Tag Archives: aurora

We Won’t Be Fooled Again — Oh, Hell; Yes We Will

Just The Facts

Jason Alexander is almost completely wrong. His heart is in the right place, but, I’m sorry, he’s just flat wrong on most of what he says there. The one point he has right is that this is not the time for reasonable people to be silent on gun control and the sorts of tragedy we recently had in Colorado. As in so many other areas of public debate, we cannot leave the debate to the crazy people on either extreme.

On pretty much everything else, he’s wrong. We should have a reasonable discussion about this issue, but that should start with a firm understanding of the facts and, in his words, the ‘hard statistics.’ I would love to find some way of keeping any weapon–not just a particular scary-looking weapon, but any weapon out of the hands of the kind of nutcase who is going to go out and slaughter a bunch of people, but the problem is harder than it’s often made out to be. I have a few, probably futile, thoughts at the end, but first let’s look at some of Jason’s points.

He starts out by dragging out that old saw, long disproven, that the 2nd Amendment only applies to militias. (It was exactly this argument, by the way, back in the ’90s that led to the rise of right-wing groups calling themselves ‘militias.’) For the record, the explanatory clause at the beginning of the sentence doesn’t change the meaning of the main clause: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” To argue otherwise is to argue that ‘the people’ means something different in the 2nd Amendment than it does in all the rest of the Constitution. There is no basis for doing so, and courts up to and including the US Supreme Court have upheld that the 2nd Amendment right to arms is an individual right.

You may not like it, but that’s what it says, and means. Change it if you like, and can, but until you do, that’s the constraint that you have to work in.

Jason says:

100,000 Americans that die every year due to domestic gun violence

Not true. The figure for 2007 (the most recent year I have numbers for) is 31,224. Of those, 17,352 were suicides, leaving 12,632 homicides. (Including criminals killed by the police.) 12,632 is a tragic number, but a far cry from 100,000.

By the way, in 2007 there were 41,059 motor vehicle deaths in the United States. More people died on our roads on July 20, 2012 than James Holmes shot. No one outside their families cares about them, though.

What purpose does an AR-15 serve to a sportsman that a more standard hunting rifle does not serve? Let’s see – does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes. Does it fire farther and more accurately? Yes. Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? Yes.

Allow me to correct his answers.

Does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes.

Does it fire farther and more accurately? No. Most hunting rifles fire a more powerful cartridge to a greater distance with more accuracy.

Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? No. See above. The Remington 700, to pick an archetypal ‘hunting rifle,’ fires a 7mm cartridge. There are a number of bullets available for that round, but one example fires a 7.1 gram slug at 1,100 meters/second, for a muzzle energy of 4,057 joules (2,992 foot-pounds).

The AR-15 fires a 5.56mm cartridge. The common 55 grain (3.56 gram) load has a muzzle velocity of 965 meters/second, for a muzzle energy of 1,658 joules (1,223 foot-pounds). We can easily see that the ‘more lethal than a hunting rifle’ AR-15 fires a bullet with less than half the energy of a common (and not particularly powerful) hunting rifle. (More powerful rifles, like a .458 Winchester Magnum, pack over 7,000 joules of muzzle energy.)

Jason asserts that if ‘these weapons’ were regulated, James Holmes might have been caught before he carried out his atrocity.

Regulated, he would have had to go to illegal sources – sources that could possibly be traced, watched, overseen.

Does Jason really think that illegal sources are more closely monitored than legal channels? That someone is tracing every illegal firearm transaction? Do I even have to explain how silly that is? It’s the legal transactions that have a greater chance of someone noticing an unusual purchase going on. (More on this later.)

These weapons are military weapons

This is a common misconception. The AR-15 style weapons that civilians can buy are not military weapons. They are designed to look like military weapons, but looking like something doesn’t make it that thing. The biggest, most crucial different between the civilian AR rifles and the military M-4 and M-16 rifles is the thing that makes the military version worthwhile as a military weapon; the ability to fire bursts or full-auto.

