Friday, October 16, 2015

Toward Bipartisan Gun Control Reform – I

For the next three weeks, I go off the topic of jobs. 

As Americans, we have a major issue which badly needs attention from the center.  Except for possibly abortion, it is the most divisive one in the United States, with what seems like every commentator and almost every citizen exclusively in one camp or the other.  Both sides are passionate, both sides are entrenched in their beliefs, and, as is so often the case with complicated political, governmental, and cultural problems, both sides espouse not only truths but excellent talking points.  Unfortunately both sides are also wrong, and neither seems to have taken the effort to understand the other. 

In its simplest form, the problem we face and need to resolve is not one of ideology, freedom, or civil rights.  It is a public health issue.  Too many Americans are being shot to death.  

Why do I say “too many”?  Let us look at how American gun deaths compare with other countries.  In 2013, 10.64 per 100,000 died from gunshot.  That ranked 13th of the 75 tracked by Wikipedia, with the only one worse that could be called first-world being Uruguay, 11th with 14.01.  The next highest developed country was Finland, with 3.64 (92% of which were suicides, compared with 63% in the United States), followed by France (3.01), Austria (2.95), Switzerland (2.91), and Estonia (2.54).  The countries usually thought of as most comparable to us, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Great Britain, had gun-death rates of 2.22, 1.24, 0.86, and 0.26 per 100,000 respectively.  The average of these four numbers is less than one ninth that in America.  Unlike deaths from automobiles (of which there are now fewer than from guns) or other violent sources, more and more here are dying that way, up almost every individual year from 29,569 in 2004 to 33,636 in 2013.  That is what makes it a concern for public health.    

Recently, mass shootings at schools and workplaces have brought attention to the problem.  The liberal side has made proposals of various sorts, with essentially all parts being in the direction of more restrictions, and conservatives, many of whom will accept no changes at all, have unsurprisingly rejected them.  Yet liberals are getting increasingly intolerant of the gun situation the way it is.
We are clearly in need of a truly bipartisan solution.  Accordingly, liberals as well as conservatives need to concede some things.  That is the first principle.  What others should form the foundation?

Second, the number of guns alone does not explain the damage done with them.  The United States now has 112.6 privately owned guns per 100 residents; the 2014 rates for Canadians, Germans, Australians, and Britons were 30.8, 30.3, 15, and 6.6.  Dividing the numbers above by these gets us one 2013 American death per 10,583 2015 guns, with the other countries better (and one less year apart) at 13,873, 24,435, 17,442, and 25,385.  If the 2013 United States rate was the 20,284 average of these four, with no change in the number of guns there would have been 10,686 fewer people dying that way.  

Third, even with the most optimal set of gun laws, United States murder rates, in particular, would be higher than in comparable countries.  That is because of several factors less prominent in the likes of Great Britain – to name only three, a more heterogeneous population, a more aggressive national character, and traditions of more freedom and fewer laws in general which in combination lead to economic inequality.  For better or worse, we do not have the same national disposition as Britons, and may never. 

Fourth, following from the last principle, as harsh as it sounds there are acceptable levels of gun violence.  The ability to stop every person from ever shooting anyone is beyond any solution other than complete elimination, which is not a reasonable, let alone possible, solution.  We can debate what those levels should be, but they will, in deference to realism, be more than zero. 

Fifth, the Second Amendment does not guarantee a complete lack of gun laws, any more than the First allows any speech of any kind in any setting, or assures your right to practice a religion involving, for example, the torture of animals.  In fact it could be modified or even repealed, or, as has been the case with other amendments, interpreted differently by a future Supreme Court. 

Sixth, guns remain the easiest and surest way for people with average capability to destroy anyone, including themselves.  Several decades ago, women attempted suicide three times as often as men, but actually killed themselves only one third as much – that was because they generally used seldom-lethal pills, whereas the men most often chose firearms.  It is true that people and not guns themselves are responsible for what happens with them, but people with guns can kill much easier. 

Seventh, per the old business principle, cost should go to the cost-causers.  That rule means that if something we own has the potential to damage others, we are liable for that.  Firearms are no special exception.

Eighth, and most sadly, at times some people ruin things for everyone.  Some areas, such as owning and managing guns, are matters of trust, and if too many abuse that, innocent people will be inconvenienced.  There are numerous other examples of this principle from daily life:  your new car brakes do not mean you are allowed to follow others more closely; your great sense of humor does not stop your joking about bombs in the airport security line from being a crime; fireworks easily managed by your conscientious 10-year-old are still often judged too dangerous to be legal, and so on.  We can and should debate the value of laws stemming from this principle, but the fact is that they are commonplace. 

Given these ground rules, what further restrictions on firearms should we accept or reject?  That will be the subject of next week’s post, followed by freedoms we should and should not implement, and more, the week after.


  1. I'm too tired to comment further than to say thanks for this thoughtful piece. I followed your link from Kristoff's NYT op-ed and am sorry that not more people seem to have done so. Maybe the brevity of your comment let it get lost in the mix.

  2. The problem with government regulations in the matter of social behavior is the track record the government has in other areas it has attempted to regulate. Welfare, health-care, VA health, education, child welfare, just to name a few. The unintended consequences of the government's well intended actions have left many families in complete ruins. In particular, the ruin found in urban communities. And it is most often not the regulation's concept that is flawed, but rather it is it's execution after it has been implemented. The loop holes, the lack of foresight, and most importantly it's often created dependency.

    I am an African-American and I get to see this in a more personal light than I care to. As it relates to guns and regulations, background checks will only make elites feel good, because it most certainly will not keep "T-Bone" from purchasing his weapon from the underground market. Gun regulations will succeed in keeping otherwise law abiding citizens from committing crimes with guns. But it will fail at keeping, these same law abiding citizens from committing crimes. They will find a way to accomplish their end by some other means.

    The solution to gun crimes is understanding the propensity of people to commit crimes in the first place. There are many programs that address the deep rooted cause of violence. However, they take far more time to develop and get to the root cause then simply targeting taking a gun out of the hand if someone. And it is this "time consumption" that we choose not to expend, because it is just simply too inconvenient.

  3. Let's be honest - who is most likely going to be refused a firearm purchase due to a background check? Black males, 25% of which will have some kind of criminal record. Background checks are more about race than safety.

  4. Jim, the majority of gun deaths that you have posted are from suicides. Based on that, your entire premise is wrong.

    1. Tony, you can't sweep gun suicides under the rug, since the rate of success (85%) is higher than for any other commonly-used suicide method, and the great majority of people who attempt suicide unsuccessfully never do it again. We must conclude that, without access to guns, many suicide victims would not have died.

    2. But you should then examine whether or not US has high suicide rate compared with developed world, and you find that it doesn't. Americans who want to commit suicide use guns because that is a convenient route for them. Japanese and Swedes (much higher suicide rate) find other routes without too much difficulty. I'd be prepared to bet that a fairly large proportion of those who commit suicide in developed countries already have a debilitating and painful terminal condition. What should be done about that is a completely separate debate, but lumping it in with gun violence doesn't really seem appropriate unless one is seeking to magnify the extent of US gun problem.