Tag Archives: gun control

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.

Well, Shit

“This tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut wouldn’t have happened if assault weapons were banned!”

“Assault weapons are banned in Connecticut.”

“Oh. Shit.”


~ ~ ~

Real world problems are often hard, without easy fixes. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; just that we have to try hard, and maybe try different things.

Putting It All Together

Since everyone is running around right now asking, “What to do!?” about mass murder incidents (but not really wanting an answer; it’s a rhetorical question, since they already have an answer and usually don’t want to listen to any alternatives) I thought I’ll pull together what I’ve written in various places on the subject.

So, you say you want to stop school massacres? Okay, here’s what you do.

First, secure the schools. I’m not necessarily talking about really expensive systems here; even just locking the fucking doors would be a start. (One in three school administrators admits to leaving doors propped open. ) Right now it’s harder to get into a computer data center than into most schools. What does that say about our priorities?

Second, make sure that the various mental health facilities and organizations update the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check) database, like they’re supposed to. I mean like really make sure they do it. As in, if some head-shrinker doesn’t file the required reports, and the person goes on to kill someone, the negligent head-shrinker, or administrator faces criminal charges as an accomplice. That’ll perk ’em up.

Third, spend some money and fix our broken mental health care system. These mass killings started after Reagan butchered the system back in the ’80s. It’s time to fix it. Colorado, is at least, making a decent start.

Fourth, stop making celebrities out of mass murderers. When someone runs onto a baseball field, they cut the camera feed from the field so as to not give that person any publicity, and encourage others. But if someone kills a bunch of people, they become the most famous person in the world, at least for a few weeks. Let’s stop doing that; do not mention the criminal’s name, do not show their picture. Instead of becoming celebrities they disappear, unworthy of mention.

Fifth, create a smart database of firearms-related purchases. This one requires a little explanation. The idea is that, as I’ve said in relation to other security problems, there are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous people. The most dangerous weapons you can imagine–an armor-piercing semi-automatic nuclear missile with a bayonet, hollow point, and a cyanide coating–isn’t going to do anyone any harm if the holder doesn’t want to do any harm. But practically anything is dangerous if someone does intend harm.

So, watch for people who intend to do harm.

So, put all those transactions into a database. Guns, ammunition, accessories, training classes, all of it. Let people buy what they want (within the limits of current laws, of course), 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. A flag would also be thrown in the NICS database, putting a freeze on any firearm purchases by that person. If their address comes up in the NICS system flagging another household member, they get flagged too.

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.

Why do this rather than simply ban dangerous guns? Because banning dangerous guns is not only hard, it’s ineffective. People right now are calling for a ban on ‘assault weapons’ to prevent another Newtown shooting, but Connecticut already has a ban on assault weapons. The shooting happened anyway. Gun control alone doesn’t work. Guns aren’t even the most dangerous thing an attacker can use, though you wouldn’t know that from the news coverage. We need to think harder, try harder, and come up with something more effective than one-note rote responses. We can do better.

These things aren’t perfect. Nothing we can implement is going to be perfect. People are inherently imperfect, and some bad people will always find a way to hurt other people. But this plan would, I think, work better than any other proposal I’ve heard. We can stop most of the bleeding, and I think we should.

A Murmur From The People

This is an interesting poll. It would appear that, at least according to this Gallup survey, the common people think that increased school security, better mental health care, and changing the media’s depiction of violence would all be more effective than an ‘assault weapon’ ban. Even 33% of self-professed Democrats think that such a ban would not be very effective.

This is in sharp contrast to the political class, which is all about, and only about, gun laws. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as they get a better sense of how the voters are leaning.

Good Sense

As usual, Bruce Schneier talks good sense.

This essay from 2007 that he links to in that post is particularly apt.

If you want to do something that makes security sense, figure out what’s common among a bunch of rare events, and concentrate your countermeasures there. Focus on the general risk of terrorism, and not the specific threat of airplane bombings using liquid explosives. Focus on the general risk of troubled young adults, and not the specific threat of a lone gunman wandering around a college campus. Ignore the movie-plot threats, and concentrate on the real risks.