I’m afraid we must here digress back a few decades for a bit of history. A hundred years ago, military rifles were much like the Remington 700 that I mentioned above; slow-firing rifles that shot a big, powerful bullet a long way with great accuracy. In the 1930’s and ’40’s, as arms-makers were trying to shrink the machine gun so every soldier could carry one, studies found that most soldiers never took advantage of the great range and power of the full-sized rifle. The rifle might be accurate out to over a mile, but a soldier on the battlefields of Europe would almost never see a target that far away.

The big full-sized rifle cartridges were also too powerful to fire full-auto (where the gun continues to shoot as long as the trigger is held back) in a hand-held weapon. Arms makers began to look at ‘intermediate’ cartridges; something in between the large rifle cartridges and the smaller, pistol, rounds fired from submachine guns.

Thus was born the modern ‘assault rifle,’ in the form of the German StG 44 (Sturmgewehr–Storm Rifle 44). It fired a cut-down version of the German 8mm Mauser rifle cartridge and carried 30 of them in a removable box magazine. Compared to the older, full-sized, rifles it was crude, cheap, underpowered, and inaccurate. Its only virtue was that it could put out a lot of those underpowered bullets quickly.

The influence the design had on the AK-47 and M-16 is obvious.

The civilian AR-15 rifles and carbines imitate the military M-4 and M-16, but lack the ability to fire full-auto or bursts (three bullets for each trigger-pull). (You also can’t get an M203 grenade launcher attachment.) They shoot faster than a bolt-action hunting rifle, but still only a tenth as fast as a military assault rifle.

(An aside; the Batman shooter, James Holmes, started his rampage with an ordinary shotgun. Then he switched to his AR, but the imposing 100-round magazine he had attached to it jammed and he switched to a pistol. It would be interesting, in an admittedly morbid way, to know how many people were killed by each sort of weapon.)

These are the weapons that maniacs acquire to wreak murder and mayhem on innocents. […] I’ll say it plainly – if someone wants these weapons, they intend to use them. And if they are willing to force others to “pry it from my cold, dead hand”, then they are probably planning on using them on people.

As of 2008 about 2.5 million AR-15 type rifles had been sold in the US. Over 300,000 were sold in that year, so now in 2012 we have probably about 3 million floating around the country.

Of those 3 million inherently evil guns that are only acquired by people who plan on using them on other people, how many have been used in mass-shootings over the past, oh, twenty years? Ten? Fifteen? Let’s say thirty, though I don’t think it’s been that many, just to make the math easy. That’s .001%.

Would it make you uncomfortable to point out that police departments are the most eager AR-15 purchasers of all?

I have been reading on and off as advocates for these weapons make their excuses all day long. Guns don’t kill – people do. Well if that’s correct, I go with @BrooklynAvi, let them kill with tomatoes. Let them bring baseball bats, knives, even machetes — a mob can deal with that.

The (common) mistake Jason is making here is assuming that if weapons like the AR aren’t available, mass-murderers would use something less effective. Unfortunately, history doesn’t bear that out. As I explain above, the AR-15 isn’t the most potent rifle available, and besides the biggest mass murders (by individuals; states are still the all-time champions, by many orders of magnitude) of all time have been carried out by bombs. Timothy McVeigh didn’t use an AR to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City. Andrew Kehoe didn’t use an AR to kill 45 people at the Bath Consolidated School. They both used bombs. Vasili Blokhin used a humble .25 caliber Walther pistol, about as weak a firearm as can be found, to murder about 7,000 Polish officers, but that’s something of a special case.

James Holmes’s apartment was booby-trapped with numerous explosive and incendiary devices. Who is to say that if he hadn’t been able to buy an AR-15 he wouldn’t have firebombed that theater? Anyone who thinks that firebombing a crowded theater wouldn’t have killed more than twelve people has never seen the inside of a crowded theater.

The Problem

There are two things that determine how much harm an individual can cause other people; capability and intent.

