiction, but in doing so, you are admitting that imprisonment does not work as a means of "correcting" offenders. And if that is the case, we need put some effort into coming up with something that does work, instead of coming with stuff like sex offender registries, exclusion zones and civil confinement; measures designed to, in effect, impose on offenders who have already completed their sentences additional punishment for crimes they might commit.
If there is one thing that sets the United States apart from every other industrialized western nation, it is the incorporation into its constitution of a provision which guarantees—or, at least, may be interpreted to guarantee—its citizens the right to privately own firearms. How this provision should be interpreted has, for several decades, been one of the most polarizing issues in American public debate, with activists on both sides of the issue producing extensive amounts of "fact sheets" (see, for example, the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center on one side; the NRA-ILA and Guy Smith's "Gun Facts" on the other), larded with statistics supposedly refuting the other side's "myths" and presenting the reader with the ostensible "truth," and with neither side willing to concede even a minor point to the other. The most salient question on which either side refuses to compromise is whether the Second Amendment provides an individual or a collective right; that is, does it (as gun ownership advocates contend) guarantee the right of individual citizens to own arms, or does it instead (as proponents of restricting gun ownership assert) enable state governments to stockpile arms with which to equip militias regulated by those governments? I believe this to be a false dichotomy. For ease of reference, I will cite the text of the Second Amendment:
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.
The first half of the amendment is often referred to as the "justification clause," while the second half is known as the "operative clause"; gun ownership advocates emphasize the latter while ignoring the former, while gun ownership restriction proponents do the opposite. For my own part, I believe it is wrong to do either. The "gun nuts" correctly argue that the term "the people" as used elsewhere in the Bill of Rights (Amendments I, IV, IX and X) cannot mean anything other than the individual members of the citizenry, lest it lose all useful meaning, and that it would be strange indeed if it meant something else in the Second Amendment alone; thus, the Second Amendment does guarantee an individual right. However, the discussion does not end there. The Second Amendment is remarkable in being the only amendment in the Bill of Rights to contain a "justification clause," and having used the similarities with other amendments to support my earlier point, I cannot in good faith ignore this obvious disparity*. In an earlier post, I contended that the origins of the American legal code lay in pre-Christian Germanic tribal code (the basis of the Common Law system), which the Founding Fathers augmented with elements borrowed from Roman and Greek (particularly Athenian) law. To a student of history, this pattern is as evident in the Second Amendment as it is anywhere.
The backbone of the Athenian army consisted of the heavy infantry, the hoplites; these were citizens with the right to vote who, in return, were obliged to provide military service to the (city-)state in times of emergency. As these were men generally wealthy enough to own property and/or slaves, they were required to provide their own weapons, armor and equipment, the so-called panoplia (from which the English word "panoply" is derived). Similarly, centuries later, the Saxon fyrd required military service from every able-bodied freeman, and required him to supply his own weapons, armor and equipment. The Second Amendment reflects this tradition: it guarantees the individual right (per the operative clause) to keep and bear arms, to serve a collective purpose, namely to provide the state (acting on behalf of the populace) with a pool of citizen-soldiers, in possession of their own weapons and (presumably) the skill to use them effectively. This interpretation does carry with it certain implications which are likely to be ill-received by hard-line advocates of either one side of the issue or the other, even both.
First, if the purpose of private ownership of firearms is to provide "for the common defence," those weapons must be capable of serving a military purpose. What this means very much depends on the state of military technology at any given time, and changes in technology can invalidate existing statutes and jurisprudence. The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) famously forbids unlicensed private ownership of machine guns (any firearm capable of firing more than one round with a single pull of the trigger), rifles with a barrel shorter than 16 inches (40 cm), shotguns with a barrel shorter than 18 inches (45 cm), and "destructive devices," meaning explosive weapons such as grenades and devices made to launch grenades. At the time, this was not inconsistent with the interpretation of the Second Amendment outlines above; the personal weapons in use with the armed forces at the time were predominantly the Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle and the Colt M1911A1 semi-automatic pistol, and while pump-action shotguns were also quite common, these tended to have barrels of 20 inches in length. When in 1939, one Jack Miller asserted that the NFA was unconstitutional on the grounds that it infringed upon his "right to keep and bear" a sawed-off double-barrelled shotgun, the Supreme Court ruled (in my opinion, correctly at the time) against Miller, stating that "it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense." It should be noted that the reason this was not brought "within judicial notice" was because Miller fled trial and thus failed to present a defense. There are some gun ownership advocates who assert that Miller's sawed-off Stevens did have a legitimate (para)military purpose, and that if Miller had argued his case, the Supreme Court would have ruled in his favor and the body of American law pertaining to privately owned firearms would look very different today. I am far from convinced of this, and evidently, so was Jack Miller.