Attacks like the one in Newtown are ultimately not psychology problems, or gun problems, or school problems. They’re security problems, and may or may not have elements of those other things. The problem isn’t as narrow as how to ban guns, or how to help crazy people; it’s how we can increase our security. Don’t just make up your mind on a solution, regardless of the details of the problem; focus on the problem and come up with a real solution. Or find you may not need a new solution at all.

But Who’s Counting

Here are some causes of death of children under 12 years old, from 1999-2010.

Firearms: 3,505
Fire: 5,671
Drowning: 9,047
Vehicle accidents: 19,838

If the goal is really saving lives, what would you focus on?

Defending The Indefensible

I wasn’t going to do this one, but the level of rhetoric about guns has become so strident, so hysterical, that I just had to do something to try and inject a little reality back into the dialogue. We have the White House right now saying that anything that saves even one life is worthwhile, which sounds nice but as a guideline for public policy in a nation of over 300 million people is madness. Then we have Robert Reich saying that the very nation is in jeopardy of “succumbing to mass violence.” The actual existence of the United States is at stake! We are all on the verge of utter destruction because of gun violence! Or perhaps the air is simply getting a little bit thin up here.

Among other things, I will look at the scale of gun violence, and I’m going to answer that perennial question, “Why do you need an assault rifle?” The answer isn’t what you think.

Before I get to it, let me say a few words about my background and point of view, so that the people who leap to incorrect conclusions about my motives, parentage, humanity, and political orientation can do so in full confidence that they are entirely divorced from the facts, just the way they like it.

First, you’re wrong about me. I’m a political independent from Massachusetts, have voted Democratic more often than Republican, believe in gay marriage and socialized health care. I’m also an atheist (or, if you prefer, a classical Epicurian.) I support all civil liberties, for everyone, which puts me at odds with both political parties. I’m a historian by training, which strongly colors my view of any public policy issue. To me, fifty years ago is the recent past, and fifty years from now is the near future. I take a longer view than pretty much any politician, or analyst for that matter, that you’re likely to see. I don’t believe in broad conspiracy theories, but I do believe that governments, like any other large organization, act in their own best interest and often for reasons other than what they say. That’s not paranoia or conspiracy theories; that’s looking at the record. Most of all, most importantly, I’m a dad. I do a lot of thinking about what kind of country my son is going to inherit, and how I’ll explain to him what we let happen to it.

Okay. Down to the serious business of offending everyone.

By The Numbers

We need to start by gaining an understanding of the scale of the problem that we face. The impression one gets from the news media is that guns are tearing a swath of destruction across our nation on an unprecedented scale, with every one of us (And our kids! Think of the children!) at immediate risk of being massacred. In fact, sources say that you’ve probably been shot and killed already.

This isn’t, in fact, true. Nor is this hysteria, as some would have it, a conspiracy on the part of the ‘left-wing liberal media.’ It’s simply the way our news industry works. They do their best to scare the shit out of us with practically every story that comes along. Gun violence has actually been on the decline since the mid–1990s, probably as part of a general decline in crime that may be environmentally related.

How bad is our level of gun violence in the United States? Well, it’s bad. I won’t try to deny that; this is a violent country. It’s worse than most of the civilized countries of the world. But, to look at it another way, if you subtract out the murders committed with guns, our homicide rate still exceeds that of many other countries. The problem is the violence, not the tool. Here are some numbers, to put things in perspective. Warning: This is grim. I’m going to concentrate on children, since that’s where most of the attention has been focused in the wake of the Newtown, CT killings, and to focus as closely as possible on innocent victims.

FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports

Table: Year of incident by Weapon used for United States

Age of victim = 0 to 11 years

Year Personal Other/Unknown Firearm Blunt Object Knife Total
1980 291 264 129 46 60 790
1981 291 257 118 71 57 794
1982 334 253 143 71 56 858
1983 318 235 110 55 56 773
1984 310 190 130 62 67 758
1985 294 220 130 47 82 772
1986 370 269 123 54 57 872
1987 308 262 116 53 65 803
1988 352 272 162 61 55 902
1989 332 289 176 45 71 914
1990 375 252 147 49 55 877
1991 397 316 154 51 62 979
1992 371 251 160 69 40 891
1993 415 289 195 69 53 1,020
1994 429 286 149 46 48 958
1995 390 274 153 49 28 894
1996 445 266 148 53 44 956
1997 377 259 139 49 30 854
1998 361 277 130 56 44 868
1999 311 262 128 67 35 803
2000 333 207 101 65 44 750
2001 360 257 125 46 39 827
2002 321 235 134 39 42 771
2003 344 239 98 54 35 771
2004 307 218 95 54 49 723
2005 314 234 91 53 41 732
2006 304 245 115 55 37 756
2007 334 240 118 53 39 784
2008 321 249 122 67 36 795
2009 288 196 123 72 31 710
2010 283 213 97 56 47 697
Total 10,580 7,776 4,058 1,735 1,504 25,654

Source: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezashr/asp/vic_selection.asp

The numbers are depressing to look at, especially the terrible weight of thirty one years of child murders. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, and I’m sure every family was devastated. We can easily see that guns have taken a terrible toll on our children over the last generation. Nearly 16% of all those homicides are known to have been committed with guns.

(Yes, the cause of death in 7,776 cases is unknown, and some of those were probably committed with firearms, but I think the distribution is proportional between the categories of weapon, with firearms probably making up a slightly smaller proportion, relatively, of those ‘unknown’ causes. Bullet holes are distinctive and usually easily identified.)

The most common weapon used to kill children is ‘personal.’ That is, hands and feet. Most murder victims under 12 years of age were strangled or beaten to death.

It gets worse.

That’s what the kids were killed with. Here’s who killed them.

FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports

Table: Year of incident by Relationship for United States

Age of victim = 0 to 11 years

Year Family Acquaintance Stranger Unknown Total
1980 395 149 35 211 790
1981 417 190 26 162 794
1982 454 164 31 209 858
1983 419 165 34 155 773
1984 374 174 35 175 758
1985 429 170 31 142 772
1986 460 193 16 203 872
1987 424 190 25 164 803
1988 442 229 30 201 902
1989 474 185 33 222 914
1990 427 209 28 214 877
1991 501 223 48 206 979
1992 450 195 47 200 891
1993 461 252 49 258 1,020
1994 471 220 46 221 958
1995 463 194 45 191 894
1996 467 261 28 201 956
1997 467 176 29 183 854
1998 444 201 23 201 868
1999 440 154 17 192 803
2000 403 165 16 166 750
2001 433 191 31 172 827
2002 381 180 38 173 771
2003 433 151 21 167 771
2004 381 172 12 158 723
2005 391 166 23 151 732
2006 393 165 23 174 756
2007 416 192 20 157 784
2008 427 182 20 166 795
2009 378 160 21 150 710
2010 410 145 16 126 697
Total 13,326 5,762 894 5,672 25,654

Source: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezashr/asp/vic_selection.asp

Again, we have a significant number of unknowns (which, in this case, means a depressing number of unsolved cases, which probably overlap with the ‘unknown’ weapon used above) which, again, can probably be assigned more or less proportionally between the other categories.

We can clearly see who the greatest danger to your child is.


More than half of the murdered children were killed by family members, and another huge block by ‘acquaintances.’ Strangers only account for about 3.5% of the cases.

Combining these two sets of statistics we can see that, relative to the number of children murdered, very, very few are shot by strangers. Most are beaten to death or strangled by family members or other people known to them.

Okay, so strangers with guns may not be a prevalent danger to your children, but what about firearm accidents? Considering how many guns there are littering the countryside, there are doubtless terrible numbers of children getting their hands on them, with tragic results.