An invalid who can’t raise his arm from his hospital bed might have all the malign intent in the world, but hasn’t the capability to go on a murderous rampage. Most healthy adults have the capability to go forth and slaughter, but no intent to do so. I’ve talked about this before.

When there is a tragedy like the Aurora shooting we as a society make the same mistake as when there’s a terrorist attack; we focus on the capability. In particular, the tools used to carry out the attack, and where the attack took place. We look for bad stuff, and we want to make the bad stuff go away.

The problem isn’t the capability; the problem is the intent. I could kill every person in a crowded movie theater. So could you. But, I don’t want to do that. I presume you don’t either. Most people don’t. It’s not bad stuff that makes people do bad things, it’s bad people using stuff to do bad things.

Most people have the capability to do great evil, but not the desire.

We can’t stop bad people from getting their hands on stuff. There are too many things that can be used to hurt people. You want to take away all the guns, everywhere in the world? Okay. How about gasoline? That’s what Tim McVeigh used; gasoline and fertilizer. There are a lot of other nasty things you can do with it too, which I won’t go into for obvious reasons.

To me, “Why do some people want to do this?” is a more interesting and productive question than, “How can we keep people from getting this kind of gun?” or “How can we protect our movie theaters?” What in our society is causing this sort of alienation and hate, and what can we do about it?

The Solution

Hell if I know.

An outright ban on guns, or even certain types of guns isn’t the answer. The UK has enacted a sweeping ban of all semi-automatic weapons over .22 caliber, but gun crime has gone up. Knife crime has also gone up, even as stricter knife bans are passed. The US ‘Assault Rifle Ban’ of the ’90s had no impact on crime.

(Update 7/23/12: Some very polite (of course) people from the UK have pointed out that my information here is out of date. After some years of trending upwards, gun crimes in the UK have been trending downward, since about 2004. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the ban finally eroding the pool of firearms available to the public, how much is the rise in CCTV surveillance in that decade, and how much is a change in crime reporting that went into effect in 2003, but credit where credit is due. Despite one mass shooting incident in 2010, gun crime in the UK is steadily declining.)

Focusing on the bad stuff doesn’t work. We keep trying it, it’s so easy and tempting and obvious, but it just doesn’t work.

As with terrorism, we have to look at the bad people. This is hard, very hard, because until the nutcase goes on his shooting spree, or sets off his bomb, he hasn’t actually done anything wrong. We can’t, as much as some people might want to, arrest ‘pre-criminals.’ That’s a very scary road to go down.

The only thing I can think that might work, at least a little–and I hate like hell to say this–is running all firearm-related purchases through a national database. Guns, ammunition, accessories, training classes, all of it. Let people buy what they want, but track it. Any unusual purchases–someone who’s never bought a gun before goes out and buys five in one week, for example–throws up a flag in the computer system and that person’s information gets routed to a special investigative division of Homeland Security, who would then check this person out.

Here’s the thing; this can’t be some ordinary beat cop, some TSA package-grabber, who does the investigating. The investigator has to be more psychologist than cop, because the idea isn’t to determine what the person has done, or what they’ve bought, or what they may be guilty of. We already know that what they bought, and they may not be guilty of anything, yet. The idea is to determine their mental state, to try and get an idea of what they might do.

In other words, if someone starts buying a bunch of guns out of the blue, send a smart person over to talk to them and try to find out if they’re a fucking nutcase who’s about to flip his shit and kill a bunch of people.

Sure, there are problems with this system. Private party sales won’t be tracked. I don’t like the idea of the government doing the tracking in the first place. A lot of perfectly innocent people are going to be pissed off by some badge-flashing shrink knocking on their door and wanting to talk for a few minutes. Good lord, the idea of Homeland Security actually being able to do a competent job of setting up a system like this?

The thing is, though, it could work. And I can’t think of anything else that can.

Edit, 2/2/13: I was always uneasy, as I say above, about having the government track this sort of information, but suggested it as something that could work if done properly. In the six months since, though, the government has shown, most emphatically, that it is interested in banning guns, not controlling crime. That is, gun control is the goal, not the means to an end. So, to hell with that. Even their response to a plea for help with a mental health issue is a swat team assault. Pretty much exactly not what I suggested.

