Rational Thoughts on Gun Control

Gun Control Debate - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/

From an ethical perspective, I think most people – and most ethical theories – would tend to agree that fewer mass shootings and fewer gun murders would be a good thing. The problem, of course, arises when we discuss how to achieve that goal. I’ve written before about how rhetoric-filled memes work against that goal, so today I will try to take a critical look at the issues surrounding gun control with as much data and as little fallacious logic as possible.

The Constitutionality of Gun Control

At least in the United States, the very second any type of gun control gets mentioned, someone will inevitably bring up the Second Amendment, which reads as follows:

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 most knee-jerk reactions seem to claim, implicitly if not explicitly, that any type of gun control at all would be a violation of this right. However, there are several reasons to believe that this is simply not true.

The First Amendment, which guarantees the freedom speech, has seen some limitations of that speech upheld by the Supreme Court. For example, if a person’s speech would negatively affect national security or justice, the Court has ruled the speech is therefore not protected. Let’s briefly consider a few of those via the Freedom Forum:

  • Clear and Present Danger – “Will this act of speech create a dangerous situation? The First Amendment does not protect statements that are uttered to provoke violence or incite illegal action.”
  • Fighting Words – “Was something said face-to-face that would incite immediate violence?”
  • Libel and Slander – “You do not have a constitutional right to tell lies that damage or defame the reputation of a person or organization.”
  • Obscenity

While each of these bullet points is a complex issue in and of itself, it is clear to see that there are limitations to the freedom of speech granted in the First Amendment. Although there may be some disagreement about each of these limitations and how they are implemented, one can also clearly see that they are aimed at social goods such as protecting others and reducing violence – laudable goals.

supreme court - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/fischerfotos/

Similarly, the Supreme Court has ruled that limitations can be placed on the Second Amendment, and explained this in the important 2008 ruling District of Columbia et al v. Heller. While the case found that a total handgun ban in Washington D.C. was unconstitutional, there are exceptions:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. (emphasis mine).

So let’s be clear about what the Supreme Court has already ruled: a total ban on guns is unconstitutional, but there can be limitations on the people allowed to possess guns, and the types of guns they are allowed to possess. Similar to the limitations on the First Amendment, you can see that these limitation aim to protect people and limit violence, something we should all be able to agree upon.

That’s the context within which the discussion on gun control is taking place. No one is seriously advocating for a ban on all guns, rather they are trying to consider more closely the question of who should be allowed to possess guns and what types of guns they should be allowed. 

Much of the fallacious rhetoric being created assumes that others want to ban all guns. That simply is not true.

The Effectiveness of Gun Control

The next area of dispute arises in how effective gun control would be if enacted. And this is where things seem to get a little tougher.

Decreasing Gun Violence Leads to Increasing Violent Crimes

One of the issues that I’ve seen pointed to by people against gun control numerous times is the violent crime levels in the U.K. The U.K. requires that a person license every individual gun they own, proving that they have a good reason to own it. Self-defense is not an acceptable reason here. (GunPolicy.org). The argument goes something like this:

The UK heavily controls guns, and although their gun violence rate has gone down, their rate of overall violent crimes has risen. See below for an example of a meme with this theme:

Problematic Gun Argument - via https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=242519969213953


The problem is that the way violent crimes in the two countries are reported are vastly different:

First, it should be noted that the figures Swann gives are out of date: in 2010, according to the FBI, the reported rate of violent crime in the US was 403 incidents per 100,000 people–the 466 figure comes from 2007. Second, and more importantly, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports defines a “violent crime” as one of four specific offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

The British Home Office, by contrast, has a substantially different definition of violent crime. The British definition includes all “crimes against the person,” including simple assaults, all robberies, and all “sexual offenses,” as opposed to the FBI, which only counts aggravated assaults and “forcible rapes.

This difference in monitoring and reporting makes it difficult to compare the two countries, but one thing is certain, the difference between the U.S. and the U.K. when it comes to violent crimes is in reality much less than this arguments supposes. And clearly, total gun-related deaths in the U.K. is is much lower, at 0.25 per 100,000, while in the U.S. it is 10.2 per 100,000.

More Guns, Less Crime?

Another common idea referenced is a study that seemed to show counties in the U.S. with more guns had less crime.

Retrospect has shown this not to be true, however. Although the states that did not adopt right to carry laws were originally faced with more crime than those that did, in the long term, their crime rate was lower than that of the RTC states! (More detail here)

Further research clearly shows that across the board, more guns means more homicides.


Another major argument is that guns are used frequently for self defense – up to 2.5 millions times per year in a America, or every 13 seconds.

There are lots of problems with the study that produced this result, however. The study was supposed to measure annual self-defense use, but most questions were phrased to ask “have you ever…”

Perhaps even more importantly is that what people self-report as self-defense in gun use rarely ever is:

“One thing we know for sure is that there’s a lot more criminal gun use than self-defense gun use. And even when people say they pulled their gun in ‘self-defense,’ it usually turns out that there was just an escalating argument—at some point, people feel afraid and draw guns.”

Hemenway has collected stories of self-defense gun use by simply asking those who pulled guns what happened. A typical story might be: “We were in the park drinking. Drinking led to arguing. We ran to our cars and got our guns.” Or: “I was sitting on my porch. A neighbor came up and we got into a fight. He threw a beer at me. I went inside and got my gun.” Hemenway has sent verbatim accounts of such incidents to criminal-court judges, asking if the “self-defense” gun use described was legal. “Most of the time,” he says, “the answer was no.”

Conclusions on Effectiveness

It seems clear that gun control does reduce deaths by guns. And it doesn’t take an outright ban on all weapons either. Small barriers are very effective:

The central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one. This is the key concept of Franklin Zimring’s amazing work on crime in New York. 

And yet, even if we can all agree on this, that still leaves questions of which guns to ban and whom to allow to have guns under which circumstances.

What To Ban?

Oddly, one of the arguments being made by those opposed to gun control is that banning assault weapons won’t be useful. They seemingly go so far as to admit that the only thing that would work would be banning all guns, including hand guns, and then, almost tauntingly ask why gun control advocates don’t try to ban all guns. Well, for starters, we’ve already seen some of the difficulty such movements have met in the Supreme Court.

Based upon all of my research, there is an answer beginning to emerge. And Obama’s recent executive orders do seem to be a step in the right directions. Many of these are aimed at being able to better enforce current laws, such as keeping guns out of the hands of convicts and others who wouldn’t pass a background check.

Another step in the right direction would be making it a little bit harder for everyone to own a gun. I’m NOT saying guns should be banned entirely, and I tend to agree that the definition of “assault weapons” is likely more problematic than helpful. But I don’t see the problem with making guns more difficult to obtain. Exactly what that entails and what those difficulties would be is something that I think can use some more discussion.

And this isn’t just about guns. I think it’s significant that conversations about other issues such as mental health are also being held.

That’s all I’ve got for today. Should we talk about any of this more in depth? Do you think any of the conclusions drawn here are wrong? Let’s discuss them in a calm and rational way in the comments.

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