Accidental Deaths of Children 0–11 Years Old
Year Mot. Vehicle Drowning Fire Falls Poison Firearm
1999 1,961 812 566 103 66 39
2000 1,912 833 555 68 71 55
2001 1,783 769 480 98 74 40
2002 1,662 730 457 82 79 32
2003 1,691 684 423 92 98 28
2004 1,705 656 450 89 52 37
2005 1,614 719 417 69 60 47
2006 1,544 686 372 85 66 35
2007 1,385 673 409 80 74 47
2008 1,164 661 326 81 68 42
2009 1,175 637 308 84 78 34
2010 1,067 638 279 50 60 41
Total 18,663 8,498 5,042 981 846 477

The motor vehicle category includes pedestrians struck by motor vehicles.

Source: http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html
(Sorry; the CDC’s data doesn’t go back as far as the FBI’s.)

About 40 children die every year in firearms accidents. I honestly expected the number to be higher than that, but I checked it three times and there it is. Half-again as many children under 12 die of accidental poisoning as firearm accidents. A child is 26 times as likely to be killed by a car, 15.5 times as likely to drown.

(We’re making progress, at least; the road, drowning, fire, and falling accidents have been coming down. Poison and firearms have stayed steadier, though smaller numbers are more subject to statistical variation, and harder to reduce. Also, the number of deaths has stayed pretty constant, even as the number of children and guns have increased, meaning that the rate of firearm accidents has gone down. Similar with poisons; the number of deaths has remained steady while the number of children has increased. Signs of hope.)

If 150 or so young children killed by firearms every year (accidents and homicides) is a tragedy–and don’t misunderstand me; it is–what should we make of the 1,100 or more killed on the roads every year, or the 640 who drown? Or the 350 beaten to death?

* * *

I haven’t dragged you through all these numbers simply to depress you (though frankly, it has depressed me, and I’m going to give my little boy an extra-big hug in the morning), or to try and make light of the children who’ve died. The number of children killed by guns every year is tragic, and we should do better. My aim is to try and gain perspective. We often act as if only the gun deaths are worth doing anything about, but what does that say about the thousands killed in car accidents, drownings, and fires? Why do we treat one death as a tragedy, but another as an acceptable price to pay for swimming pools and convenient motoring?

As a parent, you worry about your kid, and do everything you can to keep him or her safe. My boy just turned seven years old and I have never once worried about him being shot by a stranger (or anyone else, for that matter). I’ve worried myself half-sick at times, though, about cars and swimming pools. I grew up around guns, but never came close to being injured by one. I nearly died in a couple of car accidents, though, and a few near-drownings.

Looking at all ages, in 2011 there were 8,583 people murdered with firearms (about 2/3 of the total murdered). In the same year, 32,367 people died in motor vehicle accidents and 599,413 of heart disease.

The first step to reducing risks is a realistic appraisal of what the risks are.

What Are ‘Assault Weapons’ Good For?

“After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it.” — William S. Burroughs

There is a massive push on right now to ban ‘assault weapons.’ These are defined as scary-looking (bayonet lugs!) semi-automatic (one shot per pull of the trigger) rifles of modest caliber, typically with a magazine capacity of 20 or 30 rounds. The curious thing is that these rifles are used in very, very few crimes.

In 2011 there were 323 murders committed with rifles of all description, out of 12,664 total murders. Compare to 496 murders with blunt instruments, 728 with bare hands, and 1,694 with knives. Yes, knives were really used in more than five times (524%) as many murders as rifles. Handguns, of course, are the big killer, claiming 6,220.

If these weapons are used in so few crimes, why the big push to ban them?

Partly, of course, it’s because when they are used, the crime is often a high-profile one, with lots of media attention and demands that Something Must Be Done. Plus, they look scary. James Holmes seems to have done most, if not all, of his shooting in Aurora with an ordinary shotgun (his ‘assault weapon’ jammed), but people still immediately called for a ban on ‘assault weapons’ after his shooting spree, presumably because an AR–15 looks a lot scarier than a shotgun. (No, it’s not the magazine capacity; a 12-gauge shotgun can easily hold sixty .36-caliber projectiles, compared to the thirty .223-caliber projectiles in a standard AR–15 magazine.)