So, fuck them.

The Morning After The Night Before

A little follow up to my last post.

Jason Alexander was kind enough to retweet a link to that post, and I’ve gotten an amazing amount of feedback on it, from a number of very nice people. Many of those people think I’m crazy or full of shit, of course, but they were very nice about it. It’s humbling to have so many people have kind things to say about a little piece I knocked out in an hour or so before bed.

I had been keeping mostly silent on the issue of gun control, because it seemed like a dick move to be talking against gun control while people were still mourning their loved ones. Jason Alexander’s post made me realize that that wasn’t stopping the dicks. If reasonable people (and I do try) stay silent, that leaves the extremists to define the debate, and that doesn’t do anyone any good, so I decided to speak up. I’m glad I did.

A few more thoughts.

With the system we have now in the US, everyone has to pass a background check before buying a gun. The check is supposed to prevent convicted felons and people with a history of mental illness from buying guns. That’s a good thing. It can’t stop every nutcase–there are too many who don’t yet have any kind of record–but it’s a good start.

The problem with it is that too many of the relevant agencies don’t submit mental health data to that database. Fixing that seems to be a much simpler, less contentious, and more effective preventative than banning a single type of gun. Just get these agencies to follow the law and submit their data to the national background check database.

Combine that with the purchase flagging system I described last night and I think we could have something that’s pretty effective. (Implementation detail; when a person is flagged for questionable purchase patterns, it doesn’t just tap an investigator. It would also flag that person in the background check database, stopping any further purchases until they’ve been checked out.)

The purchase-flagging database and investigation idea isn’t perfect, of course. It wouldn’t catch everyone. There would have to be controls to keep it from being abused. But it would catch a lot of people. It probably would have caught James Holmes. He was crazy enough that just his voicemail message made a gun club think he was too unstable to be a member.

Whatever we do won’t be perfect. We can’t stop every bad person from doing bad things. But the ones we can stop, we should.

I believe very strongly that people have a right to own the means of self-defense. But I also believe that people have a right to not be shot by some nutcase while they’re just trying to watch a movie. Reconciling those positions is not easy, and anyone who claims it is is either lying or foolish. Or both.

We should also try to live up to the example of the Norwegians; a year after their own tragic massacre they haven’t changed their laws at all. They haven’t panicked.

“The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.” –Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

These are tough issues that reasonable people can disagree on, but only by disagreeing reasonably do we have some chance of finding common ground, and a solution.

Is What We Fear Most Each Other?

I expect this to be the last thing I have to say about gun control for, I hope, another five or ten years.

I’ve written, recently, to try and lay out a few facts about gun control and what we might do about it. The response to those pieces has been interesting. Most people don’t seem to care about why people like James Holmes go on their sprees. They don’t seem to want to really do anything serious to prevent future massacres. One side doesn’t want anything done at all, the other is only interested in banning AR-15s. (Very curious considering that James Holmes seems to have carried out most of his shooting spree with a shotgun. Why then is all the attention on the weapon that didn’t work?)

It was very baffling to me. These people are not, for the most part, stupid or malicious. Why, then, did they seem to care so much about the wrong things? Am I the one who’s wrong? (No way!)

My position is the same as it’s been for years regarding airport security; the tool isn’t nearly as important as a person’s willingness to use it to do harm. This seems so obvious to me that I’ve always been puzzled why other people don’t see it. But I think I’ve figured something out in the past few days.

This comic sums it up:

When we live in close proximity to thousands, tens of thousands, of complete strangers, we have to take it on faith that they won’t try to kill us. We, quite literally, aren’t built for this. Humans lived for millions of years in small bands of hunter-gatherers, in close-knit social groups where everyone knew everyone else. You might not like everyone else in the group, but if you had enemies you knew who to watch out for. These people could be trusted, those might try to harm you; no unknowns. (People from another band, of course, were enemies who would try to harm you. We haven’t gotten away from that bit of evolution either.)