Sixty-odd years later, however, one of the most common personal weapons in use by American forces is the M4 carbine, a selective-fire weapon (i.e. a "machine gun" under the NFA) with a barrel length of 14.5 inches (37 cm). A common accessory to the M4 is the "Master Key": a pump-action shotgun with a 10-inch barrel mounted under the carbine's forestock, and used primarily for "breaching" (i.e. opening doors by shooting off the lock or the hinges). Another common configuration mounts an M203 40mm grenade launcher in the same location. In and of itself, the M4 presents a twofold violation of the NFA, and with the "Master Key" or M203 added, a threefold one; nevertheless, since it currently serves a well established military purpose, I contend that it should be not be illegal for an individual citizen to own such a weapon.
Now, I'm not the first person to make this argument, and I have often seen it met with a response intended to be a reductio ad absurdum, along the lines of "by your logic, private citizens should be allowed to own nuclear weapons." There may be some extreme libertarians who would indeed argue just that, but in the real world, certain types of weapons are subject to international arms control treaties. If the purpose of the individual right to keep and bear arms is to provide for the common defense, it follows that an armed private citizen is a potential state actor, and he is thus subject to the same restrictions as the state he may be called upon to serve. Weapons of mass destruction, but also conventional "heavy weapons" (such as armored fighting vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers) and "Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects" (as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons puts it) are the subject of various international agreements, and there is a case to be made that, for the sake of ensuring compliance with such agreements, the government may legitimately restrict private citizens to owning small arms, and possibly light crew-served weapons such as machine guns and mortars. There is, however, no legitimate reason to restrict certain weapons on the basis that they have "no sporting purpose." The justification clause makes it evident that the Second Amendment does not exist for the purpose of guaranteeing citizens access to weapons for the purpose of recreation or acquisition of food (even though the weapons in question might be used for those purposes as well).
By extension, however, it follows that weapons which are suitable only for sporting purposes are not necessarily covered by the Second Amendment. There is little use for an over-under double-barrelled shotgun or a .22 LR target pistol (of the kind with elaborately shaped anatomical grips, adjustable weights, electronic triggers and whatnot) on the modern battlefield. Certain hunting rifles might be pressed into service as sniper rifles, but no army can consist entirely of snipers. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power "to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia"; thus, the federal government has a legitimate role in dictating the types of weapons it considers suitable for militia service, and to determine the calibers of ammunition such weapons must be capable of firing. In the event of a national emergency requiring the mustering of state militias, some or all of those bodies are liable to be in the field long enough to require their ammunition to be resupplied. For ease of logistics, it would be necessary that the militias' weapons required only a limited number of different calibers, preferably ones which the federal government already has in stock. At present, the small arms used by the American standing armed forces use a limited range of calibers: 9x19mm and .45 ACP for sidearms and submachine guns; 12 gauge for shotguns; 5.56x45mm, 6.8x43mm, 7.62x51mm and 12.7x99mm for rifles and machine guns. For the sake of compatibility, militia members' weapons should also use these calibers. It is not helpful to the common defense if the militia shows up with a bunch of weapons in esoteric (i.e. non-government-issue) calibers which would excessively strain the governmental acquisitions and logistics system to keep resupplied, especially during a state of emergency. Conceivably, then, the government might legitimately outlaw the ownership of any weapons not in these calibers. Whether doing do would serve any useful purpose, however, is another matter. From the point of view of one who advocates gun control (ostensibly) in the interest of public safety, it should matter little if a gun owner keeps weapons which do not conform to "militia-suitable" specifications in addition to weapons which do, especially if the former are no more lethal than the latter. There is little point in prohibiting the sale and/or ownership of SKS rifles to prevent private citizens from potentially using them for criminal ends, in a situation where those same citizens have constitutionally guaranteed access to bona fide assault rifles (in the correct sense of that term) with which they might commit those potential crimes instead, possibly with greater effect.
In concluding this first installment, I should make it clear that what I have argued thus far reflects what I believe to be a correct interpretation of the Second Amendment; that, in principle, it guarantees the right of private citizens to own firearms, including ones might call "military-grade," but that it also grants the federal government a measure of authority to regulate the time, place and/or manner in which arms may be kept and borne. This is not to say, however, that I necessarily consider this to be a desirable state of affairs, but what I—or anyone else—would like the law to say and what it actually says are two different things. This, and other issues (such as the putative right to self-defense), will be addressed in forthcoming installments.
* - I am familiar with professor Eugene Volokh's 1998 testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, in which he argues that justification clauses may be readily found in other legislation of the period. Compelling as this argument may seem on its face, it is ultimately irrelevant, as it does not alter the fact that justification clauses do not appear anywhere else in the Bill of Rights. It is also less than impressive that the example he cites to illustrate his point is from 1842, over fifty years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights; this is hardly "contemporaneous."