And partly it’s … well, many people like to go on about how AR–15s are ‘military’ weapons, weapons of war, only good for slaughtering large number of people, etc., etc. They’re wrong; the mechanical differences between military assault rifles and the civilian look-alikes are significant. But it’s the closest thing to a military weapon that civilians can actually buy and they do share one advantage with their military cousins that other common civilian guns such as shotguns and pistols lack.


Rifles are poor implements for committing (or defending against) most crimes, as is borne out by the statistics. They’re bulky, expensive, and at the bad-breath distances where most criminal assaults take place, they don’t offer much, if any, advantage in firepower. When you can reach out and touch someone, you don’t need a rifle; a pistol will kill them just as dead. A shotgun more so.

Move further out, though, and the rifle comes into its own. At a range of dozens, or a hundred yards, the rifle is still accurate and deadly while the handgun and shotgun become almost ineffective. Common criminal activity almost never happens at these distances, though, making rifles largely irrelevant both for criminals and for citizens using guns in self-defense. There are some very uncommon cases where rifles can be useful, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

(I’m not going to discuss hunting here. People do use AR type rifles to hunt, and a few people do have a legitimate need to hunt to put food on their table or protect their livestock, but in most cases I consider shooting harmless animals to be less morally defensible than shooting a criminal who is threatening your, or someone else’s, life. I’m baffled by the constant references to usefulness for hunting as the gold standard for justifying the ownership of a gun.)

Assault rifles, and their civilian cousins, have one advantage over bigger, more powerful rifles; less range. Yes, less range. The rifles that armies used before the assault rifle could hit a target 1,000 yards away or more. Most fighting, though, occurred at ranges of at most a few hundred yards. Giving up that extra range made almost no difference in the soldier’s combat effectiveness, but the weaker cartridge used in assault rifles was smaller and lighter than a full-powered cartridge, allowing the soldier to shoot faster and carry more ammunition. That’s why less powerful rifles have almost entirely displaced the more powerful ones in military use.

It’s only at ranges of about 30–300 yards that the civilian assault rifle look-alikes are more effective than other commonly-available guns (shotguns and pistols at shorter ranges, full-powered rifles at longer). It’s a very narrow window, that only matters in a very narrow, very rare, set of circumstances.

Remember that ‘militia’ clause in the 2nd Amendment? Well, ‘assault weapons’ are exactly the sort of weapons that a ‘militia’ would have. Despite all the talk about “You don’t need a 30-round magazine to hunt ducks,” ‘assault weapons’ have a better claim to 2nd Amendment protection than expensive fowling pieces.

I think it’s curious that the government is most interested in taking away the class of gun that is used in the fewest crimes, but comes closest to being an actual military weapon. The kind of gun, in other words, least dangerous to people in the normal course of events, but most dangerous to governments in an abnormal course of events.

If reducing crime were your goal, wouldn’t you ban the guns actually used in the most crimes? It’s an anomaly, and it brings us to our next section.

Why Do You Need An Assault Weapon?

It seems as if this question has been asked lately in every media outlet in the country, and by every gun control advocate, at least once a day. There are two main answers. The first, and most important, is the same one you give the government when they ask you why you need anything.

Why do you need a swimming pool?

Why do you need a huge, gas-guzzling SUV?

Why do you need a motorcycle?

Why do you need to eat hamburgers?

Why do you need a car with that much horsepower?

Why do you need alcoholic beverages?

Why do you need to smoke that?

Why do you need to play that game?

Why do you need pornography?

Why do you need contraception?

Why do you need to dress like that?

Why do you need to read that book?


Do we really want the government deciding for us what we need to have? Only allowing us to keep those things we can prove a ‘legitimate’ need for?

“Why do you need a _____?”

Because ‘fuck you,’ that’s why.

That’s what you tell the government when they start trying to dictate what you ‘need.’

* * *

The other reason is more complex.

There are times–very, very rare in the time frame of an individual human life, very common in the lifespan of countries–when you need to kill people. Sometimes a lot of people. For protecting yourself or your family against common, everyday, crime, a pistol or shotgun will probably serve you better than an ‘assault weapon,’ but as I mentioned above, there are the uncommon situations. These rare events are when you want a rifle.