Today, we live surrounded by people. We can’t know and trust more than a tiny fraction of them, but we can’t go through our lives constantly on guard against attack by every stranger we see. We have to take it on faith that other people have no interest in doing us harm. Our society can’t work any other way. When you get on a crowded elevator, you have to be comfortably certain that one of the other people isn’t going to stick a knife in your back. So certain that the thought never even enters your mind. Because if someone else on that elevator wanted to stick a knife in you, there’s nothing you could do about it. You’re standing there staring at the numbers over the door, waiting for your floor to light up, and there are five people behind you and if one of them decided to see what your insides look like, he can.

We trust our lives every day to people we don’t know, who we’ve never seen before and will never see again. Any other driver you see on the highway could crash into you at any moment. All that person in the next lane over has to do is yank the wheel and you’re dead. That nice person who compliments you on your beautiful baby might break your baby’s legs.

We have to believe that they’re not going to do that. We have to. Without a certain level of trust, of belief in the fundamental goodness of the people around us, we can’t function. Nearly everyone you see on any given day has the ability to harm or kill you; it’s only the fact that they don’t want to that keeps you alive.

We don’t think about this. We can’t; it would drive us crazy if we did. That’s why these mass killings shake us up so much more than a far greater number of traffic deaths. Traffic deaths are (mostly) accidents; we can take thirty of forty thousand of those a year in stride. We don’t even think about it.

A dozen people killed by a random stranger, though, strikes at that trust, that fragile assumption of good intentions, that holds our society together. It suddenly, at a very deep level, makes us fear that person behind us on the elevator. The delivery guy bringing a box into the office. We look at people differently.

We realize there is a chance that the stranger really is out to kill us. Not a huge chance, not likely, but it’s there. It can happen. We may not think about it consciously, but the fear is there.

Our civilization can’t work that way, though. We can’t live in cities together if we don’t trust the strangers who surround us. If our trust in strangers is shaken, but we can’t get away from them, what can we do? We’re stuck.

So our monkey brains patch around the problem, just as they’ve been doing for thousands of generations.

Some of us internalize the fear. Those people embrace the paranoia. They stroke their guns and think, “I would have been ready. I wouldn’t be a victim. No one will get me.” They arm themselves and so gain the strength to face the endless parade of potentially dangerous strangers.

Some compartmentalize it. It’s not strangers they have to worry about; it’s guns, or certain kinds of guns. They narrow the source of the danger, at least in their own minds, to a point where they can function without being afraid of everyone they see.

Some blame movies or comic books or video games. Get rid of those things and strangers won’t want to kill them.

That’s why some people cling more tightly to their guns in the aftermath these tragedies, while other people call for getting rid of those guns. It’s two different coping mechanisms for dealing with the same problem, the same fear. It’s unfortunate that the two methods are not just incompatible, but directly opposed.

There’s another thing we do: We forget. Within a few weeks, the memories fade and so does our fear and mistrust. We can again carry on our daily lives without fear, even though surrounded by strangers. It’s easy to mock how quickly we forget, but how could we carry on if we didn’t?

I still think that banning certain kinds of guns is the wrong solution, because there are so very many different ways that strangers can hurt you that it’s futile to try stamping them out one at a time, but I better understand the impulse now. Those people, like the rest of us, are just trying to find a way to get through their day.

If we are ever going to stop tragedies like the recent one in Aurora, though, we have to look past the tools and at the people. It’s not something we’re comfortable looking at. It forces us to admit that some of those strangers are dangerous, do want to kill us, and that’s very disturbing. That’s why we ignore it. It’s not the people, it’s the guns/movie/video games. Make those things go away and all will be good!

But it’s not the things. It’s us. We have to gain some understanding into why some people want to commit these atrocities, maybe even find some way to identify them beforehand and stop them, help them.

Because if we don’t, the killing will go on. No black rifle is as dark as the evil that might lurk in the heart and mind of the stranger standing next to you.