(It’s axiomatic that a pistol is what you carry when you’re not expecting trouble. If you’re expecting trouble, you take a shotgun or rifle. Remember the beginning of PULP FICTION? “We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.”)

The classic response that gun owners will give when asked about the 2nd Amendment, or why they need that rifle, is to ‘defend against tyranny,’ or to ‘protect themselves from the government.’ The classic response to that is that there’s no way a civilian militia could defend itself from, much less overthrow, a government that has become unbearably oppressive. I’m not going to say a great deal about this, because I don’t consider a government that oppressive to be likely in the United States during my lifetime, and probably not even in my son’s, but I do want to make a couple of points before we move on to more realistic scenarios.

The people who think they can pull their old SKS out of the closet and trot (or, let’s be honest, very likely ‘waddle’) off to Overthrow The Tyrant during an otherwise dull week are grossly underestimating the casualties a lightly armed irregular force (rabble) would suffer going up against a modern, well-equipped, military organization. Even with the inevitable desertions and defections that the regulars would have in such a conflict, the casualty ratio would probably be about 1000:1 against the militia. (That is, a thousand militia would die for every government soldier.) That’s not to say that the insurgency would fail, necessarily, but it would take a very motivated bunch of rebels to keep fighting after sustaining hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of casualties, having their families rounded up and tortured and executed, and so on. Look at what’s going on in Syria right now.

(As I write this, there have been an estimated 60,000 casualties in the fighting in Syria. That would be about 900,000 dead in a comparable US civil insurrection, given the proportions of the populations. Probably more, given the greater capabilities of the US military compared to the Syrian. All bets are off, of course, if this hypothetical tyrannical US government decided to go nuclear against its own population.)

Repressive governments are very good at violence and terror. That’s kind of their thing. It’s possible to fight them on their own terms, but it’s a very messy, very painful business. You are much better off preventing your government from going in that direction in the first place, though I have to admit that the events of the last 12 years have not convinced me that there’s any interest in doing so.

On the other hand, I find it a little amusing to hear people say that we might as well all turn in our guns because there’s no chance that any lightly-armed insurrection could oppose the mighty US military. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that the mighty US military is 0-for–3 in wars against lightly-armed guerrillas over the last fifty years.

* * *

A full-on civil war or insurrection is not, however, the only situation in which you might be glad to have a rifle handy. Smaller scale civil disorder is quite common in history, though again rare in the span of an individual human life. You may never find yourself in the middle of such a disturbance … but then again, you might.

The L.A. Riots of 1992 are a good, if rather modest, example of this kind of situation. There was looting, arson, and murder, and it took days for the civil authority to regain control of the situation, and then only after being reinforced by the National Guard and regular Army and Marine units. Far from protecting the people hardest hit by the rioting, the police evacuated those areas. The small area known as ‘Koreatown’ suffered 40% of the destruction in the riots, and the people there were outright abandoned by the police.

This is a feature of civil disturbance. The police are overwhelmed by the scale of the disorder and must abandon some areas to concentrate on others. (Needless to say, the neighborhoods where they concentrate contain wealthier–and in this country, whiter–people than the areas they abandon.) They simply can’t protect everything. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in one of these events, it is quite likely that you will be on your own for a significant period of time–hours, or days.

Abandoned by the police, the Koreans took out their guns and formed impromptu self-defense groups. Militias, if you will. It worked; the buildings defended in this way remained intact. I remember seeing one bit of news footage from the riots. This reporter approached a group of Korean shopkeepers who were standing on a rooftop with their rifles.

“I notice you all have guns,” he said.

“Tha’s right,” replied one of the men.

There was a pause, then the reporter said, “I notice that your building is the only one on the block that hasn’t been burned down.”

The Korean grinned, waggled the rifle he was holding, and said, “Tha’s right.”

If you are too young to remember those riots, or if you’ve forgotten what they were like (it’s been 20 years), here are a few short clips. This is what a small civil disturbance looks like.

Incidents like this are much more common than civil wars. The worst civil disorder in US history was probably the New York Draft Riots of 1863. There were 34 people killed in the Watts Riots and 55 in the LA Riots of 1992, compared to an estimated 120 in the New York riots, out of a much smaller population. (Some estimates of the number killed range as high as 2,000, but those are not considered credible.) The pattern is familiar; the rioters raged out of control for days until outside force arrived to supplement the local police and restore order. (In this case, regiments of the Army of the Potomac, fresh from the Battle of Gettysburg.)

One incident in particular from the 1863 riots stands out to me.

Other targets included the office of the New York Times. The mob was turned back at the Times office by staff manning Gatling guns, including Times founder Henry Jarvis Raymond.

The New York Times had three Gatling guns, a weapon more advanced than anything the Federal Army had at the time, and used them to deter a mob (which went down the street and instead looted the Tribune, the staff of which was presumably less heavily armed than that of the Times).

We don’t have video of that one, obviously, but here’s a little sample of what the action was like. Note the cannon.

New York, July 1863

In 1921, The Tulsa Race Riot featured running firefights between white rioters and blacks trying to defend their neighborhood, while the usual looting and burning included air-dropped incendiaries. Somewhere between 30 and 300 people were killed.

Riots aren’t the only civil conflict we’ve seen in this country. The struggle for workers’ rights featured some pretty serious fighting between union workers and mercenaries hired by companies to break strikes. The Homestead Strike of 1892 featured a battle between thousands of striking union workers and hundreds of Pinkerton detectives. The strikers had not only small arms, but also a cannon. About 30 people were killed. The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 is the largest battle fought in the United States since the Civil War. It featured thousands of combatants, air strikes, a million rounds of ammunition fired, and 80–150 men killed.

A fairly comprehensive list runs to dozens of entries. Most of the disturbances are of a very small scale, but some, as outlined above, are quite substantial. We’ve been fortunate; there are civil disturbances in history that make the L.A. Riots look like a boisterous night at the local bar. The Nika Riots of 532 A.D. saw about 30,000 slaughtered in Constantinople and estimates of those killed in the St. Batholemew’s Day Massacre in 1572 range from 2,000–30,000. It can happen in any country, in any period of history. Even modern England and France are not immune.

Natural disasters usually bring people together, contrary to popular conception, but there are exceptions, and sometimes the situation is so confusing that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.

* * *

Rioting of one sort of another and extreme workplace negotiations make up most of the incidents of civil disturbance we’ve seen in US history, but there is another kind of disorder that I’d like to look at: Political violence. I don’t mean revolution or other large-scale political violence, but smaller-scale action between the partisans of two or more political factions. It was a feature of the late Roman Republic as well as Weimar Germany, among others. An example of this sort of thing would be people from one party attacking a polling place, taking it over, and only allowing members of their own party to vote.

This is the one that worries me. We’ll have more riots in the future, but those tend to be almost random events, typically in response to local circumstances, and rarely lead to wider conflict. Low-level political violence can easily grow and spread. Looking at the last few Presidential elections, and the level of rhetoric and vitriol on both sides, I’m afraid that, if it continues to escalate as it has, we may be only a few electoral cycles from the beginning of this sort of violence. And before you say that it can’t happen here, be aware that it has. The Battle of Athens in 1946 was a firefight between county deputies and the “GI Non-Partisan League” over physical possession of the ballot boxes from a county election.

I hope that the rhetoric and high emotions get dialed back before shouting and name calling turn into beatings, assassinations, and street fighting. I really do. But these things do happen in many places, in many times, and I have to acknowledge at least the possibility that what has happened in the past might happen again in the future. I can’t ignore my own Law of History: “History doesn’t repeat itself. It just gives pop quizes to see if anyone was paying attention.”

I would love to know what plans our political leaders have for dealing with outbreaks of street-level political violence. I don’t think any want to encourage it, but they’re certainly aware of the possibility and doubtless have some kind of plan. They would be grossly irresponsible if they didn’t. It is, for example, probably not entirely coincidental that Democratic politicians, whose party members tend not to be as heavily armed as their opponents, support various gun control measures. That’s simply smart politics, and the sort of thing you have to be aware of if you’re going to play the game at a high level.

* * *

We also face the possibility of events outside of our control, such as global warming that may set populations on the move (it’s too late to stop it; the best we can do now is try to reduce it and hope for the best) and true wildcards like getting smacked with a big rock from outer space. A very rare, effectively random catastrophic event could completely change–or destroy–our civilization. It has happened before. All bets are off if we get hit with something like that; it would literally be a whole new world.

When people say that something ‘could never happen’ I smile, because ‘never’ is a very, very long time.

Wrapping It Up

I’ve tried to bring some perspective to this debate. Far too many people are shot to death in this country, certainly, but the demonization of gun owners as all being collectively responsible for every one of those deaths goes too far. More than four times as many children under 12 drown each year as are killed with guns, but we don’t demonize swimming pool owners. Gun violence has been declining for years, even though people will tell you exactly the opposite. To solve a problem you must understand what the problem is, and you probably should know if it’s even the biggest problem you face.

More than the actual deaths caused by people using them, ‘assault weapons’ are, I think, a proxy for our fears. They seem the very embodiment of ‘stranger danger’; the bad man who is going to come out of nowhere and hurt your children. But they are used in a very small number of crimes, and are just the sort of weapon that your children or grandchildren may desperately need someday, to counter a threat that isn’t even on your radar. I’ve tried to show a few examples of such situations that people have found themselves in in the past. Banning ‘assault weapons’ would be a feel-good act, a psychological salve for a few people, but would have no measurable impact on actual crime, and may very well cost lives in the future. How can I be so sure a ban wouldn’t reduce crime? We’ve done it before, remember. It didn’t make any difference then, and there’s no reason to think it would make any difference now. It’s basic math; banning something that is used in a tiny number of crimes is going to make, at best, a tiny difference in crime. It simply can’t do more, and may well do less.

Weapons like the AR–15 elicit strong emotions, just as certain kinds of speech do, and like potentially offensive speech it’s the potentially offensive weapons that need the protection of the Bill of Rights. They are what those Amendments are for. Mild and inoffensive speech doesn’t need protection any more than mild and inoffensive guns do. We can’t depend on the government to protect those rights for us; they’re aimed at limiting the power of the government, so naturally our leaders will find excuses to chip away at them. It’s up to us to protect our rights. All of them. Sell your neighbor’s rights today, and yours will probably be on the block tomorrow. Divide et impera; divide and rule.

Our children and grandchildren may have to struggle someday to take back the rights we give up today (not just gun rights, but all of them), cursing us every step of the way.

The challenge we face is preserving these weapons against future need, while limiting the harm that they can do in the wrong hands today. I believe that we are best served by focusing on the crazy people who want to commit atrocities, rather than focusing on the weapons that a few of them have used. There are a lot of things that can be turned into weapons if a person cares to do so; finding the crazy people is easier and more effective than trying to eliminate all the things that might be used to hurt us. We need to find out what drives these people, especially if we’re creating them.

Just as we can’t depend on our politicians to defend our rights, we can’t depend on them to stop, think clearly and rationally, and propose a solid solution aimed squarely at the actual problem. It’s up to us; we have to do the hard thinking and make them do the right thing.

A Prediction

I see the future. Gun crime in New York will continue to decline, as it has been nationwide for years, and the Governor will take credit for it, as if reducing the legal magazine capacity of guns from 10 to 7 rounds actually means something.

There were 445 homicides with guns in New York state last year, down 14% from the year before. That represents only 57% of all NY homicides, which by my math means that in 2011 there were 336 people killed by things other than guns (mostly knives).

The most recent detailed numbers I can find, broken down by weapon and state, is from 2009. It shows 779 total homicides for New York in that year, 481 of them committed with firearms. Of those, 8 involved rifles of all descriptions. There were 166 people killed with knives and 23 people killed with bare hands.

So, yeah, good job banning those ‘assault weapons.’ Should make a huge difference.